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Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir Hardcover – June 14, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“This stunning book brings alive the story of Robert Jay Lifton's struggles to understand the extremities of the last century to which he was indeed a remarkable witness. His has been a great journey, and we are all richer for his wisdom.” (Charles B. Strozier, author of Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City)

"Written with the verve of great storytelling and the precision of history, this memoir is a moral meditation that illuminates the age. An exquisite example of how intelligence, erudition, and depth of feeling combine to make redeeming wisdom. A stunning book." (James Carroll, author of Jerusalem, Jerusalem)

"Robert J. Lifton’s memoir offers a model of the relationship between introspection and ethical commitment. He writes gracefully and temperately, without rant or jargon, but his is a prophetic voice as he recognizes and names the habits of mind that produce our recurrent inhumanity, demonstrating the compatibility of passion and scholarly investigation – and the necessity for both as we try to acknowledge and transcend the horrors of our times and to take action for a positive future." (Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom)

“Robert Jay Lifton has long served as one of the most important, and profound, witnesses of the 20th century. In this extraordinary memoir he explores his most vital and haunting work, in an engaging voice that is both wise and welcoming for readers." (Greg Mitchell, author of The Age of Wikileaks)

“A call for a moral awakening by a deeply compassionate chronicler of our times.” (Kirkus (starred review))

"Riveting...As a witness to an extreme century, Lifton continues to challenge us to denounce “the dreadful overall phenomenon we call war’’ and reclaim a role as life-affirming, life-enhancing healers." (Boston Globe)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (June 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416590765
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416590767
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #968,067 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Cary B. Barad on June 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In a conversational tone, this book cuts through a wide swath of recent history, covering the author's personal connnection with people and events essential to understanding human thought and survival. Thus, we get an intimate glimpse of the Vietnam war, Communist China, Patty Hearst, the Berrigans, Hiroshima, and the concentration camps of WW II. All from the perspective of a prominent psychiatric researcher with a good grasp of sociology and biology.

Yes, the author is a undoubtedly a flaming liberal, but he has no difficulty criticizing himself or of grasping and understnd the convictions of those with opposing views. My only complaint here would be with the frequent use of the concept, "Totalism," which is never really defined. This is a detriment to readers unfamiliar with Lifton's previous writings. From the context, I assume it refers to totalitarian mind control.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By NY Steve on September 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Starting in the early 1950's Robert Jay Lifton has researched and written of the 20th century's most dire and morally troubling events. The events he wrote of include both as a result of what he called "totalism" and morally questionable choices such as Chinese torture and mind control of its own citizens and prisoners from the Korean war, Hiroshima victims, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, Nazi doctors who participated in concentration camp "experiments, and the My Lai Massacre.

He relates in an animated and engaging manner his friendships and interatctions with those he interviewed, his mentors, and his friends. His behind the scenes and in his thoughts revelations of his feelings towards his interviews of his subjects are fascinating. His feelings towards Konrad Lorenz and his early and neglected Nazi beginnings and professorship reveal facets of Lorenz that have been mostly expunged from any account of his life. (Very early joining of the Nazi party, nearly as soon as it was possible in Austria in 1938. Lorenz's writing on "racial cleansing" in 1940.)

The entire book is both fascinating and well written. It is also haunting. As Lifton charts his dreams while interviewing survivors of Hiroshima and investigations of Nazi concentration camps, you may find your own dreams or at least your thoughts significantly impacted.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Reicher on September 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This volume is an excellent account and overview of the four or five major research projects that defined the author's work. The most moving project for me was the one involving interviews of Nazi physicians who were still living in Germany at the time of the study. There is also an extensive summary of his conversation with Albert Speer - the Nazi architect who was Hitler's closest confidant at one point.

I now will be reading Dr Lifton's previous work entirely devoted to this Nazi phenomeon of medical doctors being used to kill rather than heal.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Neil Scott Mcnutt on July 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Robert Jay Lifton has led a remarkable life and, now at age 80+, has written a book of highlights of his work, and his lifestyle. He has written over 19 books and has contributed to many others also. Of particular value to us now are his reflections about his search for understanding of psychological states of survivors of severe trauma, particularly the survivors of our bombing of Hiroshima, of Chinese "brain washing " techniques, religious cults, and the treatment of Jews during the Nazi period in Germany. He preferred the method of direct interviews of individuals, in a psychiatric style, but obviously much longer than a "50 minute hour", and taking numerous notes, to which he could refer after a long time. He deals with our transgressions all the way to those of the era of George W. Bush. He is a very good writer and delivers many important observations in a conversational style. He also has some humorous comments about many fellow authors and friends. His search into the thinking of the Nazi doctors is a major focus, but is limited to only a few survivors. This book is very thoughtful and should be a source of inspiration for our future.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By R. Sherman on August 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A window on a century with profound changes in mankind's ability (and tendency to) inflict destruction and horror on his fellow man. And who could tell the story better than a man like Lifton, with impressive psychoanalytical insight, a sweeping sense of history and an integrative and compelling moral perspective. Hard to read, at times, due to the horrific acts of inhumanity explored. Nietzsche said (I paraphrase).. "sometimes when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you." Lifton looks in and describes what he sees with distilled clarity, honesty and a message which this century needs to assimilate if we are to avoid more indefensible (collective) moral depravity.
I wish our "leaders" would read this!
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