I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the acclaimed psychiatrist and my mentor, Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., about his new book, Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Lifton is a pioneer in the field of psychohistory, especially his studies on the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence. Renowned cult experts and scholars use his theory of thought reform and cult behavior worldwide. As the title of his book suggests, he believes that those of us who have experienced the trauma of mind control have a crucial role to play in the coming years. We have overcome our past and found resiliency and can be role models to help teach others. 

Robert Jay Lifton is a renowned psychiatrist and author who has made significant contributions to the field of psychohistory and psychology over the past 60 years. He has conducted extensive scholarly research on the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence and his groundbreaking theory on thought reform and cult behavior. Lifton’s primary focus has been on the Holocaust, mass violence, and societal renewal in the 20th and 21st centuries. Lifton’s research on thought reform and the psychology of totalism, specifically his study on “brainwashing” in China, has been widely regarded as groundbreaking. He has also penned a memoir titled Witness to an Extreme Century, providing firsthand accounts of the tumultuous events he has witnessed throughout his career. 

Lifton’s Work and Influence 

Lifton has authored several influential books that have garnered critical acclaim. His notable works include Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, which received the prestigious National Book Award, and The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, honored with a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His book Home from the War: Learning from Vietnam Veterans was nominated for a National Book Award. Dr. Lifton serves as a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University and holds the esteemed Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology position at the City University of New York. 

Lifton has continued exploring pressing issues in recent years through his writing. His works include The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival; Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry; and this most recent publication, Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

As most people know, I can personally attest to the power of Lifton’s work and its contribution to helping survivors of cultic abuse, undue influence, and authoritarian control. Lifton’s book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China, was pivotal in helping free me from the Moon cult and was used in my deprogramming in 1976. His model, the eight criteria of thought reform, was later the foundation for my BITE Model of mind control (do we link to this) and the basis of my life’s work. For a complete explanation of his eight criteria, please see my blog, Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform (Brainwashing, Mind Control) 

From Victimhood to Survivorship 

Lifton’s latest book, Surviving Our Catastrophes, delves into “Survivor Power” and the transformation from victimhood to survivorship. He emphasizes the importance of drawing on the knowledge and wisdom gained from surviving traumatic experiences to continue living meaningful lives. The book takes inspiration from historical examples of survivors who have endured unimaginable suffering and trauma. Lifton highlights the remarkable responses of individuals who, in the face of unspeakable horror, have created activist movements, converted their experiences into art and literature, and demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit. From the people of Hiroshima, who responded to the atomic bombing by creating an activist “city of peace,” to the survivors of Nazi death camps who combated mass killing and showcased their healing through art and literature, these examples serve as beacons of hope. 

Surviving Our Catastrophes celebrates ‘survivor power’ and ‘survivor wisdom’ and the resilience and renewal that can emerge from the darkest times. Lifton’s insights and guidance provide a roadmap for finding hope and meaning in tragedy. By acknowledging the true extent of the pandemic’s destruction and drawing on the power of survivorship, we can navigate the psychological aftermath of COVID-19 and other catastrophes and emerge stronger as individuals and as a society. 

Lifton emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the full extent of the pandemic’s impact and not shying away from the reality of its destruction. He argues that true renewal can only be achieved by reckoning with COVID-19’s effects on ourselves and society. By drawing on the experiences of survivors, Lifton provides insights and guidance on coping with the trauma and navigating the challenges that arise in the wake of such a crisis. He demonstrates how we can continue to lead meaningful lives even in the face of tragedy and confusion. As acclaimed journalist Bill Moyers aptly describes, Lifton, “one of the world’s foremost thinkers on why we humans do such awful things to each other,” provides us hope for future generations. He gives guidance on finding strength and purpose amidst the most challenging circumstances. 

Former Cult Members and Survivor Power 

Lifton’s book is particularly significant for former cult members and trauma survivors. He recognizes the role they have to play in the times ahead, especially in an age of disinformation and potential misuse of advancements in artificial intelligence. These individuals have fought to regain their freedom from undue influence. They have had to fight to break free from coercive control to understand their identity, beliefs, and values, and their knowledge is crucial as we move forward. Individuals can find renewal and meaning in recovery by embracing “survivor power” and drawing on the wisdom gained from traumatic experiences. Lifton offers a sense of hope and resilience throughout the book, which survivors of cultic abuse and undue influence can champion. He shows readers how to heal and recover even in the face of the tragic and the absurd.  

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