First ever LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD CEREMONY IN PSYCHOHISTORY

 

Dear Colleagues,

We would like to invite you to the first ever LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD CEREMONY IN PSYCHOHISTORY, scheduled for Saturday, January 14th, from 1:00 pm-2:00 pm EST (New York Time) via zoom, when the first distinguished recipients will be given their medals.

A Psychohistory Forum colleague will speak for five minutes about Peter J. Loewenberg, Robert Jay Lifton, David R. Beisel, and Alan C. Elms’ accomplishments, which began as early as the 1960s. Each recipient will have the option of responding for five minutes.

The following are short biographies of the recipients of the
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD IN PSYCHOHISTORY:

David R. Beisel

By Paul H. Elovitz—The Psychohistory Forum

David Robert Beisel taught college for 50 years and is a Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York (SUNY) where he taught for 46 years. He was a chief architect in planning the International Psychohistorical Association and its first annual conference. Twice he served as president, setting a high standard as an organizer and a scholar. Professor Beisel trained as a European and German historian at New York University prior to making enormous contributions to psychohistory. He is now a contributing editor of The Journal of Psychohistory and from 1979 to 1987 he edited this largest psychohistorical journal, to which he introduced a peer reviewing system. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Clio’s Psyche and has published extensively in it.

Professor Beisel has written widely on American and European psychological history and taught psychohistory to over 8,000 students in the SUNY system where he won awards for his pedagogy because of his extraordinary talents as an educator in presenting psychohistorical concepts clearly, insightfully, and powerfully to undergraduates and colleagues alike. His ability to bring complex psychological insight to students in the face of school shootings and other national tragedies was outstanding. Included in his over 100 scholarly articles and symposia pieces is “From History to Psychohistory: A Personal Journey” (1978).

Professor Beisel is an outspoken advocate for the highest scholarly standards in psychohistory; indeed, the late Rudolph Binion, Leff Family Professor at Brandeis University, once said: “Dave is scrupulous about his sources.” Aside from writing numerous articles, David is the author of the pathbreaking The Suicidal Embrace: Hitler, the Allies, and the Origins of the Second World War (2003, 4th edition, 2021), which brings psychohistorical insight into the appeasement of Hitler in a work showing how individual psychobiography and psychoprosopography guided diplomacy.  More recently, he co-authored with Irene Javors six psychohistorical essays in the book Genres of the Imagination (2021).

Alan C. Elms

By James W. Anderson—Northwestern University

Alan C. Elms is a towering figure in the field of academic psychobiography. His 1994 book, Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology, analyzed the difficulties in bringing together these two disciplines and argued that they needed each other. Alan argued that biography remains on the surface unless it includes psychological insight. And what is the use of psychology, he noted, if it cannot help us understand better people whom we want to know about?  A psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, Alan published two additional books, Social Psychology and Social Relevance (1972) and Personality in Politics (1976). I don’t know any psychobiographer who wrote such striking and memorable articles as Alan did. For example, he explained why novelist Vladimir Nabokov, an outspoken critic of Sigmund Freud, was actually a Freudian. He examined the most famous sayings attributed to Freud, such as “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and determined where they came from and whether they actually originated with Freud (the cigar one certainly did not).

With co-author Brue Heller, he made a unique application of psychology to music. Alan and Bruce showed how Elvis Presley’s emotional state at different times affected his renditions of the song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Motivated by his relentless curiosity, Alan has brought enlightenment to us on numerous fascinating topics and has done as much as any other person to establish the legitimacy of psychobiography in academia.

Robert Jay Lifton (a fuller statement by Editor Lotto is included below)

By David Lotto—The Journal of Psychohistory

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, is and has been for the last 70 years a prolific contributor to psychohistory.  He has published at least 27 books, from his first on brainwashing by the communist Chinese in 1961 (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China) to his 2019 book on cults (Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry). Throughout his career, he has combined scholarship with activism focusing on a variety of areas including brainwashing, the Nazi doctors, cults, fundamentalism, the multiple effects of the nuclear age, climate change, the Vietnam war, PTSD, the CIA and mind control, and Donald Trump, among many others. He was one of the founders and then convenor of the Wellfleet Psychohistory group from 1966 through 2005, bringing together many prominent scholars and public intellectuals for discussions of the important events and issues of our time. Lifton left his position as Sterling Professor at Yale to establish the Center on Violence and Human Survival (1986-2002) at John Jay College of the City University of New York. Even in retirement in his 90s, he has continued to speak out and publish, most recently, in defense of democracy.

One of the things I find most remarkable and admirable about Dr. Lifton is how clear and consistent his moral and political stance has remained throughout his work. In the preface of his memoir, Witness to an Extreme Century, published in 2014, he expresses simply and elegantly the basis of his moral and political positions. To quote him:

I’ve been moved by the victimized people I encountered and have spoken out publicly against the forces responsible for their suffering. That identification with survivors of cruel events has in fact been a major source of my social activism. After what I had heard and seen, it became quite natural – indeed urgent – for me to take stands against mind control, nuclear weapons, American war making, and Nazi-like cruelty and genocide (xii).

Robert affirms the principle that if one witnesses cruelty, violence, injustice, or evil being displayed by an individual or group toward others, there should be a moral imperative to speak out, make public, and bear witness to its existence. And perhaps an obligation to do something about it. As he puts it, “I felt that I had gained special knowledge of the impact of these abuses, which could inform my witness, and I was able to make use of my unusual vantage point to become an advocate for peaceful paths to justice and political decency.”

Another aspect of Robert’s moral integrity is the manner in which he has remained faithful to his principles and the politics that follow from them despite pressures and temptations to do otherwise. He has had offers to collaborate with those in power. In 1962 he was approached by either the CIA or military intelligence with an offer to aid them by using his knowledge about thought reform and brainwashing techniques, which he declined.

A major thread throughout his work has been his engagement with what he names as totalism: an all-encompassing system of beliefs involving a passionate attachment to an ideology along with the desire to battle against ideas or people seen as not sharing in the belief system. As he says concerning the centrality of this engagement: “My thought reform study [his first major research project] became a leitmotif for all of my work. Everything I’ve done since connects somehow with totalism and mind manipulation, and all too frequently with expressions of apocalypticism.”

The five major events that he has studied—Chinese thought reform, the effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, the behavior of Nazi doctors, and his study of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo—all follow this leitmotif. For Maoist China, the goal was to transform the individual by means of mind control, breaking down previous beliefs and loyalties, instilling in their place loyalty to the idealized leader Mao and the belief system of his version of communism. With Hiroshima and atomic weapons, Lifton sees the powerful belief system of what he calls “nuclearism,” the worshipful attitude toward the bomb paired with the magical belief that its power will save us, as crucial to understanding our relationship to nuclear weapons.

Nazi ideology, in addition to creating the Holocaust, was powerful enough to convert physicians from healers to killers. In Vietnam, the totalistic fanaticism of our cold warrior leadership led us into the “atrocity producing situations” of that war. In addition to the Vietnam War, this cold war ideology has also given us the excesses of McCarthyism, CIA ventures into developing techniques of mind control, and fueled the creation of a massive nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, along with other fundamentalist groups that share a wish for the arrival of an apocalypse clearing the way for a utopian paradise, are examples of totalistic world views that make use of manipulating and controlling the minds of their members.

Opposition to the oppressiveness of totalistic ideology and the harm that can follow from a commitment to it has always informed Robert’s thinking about totalism. His concept of proteanism describes a way of relating to the world that is in opposition to totalistic fundamentalism.

In 1966, Robert, along with Erik Erikson, Kenneth Keniston, Bruce Mazlish, and Philip Rieff, started the Wellfleet Psychohistory Group. Robert convened and graciously hosted the yearly meetings of this growing group at his home in the dunes of the Cape for 50 years, ending in 2015. Robert invited me to attend in 2006, and I had the privilege of participating for 10 years. I will be forever grateful to Robert for giving me the opportunity to experience these wonderful gatherings. Here is a partial list of the people who attended regularly semi-regularly, or who made cameo appearances, starting with regulars:

Peter Balakian, Mary Catherine Bateson, Norman Birnbaum, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Cathy Caruth, Jim Carroll, Wendy Doniger, Daniel Ellsberg, Kai Erikson, Michael Flynn, Larry Friedman, Carol Gilligan, Jim Gilligan, Todd Gitlin, Judith Herman, Robert Holt, Nicholas Humphrey, Jim Jones, Peter Kuznik, Betty Jean Lifton, Norman Mailer, Karl Meyer, Michael Miller, Dan Okrent, Charles Strozier, and Bessel Van Der Kolk.

Guest participants included Dan Berrigan, Peter Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Robert Coles, Harvey Cox, David Dellinger, Richard Falk, Jane Fonda, Peter Gay, Richard Goodwin, Raoul Hilberg, Michael Kazin, Robert Kuttner, Lynn Layton, Jill Lepore, Frank Manuel, Alexander and Margaret Mitscherlich, Naomi Oreskes, Kenneth Porter, Philip Rieff, David Riesman, Jonathan Schell, Richard Sennett, Martin Sherwin, Sherry Turkle, Lawrence Wright, and Howard Zinn.

Robert’s scholarship includes at least 27 books along with numerous papers and articles as well as his numerous acts of political activism. He has taken on the mantle of being a public intellectual, seeking for us to join him in bearing witness to the suffering caused by the numerous trauma producing events that we have all lived through. In this way, he engages with the essence of the psychohistorical project of understanding the psychological motivation that drives so much of our behavior.

Peter J. Loewenberg

By David James Fisher—Psychoanalyst and Historian

Peter J. Loewenberg is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California (UCLA); Dean and Director of the Training School Emeritus of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute and New Center for Psychoanalysis; part of the International Psychoanalytic Association Board from 2015-2019; and Chair of the International Psychohistorical Association (IPhA) China Committee from 2007-2013.

After receiving rigorous training in the disciplines of history and psychoanalysis, Peter has provided psychohistory with firm foundations in both fields.  Interdisciplinary and comparative in approach, he has grounded psychohistory in the clinical and theoretical perspectives of classical and contemporary psychoanalysis. For most of his academic career, Peter taught at UCLA, promoting psychohistorical approaches to historiography, and simultaneously advancing the penetration of psychoanalysis locally in Los Angeles, nationally, and internationally, most recently in China. Having published two major articles in its important journal, The American Historical Review in 1971, he legitimized the methodology and served as a model for serious scholarship in the emerging field.

Peter helped to pass the Research Psychoanalyst Law in California in 1977, permitting full psychoanalytic training to academics in the humanities and social sciences. The New Center for Psychoanalysis is now the premier training center for this cohort of researchers in America. His personal and analytic style blends a coherent and unsentimental form of humanism, one that rejoices in the uniqueness of personalities, that is respectful of privacy, difference, and otherness, and that sees the potential for growth and deepening awareness of the self. He is consistently empathic to those oppressed by history as well as tough-minded and realistic about those who use hatred, violence, and ideology to oppress others. As a distinguished member of the psychohistorical avant-garde, Peter Loewenberg is richly deserving of this lifetime achievement award.

Best regards,

Paul

Paul H. Elovitz, PhD, Historian, Research Psychoanalyst, Professor, Director of the Psychohistory Forum, Editor, Clio’s Psyche, and the Author of The Making of Psychohistory: Origins, Controversies, and Pioneering Contributors (Routledge Publisher), cliospsycheeditor@gmail.com