Interview: Robert Jay Lifton on Cults and Vietnam

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In April 2014, Daniel Pick interviewed Robert Jay Lifton for a wide-ranging discussion about his life and research. The following two clips provide the final portions of that extended conversation.

In this segment, Prof. Lifton explains how during the 1960s he found his study of ‘thought reform’ in Communist China could be extended to understand the inner workings of religious cults. He discusses the complexities of the Patricia Hearst trial, and how decades later he came to study the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, after their sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

At the end of their interview, Daniel asks Prof. Lifton about his work with Vietnam veterans, the subject of his 1973 book, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans—Neither Victims nor Executioners. Lifton describes this book as his ‘most angry.’ In recalling his conversations with veterans, Lifton relates the story of a soldier who, when caught in the My Lai massacre, put down his gun.

In the first instalment of this interview series, Prof. Lifton discusses his research on brainwashing and totalism. The second covers his intellectual influences, including his complex, sometimes critical, engagement with psychoanalysis. In the third, he describes his experiences as a psychiatrist in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

This interview was filmed by Doug Higginbotham, and edited by Ian Magor.