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 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.


H.G. Wells Meets Josef Stalin

I recently read H.G. Wells' novel The Invisible Man and came away impressed by the author's artistry in entertainingly moving a story along while including a serious subplot about H.G. Wellsthe role of science in our society. Wells was active in a variety of left-leaning causes throughout his long literary career, and he made sure he crossed paths with many influential and interesting people.

In 1934 Wells interviewed Soviet leader Josef Stalin Josef Stalin(for what exact purpose, I'm not sure) and discussed with Stalin the differences between liberalism and communism. The interview was surprisingly argumentative and prickly at times. This is how it began:

Wells: I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Stalin, for agreeing to see me. I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt and tried to ascertain what his leading ideas were. Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world. . .

Stalin: Not so very much.

Not a promising start. But things warmed up from there. You can read the entire transcript at the Marxists Internet Archive. I recommend it for a peek into the minds of two of the twentieth century's most forceful figures.



Wilde in the Streets

Here I present an oldie — an article I wrote 25 years ago for Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine. It was one of my first attempts to write about history and has always remained among my favorite stories because of the unflappable character of Oscar Wilde. Note how the narrative approaches but skirts around Wilde's homosexuality. Otherwise, I hope the article still stands up.

When the flamboyant Oscar Wilde visited Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1882, old-world aestheticism met Midwestern earthiness head on

Late in the afternoon on March 15, 1882, a striking-looking visitor stepped off a train at the main rail station in Minneapolis. Six feet, three inches tall, he had shoulder-length brown hair parted in the middle and a pale, putty-like complexion. His slouch hat and green, fur-trimmed coat drew some attention, but he most impressed a growing crowd of gawkers with his behavior. "Oscar Wilde, photographed in New York City in 1882. (U.S. Library of Congress) He shuffled languidly along the platform to the carriage, seemingly afraid that he might fall in pieces;' a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal observed. The visitor was a famous Irish-born wit and man of letters. His name was Oscar Wilde. 

Wilde had not yet written The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray or any of his celebrated literary works. Nor had he yet served time in a British prison for sodomy. When he arrived in the Twin Cities Wilde was the author of a single volume of poetry and an unproduced play. 

He had already gained notoriety in Britain, however, as an epigrammatic advocate of art and beauty. He and other members of a much-mocked aesthetics movement in England advanced the then-unmasculine notion that only beauty was worth living for. Lampooned for the long periods he spent gazing rapturously at flowers and other beautiful objects, Wilde believed that art should be enjoyed for its own sake. 

A bizarre chain of events brought Wilde and his then-outlandish aesthetic ideas to Minnesota. A London producer named D'Oyly Carte wanted to send Patience, the newest opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, on an American tour. One of the show's main characters is Reginald Bunthorne, a "fleshy poet" and phony aesthete partly modeled after Wilde. Carte feared that the comic effect of Bunthorne would be lost on an American public unfamiliar with the affected mannerisms of Wilde and his cronies. Carte's solution was to ask Wilde to tour America in advance of the opera. 

Dazzled by promised fees of $200 to $1,000 per lecture (a range equivalent to $4,500 to $18,000 in 2012 dollars), Wilde consented. He arrived in New York on Jan. 2, 1882, and created an immediate sensation with his witticisms and languid poses. When a customs officer asked if he had anything to declare, Wilde replied, "Nothing, nothing except my genius." Journalists both loved and hated him; they found him deliciously quotable yet suspiciously effeminate. 

Wilde lectured in New York City and, riding a wave of Anglomania, moved on to engagements in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago. Americans perplexed him. "Everybody seems in a hurry to catch a train,” he said. "This is a state of things which is not favorable to poetry or romance." In Indianapolis he angered a group of farmers by calling them "the peasants of this young and undeveloped country." 

By the time Wilde reached the Twin Cities he had abandoned his plans to break ground for Patience. (The opera premiered in St. Paul two months before his arrival.) Signing the register as "Oscar Wilde and servant, of England," he booked into the Nicollet House hotel. 

Even before his arrival the Twin Cities press targeted him for ridicule, mocked his mannered way of speaking and likened him to a sideshow exhibit. "Oscar is the best advertised menagerie this country has ever enjoyed....This utterly, all but entirely if too too concentrated young man has secured more gratuitous notoriety than any Wilde animal which has heretofore landed on these hospitable shores," the St. Paul Globe sniped. The St. Paul Pioneer Press called his appearance "a farce; and since nobody can be deceived, everybody is happy while the receipts come in handsomely." 

On the evening of his arrival, Wilde granted an interview to a reporter from the Minneapolis Tribune. Speaking with his interrogator while reclining on a fur robe, Wilde cut the figure of a perfect dandy. His black velvet coat, tight pantaloons, patent-leather shoes and blue cravat made as unfavorable an impression on the reporter as his condescending comments about American art. "The fact that he was slightly pigeon toed,” he reporter noted, "detracted somewhat from his lion like appearance;' The interview was published under the headline, ''An Ass-Thete." 

Later in the evening a crowd of about 250 (mostly women) assembled at the Academy of Music in Minneapolis for Wilde's lecture on the decorative arts. Tickets cost 75 and 80 cents. Two chairs and a table supporting a glass of water stood before a backdrop which one observer called "one of the most outrageously inartistic and utterly vulgar sets from the scenery at the academy." 

"Everybody seems in a hurry to catch a train,” Wilde said. "This is a state of things which is not favorable to poetry or romance."

Wilde appeared on stage shortly after 8 p.m. He wore an old-fashioned outfit of knee breeches, black silk stockings, shoes with large bows and a coat adorned with lace cuffs. Some jeers floated down from the gallery, but Wilde ignored them. 

The oration quickly bored most people in the audience. Wilde's suggestion to combine beauty with utility in everyday objects met with apathy. Reviews called the lecture "a series of artistic platitudes" and "as flat and insipid as could well be imagined." His heavily accented and monotonous voice further distanced him from the audience, giving, said one reporter, "the impression that he was a prize monkey wound up and warranted to talk for an hour and a half without stopping." 

Wilde in fact spoke for 75 minutes. At the end of the lecture he bobbed his head and abruptly left the stage. There was no applause. Nevertheless, the crowd was not completely dissatisfied. "I came to see Wilde, and I have seen him," a member of the audience said. "I did not expect to learn and did not." 

Richer by $250, Wilde returned to the Nicollet House at 9:25. A curious crowd awaited him at the hotel, but in true celebrity fashion he slipped in through a service entrance. 

Perhaps due to its large Irish population, St. Paul was more cordial to Wilde. At times it was almost too friendly. While walking along a street Wilde was startled by a passing streetcar driver who called out, "Hey Oscar!" 

Adding a kid glove and a lace handkerchief to his attire, Wilde repeated his decorative-arts lecture on March 16 at St. Paul's Opera House. This time he spoke more engagingly and before a bigger audience. He upbraided the city's citizens for the mud in their streets and the ugly furniture in their hotels. Expecting a different sort of performance, one man left the lecture moments after its start, exclaiming loudly, "I thought this was a theayter!" 

Wilde returned to the Opera House on the next day for St. Paul's celebration of St. Patrick's Day. When a speaker lauded Wilde's mother, an Irish patriot, the huge crowd cheered. In appreciation Wilde delivered a speech praising Irish culture. 

With no further public appearances, Wilde left the Twin Cities for Iowa and points west. By the end of his U.S. tour in July he had lectured on beauty and aesthetics 75 times in halls from Manhattan to California. 

Wilde's lasting impression on Minnesotans squared with their perception of him as an amusing freak. For the remainder of the year Oscar Wilde costumes were the rage at parties. A Christmas masquerade held in the town of Dodge Center in 1882 featured a guest who, according to a newspaper account, represented Wilde in "knee breeches, big buckled shoes, [and] low collar...and got around with the esthetic languid air of the champion of lahdadahism in a style that was button-bursting to see." 

Wilde, in turn, drew conclusions about Minnesotans and their fellow Americans. "The Americans are not uncivilized, as they are so often said to be,” he wrote to the actress Sarah Bernhardt. "They are decivilized." 

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