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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Entries in douglas m. kelley (2)


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.



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.