Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
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A Political Warning from the Past

Decades after a U.S. Army psychiatrist who studied the Nazis predicted a threat to American democracy, we should remember his fears when we vote.

Psychiatrist and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Douglas M. Kelley returned home in 1946 after spending six months studying the most loathsome of the captured German leaders after World War II. I tell his full story in my book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist.

He was afraid. Kelley, who had served among the prisoners as a staff physician at the Nuremberg jail before and during the celebrated international tribunal that charged 22 top Nazis with war crimes and crimes against humanity, didn’t fear for the fate of Germany or Europe. He agonized over the future of America.

Dr. Douglas M. Kelley before the start of World War II

As we hit the final hours of another political campaign season in our country, one in which citizens will vote to fill 36 gubernatorial and 33 U.S. Senate seats as well as countless local offices, it is time to reexamine the concerns of a young psychiatrist who looked into the souls of some of history’s greatest sociopaths who rose to positions of power. These men thought nothing of using the Gestapo, concentration camps, racist laws, murder and the Holocaust for their own political gain. 

How did these Germans attain political power? Were they mad? What motivated them? Kelley’s disturbing conclusions still resonate today. And he despaired of the American voter’s ability to resist the rhetoric of aspiring despots. Attack ads, attempts to demonize opponents, appeals to the irrational fears of voters, and the low level of discourse in political debates — all hallmarks of today’s campaigning — would convince Kelley that many Americans of 2014 are ready to vote for candidates more interested in climbing to power than working for the public good.

Sane and manipulative

“There wasn’t an insane Joe in the crowd,” Kelley said of the Nazi leaders when The New Yorker profiled him in 1946. Instead, they represented a personality type easily found everywhere in many walks of life: ambitious climbers, eager for power and influence and skilled at tugging at the emotions and fears of others to get what they wanted. These are the people we all know who keep their eyes on the prize as they walk upon the backs of others. They “are not unique people,” Kelley told lecture audiences. It’s normal to find them around us.

In politics, candidates of this type use “the rights of democracy in anti-democratic fashion,” Kelley observed. While many Americans believe that in our country the few cannot control the many and our democratic traditions will not tolerate totalitarianism, Kelley declared such optimism naive. He found ample evidence that candidates routinely pander to the unfounded fears of constituents. Holders of public office are often manipulative and their constituents are often gullible and easily distracted, Kelley believed. 

As evidence, the psychiatrist pointed to the careers of such figures as U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo and Congressman John E. Rankin of Mississippi and Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia. These segregationist politicians of the 1940s exploited racial myths “in the same fashion as did Hitler and his cohorts,” Kelley wrote. “They use racism as a method of obtaining personal power, political aggrandizement, or individual wealth.” 

Few overtly racist candidates now remain in the U.S. because the political benefit of espousing such beliefs has vanished. But Kelley would today find the same threat in candidates who use positions on immigration, medical care, school curricula, reproductive rights, firearms legislation, and marriage rights to separate Americans into mythical categories of “us” and “them.” All of these issues carry a powerful emotional charge, and Kelley believed that the manipulation of emotions is a sure indicator of an unworthy, even dangerous, candidate. It’s the sign of an ideological demagogue.

Resisting demagoguery

Kelley considered the political situation in America far from hopeless. To combat the threat of demagoguery, he recommended removing barriers to the participation of all adult citizens in elections, thus reducing the influence of emotionally volatile voters. He pressed for changes in our educational system to emphasize the practice of critical thinking, which today is touted more as a personal and career skill than a benefit to democracy. But critical thinkers, Kelley maintained, can resist their emotional reactions to make smarter choices in the voting booth.

Finally, Kelley urged every American to refuse to vote for any candidate who made “political capital” of the heritage, morals, or supposed otherness of opponents. He hoped to see voters ignore the appeals of candidates who insist that some of us are less than others. Until our political campaigns achieve this level of maturity, he said, “the United States [will] never reach its full stature.” 

Sixty-eight years after this perceptive and alarmed psychiatrist returned from a journey into the minds of his century’s most monstrous political criminals, are we ready to pay heed to his advice? Can we become better voters and learn to distinguish good candidates from bad ones? This upcoming election is a good time to find out.


Hunting for Hermits

How do you track down a bunch of hermits to interview?

I recently needed an answer to that question when an editor at The Saturday Evening Post asked me to write an article about the lives of contemporary hermits. I agreed to give it a try if my story could focus on people with spiritual motivations for finding seclusion, rather than the misanthropic aims of the Unabombers of the world. But how could I find spiritual recluses?A nineteenth-century Szechuan hermit

I began by spreading the word of my search through social media, and I also broadcast requests to two popular repositories of experts: ProfNet and HARO. Going this route led me nowhere — not surprising in retrospect — and only unearthed an assortment of pranksters and anti-social people. I heard from a man who prefers to vacation alone, for example, and a public relations and social media executive who confessed she likes working in her house better than in her office, among many other candidates badly suited for my purposes. I then turned to news databases, hoping to find hermits mentioned in articles of months or years past. The few I found proved impossible to contact.

I kept looking, although I began to wonder whether any spiritual hermits still existed. At this point I found two great resources through online searches. The first was Karen Fredette, the co-author of books on the hermit life and the manager of Raven’s Bread Hermit Ministries, an organization that supports hermits and publishes a newsletter for them. Who knew that hermits had a newsletter? A former hermit herself, she provided essential context and background, although she declined to connect me with any of her clients. Soon after, I located Sister Laurel O’Neal, a hermit in the Camaldolese Benedictine tradition. I was astonished to learn that she had set up her own hermitage in an apartment in the middle of Oakland, California, plays in a community orchestra, and blogs (prolifically).

But I needed at least one more hermit to interview, and in desperation I decided to try what initially struck me as an unlikely source of help, LinkedIn. Many writers do not know that LinkedIn — alone in its emphasis on career among the social media — offers excellent ways to search for people by occupation. Had any LinkedIn members listed themselves as hermits? A quick search led me to many people who had. Most of these, I could see, were not really hermits; they used the term sardonically. But I found a few with actual experience as hermits. 

And that’s how I tracked down Roger Cunningham, a former hermit in the Buddhist tradition who listed his email address in his LinkedIn profile. I sent him a message and was soon interviewing him, his voice faint on the phone as he explained eremitical living to me from aboard his sailboat off the Florida Keys. The addition of his experiences made the article complete.

I had naively assumed that contemporary hermits would want to avoid technological connectedness. But the hermits I ended up quoting in my article — a blogger, the creator of an online clearinghouse of information for hermits, and a user of social media — showed that seclusion is not necessarily anti-technological, which became a point of my article. Hermits could live next door to us, digitally or in physical fact.


The Nazi and the Psychiatrist wins 2014 Minnesota Book Award

My recent release The Nazi and the Psychiatrist won the Minnesota Book Award in the general nonfiction category at the 26th annual awards ceremony on April 5, 2014. The event, organized by The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, brought together 960 lovers of books and literature.  

I salute my fellow finalists — James Dawes, author of Evil Men; Larry Haeg, author of Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street's Great Railroad War; and Rae Katherine Eighmey, author of Soda Shop Salvation: Recipes and Stories from the Sweeter Side of Prohibition.  

Look out for the paperback publication of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist in September 2014.


A set of dusty boxes: The arresting origins of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

My book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist has just been published. It had strange beginnings.

When one dead man passes you a tip about another, you pay attention. Years ago, while researching my book The Lobotomist about Walter Freeman, the psychiatrist and neurologist who pioneered lobotomy for mentally ill patients, I read the late Dr. Freeman’s writings on a topic that obsessed him: psychiatrists who commit suicide. One Douglas M. Kelley, MD — once famous for his study of the top Nazi prisoners held for trial at Nuremberg — received special attention from Freeman. The portrait that Göring signed to Kelley.On New Years Day in 1958, Kelley inexplicably swallowed cyanide and suffered an excruciating death in front of his wife, sons, daughter, and father-in-law. Nobody could understand why a man in the prime of life, famous and engaged in his work, had decided to end things so violently. The Nazi who had most powerfully drawn Kelley, Hitler’s prospective successor Hermann Göring, had killed himself the same way to cheat the Allied hangman.

I couldn’t forget about Kelley. Four years after reading about the psychiatrist, I tracked down his oldest son, who invited me to stop by and look at some of his father’s papers. I couldn’t believe what awaited me — a collection of astounding manuscripts from Dr. Kelley’s files. The boxes had come from the Santa Barbara home of Dukie Kelley, the psychiatrist’s widow, who had died a few months earlier, aged 92. Kelley’s son led me to four boxes that stood separate from the rest. “These are his Nuremberg papers,” he said.

I removed one lid, and the first thing I saw was an old Kodak carton labeled in hand, “X-Rays of Hitler’s Skull.” There were eight large transparencies inside, all showing different radiological views of a skull topping a spinal column. As sometimes happens in x-ray pictures, a faint presence of fleshy body outlined the bones. This was Hitler’s head. “Dad got those from one of Hitler’s physicians,” the son said. 

Beneath the Kodak box was a priceless collection of Nazi and Nuremberg mementoes. They were more than mere memorabilia — they represented the sum of Kelley’s psychiatric involvement with some of the worst criminals in history. The son left me there for a couple of hours to go through the collection as a changing guard of cats watched disdainfully from nearby recliners. 

The top file said “Goering.” I opened it and met the Nazi face-to-face. He stared out in his Luftwaffe uniform from a framed photograph: a big black military cross was fastened between the lapels of his collar, and an eagle clutching a swastika lifted its wings on his breast. Stormy clouds brewed in the studio background behind his head. Göring's hair shone with highlights and he was not smiling. “Major Dr. Kelley,” the India-ink inscription began. There was a seven-word message in German, which I could not read, followed by a grandiloquent signature and “1945.” 

Much more filled the Göring file. Scribbled letters, still in their envelopes from his wife and daughter, responded to messages he had sent from prison. A leather-bound notebook detailed Kelley’s many physical and psychiatric examinations of the prisoner. Kelley had also written a lengthy interpretation of the Rorschach inkblot tests he had given to Göring and the other top Nazis. Scraps of paper written in Göring's hand filled the file, some in English requesting Kelley’s presence in the prisoner’s cell “immediately” or “at once.” 

Beneath Göring's file lay small boxes, the size of necklace cases. They contained peculiar jewels. In one were six paper packets, still sealed with smears of red wax. Each contained samples of sugar, chocolate, and other foodstuffs that Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess had refused to eat in prison because he believed they were poisoned. Hess signed and dated each packet and wrote an explanation of his suspicions. Another little box enclosed a bed of cotton wool upon which lay a glass vial of about a hundred white tablets: the narcotic paracodeine. The prison authorities seized these from Göring soon after his capture. He had been addicted to the drug.

I took photos of these items, partly to keep my hands busy and to distance myself from the thoughts pressing on me: What on earth were these artifacts doing in a ragged cardboard box that was sitting on the floor of a modest living room? Why weren’t they in the collection of an archive devoted to the history of the Nuremberg Trials? Clearly no historian of the trials or the Third Reich had ever set eyes upon them, so what was I doing holding these objects in my hands? A letter that Kelley received from Göring at Nuremberg.

I did not want to consider the answers to these questions at that moment, or the nagging realization that these bankers’ boxes held documents and artifacts of inestimable historic value, because three more cartons still remained for me to go through. It’s a poor excuse for rushing through a trove of valuable documents, I know, but I had to get back to my mother’s house for dinner before rushing off to the airport. 

I did my best. The cats circled and licked themselves. Kelley’s son clacked away at his computer in the next room. I inhaled dust, flakes of paper, and particles of a dead Nazi leader’s paracodeine stash. 

When I returned home, I frequently thought about the boxes I left behind. Kelley’s son promised to save them for me in case I wished to come back and look at them again. I did so wish, and I returned soon and often. My new book, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, grew out of them.


Psychotic visitors to the White House; an actor who specialized in playing Hitler

I’ve neglected to post news of two guest contributions I’ve recently made to the Wonders & Marvels history blog.

One is about the history of the study of psychotic visitors to the White House. First Lady Pat Nixon greets White House visitors in 1969.My post describes three surveys of mentally unstable callers for the President made during the 1940s, 1960s, and 1980s. These studies agreed in some of their conclusions and disagreed in others.

The second recent post tells the story of Bobby Watson, who portrayed Adolf Hitler in many Hollywood films from the 1940s through his death in 1965. Watson rode his uncanny resemblance to the Führer for a good long ride. Here's a clip of Watson in action, from the film The Story of Mankind:

As always, please let me know what you think.