The Advocacy and Detachment of Robert Jay Lifton

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, recently moved to Harvard University after serving as Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at The City University of New York, and Director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was born in New York City in 1926 and was an Air Force psychiatrist serving in the United States, Japan, and Korea from 1951-1953.  He has been an active member of Physicians for Social Responsibility since  1962  and  is  a  founding  member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of  Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.  Some of his more seminal books include Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China (1961), Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1968), Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans — Neither Victims nor Executioners (1973), The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986), The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (1993), and Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (with Greg Mitchell) (1995).
[On the Holocaust:] People have asked me how long the study on Nazi doctors took and my answer is usually “two lifetimes” because it felt like that — [it] was the hardest and the most demanding [study] in many ways.  I began really immersing myself in the work in the late seventies and published the book in 1986.  There was lots of living in Germany for seven to eight months, many trips back and forth, and lots of hard work in the writing.  Sitting at one’s desk and struggling with ideas, getting help and translations — that probably took about seven years altogether.  It was horrible to come to my desk every morning and find the Nazi doctors on that desk for years and years.

When I finished the book I could clear my desk of them.  It does not mean I have stopped connecting my work with the Nazi doctors or that I have been able to dismiss the Nazi doctors from my life, far from it.  But completing a book is kind of an inner permission to leave that subject, imaginatively and creatively and in scholarly efforts. So that means my conscience becomes focused on getting the book written.  That is a very important matter because that focus has helped me through the difficulty and anxiety and pain of doing the study on the Nazi doctors, knowing that I would write the book and have my say about them and what they did. I refer to it as the scholar’s revenge.

One has to pace oneself in this work. I tell students of mine who plunge into the Holocaust or nuclear weapons to pace themselves, almost in the way an athlete paces himself or herself because one is using one’s mind in perhaps the way an athlete uses the body.  For instance, I tell them not to read the material after nine o’clock at night.  As a rule of thumb for myself, I read about the horrors during the day and read novels or poetry at night.  And you need a lot of love in your life and a lot of humor.  I have had a long and loving marriage and that has helped a great deal. I draw these bird cartoons and they have always given me an outlet, too.  One needs balancing factors in one’s life.  It does not mean that they will spare you pain, it just means that they give you a little more strength in accepting the pain.

In all good psychiatric or psychoanalytic or clinical psychological work you have to give of yourself, and your self has to be available and attentive, and, therefore, in some ways, vulnerable.  When you study very painful events that derive from highly destructive behavior — mass killing and dying, as I have — the self touches some very painful areas, but you have to let it be open to them. Otherwise you do not learn everything very much.  The self is one’s instrument and has to feel pain to work on painful issues.  You know, I wrote in my book on Nazi doctors about an encounter with an Auschwitz survivor.  Early in the research, after I had read a great deal and had immersed myself in literature on the concentration camps especially, I had just traveled to Germany and just begun some interviewing. I complained to the former inmate that I was having bad dreams, anxious dreams, nightmares in fact, about Nazi camps.  I was behind bars and, worse than that, my wife and kids were there, too, and that really hurt.  This was an Auschwitz survivor, a friend of mine, and he looked at me very steadily, with neither pity nor disdain, but just straight, and said to me, “Good, now you can do the study.”  That was just right, what he was saying was very obvious, he knew that I had to suffer a little bit as an outsider to the experience, seeking to be empathetic.  One has to offer the self to the suffering in some degree.

There is no such thing as too much empathy, but there can be too much sympathy.  Empathy is imagining oneself into the experience of someone else. Sympathy is carrying that further.  It is a necessary distinction. If I sense myself liking or disliking the person I’m interviewing, I take it as a clue to something going on in the process and trust myself or my gratitude toward the subjects to keep the interview on a certain level.  I needed to have empathy for Nazi doctors — and that was a hard recognition on my part — but I certainly did not have to have sympathy for them. I have struggled with having too much sympathy for people and that is where the element of detachment comes in, but not in the sense of non-feeling or divesting myself of ethical passion. I mean stepping back into the scholar’s role which is to recreate the experience, create a narrative of it, which brings to it one’s professional, even technical, knowledge.

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