Jack El-Hai juggles two new books, on wildly different subjects

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Photo by Elizabeth Barnwell
Jack El-Hai

All over the country, all over the world, ordinary citizens are hoarding the kind of important historical papers and artifacts that should be in museums. “I know it’s out there, all kinds of important stuff. And every day, some of it gets tossed out. That makes me very sad,” said Jack El-Hai.

His new book, “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist” (Public Affairs Books) wouldn’t exist if a man in California hadn’t hung on to a pile of boxes filled with papers from his father’s career as a psychiatrist. Of course, it’s easy to recognize the historical value of your dad’s papers when some of his patients were the top Nazi commanders imprisoned at Nuremberg after World War II. When El-Hai was researching “The Lobotomist,” and pondering psychiatrists who had taken their own lives, he came across the name of Dr. Douglas Kelley, an American psychiatrist who had worked with Nazi prisoners in advance of the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. Of course, Kelley is a common name, so it took some time before El-Hai was able to find the doctor’s descendants. But once he did, he encountered one of the strangest research experiences he’s ever had.

“Kelley’s son was living about half an hour away from where my mother lived at the time. He said he had some papers and invited me to come over and take a look. He lived in a regular rambler, full of cats, and led me to a pile of boxes in the living room next to the piano, and said, ‘Take a look!’ And then he left me there for a couple of hours, with all those cats watching me as I opened these amazing boxes filled with incredible things. Not just documents but artifacts, including a vial containing Goring’s paracodeine tablets, medical records from the top Nazis at the Nuremburg trials summer of 1945, food that Rudolph Hess had rejected because he thought it was poisoned, and X-rays of Hitler’s skull. There were things that I felt I shouldn’t touch, envelopes that were still sealed.”

Studied psychological makeup of Nazis

El-Hai visited a few more times, ultimately opened those sealed envelopes, and pieced together a fascinating tale about an Army psychiatrist who took up an unusual opportunity to study the psychological makeup of some of the world’s most evil people. What Kelley didn’t realize was that he’d be drawn so closely into the world of his patients, and that it would ultimately destroy him. In particular, El-Hai traces the relationship between Kelley and Hermann Göring, the highest ranking Nazi official held at Nuremberg.

“Göring became very close to Kelley, even offering up his young daughter for Kelley to raise, should he and his wife not survive. That must have been unsettling,” said El-Hai. Even more unsettling: Kelley’s mission to understand the nature of evil turned up no significant psychological differences between war criminals and ordinary people. His Nazi subjects were mostly genial, relatable men.

“There was no mental illness, except in one case. These Nazis were no different in their psychological makeup than half the population of this country. [Kelley] compared them to a corporate board. And when he came back to this country and observed the beginnings of the civil rights movement, he saw the same characteristics in the segregationists in the South that he saw in the Nazis. That deeply troubled him.”

A buffer in the form of a second project

In order to write the book, El-Hai needed to delve deeply into one of humanity’s ugliest time periods, and develop a body of knowledge that most people would prefer not to have. The process affected him, so he developed some buffers to manage the material. First, he would limit his work on the book to a couple of hours a day. He also teaches, and produces corporate histories, so those diversions helped. So as a further distraction, he took on a second book project, a history of Northwest Airlines. “Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines” (University of Minnesota Press) chronicles the rise and fall of one of Minnesota’s most iconic companies.

“It was good for me to be doing something so different, something that even had a few laughs in it,” he says. Still, the Nazi book fits nicely with El-Hai’s “The Lobotomist,” a tragic history of Dr. Walter Freeman, who attempted to rid the world of mental illness through lobotomy. The writer still gets calls from people who have family members who experienced lobotomies. He suspects that as the Nazi book gets out there (it has also been optioned for stage and film), he’ll be hearing from readers who have some connection to the Nuremberg Trials or Kelley — or who have a box of interesting old papers sitting in their house. It is something of an occupational hazard for a writer who specializes, inadvertently, in certain dark subject matter.

“There’s a reason stories present themselves to a particular author, and I guess I just must have my feelers out for these things,” he says. “I know there are a lot of people with a deep fascination for World War II and the Nazi era, and that isn’t really me. And I don’t present a narrative of the Nuremberg Trials, which will I’m sure disappoint certain readers who are interested in that event. And there is another kind of reader, those who love character-driven medical narratives, who will appreciate this book. I wish I could say I wrote this with either one of those readers in mind, but I didn’t. I wrote this for myself, because I was so taken by the way these lives intersected, that wouldn’t have otherwise come together, to tell a whole new story.”

Events for “Non-Stop” 

Events for “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist”

  • Dec. 18, 6 p.m. Mayo Clinic in Rochester
  • Jan. 29, 7 p.m. Fireside Reading Series of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. Hamline Midway Library, St. Paul

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