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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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.



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.


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.


Lou Gehrig, ALS, and the Patient Records Controversy

I recently wrote here on my thoughts about waiving considerations of privacy for medical patients who are long deceased and revealing their names and opening their medical records to journalists and the public. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has just published a fascinating article by Mike Kaszuba about a current controversy over the disposition of the medical records of the baseball star Lou Gehrig, who contracted and lent his name to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a debilitating and ultimately fatal neurological disease.Lou Gehrig's 1934 baseball card

But is it possible that Gehrig, who died in 1941, never had ALS? Some researchers speculate that his neurological symptoms resulted from repeated head concussions. They argue that the Mayo Clinic, where Gehrig was diagnosed and treated, should release his medical records to shed light on what actually ended his life. Citing patient privacy laws and policies, the Clinic has refused.

Read about the dispute and decide for yourself: More than 70 years after his death, should Lou Gehrig's medical records be opened to the public?




Hypnotism and Its Past

[In earlier posts that you'll find here and here, I've written about my fascination with hypnotism and my interviews and encounters with hypnotists of various types. In this post, I continue the series by scratching the surface of hypnotism's history and looking at its popular portrayal.]

For centuries, hypnotism has suffered from an image problem. The pleasant experience of surrenduring to the thrall of a book, movie, or religious experience — all similar states of consciousness — is nothing like the popular conception of hypnotism, as promulgated by novels and other forms of entertainment.Actor Lumsden Hare as the scheming hypnotist in Svengali, a 1931 film adaptation of Trilby

In George DuMaurier’s Trilby, a much-filmed nineteenth-century novel about a man’s control over a concert singer, the hypnotist Svengali makes a spectacular first appearance. He was

a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red beret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from his under eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent and humorous German twists and idioms, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.

Like Svengali’s technique, the hypnotic induction methods of many fictional characters are exercises in power, unpleasant for the hypnotized person. They demonstrate the irresistible domination of the hypnotist.

Domination was not a motivation of the early hypnotists, including mothers of millennia past who sang and rocked their crying babies back and forth to comfort them. In the eighteenth century, Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician, moved magnets over the bodies of prone patients. Mesmer postulated that a fluid called animal magnetism regulates human health, and that his magnets beneficially manipulated this life-giving energy. Mesmer’s treatment frequently brought patients to fits of high-pitched emotion, followed by a faint. Later, Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, one of Mesmer’s students, discovered that he could guide the thoughts and actions of his patients through mere suggestion, without magnets, and he sometimes made patients dance jerkily in their chairs.

The English surgeon James Braid, who coined the word “neurohypnotism,” meaning nervous sleep, typically treated patients by holding a lit candle before and above their line of sight. He would then suddenly thrust his other hand from the candle to patient’s eyes, producing a trance. Braid frequently made patients’ limbs rise and stiffen by passing a key over them. He was the first to hypothesize that hypnotic responses arise from mental suggestions that produce physical responses. 

Sigmund Freud was a failure as a hypnotist, but not so other serious investigators of the twentieth century. Milton Erickson, M.D., an American who melded hypnotherapy with psychotherapy, freed his patients to follow their own inclinations while in hypnosis, and Morey Bernstein, an amateur hypnotist, worked closely with Virginia Tighe in Pubelo, Colorado, to carry her back to a supposed past life as an Irishwoman named Bridey Murphy. (Above is a hypnotism scene from the 1956 film The Search for Bridey Murphy.)

In 1976, hypnotist William Kroger helped Ed Ray, a part-time school bus driver in Chowchilla, California, remember the license plate number of the vehicle used by kidnapers who commandeered his bus full of schoolchildren and hid them in a moving van buried in a rock quarry. The captors’ arrest soon followed. 

Therapeutic hypnotism has come a long way in recent decades, but its popular image unfortunately remains mired in the past.

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