I had been looking forward to this one for a while, and I’m bummed I didn’t enjoy the reading experience more. I know, you’re wondering what exactly I thought I’d be “enjoying” while reading about the titular “children of monsters” in Jay Nordlinger’s 2015 book. I find the human mind fascinating, and when it comes to some of the biggest “monsters” of the twentieth century, how much could be expected to travel from parent to child? I’m not sure Nordlinger is the author to write the kind of book I was actually looking for or expecting when I picked this up. I was on the hunt for a book that was a psychological study of these people, and the milieus they were developed in, but that is not really this book, unfortunately.
Structurally the book is comprised of biographies to tell a story through the historical narrative. Each chapter is a description of a dictator and his children. Nordlinger is obviously attempting to build a case for a handful of psychological profiles of the progeny of dictators. The problem is, it smacks of armchair psychology. Nordlinger states what seems right to him without considering empirical data, without accessing the larger body of psychological work. In fairness to the author, he does have a good amount of primary sources in the form of books and interviews with people in positions to know at least some of the truth, but it falls short.
One downside was the failure to define dictatorship at the start, the author decides what he wants a dictatorship to be for his needs and announces his loose organizational structure in the Foreword and jumps in. What becomes clear is that the dictators are cherry picked to suit a certain western audience. There was no mention of South American dictators which is a glaring omission. The other component is that dictators’ regimes are often hermit kingdoms, closed in many important ways to the outside world. Which made getting information for this book, and providing appropriate context difficult and made it even stranger that these 20 were chosen, or that it was 20 at all.
The author’s tone also threw me off, its both often too sympathetic towards people who have done terrible things as well as being very casual with the reader generally. The idea, I’m guessing, is to set up the experience like a conversation, but it just doesn’t quite hit the right balance in order to be approachable while also maintaining intellectual authority. By failing to maintain the balance the writing does not match the seriousness of the topic, nor does the book commit to being lighter pop history fare.