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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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Monday
Sep092013

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.

Wednesday
Feb202013

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.

Monday
Dec102012

My forthcoming book "The Nazi and the Psychiatrist" is optioned to Mythology Entertainment

I'm happy to announce that Mythology Entertainment — the production and writing talent behind such films as Shutter Island, Zodiac, The Amazing Spiderman and the upcoming White House Down — has optioned stage and screen rights to my forthcoming book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist. Psychiatrist Douglas M. Kelley, who spends months examining Nazi leader Hermann Göring in my forthcoming book The Nazi and the PsychiatristThe book, which tells the story of American psychiatrist Douglas M. Kelley's encounters with Hermann Göring and other top Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and his own personal downfall, will be published next year by PublicAffairs.

I've previously collaborated with Mythology, which is currently working on a series pilot of my book The Lobotomist for HBO.  The principals in the production company are Bradley Fischer, James Vanderbilt, and Laeta Kalogridis.  

You'll find more details of the deal here.

 

Wednesday
Nov282012

Titicut Follies: A Notorious Documentary

Several years ago I finally got the chance to watch a documentary that had been in my thoughts for a long time. It was Titicut Follies, which the renowned filmmaker Frederick Wiseman shot in Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts in 1967. 

I had heard that Titicut Follies included gruesome and horrifying scenes of the abuse of mentally ill patients — and it certainly does — but the film sticks in the viewer's mind more for showing how patients and staff in this hospital were trapped together in a system of psychiatric care that benefited few and brought misery to all.

I recently wrote a post about the history of Titicut Follies as a contributor to the Wonders & Marvels history blog. Please check it out, and feel free to leave a comment (here or there) about your favorite films that tackle the topic of the treatment of the mentally ill.

Below: Film critic Cole Smithey gives a good introduction to Titicut Follies.

Wednesday
Oct102012

A Pioneering Pop Psychologist

Years ago I read somewhere about an eminent experimental psychologist who suffered a mental breakdown, endured years of depression, and abandoned the laboratory to instead help lay people apply the ideas of modern psychology to their lives. Joseph Jastrow (Wikimedia Commons) 

That man, I found out, was Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944), and I’ve written a post about his activities as America’s first pop psychologist for the Wonders & Marvels blog that I contribute to every month. If you read the post, please let me know what you think.

Jastrow often wrote and lectured on our strong desire to believe what figures of authority tell us, even when scientific evidence does not support what we long to accept. For years he applied this theme to the work of spiritualists, psychics, and mediums. I mention that in my Wonders & Marvels post, but I didn’t have room to include a short poem of Jastrow’s on the topic:

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” 

Barnum said it; there’s sad truth in it

What burns me up, and turns me sour

Is that a crook is born every hour.

The poem, dated 1943, appears in the article “Joseph Jastrow, the Psychology of Deception, and the Racial Economy of Observation” by Michael Pettit, published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 43(2), Spring 2007, pp. 159-175.

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