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- Published on Amazon.com
This is an excellent life narrative by an amazing person who shares his life's work, which encompasses his passion and commitment, as an open book detailing as he says his "ethical struggles... which have always been.. secular ones." He is definitely a model for today's students, defined broadly to include anyone who wants to continually learn about "limits" of their profession (or the "philosophy of limits" as he refers to those words of Albert Camus, his "mentor" from afar), not only in the health and helping professions, but actually anyone who is open to positively creating a new life in response to fundamental existential questions, such as what does my life mean in the face of dying and death. But, as depressing as a question like that might be, his extremely varied work, including, but not limited to persons undergoing thought control in China, victims of the A-Bomb in Hiroshima, Nazi doctors, and soldiers returning from Vietnam, shows that midst a labyrinth of despair, there are always glimmers of hope, stories of people who have not caved in, but rather recreated themselves in response to extreme trauma, the Protean Self, as he calls this phenomenon. He is a model also in that throughout the book he continually talks about the scholar-activist model, referring at one point to the barking dog, waving its tail as something akin to the need for research and social activism to be of the same mind and body set so to speak.
A spiritual, but not religious person, I found it also rather interesting how he acknowledged his lack of religion in his life, yet, found himself paradoxically drawn to rather religious persons, when he spoke of his social activism with the Catholic Left and the Quakers. How he was able to act courageously in the face of injustice, writing specifically of his activism against the War in Vietnam before public sentiment turned in that direction, was also an extremely moving section and, again, illustrated an exemplary life of commitment and passion. While one could say he was rather privileged as a professor at Harvard and Yale and such appointments gave him a certain respectability, as a "well behaved radical" to use his words, still there were many professors at prestigious universities during that time who did not take risks as Lifton and others did. Also, as an American to interview A bomb victims in Hiroshima and as a Jew to interview Nazi doctors, are other examples of his courage and desire to be a searcher of truth, which is what research is all about.
I have used his works in my Qualitative Research class for some time now. He is an obviously excellent interviewer who is able to be very sensitive to the data, wherein he derives themes from his interviewee's words, such as survivor wisdom, psychic and selective numbing, milieu control, doubling, nuclearism, and totalism, all a bit too complicated to get into here, but are examples of "actionable knowledge," that could be used to create socially just policies. He speaks for example, of his concern for "nuclearism," that there are those who think that nuclear weapons will be the way to solve the world's problems, destroying it to recreate it anew (a phenomenon he calls roughly "totalism"), a terrible form of "omnicide" as he put it. But, the world can develop alternative constructive means to deal with such questions like renewal that are actually existential ones. It is here where I would like to add that creating a human rights culture, might be an adequate way to deal with such extreme and destructive responses to existential questions.
In the title of this review, I said that he is a "wonderful" person (but in quotes). What I mean is that to adequately grasp phenomenon one must be open to it, continually in awe and wonder at the multi-varied responses to extreme conditions. Robert Lifton does just that in this excellent work, by a man who admittedly says that all his life he has "craved adventure." He does not cave in so to speak to mathematical models of knowing, which admittedly may have a place, but rather is continually open to the world to the situations and words of the people he spoke with. Let me conclude, that as a man now in his eighties, he seems to be definitely on the integrity side of the Integrity vs. Despair continuum a notion developed by Eric Erickson, also his friend and colleague, whose relationship he recounts in a rather fascinating, yet typically "Liftonian" human and humane way.
Well enough "hero worship." Although the author did praise the anthropologist Margaret Meade, I thought, that in the final analysis he could have been a bit more sympathetic to (as I understood him) her occasional ramblings at social gatherings, which he said for lack of a better way of putting it as, "bullshit." That was really quite a heavy statement for one of the few notable women in his "repertoire" of friends and acquaintances. I am wondering how that sentence ever got past the publishers' peer reviewers if there were any. I was also at time a bit "taken aback" by all those what I call "social justice elites," all hanging out on beautiful summer evenings apparently on Cape Cod. I think it was Marquis de Sade that said that philosophy was a privilege of the upper classes, which somewhat came through as I read the book. Or, perhaps, I am just "projecting" to use a Freudian term and being a professor myself, I have also had the privilege to philosophize (broadly defined) over the years. Be that as it may, Dr. Lifton's views and the views of his Cape Cod entourage, such as Eric Erickson, did alot of influence the thinking and social justice actions of generations.