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Review | How to heal from trauma? This psychiatrist has a playbook.


A queasy mix of awe and anxiety consumed me after I viewed “Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan’s exceptional film chronicling physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s single-minded quest to build the world’s first atomic bomb. So urgent was the deadline to complete the task and win the war that it was only after Oppenheimer achieved his goal and viewed the photographs of the human devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that he could also see what he called the “blood on my hands.” Human catastrophe had been the other side of his scientific triumph, he realized, and no one would be spared its consequences.

Among the most lasting and visceral of those consequences has been the mushroom cloud of raw fear and apprehension that has hovered overhead ever since. It is against that murky fog that subsequent health crises, wars, climate change concerns and threats of international terror have cast their own shadowy imprints. “Oppenheimer” provides no answers to help us confront these dilemmas or manage our fretful disquiet. It is instead left to the eminent psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton, who faces these questions in his latest book, “Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

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Now 97, Lifton has devoted his career to explaining the piercing anguish that follows trauma and mass tragedy in such now-classic works as “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima” (1967) and “Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans—Neither Victims nor Executioners” (1973). He has also explored the mind-sets of the perpetrators of atrocity, as in “The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide” (1986). Now, in the wake of the covid pandemic and amid ever-increasing anxiety over climate change, he distills what he has learned about how we can heal from trauma.

Despite his occasional tendency to ramble and use cumbersome psychological lingo, Lifton’s conversational style is mostly accessible, detailing a vision of resilience that cuts through the existential fog to reveal something like hope.

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Again and again, starting with his interviews with the hibakusha (the Japanese name for the atomic bombs’ surviving victims), Lifton found that “survivors of the most extreme catastrophe could take on collective efforts toward reestablishing the flow of life.” Most began that journey in a static state of victimhood, emotionally numbed and incapacitated by wounds psychic or physical or both.

Only gradually could they begin to take in and grapple with the magnitude of their loss and grief, and soon their mourning also inevitably entailed a search for the “why” and “how” of what had happened. “We humans are meaning-hungry creatures, and survivors are particularly starved for meaning that can help them ‘explain’ their ordeal,” Lifton writes. “Only by finding such meaning can they tell their story and begin to cope with grief and loss.”

He found a similar dynamic at work among the survivors of other mass traumas. Sharing their stories with each other, he found, allowed them to build new bonds and rebuild old ones. They were thus able to form makeshift communities to work together and learn from each other. In doing so, they gradually shed the identity of passive victims and began to reconceive themselves as survivors whose discovery of purpose or meaning allowed, even propelled, them to re-engage with life. Countering the senselessness of tragedy with a sense of mission took many forms, he found, including aiding those who have similarly suffered; educating others to prevent similar catastrophes; and organizing campaigns for research funding and health care, whether for AIDS in years past or long-covid today.

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Throughout, Lifton emphasizes that “meaning depends upon memory,” and reminds us of the grave risks we run by denying or erasing the past. A prime example, he writes, is “the failure to sustain active cultural memory of the 1918 flu pandemic, to hold its details in our collective imagination. … That failure to retain such crucial historical knowledge left us psychologically vulnerable to Covid-19, which we perceived as totally unpredicted and random, having no relationship to anything before it.”

That is just one reason, despite the pain and trauma remembering may evoke, collective commemorations, public art memorials and other ceremonial occasions to honor the dead and the living are essential. Think of the incalculable healing impact of such projects as the AIDS Quilt, the annual reading aloud in many Jewish communities of the names of those killed in the Holocaust, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the victims of racially motivated lynchings. Such legacies — and lessons — of witnessing live on even after first-generation survivors have died, through their memoirs, writings, oral and video histories and other literary and artistic works, to help guide us through present-day threats.

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Lifton is most deeply concerned today with the politicization of the pandemic and the split in the social core that has led to the spread of life-threatening misinformation. He sounds nothing less than prophetic in urging us to choose witnessing and survival over the destructive, deadly impact of denial. “A society must recognize the reality of a catastrophe in order to cope with it,” he writes. Lifton’s wisdom is worth reading — and heeding.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

Surviving Our Catastrophes

Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the Covid-19 Pandemic

New Press. 192 pp. $24.99

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