notes on robert lifton's memoir

Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist and author of books that probe the connection between his discipline and the study of history. I was introduced to his writing through Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961), a ground-breaking work on "brainwashing" in Communist China. Lifton's memoir focuses on that work and his studies of Hiroshima, Vietnam veterans, and the Nazi doctors.

"The chapter [Chapter 22 of Thought Reform] was a form of psychological analysis, but I realize now that it was also a statement of personal credo. It was my way of extending the work into the universal frame and at the same time taking an ethical stand toward totalism and its indicators." (p. 68)

Those of us who have worked in the anti-cult field and have used Chapter 22 in our work owe a great deal to Lifton. I myself used this chapter in each of the interventions and counseling sessions I participated in, involving a total of about fifty clients in various stages of disengagement from their cult. This is more than any other single source material.

Lifton has written about Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing thirteen people and injuring many more. He has also written shorter pieces about domestic cults, including an article on the Reverend Jim Jones that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Lifton, however, has yet to do a full-length study of contemporary European or North American cults.

In the present work, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (2011), Lifton seems to suggest by way of his choice of subject matter that in the post-World War II era, Americans and Western Europeans are less likely than others to become psychological abusers. The antiquated and badly formed, but superficially reassuring, argument that he and other authors put forward is that full-blown thought reform as it existed in revolutionary China is only rarely found in the liberal, democratic West. This assertion is an important part of the self-serving narrative of the differences between East and West that Westerners like to hear and repeat.

Furthermore, we are expected to believe that the issues worth discussing relative to destructive cults are few and narrowly defined. We engage in petty academic arguments about how precisely to define a cult. We discuss how to strike a balance between actions taken to stop or slow the implimentation of the totalitarian program on the one hand and, on the other, how to maintain and advance the universal freedoms of religion, expression, and association. Note the importance in this way of reasoning of drawing a clear line between the cults and the rest of us, and on insisting that they are somehow different from us.

Margaret Singer, the well-liked and loved anti-cult activist and lecturer in psychology at the University of California, was one of only a handful of professionals contemporary to Lifton who worked in the anti-cult field. Lifton suggests that Singer's fierce opposition to cults was the result of their relentless harassment of her, not of her revulsion to their unconscionable treatment of her clients.

"Cultic behavior during the 1970s touched off waves of social hysteria, containing as it did primal struggles between parents and their children, and fanaticism that could lead to fatal violence in the name of absolute virtue. Whatever my concerns about totalism, I did not want to be consumed by that hysteria to a degree that would interfere with my work on Vietnam, nuclear weapons, and later, Nazi doctors." (p. 383)

Lifton suggests that the anti-cult movement is little more than a "primal" fight between parents and their rebellious offspring. This is an old and corrupt technique in debate. You accuse your adversary of being emotional or of being driven by unthinking instincts. This puts you in a superior position of calm reasoning and objectivity. Such a suggestion, however, trivializes a phenomenon that has devastated tens of thousands of families. That's why it's called totalitarianism — it seeks out, occupies, and destroys all aspects of one's life, whether they be rational or irrational.

One might try to understand Lifton's thinking as an unfortunate product of the professional training he received in the mid-twentieth century. It was then believed that much if not all interpersonal and, by extention, societal conflict was traceable to parenting issues. Such ideas may have once made sense in the polite parlors of the European, and later, the American capitals. It was Lifton himself, however, who insisted on broadening such discussions to include powerful and pervasive social and historical factors. (p. 29)

I agree that it's usually helpful and often necessary to involve parents in the deinduction process. In the end, however, siblings, friends, and peers often prove even more important than parents to an adult victim's program of recovery. Deprogramming is never solely about fixing the parent-child relationship, and the participation of parents in the process, while important, is rarely the decisive psychological factor.

All of these criticisms must be seen, however, against the backdrop of Lifton's regular attendance over the years at anti-cult conferences and events, and his generousity in taking the time to speak before many constituent groups.

The reasons for his reluctance to step into the fray are undoubtedly many. Not the least is that hands-on anti-cult work, while rewarding, is messy, dangerous, and not for the faint of heart. The reason Lifton gives, however, is that as a member of an anti-Vietnam War study group — which he perceived as fringe, but which is probably better described as a mainstream group of liberal academics — any call for government monitoring of groups would have had a negative impact on his ability to express his ideas through his own group.

That is, one cannot call for the monitoring of groups without putting one's own group affiliation at risk. Lifton seems to suggest here that there's little difference between an anti-war discussion or letter-writing campaign and a full-blown cult. It's ironic that this thinking comes from the man who spelled out in fine and memorable detail the qualitative and quantitative differences between the two environments. It was Lifton who gave us a concise description and definition of destructive groups and a clear method for evaluating them for their potential toxicity.


Lifton said that he didn't want to become distracted from his own work, specifically mentioning the Nazi doctors. I hope that this isn't a form of Holocaust-washing or the playing of a trump cultural or historical card in a game he would otherwise lose.

It's sometimes said that the first speaker to invoke Hitler loses the argument. I would argue, however, that in careful hands the Holocaust can indeed be an instructive point of reference for our understanding of extremist groups and pseudo-religious fanaticism. To this end I would remind Lifton of the statement by Samuel Pisar, a survivor of Auschwitz, "All totalitarian systems are basically the same ugly beast." (Of Blood and Hope, 1980, p. 64) Nazism wasn't the only totalitarian ideology that forced itself with devastating and long-lasting consequences upon eastern and central Europe in the middle decades of the last century.

That is, there's something about toxic, murderous groups and ideologies that transcends time, place, and scale.

I hope we've learned from the Nazi and Stalinist periods to be sure to heed the warning signs, and that any attack on human freedom and dignity anywhere is an attack everywhere. No one's rights can be protected until we take seriously the notion that everyone's rights must be protected.

It's almost as if what Lifton had learned from his research in Hong Kong could be set aside as he moved on to different projects. This kind of narrow and self-defeating intellectual categorization and siloization of knowledge and experience stands in contrast with the successful efforts of anti-cult workers to understand cults more broadly in their cultural, cross-cultural, and historical contexts.

While it may be possible for academics to compartmentalize their experiences without losing standing in their profession, we ex-cult members have no such luxury. For one thing, we aren't recognized as the professionals that we are. Being a survivor or working with them doesn't necessarily bestow one with a formal title or a paycheck. For better or worse, our experiences will always be an important part of who we are. Cult members who have the opportunity to once again enter the real world can and do fall away from their once beloved orthodoxies. Try as we may, however, none of us can obliterate our pasts. As someone once wrote, the past isn't even past. Indeed, only a magically all-powerful cult can remake the past.

The academic who believes that bad things happen out there (in Lifton's case, Asia) and not in here (America), or that bad things happen to others rather than to oneself or one's own, may suffer at worst a disciplinary or programmatic death while interviewing the survivors of home-grown totalitarianism. We cult survivors, on the other hand, have already suffered a literal near-death of the body. It's important to recognize the difference. The figurative dying to self required of the true believer may indeed be a precursor to his literal death, but the two are not the same. That we survivors exist proves the point.

Far from deadening the senses, a cult experience can intensify one's sensitivity not only to death but to life. Although survivors are often met with little more than a passing curiosity, it's undeniable that they hold a special place in our society. We allow them to be ordinary in many ways, but we are also forced to admit that they know something the rest of us don't. They've been places the rest of us have never been and seen things we would prefer never to see. At some level they're fundamentally different from us.

Lifton invokes what amounts to academic executive privilege, the notion that as a detached researcher, he has no need to confront the totalist tendencies within himself, in his peer or social group, or even at large in his country. A constructive engagement of these important issues remains the most difficult unfinished work for all parties in this debate.

One of the strengths of Thought Reform is that it was published well before most contemporary cults were in existence. Another strength is the author's choice not to take much of a public stand against contemporary American cults. Lifton has largely removed himself from the superficial, day-to-day, he-said-she-said of what passes for a debate on the nature of closed totalitarian systems in a open, democratic society.

Despite the author's wishes, Thought Reform has taken on a life of its own. Anyone who publishes takes this risk. The work has gone out into the world and accomplished tasks its parent didn't envision and can't control.

If Chapter 22 is now Lifton's adult child, then why shouldn't there be a good, old-fashioned Freudian food fight between them?

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