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Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir [Hardcover]

Robert Jay Lifton

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Book Description

June 14 2011
On a fateful day in the spring of 1954 Robert Jay Lifton, a young American psychiatrist just discharged from service in the Korean War, decided to stay in Hong Kong rather than return home—changing his life plans entirely—so that he could continue work that had enthralled him, interviewing people subjected to Chinese thought reform. He had plunged into uncharted territory in probing the far reaches of the human psyche, as he would repeatedly in the years ahead, and his Hong Kong research provided the first understanding of the insidious process that came to be known as brainwashing.

From that day in Hong Kong forward, Lifton has probed into some of the darkest episodes of human history, bearing his unique form of psychological witness to the sources and consequences of collective violence and trauma, as well as to our astonishing capacity for resilience.

In this long-awaited memoir, Lifton charts the adventurous and constantly surprising course of his fascinating life journey, a journey that took him from what a friend of his called a “Jewish Huck Finn childhood” in Brooklyn to friendships with many of the most influential intellectuals, writers, and artists of our time—from Erik Erikson, David Riesman, and Margaret Mead, to Howard Zinn and Kurt Vonnegut, Stanley Kunitz, Kenzaburo Oe, and Norman Mailer.

In his remarkable study of Hiroshima survivors, he explored the human consequences of nuclear weapons, and then went on to uncover dangerous forms of attraction to their power in the spiritual disease he calls nuclearism. During riveting face-to-face interviews with Nazi doctors, he illuminated the reversal of healing and killing in ordinary physicians who had been socialized to Nazi evil. With Vietnam veterans he helped create unprecedented “rap groups” in which much was revealed about what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, helping veterans draw upon their experience for valuable, even prophetic, insights about atrocity and war. As a pioneer in psychohistory, Lifton’s encounters with the consequences of cruelty and destructiveness led him to become a passionate social activist, lending a powerful voice of conscience to the suppressed truths of the Vietnam War and the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Written with the warmth of spirit—along with the humor and sense of absurdity—that have made Lifton a beloved friend and teacher to so many, Witness to an Extreme Century is a moving and deeply thought-provoking story of one man’s extraordinary commitment to looking into the abyss of evil in order to help us move beyond it.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (June 14 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416590765
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416590767
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.9 x 3.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 590 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #352,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


“This stunning book brings alive the story of Robert Jay Lifton's struggles to understand the extremities of the last century to which he was indeed a remarkable witness. His has been a great journey, and we are all richer for his wisdom.” (Charles B. Strozier, author of Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City)

"Written with the verve of great storytelling and the precision of history, this memoir is a moral meditation that illuminates the age. An exquisite example of how intelligence, erudition, and depth of feeling combine to make redeeming wisdom. A stunning book." (James Carroll, author of Jerusalem, Jerusalem)

"Robert J. Lifton’s memoir offers a model of the relationship between introspection and ethical commitment. He writes gracefully and temperately, without rant or jargon, but his is a prophetic voice as he recognizes and names the habits of mind that produce our recurrent inhumanity, demonstrating the compatibility of passion and scholarly investigation – and the necessity for both as we try to acknowledge and transcend the horrors of our times and to take action for a positive future." (Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom)

“Robert Jay Lifton has long served as one of the most important, and profound, witnesses of the 20th century. In this extraordinary memoir he explores his most vital and haunting work, in an engaging voice that is both wise and welcoming for readers." (Greg Mitchell, author of The Age of Wikileaks)

“A call for a moral awakening by a deeply compassionate chronicler of our times.” (Kirkus (starred review))

"Riveting...As a witness to an extreme century, Lifton continues to challenge us to denounce “the dreadful overall phenomenon we call war’’ and reclaim a role as life-affirming, life-enhancing healers." (Boston Globe)

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "He's Seen a Lot" June 23 2011
By Cary B. Barad - Published on Amazon.com
In a conversational tone, this book cuts through a wide swath of recent history, covering the author's personal connnection with people and events essential to understanding human thought and survival. Thus, we get an intimate glimpse of the Vietnam war, Communist China, Patty Hearst, the Berrigans, Hiroshima, and the concentration camps of WW II. All from the perspective of a prominent psychiatric researcher with a good grasp of sociology and biology.

Yes, the author is a undoubtedly a flaming liberal, but he has no difficulty criticizing himself or of grasping and understnd the convictions of those with opposing views. My only complaint here would be with the frequent use of the concept, "Totalism," which is never really defined. This is a detriment to readers unfamiliar with Lifton's previous writings. From the context, I assume it refers to totalitarian mind control.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting Memoir of the 20th Century Sept. 4 2011
By NY Steve - Published on Amazon.com
Starting in the early 1950's Robert Jay Lifton has researched and written of the 20th century's most dire and morally troubling events. The events he wrote of include both as a result of what he called "totalism" and morally questionable choices such as Chinese torture and mind control of its own citizens and prisoners from the Korean war, Hiroshima victims, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, Nazi doctors who participated in concentration camp "experiments, and the My Lai Massacre.

He relates in an animated and engaging manner his friendships and interatctions with those he interviewed, his mentors, and his friends. His behind the scenes and in his thoughts revelations of his feelings towards his interviews of his subjects are fascinating. His feelings towards Konrad Lorenz and his early and neglected Nazi beginnings and professorship reveal facets of Lorenz that have been mostly expunged from any account of his life. (Very early joining of the Nazi party, nearly as soon as it was possible in Austria in 1938. Lorenz's writing on "racial cleansing" in 1940.)

The entire book is both fascinating and well written. It is also haunting. As Lifton charts his dreams while interviewing survivors of Hiroshima and investigations of Nazi concentration camps, you may find your own dreams or at least your thoughts significantly impacted.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading Sept. 29 2011
By Daniel Reicher - Published on Amazon.com
This volume is an excellent account and overview of the four or five major research projects that defined the author's work. The most moving project for me was the one involving interviews of Nazi physicians who were still living in Germany at the time of the study. There is also an extensive summary of his conversation with Albert Speer - the Nazi architect who was Hitler's closest confidant at one point.

I now will be reading Dr Lifton's previous work entirely devoted to this Nazi phenomeon of medical doctors being used to kill rather than heal.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book by a "Wonderful" Person Jan. 29 2012
By Joseph Wronka - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating , if disturbing, book... Aug. 14 2011
By R. Sherman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A window on a century with profound changes in mankind's ability (and tendency to) inflict destruction and horror on his fellow man. And who could tell the story better than a man like Lifton, with impressive psychoanalytical insight, a sweeping sense of history and an integrative and compelling moral perspective. Hard to read, at times, due to the horrific acts of inhumanity explored. Nietzsche said (I paraphrase).. "sometimes when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you." Lifton looks in and describes what he sees with distilled clarity, honesty and a message which this century needs to assimilate if we are to avoid more indefensible (collective) moral depravity.
I wish our "leaders" would read this!

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