Robert Jay Lifton has been a witness, in the broadest, most profound, meaning of that word to many of the most traumatic events or movements of the past century: Nazism, Hiroshima, the Vietnam war and veterans, political and religious cults, torture and brainwashing, nuclear weapons and first-strike, capital punishment, the Armenian genocide, the Iraq war, and so much more. He’s written dozens of books—and several articles for The Nation—but has not written a memoir, but now his book, Witness to an Extreme Century, has just been published by The Free Press.
It’s an excellent and important work, and remarkably easy to read despite the often grim subject matter. It has already received a hard-to-get rave from Kirkus Reviews, which hailed it as “a call for a moral awakening by a deeply compassionate chronicler of our times.” Witness is also a kind of love story, as Lifton chronicles the adventures he shared with his late wife Betty Jean Lifton.
I can’t claim to be unbiased on this subject. I’ve known Robert for three decades, worked for a couple of years at his research center in New York, attended numerous games at Shea Stadium between his Dodgers (he hails from Brooklyn) and my Mets, and co-authored two books with him, Hiroshima in America and Who Owns Death? (on capital punishment), and many articles.
Lifton remains fully engaged in current issues. For example, here’s a piece he recently wrote for the IHT and New York Times on Hiroshima and Fukushima, and he has a new op-ed set to be published this week. His memoir closes with assessments of the Iraq war, Bush torture policies and a critique of Obama. Lifton may have coined the term “psychic numbing,” but his own sensitivity and capacity for empathy remains undiminished.
Greg Mitchell’s latest books and e-books are The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.