Judith L. Herman M.D.

Decoding Trauma

A Different Perspective: The Invisible Enemy

A conversation with psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton is a friend, colleague, mentor, and fellow explorer of psychological trauma. Whereas my work has developed from the intimate perspective of sexual and domestic violence, his work has come from the global perspective of nuclear war and totalitarianism. We spoke about how his work in Hiroshima helps us understand the psychological impact of the current pandemic.

JLH: Robert, can you tell us about your study of the impact of the atomic bomb in Japan?

RJL: In 1962, I was able to spend six months living in Hiroshima and interviewing survivors about their atomic bomb experience. The most powerful response I heard, and I heard it regularly, was their fear of what I came to call “invisible contamination.” The fear resulted from grotesque and often deadly symptoms of radiation effects, which could occur immediately or months or years or decades later. Early symptoms included bleeding from bodily orifices as well as the dreaded “purple spots” of bleeding into the skin.

Over the years, there could be an increased incidence of leukemia and other forms of cancer, even in people who had seemed untouched by their exposure to the bomb. The fear could extend to possible effects on the next generation, and on generations after that. The fear of invisible contamination was all-encompassing and painfully magnified because “the poison” could not be seen.

JLH: Are there similarities between “invisible contamination” in response to the atomic bomb and our present response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

RJL: There are striking similarities that one might not immediately think of. COVID-19 is frequently referred to as the “invisible enemy.” Like Hiroshima survivors, we are terrified of a contaminating force that could kill us, but one we cannot see. In both cases, that invisibility leads to a mystical, supernatural sense and bizarre conspiratorial explanations. Invisibility makes it very difficult to bring reason to a lethal threat.

JLH: But there must be important differences between our current situation with COVID-19 and the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

RJL: Yes, there are important differences, but the differences are more external than psychological. For instance, COVID-19 is particularly dangerous because of its extreme contagion: We know that other people, even without symptoms, can be carriers of the virus and therefore endanger us, and we ourselves similarly endanger others. Any interaction with people can be a threat.

In contrast, there is no physical contagion of radiation effects. Yet people who came to Hiroshima later and had not been exposed to the bomb often sought to separate themselves from survivors, treating them as though they had been in some way contagious. They did so, I believe, out of a feeling that survivors were death-tainted and thereby dangerous, in that way attributing to them a form of psychological contagion.

Another important difference is that COVID-19 threatens all of humankind while the immediate effects of the Hiroshima bombing were confined to that city. But Hiroshima survivors had equally apocalyptic feelings, a number of them telling me how, encountering the sea of death right after the bombing, they had the sense that “the world is ending.”

JLH: I wonder if we see similar patterns of stigma and avoidance in public figures trying to give a nationality to the current contagion.

RJL: Yes, when President Trump calls it the “Chinese virus,” as if it’s an evil force coming from a particular ethnic group, that ethnic group becomes inseparable from the virus.

JLH: That’s quite paranoid, it seems to me.

RJL: Yes, it’s us-versus-them, or them-versus-us, rather than a virus that threatens everyone on the planet. And “them” all too often become Asians and Asian Americans.

JLH: Let’s talk about what might help people in dealing with the “invisible enemy.”

RJL: Well, what seems to be happening with the virus that’s parallel to what I could observe in Hiroshima is the erratic response from authorities and considerable distrust on the part of ordinary people towards the authorities. The authorities tend to minimize the threat and to claim falsely that they have control over it. People do best when they are given hard truths and can trust those providing such truths.

And there’s another dimension that we cannot yet have seen at this early stage of things in which survivors can tell their stories in a way that helps the world and is beneficial to themselves as well. We have observed survivors of Hiroshima travel around the world, offering what could be called survivor wisdom. It will be some time before we can expect to hear such wisdom from COVID-19 survivors, including doctors and health workers on the front lines, but that time will also arrive.

JLH: Yes, we have learned from survivors everywhere that what helps people most in times of terror is preserving and strengthening our connections with people we trust. This comforts soldiers facing battle and civilians facing disaster, battered women and abused children. Human beings are social creatures; what hurts us most are feelings of abandonment. In the aftermath of trauma, we try to create supportive environments in which survivors can tell their stories. Especially in this time of plague, when safety requires social distancing, we must do everything we can to preserve trust and connection.