by Ben Williams '16
When asked how he remains sane while studying the psychological effects of harrowing experiences, renowned psychiatrist and author Robert J. Lifton replies, "I draw bird cartoons."
"We need a sense of absurdity, sometimes gallows humor, to survive the absurdities of our world," said Dr. Lifton in a speech entitled "Research as Witness: A Psychiatrist’s Struggles with Extreme Events," delivered at Brown on October 21, 2013 as the 21st annual Harriet W. Sheridan Literature and Medicine Lecture.
The 87-year-old Brooklyn native has held positions at Harvard, Yale, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has published over 20 books on the psychological consequences of historical events.
Over the course of his career, Lifton has interviewed American prisoners of war, survivors of Hiroshima, and Nazi doctors. After two years in the Air Force in Korea and Japan, Lifton embarked on the "struggle to bring together psychology and history." Eschewing the ideally objective approach of scientific research, Dr. Lifton found himself constantly motivated by ethical concerns and a desire to participate in what he calls "relevant activism."
Indeed, Dr. Lifton urged physicians to consider their ethical responsibilities. "We all too readily assume, I believe, that because we’re members of a healing profession, whatever we do is inherently good. That’s not necessarily the case. The morality of our work has much to do with what we’re part of." He explained that activism and scholarship benefit from one another, especially in the medical sphere.
Dr. Lifton’s initial work with victims of Chinese thought reform in the 1950s helped him develop his approach to dealing with traumatized subjects. As a psychiatrist, Lifton cultivated "a psychological interview…modified in the direction of dialogue." His background in psychotherapy helped him understand the process of coercive change experienced by POWs and expatriates subjected to brainwashing.
Interviewing survivors of Hiroshima, including a man haunted by the vision of his mother’s death, took a toll on Dr. Lifton. "I found myself anxious, having difficulty sleeping, having nightmares, and I began to think that it would be impossible to stay," recounted Lifton. In order to continue his work, Dr. Lifton required a professional, emotional distancing from his subjects. He became "a witness to their witness." Upon his return to the United States, Lifton joined the Physicians for Social Responsibility, an organization that opposes nuclear proliferation.
Dr. Lifton has not only studied victims, but also perpetrators of atrocities. While researching the coping mechanisms of ex-Nazi doctors in the late 1970s, Dr. Lifton realized that "there are some situations that are in themselves evil and there’s no good solution." Almost all of his subjects never expressed remorse for their role in concentration camps. Some believed the Nazi mission to be a biomedical one.
Yet, one elderly Nazi physician broke into tears during an interview. A prominent university doctor prior to the war, the man "realized he’d never clear his name, and more than that, the rationale of helping the Nazis became unconvincing even to himself." Lifton continued, "I didn’t want to harm him, and I didn’t want to help him, so I just did nothing and let him weep."
Concluding his lecture, Dr. Lifton implored physicians to collectively advocate for human rights, "all the more so as we improve, indeed revolutionize, our technology of killing."
Through his meticulous research and constant devotion to the individual story, Dr. Lifton has chronicled some of the most terrible events of the 20th century. Moved by these stories, he has become a prominent critic of geopolitical aggression and psychological oppression.