Jack El-Hai’s chilling new book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Goring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII (Sept., PublicAffairs) tells the story of the ambitious army psychiatrist Captain Douglas M. Kelley whose examination of high-ranking Nazis as they awaited trail in Nuremberg led him into a dangerously close relationship with Hermann Goring.
You discovered the subject of this book while writing The Lobotomist (2007, Wiley & Sons) and accessed so much material through the subject’s son Doug. How did you gain Doug’s trust to let you tell this story?
When I first reached out to him, I wasn’t even sure if he was the right person. The first time I saw all of the boxes I remember thinking something is wrong about this. This should be in a museum. They contained strange artifacts, sealed envelopes. I didn’t open those at the time, though I eventually I did. The boxes exhaled cigarette smoke. It was almost as if Doug had been waiting for someone to come along and ask. He is extremely perceptive and an astute interpreter of his dad’s life; he has made sense of it in a way that I don’t think most people do.
The dynamic between Goring and Kelley is fascinating; Goring asks Kelley if he will take care of his child. Is it accurate that there’s real trust between them?
Something had built up during their time together. Did they become friends? No, but they admired quite a bit in one another. They were both master manipulators and they were both using each other. Kelley was well aware of the dangerous and unpleasantness of Goring. Goring thought Kelley was a reliable person. Kelley trusted Goring to be himself and Goring lived up to that trust and didn’t hide much. They enjoyed their time because in a sense they could be themselves with each other.
You write the discovery “that the behavior of some of the worst criminals of modern times could be attributed to no psychiatric type or any specific mental illness” rattled Kelley. Is this search for definition or source of evil always destructive? Is it worth pursuing or is it misguided?
If you’re asking me, yes. It is worth studying, even if the potential for evil isn’t something that goes back to a flaw or disease in the brain, it still might be attributable to something we can control like environments or the upbringing of children. Eventually, if we last long enough, we will be able to cut down the incidents of serious crime. The distinction of crimes between average criminals and group crimes, like the Holocaust and other atrocities—those are less known about.
Curiosity and the drive to understand are major themes in the book. What questions did writing it bring you?
One big question I finished the book with was about the similarities between what a psychiatrist does with patients and what a journalist does with people we write about. If Dr. Kelley could be so turned around and upset starting with what he found in Goring, is there that potential for tumult for those of us who write about people? Is Dr, Kelley’s experience a warning not just for social scientists, psychiatrists and other people who study these topics as academics, but also for those of us who trade on the life stories of others? Reading about Julius Streicher was highly disturbing; Kelley was not able to find a psychiatric source for the evil in these Nazis and he couldn’t find a reason or cause for his own inner torment. I think a lesson is to know your weaknesses and where you are vulnerable, to have self-knowledge. He shows us the dangers of going unprotected into a study of dangerous people. He never understood what drove him.
How might these conclusions impact your next writing projects?
It’d be nice to write a book that doesn’t give shivers to people as I describe it, different waves of shivers. Dark topics seem to find me. I might like to write about bright, sunny ideas. We’ll see.