Robert Jay Lifton
Basic Books: New York, 1993.
262 pp., $25.00 (cloth).


We are becoming fluid and many sided…evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time … I have named [this mode of being] the “protean self” after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms.

Thus Robert Jay Lifton begins his most recent book. For over thirty years, Lifton, a dedicated, intrepid reporter and a psychiatrist professionally concerned with violence and the survival of our species, has been reminding us of our twentieth-century capacity to destroy ourselves, particularly through nuclear holocaust. In his previous books, such as Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima and The Nazi Doctors, Lifton has brought us poignant psychological portraits of real lives, of “survivors and perpetrators” who intimately reflect “the dark side of human behavior.” His courage lies not simply in his illumination of realities we wish to avoid, but in his refusal to comfortably ascribe evil merely to others: it is not just that evil is banal, as Hannah Arendt once said of Adolf Eichmann, but that we have the capacity to “go along with others” and ignore or participate in evil ourselves.

Taking a more theoretical turn than in previous works, in The Protean Self Lifton plausibly asserts that while our values, beliefs, lifestyles, personality characteristics, and relationships once had continuity and consistency, they are now far more changeable. One example:

A [Japanese] student still in his early twenties could describe a personal journey from childhood emperor worship during the Second World War, to embrace of democracy and all things American during the U.S. Occupation, and of Western principles of individualism (especially as conveyed by films), to a return to traditional Japanese cultural elements, to intense Marxism and romantic communist activism, to periods of hedonism with heavy drinking and random sex, to immersion as a young executive in a powerful corporation.

Whew! But not to worry, to Lifton this may represent strength rather than dissolution—our flexibility can save us. “In a time of fragmentation and trauma,” suggests Lifton,

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