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Excerpt: 'Witness To An Extreme Century'


The Decision

In late April of 1954, when I was twenty-eight years old, I took a long walk through the streets of Kowloon, a crowded part of Hong Kong. Those streets were teeming with people as I passed shops of every kind, from small noodle stands to elegant dress stores with European man­nequins, along with endless houses and small factories. My mind was on neither the people nor the buildings. I was painfully preoccupied with the important life decision I was trying to make.

My wife, BJ, and I had been living in Hong Kong for about three months, staying in a comfortable bohemian garret room we had negoti­ated at the then modest family-oriented Miramar Hotel. I had been inter­viewing both Westerners and Chinese who had been subjected on the Mainland to a remarkable process called "thought reform." The reform­ers employed considerable coercion, sometimes violence, but also power­ful exhortation on behalf of a new Chinese dawn, seeking to bring the beliefs and worldviews of participants into accord with those of the trium­phant Communist regime. I could observe that thought reform was by no means a casual undertaking but rather a systematic and widespread pro­gram that penetrated deeply into people's psyches and raised larger ques­tions about the mind's vulnerability to manipulation and coerced change.

Hong Kong was supposed to be just the second stop on a leisurely round-the-world trip, which began in Japan, where I had arranged to be discharged from the military after two years of service as an Air Force psychiatrist. But that trip was interrupted by interviews arranged by peo­ple I met in Hong Kong with Western missionaries and teachers, and Chinese students and intellectuals who had been put through thought reform, and by my deep absorption in — one could say obsession with — those interviews. But now I was getting anxious. Our money was running out, and I was experiencing a sense of duty, a feeling of necessity to return to America for the serious business of psychoanalytic training and pursuit of my psychiatric career in general — that is, to get back to the structures of real life. I was very reluctant to leave Hong Kong but could not seem to imagine staying. BJ was game either way. Hence my solitary walk.

As I circled ever more widely from the hotel, walking away from the harbor to places that seemed quieter and a little less populated, I found myself coming to a decision. I rushed back to make my announcement to BJ. We had to leave and make our way home. It was impossible to stay.

Yet somehow the next morning, I was, with BJ's help, working on an application for a research grant to remain in Hong Kong. "You did not make the decision — the decision made you" is the way a friend put it when I told him the story. My profound inner desire was to stay, but I could not quite accept that desire — could not see myself as one who would do so — because it seemed to be a kind of transgression, a rejection of an expected career and a safer life.

It was just a decade after the end of World War II, and American psy­chiatry had been reenergized by the influence of psychoanalysis and had become an admired and lucrative profession. I had never doubted that I would be part of this surge, that I would combine psychiatric practice with a certain amount of related teaching and research. Remaining indefinitely half a world removed in a British colony did not seem to be a way to do that. At the same time I was not only fascinated with the interviews them­selves but drawn to the larger historical world in which I found myself. I was having lively discussions with knowledgeable American, European, and Chinese scholars, journalists, and diplomats. These "China watchers" conveyed to me their insights on the appeal and excesses of the Com­munist revolution, and were in turn eager to hear my impressions, as a psychiatrist, of a thought reform process they found psychologically con­fusing. It was a heady immersion into immediate historical forces, and I wanted to sustain that immersion. I was aware of Hong Kong's antiquated status as a British colony in which there was limited contact between Europeans and the predominantly Chinese population. But I was none­theless drawn to the place with its ferries and hills and relationship to the surrounding sea, as well as its partial access to the often mysterious events occurring during the early years of Chinese Communist governance of Mainland China. That partial access had special importance at a time when the United States did not recognize Communist China and there was little communication between the two nations.

My intellectual excitement about thought reform was accompanied by a sense of adventure, of plunging into realms that seemed uncharted. But I was also frightened by that impulse. It seemed dangerous, bound up with too great a risk, which is why I went through the motions of reject­ing my desire to stay. BJ's support did much to help me overcome my anxiety. She never looked upon staying in Hong Kong as a transgression.

Excerpted from Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir by Robert Jay Lifton. Copyright 2011 by Robert Jay Lifton. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Jay Lifton
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