How to Maintain Hope in an Age of Catastrophe

Robert Jay Lifton, photographed in Germany in December, 2000.Photograph by Jens Rötzsch / Redux

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Robert Jay Lifton by for The New Yorker. To  read the complete interview, check out other material, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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The psychoanalyst and author Robert Jay Lifton on what seventy years of studying both the victims and the perpetrators of horror has taught him about the human will to survive.
In the first half century of his career, Robert Jay Lifton published five books based on long-term studies of seemingly vastly different topics. For his first book, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,” Lifton interviewed former inmates of Chinese reëducation camps. Trained as both a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst, Lifton used the interviews to understand the psychological—rather than the political or ideological—structure of totalitarianism. His next topic was Hiroshima; his 1968 book “Death in Life,” based on extended associative interviews with survivors of the atomic bomb, earned Lifton the National Book Award. He then turned to the psychology of Vietnam War veterans and, soon after, Nazis. In both of the resulting books—“ was published in 1999, Lifton examined the psychology and ideology of a cult.

Lifton is fascinated by the range and plasticity of the human mind, its ability to contort to the demands of totalitarian control, to find justification for the unimaginable—the Holocaust, war crimes, the atomic bomb—and yet recover, and reconjure hope. In a century when humanity discovered its capacity for mass destruction, Lifton studied the psychology of both the victims and the perpetrators of horror. “We are all survivors of Hiroshima, and, in our imaginations, of future nuclear holocaust,” he wrote at the end of “Death in Life.” How do we live with such knowledge? When does it lead to more atrocities and when does it result in what Lifton called, in a later book, “species-wide agreement”?

Lifton’s big books, though based on rigorous research, were written for popular audiences. He writes, essentially, by lecturing into a Dictaphone, giving even his most ambitious works a distinctive spoken quality. In between his five large studies, Lifton published academic books, papers and essays, and two books of cartoons, “Birds” and “PsychoBirds.” (Every cartoon features two bird heads with dialogue bubbles, such as, “ ‘All of a sudden I had this wonderful feeling: I am me!’ ” “You were wrong.”) Lifton’s impact on the study and treatment of trauma is unparalleled. In a 2020 tribute to Lifton in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, his former colleague Charles Strozier wrote that a chapter in “Death in Life” on the psychology of survivors “has never been surpassed, only repeated many times and frequently diluted in its power. All those working with survivors of trauma, personal or sociohistorical, must immerse themselves in his work.”

Lifton was also a prolific political activist. He opposed the war in Vietnam and spent years working in the anti-nuclear movement. In the past twenty-five years, Lifton wrote a memoir—“Witness to an Extreme Century”—and several books that synthesize his ideas. His most recent book, “Surviving Our Catastrophes,” combines reminiscences with the argument that survivors—whether of wars, nuclear explosions, the ongoing climate emergency, covid, or other catastrophic events—can lead others on a path to reinvention. If human life is unsustainable as we have become accustomed to living it, it is likely up to survivors—people who have stared into the abyss of catastrophe—to imagine and enact new ways of living.

Lifton grew up in Brooklyn and spent most of his adult life between New York City and Massachusetts. He and his wife, Betty Jean Kirschner, an author of children’s books and an advocate for open adoption, had a house in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, that hosted annual meetings of the Wellfleet Group, which brought together psychoanalysts and other intellectuals to exchange ideas. Kirschner died in 2010. A couple of years later, at a dinner party, Lifton met the political theorist Nancy Rosenblum, who became a Wellfleet Group participant and his partner. In March, 2020, Lifton and Rosenblum left his apartment on the Upper West Side for her house in Truro, Massachusetts, near the very tip of Cape Cod, where Lifton, who is ninety-seven, continues to work every day. In September, days after “Surviving Our Catastrophes” was published, I visited him there. The transcript of our conversations has been edited for length and clarity.

I would like to go through some terms that seem key to your work. I thought I’d start with “totalism.”

O.K. Totalism is an all-or-none commitment to an ideology. It involves an impulse toward action. And it’s a closed state, because a totalist sees the world through his or her ideology. A totalist seeks to own reality.

And when you say “totalist,” do you mean a leader or aspiring leader, or anyone else committed to the ideology?

Can be either. It can be a guru of a cult, or a cult-like arrangement. The Trumpist movement, for instance, is cult-like in many ways. And it is overt in its efforts to own reality, overt in its solipsism.

How is it cult-like?

He forms a certain kind of relationship with followers. Especially his base, as they call it, his most fervent followers, who, in a way, experience high states at his rallies and in relation to what he says or does

Your definition of totalism seems very similar to Hannah Arendt’s definition of totalitarian ideology. Is the difference that it’s applicable not just to states but also to smaller groups?

It’s like a psychological version of totalitarianism, yes, applicable to various groups. As we see now, there’s a kind of hunger for totalism. It stems mainly from dislocation. There’s something in us as human beings which seeks fixity and definiteness and absoluteness. We’re vulnerable to totalism. But it’s most pronounced during times of stress and dislocation. Certainly Trump and his allies are calling for a totalism. Trump himself doesn’t have the capacity to sustain an actual continuous ideology. But by simply declaring his falsehoods to be true and embracing that version of totalism, he can mesmerize his followers and they can depend upon him for every truth in the world.

You have another great term: “thought-terminating cliché.”

Thought-terminating cliché is being stuck in the language of totalism. So that any idea that one has that is separate from totalism is wrong and has to be terminated.

What would be an example from Trumpism?

The Big Lie. Trump’s promulgation of the Big Lie has surprised everyone with the extent to which it can be accepted and believed if constantly reiterated.

Did it surprise you?

It did. Like others, I was fooled in the sense of expecting him to be so absurd that, for instance, that he wouldn’t be nominated for the Presidency in the first place.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Masha Gessen began contributing to The New Yorker in 2014 and became a staff writer in 2017. Gessen is the author of eleven books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017. They have written about Russia, Ukraine, autocracy, L.G.B.T. rights, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, among other subjects, for The New York Review of Books and the Times. On a parallel track, they have been a science journalist, writing about AIDS, medical genetics, and mathematics; famously, they were dismissed as the editor of the Russian popular-science magazine Vokrug sveta for refusing to send a reporter to observe Putin hang-gliding with Siberian cranes. They are a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship, the John Chancellor Award, the Hitchens Prize, and the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Commentary. After more than twenty years as a journalist and editor in Moscow, Gessen has been living in New York since 2013.

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