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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Screening police officers before they shoot

When the police shoot unarmed citizens, we can’t help asking about the judgment, communication abilities, and emotional health of the involved law enforcement officers. Would other people in uniform have handled these volatile situations without loss of life? How well are police officers screened to ensure that they are psychologically suitable for their very difficult duties?

More than 60 years ago, an American psychiatrist grew obsessed by these questions. Douglas M. Kelley, M.D., was uniquely qualified to investigate the psychological traits of people in positions of authority. During the months immediately after World War II, Kelley, then a U.S. Army captain, had been sent to the jail in Nuremberg, Germany, to evaluate the sanity of the top 22 captured Nazi leaders awaiting trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He studied a group of men widely believed to be the cruelest villains of the 20th century: Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, among others.

His shocking findings — that the surviving overseers of the Third Reich suffered from no psychiatric illnesses and shared no personality disorders — led Kelley to conclude that many of us, many so-called normal people, possess traits that under certain circumstances will inspire us to act criminally in our own interests. Not everyone will follow this dark path with social prompting, Kelley believed, but a significant percentage will.Some of the German leaders examined by Kelley

Soon after Kelley returned to the U.S., he turned his attention to the psychological evaluation of law enforcement officers, a topic previously given little attention. Working with the police department in Berkeley, California, he examined a group of officer recruits. He judged 23 percent of them “sufficiently unstable to be considered potential hazards in these positions.” Further studies convinced him that one-third to one-half of America’s police officers were psychologically unqualified to protect citizens or enforce laws. 

Alarmed, the Berkeley police chief allowed Kelley to undertake regular psychiatric evaluations of all recruits, and Kelley became a pioneering advocate of the thorough psychological screening of prospective police officers.

Now, nearly a lifetime later, Kelley’s dream of spreading and standardizing the rigorous psychological evaluation of police officers remains a fantasy. Some 20 states still fail to require psychological screening, evaluations are inconsistently conducted, and many smaller police forces forego the screenings entirely. A Rorschach inkblot image

Many people, police officers and chiefs included, are misinformed about the intent of psychological screening. The purpose is not to identify mentally ill applicants and “psychos” — no police department has the resources to conduct such medically in-depth and costly assessments — but to flag prospective officers who may perform poorly in a high-stress profession that requires quick decision-making, emotional control, sound judgment in dangerous situations, honesty, teamwork, and strong communications.

A vast swath of the public, including me and probably you, would fail as police officers. We simply don’t have the qualities that the best people in law enforcement need, which includes the ability to know when to use, and not use, violent force to subdue suspects. Well-designed psychological assessments, competently conducted, help identify applicants whose personalities and ways of thinking will prove barriers to their effective performance of police duties.

Douglas Kelley relied on the Rorschach inkblot test — the same assessment involving the interpretation of abstract ink-splattered images that he had used to appraise the Nazi defendants — in his examination of prospective police officers. Today’s examiners use such tools as interviews and multiple-choice personality assessments. But the tests and methods vary greatly between police departments, as do the qualifications and experience of the examiners. There are no national standards for the assessments or the level of competency of the examiners. As a result, candidates judged unsuitable for police work in one department could be found perfectly suitable in another. 

We need national standards for screenings, which could prevent the entry of unfit officers in all American police jurisdictions. In decades past, there have been barriers. Many police administrators actively opposed Kelley in his advocacy of psychological evaluations. Records obtained from the FBI disclose that in 1954 the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police complained to Hoover’s G-men about Kelley’s articles on psychologically unfit cops and urged the FBI to investigate him. 

Sound psychological assessments don’t come cheap. Police psychologists frequently conduct their examinations in a low-cost rush, making conscientious examinations costly and hard to find. But we clearly need to improve the quality of the psychological screenings of aspiring police officers and to set national standards. No one yet knows whether unfit officers are responsible for recent police shootings of unarmed citizens. It’s certain, though, that if psychological screenings remain inconsistently and cursorily applied, more shootings await us.




Geneticists have long argued about the effects of having an extra male chromosome, a condition found in 1 of 1,000 men


A battered paperback entitled The XYY Man, by Kenneth Royce, leans in a corner of my bookshelf. It’s a spy novel that chronicles the adventures of “Spider” Scott, an ex-felon who wants to become law-abiding, but finds that he is genetically predisposed to criminality because he has an extra chromosome. Unlike most men whose XY sex karyotype imparts their maleness, Scott has been endowed with an XYY karyotype by his novelist creator.

This condition is not fanciful. XYY syndrome first appeared in the medical literature in 1962, eight years before Royce published his book. A team of researchers from Roswell Park Medical Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., described the first XYY person on record, a 44-year-old man who had undergone genetic testing because one of his children had Down syndrome. Though never before reported, this extra-chromosome condition produced during early cell division has turned out to be not tremendously rare, affecting about 1 in 1,000 boys. In most men who have it, the 47th chromosome causes no problems whatsoever, and more than 95 percent of XYY guys don’t realize they are specially endowed.

For decades, however, geneticists argued over the reputed social hazards of XYY syndrome. Did the extra chromosome make its bearers “supermales,” men who behaved as if they were amped up on too much testosterone? Some believed that XYY men, like “Spider” Scott, were inherently violent and prone to committing criminal acts. The dispute captured the public’s imagination, spawning several sequels to Royce’s novel along with numerous movies and TV shows (such as Law and Order) featuring dangerous and socially conflicted XYY characters.

During the late 1960s, geneticists, sociologists, and others began looking at prison populations to see if XYY men were disproportionately represented. Many people asserted that not only did XYY men commonly have violent criminal tendencies — the biochemist Mary Telfer characterized them as “perhaps too highly sexually motivated” — but that such males could be diagnosed by physical and mental traits, which included tall stature, long limbs, facial acne, mild mental retardation, and aggressive behavior.

In 1970 geneticist H. Bentley Glass advocated the relaxation of abortion laws to allow women to end pregnancies if the fetus was XYY. Speculation even ran that Richard Speck, the infamous murderer of eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966, owed his propensity to violence to an extra Y chromosome. That proved untrue. In one notorious case of the mid-1970s, a British court wrongfully convicted Stefan Kiszko of the murder of an 11-year-old girl largely because of his XYY karyotype, and it took more than 15 years for him to win release from prison.

In recent years, geneticists have learned more about the actual effects of the XYY condition. XYY boys may be delayed in maturation, are taller on average and more physically active, and sometimes display learning and behavioral problems. Their intelligence, testosterone levels, aggressiveness, sexual development, and fertility typically fall within the normal range. They grow into men who are unrecognizable to the general public.

In the mid-1970s, a Danish study showed that XYY men were not more likely to commit violent crimes, although they did have more convictions for other crimes. A long-running follow-up study published this year confirmed those findings and attributed the higher conviction rate for such crimes as sexual abuse, arson, and burglary to “unfavorable living conditions” — poverty, joblessness, and other disadvantages resulting from a lack of childhood support that many XYY men experience.

Slowly, as the suppositions of the 1960s have given way to current research, the public is changing its thinking on XYY syndrome. Few people today believe that an extra Y chromosome condemns its owner to a life of violent crime. Genetic counselors explain the condition to families and teach ways to nurture XYY boys. Men like the fictional “Spider” Scott can exercise their free will without fear that a sex chromosome has turned them bad.


America's first suicide bombing

Few people know that the first suicide bombing in U.S. history — and perhaps only the second such attack in world history — took place in New York City 110 years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I recently wrote about that first U.S. bombing in an article titled "The Bomb in the Bag" for Longreads, a wonderful organization and publisher that promotes longform journalism.

Image by Kjell Reigstad

I first learned about the 1891 attack on Russell Sage by bomber Henry L. Norcross several years ago while writing about the wave of anarchist bombings that made Americans anxious in the years after World War I. This earlier bombing did not have obvious political motivation, but the target was a prominent financier and one of the baddest of the robber barons of the Gilded Age.

What's unusual about this story is the good that came out of the tragic event: the redistribution of Sage's wealth to benefit countless Americans. And the hero of the tale is Olivia Slocum Sage, the wife of the financier. 


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.