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Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators

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What’s it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator? A monster on the Stalin level? What’s it like to bear a name synonymous with oppression, terror, and evil? Jay Nordlinger set out to answer that question, and does so in this book. He surveys 20 dictators in all. They are the worst of the worst: Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and so on. The book is not What’s it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator? A monster on the Stalin level? What’s it like to bear a name synonymous with oppression, terror, and evil? Jay Nordlinger set out to answer that question, and does so in this book. He surveys 20 dictators in all. They are the worst of the worst: Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and so on. The book is not about them, really, though of course they figure in it. It’s about their children. Some of them are absolute loyalists. They admire, revere, or worship their father. Some of them actually succeed their father as dictator—as in North Korea, Syria, and Haiti. Some of them have doubts. A couple of them become full-blown dissenters, even defectors. A few of the daughters have the experience of having their husband killed by their father. Most of these children are rocked by war, prison, exile, or other upheaval. Obviously, the children have things in common. But they are also individuals, making of life what they can. The main thing they have in common is this: They have been dealt a very, very unusual hand. What would you do, if you were the offspring of an infamous dictator, who lords it over your country? An early reader of this book said, “There’s an opera on every page”: a drama, a tragedy (or even a comedy). Another reader said he had read the chapter on Bokassa “with my eyes on stalks.” Meet these characters for yourself. Marvel, shudder, and ponder.


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What’s it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator? A monster on the Stalin level? What’s it like to bear a name synonymous with oppression, terror, and evil? Jay Nordlinger set out to answer that question, and does so in this book. He surveys 20 dictators in all. They are the worst of the worst: Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and so on. The book is not What’s it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator? A monster on the Stalin level? What’s it like to bear a name synonymous with oppression, terror, and evil? Jay Nordlinger set out to answer that question, and does so in this book. He surveys 20 dictators in all. They are the worst of the worst: Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and so on. The book is not about them, really, though of course they figure in it. It’s about their children. Some of them are absolute loyalists. They admire, revere, or worship their father. Some of them actually succeed their father as dictator—as in North Korea, Syria, and Haiti. Some of them have doubts. A couple of them become full-blown dissenters, even defectors. A few of the daughters have the experience of having their husband killed by their father. Most of these children are rocked by war, prison, exile, or other upheaval. Obviously, the children have things in common. But they are also individuals, making of life what they can. The main thing they have in common is this: They have been dealt a very, very unusual hand. What would you do, if you were the offspring of an infamous dictator, who lords it over your country? An early reader of this book said, “There’s an opera on every page”: a drama, a tragedy (or even a comedy). Another reader said he had read the chapter on Bokassa “with my eyes on stalks.” Meet these characters for yourself. Marvel, shudder, and ponder.

30 review for Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators

  1. 4 out of 5

    Liviu

    short - 20 dictators and their families in about 300 odd pages - but entertaining and well researched; the one part I am quite familiar (the Ceausescus and their 3 children) with was remarkably well done in the allotted 15 pages - sure some nuance was lost (Nicu's reputation was a bit exaggerated, most likely by intention and Zoe's tribulations were somewhat understated), but all in all, very well done recommended for a fast and informative read

  2. 5 out of 5

    laine

    I like this book a lot. It was a good bus book, because it was broken up well to read a little at a time. It claims to be a psychological inquiry, but I think that's a bit of a stretch. He does go into some comparisons and hypotheses about the different outcomes of the children, but there wasn't much psychological theory put up against these stories. But what stories they were! He was meticulous in documenting as much as he could about this elusive group of people and giving thorough accounting I like this book a lot. It was a good bus book, because it was broken up well to read a little at a time. It claims to be a psychological inquiry, but I think that's a bit of a stretch. He does go into some comparisons and hypotheses about the different outcomes of the children, but there wasn't much psychological theory put up against these stories. But what stories they were! He was meticulous in documenting as much as he could about this elusive group of people and giving thorough accounting of everybody he could find through to grandchildren as well. He didn't shy away from some of the horrible things they did, nor did he fail to give them credit when they overcame or empathy when their circumstances overcame them. The dictators he chose were also very diverse, both geographically as well as politically, which I loved. The only reason I didn't give this five stars is that I did wish he had given some sort of primer or brought in somebody else to give us a little taste of the psychology behind the different themes he did tease out at the end of the book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    Fascinating read and impossible to put down

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shreyans Goenka

    This is a fascinating read! Eye-opening...thought-provoking...and stimulating. I feel compelled to discuss this book with everyone I meet!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Shif

    Jay Nordlinger deals with one of the most complex questions of all time in his book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. As he phrased it in the forward of his book, “I wondered what it must be like to be the son or daughter of Hoxha. To bear a name synonymous with oppression, murder, terror, and evil.” Essentially, it is a question of nature vs nurture. Why there is evil, how it continues, and why despite the upbringing and indoctrination of evil, there i Jay Nordlinger deals with one of the most complex questions of all time in his book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. As he phrased it in the forward of his book, “I wondered what it must be like to be the son or daughter of Hoxha. To bear a name synonymous with oppression, murder, terror, and evil.” Essentially, it is a question of nature vs nurture. Why there is evil, how it continues, and why despite the upbringing and indoctrination of evil, there is still resistance (as seen with Svetlana Stalin.) Children of Monsters is an analysis of the children of the 20 most demonic and diabolical dictators of the 20th century. On the topic of dictators, the children are often not discussed, largely because of the little that is known of some of them, but also because of the complex nature of the topic. As Nordlinger wrote in the afterward of his book, “To study the children of dictators is to spend a lot of time with unpleasantness. Dropping the understatement, I will put it another way: To write a book such as mine, you have to spend a lot of time with evil- the evil of dictators and their regimes. Sometimes, the children become part of it all. They join the military oppression.” Whatever the surrounding stigma of the children of dictators, it is definitely an interesting point of conversation in how these children were raised, the challenges they had to endure, and ultimately the decisions they made in how they chose to live their lives. Sometimes there is a message of hope, in the goodness of humanity, in how some of the children defied all odds and became defectors of the regime, standing up for all that is right and moral in the world. Other times, there is unending chaos, destruction, cruelty- an analysis of the greatest psychopaths that ever lived. Whatever the case, there seems to be a pattern of behavior among the offsprings of these tyrants. Some of the children become supporters of the regime, as seen with Kim Jong-il in North Korea. Perhaps he has even surpassed his father in the depravity he is capable of. Not necessarily do most of the children support their totalitarian fathers to the extent that Kim Jong-il did. In fact, while most were supporters, most did not mimic the evil acts of their fathers. There does seem to be, however, some imitation between the dictatorial fathers and their sons, as seen with Vasily Stalin, who mimicked his father aggressive behavior, but Vasily never gained the respect of his father, as he was seen as a hot-headed brute prone to drinking and other compulsive behaviors. Similarly are the cases of the sons of Ceausescu and Saddam Hussain. Another common route the children of dictators seem to go in is as vocal opposers to the dictatorship, as seen with Alina Fernandez, Fidel Castro’s daughter. Perhaps these are the ones who deal with their family in the most healthy way, not in denial or repression, but acknowledging the truth and standing against it. Unfortunately sometimes they do not withstand permanently, as seen with Saif Al-Islam, the son of Gaddafi, who led protests and vocally voiced opposition, but ultimately returned to the fold in support of his fascist father, supporting the government and the system he had previously spoken out against. This raises the question of ‘How’ and ‘Why’ after being exposed to such brutality the children choose to stand against it, to speak for democracy and equality, and yet they end up returning to their comfortable lives in their fascist homes? The case of Zoia Ceausescu is perhaps so surprising, because she had been sheltered from the brutality of her father’s regime, and when she found about it, she became an adamant criticizer of it, standing and supporting the people, leading protests, and years later she returned to the life she has scorned and criticized. One of the questions this book raises is how someone so evil is capable of any sort of goodness. We tend to want to categorize people in either the good category or the bad category. Good people are expected to act moral and right in all turns, and bad people are supposed to only be capable of pure evil, without any shred of humanity in them. The reality, is that most people possess both good and bad inclinations, and bad people are capable of good, in the same way, that good people are capable of bad. Khomeini is said to have been an excellent husband and is told to have only disagreed with his wife once, in arguing over the value in buying their son a toy. Duvalier is supposed to have been an excellent father, always warm and compassionate towards his children, he is one of the only dictators who developed a real father-son/daughter relationship with his children. Almost humorously, Edda Mussolini writes in her diary how her father trailed her and her husband on their honeymoon because he could not bear to let his baby girl go. He only left after being forced to. Perhaps an analysis of the children of dictators has become more of a psycho evaluation of human nature, and what being human really means. One of the most compelling cases of the children of dictators, is Idi Amin’s son, Jaffar. Jaffar is and still remains a loyal supporter of his father, and yet he dedicates his life to making reparation with the public over the crimes his father had committed. Maybe this is the most honest portrayal of a son, loyal to his father, but admitting what has been done wrong. It takes a strong man to concede and compromise, especially one who is as loyal and dedicated as Jaffar Amin is. An interesting point that this book highlights is how even though some of the children staunchly defended and supported their fathers, they lived relatively peaceful lives. It is curious that they were not tormented by the things their father has done. Maybe it is a coping mechanism, or maybe it is just reality they live in. Perhaps, even with their support, they can acknowledge that while they are their father’s son, they are not their father. The conversation with nature vs nurture, or perhaps innate character, is perhaps best illustrated with Ceausescu's children, Valentin and Nicu. With the same upbringing, and opportunities, one chose to be a monster, the other chose to be the light. Maybe chose is a difficult word for such a complex topic, because the norm is imitation. Growing up with the exposure of brutality, why not engage in this behavior? Why be different when your entire life you have witnessed this same? It seems the more you learn and understood about the children of evil, the more questions there seem to be. Nordlinger’s, Children of Monsters is very unique to the genre of nonfiction, as most of his books are. His books raise the questions not often in asked on the topics not often addressed. His previous book, Peace, They Say is an analysis of the Nobel Peace Prize, its history, and the importance of its relevance today. As a senior editor for The National Review, and long time journalist, Nordlinger has written on an array of controversial topics such as communism, human rights, politics, and foreign affairs. He has won two award for his journalism -one was for using his talents for freedom and democracy in China, and the other, fittingly, was awarded for, “bearing witness to the evil of totalitarianism.” From both an emotional and logical perspective, this book has credible appeal. In the Pathos argument, the way the children were raised, what they were forced to endure as offspring of the dictatorship, and the situations they made for themselves, all brought intense emotional turbulence to the surface. At the same time, it was cleverly balanced out with the Logos, dealing with the history, the rational arguments, and the analysis of human behavior and the choices that define us. The balance between both appeals, left a strong and intellectual argument with a powerful and emotional appeal for another one of Jay Nordlinger’s books. Perhaps the final question we will ask, is how much slack we should cut the children of dictators? Being raised by an evil and culpable father does not excuse from moral responsibility, but being the son of a dictator does not give many available opportunities to explore the good nature of a human. Maybe the answer lies with Philippe Loret, the perceived grandson of Hitler, “I don’t think evil passes on. Of course, qualities from your parents pass on to you, but you build your own life, and you make what it is.” Perhaps if the dictators themselves, or the parents who raised them, held themselves to a higher standard of moral responsibility, they may have never become so evil in the first place.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Khemo95

    Entertaining and interesting. One downside was the failure to define dictatorship at the start. It's clear that the author cherry picked his dictators to suit a western audience. There was no mention of South American dictators which is a shame. The claim that the book is some kind of a psychological study is a gross exaggeration.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Joyce A

    This was such an interesting book. We all know of the dictators that ruled the 20th Century. Names like Stalin, Pol-Pot, Castro, Mao, Hussein, Gadaffi and others are very familiar. All of these men had families and were fathers, some times of many, many children. The authors takes each dictator and their family one chapter at a time. Some of the children of these dictators are well known, for example Svetlana Alliushevia, the daughter of Stalin, and Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of Sadam. Oth This was such an interesting book. We all know of the dictators that ruled the 20th Century. Names like Stalin, Pol-Pot, Castro, Mao, Hussein, Gadaffi and others are very familiar. All of these men had families and were fathers, some times of many, many children. The authors takes each dictator and their family one chapter at a time. Some of the children of these dictators are well known, for example Svetlana Alliushevia, the daughter of Stalin, and Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of Sadam. Others were not so famous, but fascinating nonetheless. This is a very good read for any serious student of history.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sarah - All The Book Blog Names Are Taken

    The premise was super interesting and I was really excited to start this one. But the writing does not match the seriousness of the topic. The author is often glib and sometimes making jokes, sort of. I don't know quite how to describe it, but it was definitely disappointing.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Joann Pittman

    Some stories more interesting than others.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Horace Derwent

    sad but true, most of the children of monsters are still monsters

  11. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    Nordlinger has hit on a formula for his books beginning with his history of the Nobel Peace Prize. He uses biographies to tell a compelling story and weave an arc through the historical narrative. Each chapter of this book is a portrait of a dictator and his children and ultimately builds a case for a hand full of psychological profiles of the children (and in some instances grandchildren) of dictators. Nordlinger writes in a very conversational style that is very easy to read. It is not journal Nordlinger has hit on a formula for his books beginning with his history of the Nobel Peace Prize. He uses biographies to tell a compelling story and weave an arc through the historical narrative. Each chapter of this book is a portrait of a dictator and his children and ultimately builds a case for a hand full of psychological profiles of the children (and in some instances grandchildren) of dictators. Nordlinger writes in a very conversational style that is very easy to read. It is not journalistic, but rather like you are having a chat in the living room. Given the author's long association with human rights campaigns (while still being counted as a political conservative), it is a perfect topic for him to comment on.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Ule

    I wanted to like this book because I'm intrigued by the premise: what would it be like to have been raised by a monster/despot/dictator/brutal disaster? Miserable, obviously, but after an overview of the children of 20th century horrors, I expected Nordlinger to draw some sort of conclusion. If he did, it was so obvious I overlooked it in my haste to be done with this book. Part of the problem, frankly, was the writing. It meandered, backtracked, and didn't stay linear--just tell the story, draw so I wanted to like this book because I'm intrigued by the premise: what would it be like to have been raised by a monster/despot/dictator/brutal disaster? Miserable, obviously, but after an overview of the children of 20th century horrors, I expected Nordlinger to draw some sort of conclusion. If he did, it was so obvious I overlooked it in my haste to be done with this book. Part of the problem, frankly, was the writing. It meandered, backtracked, and didn't stay linear--just tell the story, draw some conclusions, reflect and move on to the next awful father. I didn't see that happening and in the midst of such a nasty series of sketches, beautiful writing might have helped make this book worth reading. Sorry.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rex Libris

    A most interesting book, I almost read it straight through without putting it down. I have always loved Nordlinger's writing style itself. Reading him feels like he is in the room actually having a conversation with you. On top of the style of this book, the topic is unique and horrifyingly fascinating. The book is exactly what the title suggests: biographical information about the worst dictators of the 20th century. This includes people like Mussolini, Stalin, Ma, the Kims of Korea, as well as A most interesting book, I almost read it straight through without putting it down. I have always loved Nordlinger's writing style itself. Reading him feels like he is in the room actually having a conversation with you. On top of the style of this book, the topic is unique and horrifyingly fascinating. The book is exactly what the title suggests: biographical information about the worst dictators of the 20th century. This includes people like Mussolini, Stalin, Ma, the Kims of Korea, as well as the various beasts of Africa and the Middle East. The children run the gamut; from beasts like their fathers, to normal well-adjusted every day people who have lived healthy lives in spite of their parents. A fascinating read and well worth the time taken.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Wright

    This is a completely compelling look into the private lives of dictators we regard as monstrous, and how their actions affected their children. It's filled with fascinating fun facts - like Stalin sniping that his son "couldn't even shoot straight" or that Mussolini's granddaughter posed for Playboy. Even if you're not a typical history buff, you'll want to share some of these tidbits with your friends for days or weeks to come. Oh, and if you're having problems with your parents, it'll put it i This is a completely compelling look into the private lives of dictators we regard as monstrous, and how their actions affected their children. It's filled with fascinating fun facts - like Stalin sniping that his son "couldn't even shoot straight" or that Mussolini's granddaughter posed for Playboy. Even if you're not a typical history buff, you'll want to share some of these tidbits with your friends for days or weeks to come. Oh, and if you're having problems with your parents, it'll put it in perspective.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Stacy

    I really liked the idea of this book but thought the execution was a little lacking. Some of that wasn't the author's fault since, as he points out (and as I hadn't really thought of beforehand), dictators' regimes aren't exactly known for being the most open with information. But some of the writing in this book was just so clunky! Still an interesting read though.

  16. 5 out of 5

    A

    Reads like you've accidentally lost an entire afternoon to the Wikipedia rabbit hole. Interesting in turns, editorially clumsy in others.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nihilistic Librarian

    I read this book as a follow up to an incredible book that came out this year "The Infernal Library," which was a historical narrative of the writings of dictators. I was excited to hear about the children of these legendary monsters and was let down tremendously. Nordlinger does an excellent job of reporting the facts; where the children live now, notable things they are doing, publications they have put out, and some that just wish to be left alone. But that's all we get. This book left me wan I read this book as a follow up to an incredible book that came out this year "The Infernal Library," which was a historical narrative of the writings of dictators. I was excited to hear about the children of these legendary monsters and was let down tremendously. Nordlinger does an excellent job of reporting the facts; where the children live now, notable things they are doing, publications they have put out, and some that just wish to be left alone. But that's all we get. This book left me wanting so much more. It was fascinating that 3 daughters of 3 dictators all who had their husbands murdered by their fathers were FRIENDS! But that's all Nordlinger gives the reader. I would have loved to read about the psychology behind these children who grew up in horrific regimes that they only found out about later in life. I think Nordlinger needed to do a lot more journalistic interviews and research. The book was dry and provided very little historical background and towards the end it just felt like the author rushed to publish the book. I do not recommend this book, instead I suggest "The Infernal Library" by Daniel Kalder. Kalder is funny, witty, and in the face of the horrors he is writing about he keeps the reader's attention.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I was hoping for something that posited some theories about how being raised in the unique circumstances of being progeny of a despotic ruler impacts a child's development and outcomes. This was more an short biography of the sons and daughters of famous dictators over the past century chapter by chapter, with very little in the way of insight into the themes and commonalities between various children across circumstances. While there is a brief segment at the end where the author makes a very s I was hoping for something that posited some theories about how being raised in the unique circumstances of being progeny of a despotic ruler impacts a child's development and outcomes. This was more an short biography of the sons and daughters of famous dictators over the past century chapter by chapter, with very little in the way of insight into the themes and commonalities between various children across circumstances. While there is a brief segment at the end where the author makes a very surface-level attempt to integrate his findings, but it feels tacked-on and perfunctory. I was just hoping for more insight and work on the part of the author, but no such luck.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    I am fascinated at how these children turned out. And it really made me think about how hard it must be to have a famous father who murdered tons of people and maybe wasn't really involved with you as a father figure or maybe he was - but after his death, to see how these kids could be torn between the wrong their father did to a country, its people, maybe even them and the fact that he was still their father. Don't we all long to be loved and accepted by our fathers? I also learned a lot about I am fascinated at how these children turned out. And it really made me think about how hard it must be to have a famous father who murdered tons of people and maybe wasn't really involved with you as a father figure or maybe he was - but after his death, to see how these kids could be torn between the wrong their father did to a country, its people, maybe even them and the fact that he was still their father. Don't we all long to be loved and accepted by our fathers? I also learned a lot about these dictators and the countries where their tyranny ruled. Makes me so grateful to be an American!!

  20. 4 out of 5

    David Corleto-Bales

    Interesting book about the children of dictators, (all men, naturally) and how they fare or fared; everyone from Hitler, (did he sire a child in France during World War I? Some thought so) to Stalin to Pol Pot and other developing world dictators. Most of them, frankly, are not very interesting people. They can be divided up into the "successors" like Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, the "deplorables" like Saddam's two sons, the "normals", (not many of those; Pol Pot's daughter turned out o.k.) and Interesting book about the children of dictators, (all men, naturally) and how they fare or fared; everyone from Hitler, (did he sire a child in France during World War I? Some thought so) to Stalin to Pol Pot and other developing world dictators. Most of them, frankly, are not very interesting people. They can be divided up into the "successors" like Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, the "deplorables" like Saddam's two sons, the "normals", (not many of those; Pol Pot's daughter turned out o.k.) and the "implosions", (died young and penniless.)

  21. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

    The premise of this book was fascinating. It looks at the children of notorious dictators and how their father's lives affected them. Many supported and loved their fathers, others lived with complexity reconciling the dissonance between the man they loved and the man who hurt so many people. Unfortunately there wasn't enough information to fully flesh out the children's biographies. I was hoping for more depth, but the lack of free media in most of these countries have left the impossible. Maybe The premise of this book was fascinating. It looks at the children of notorious dictators and how their father's lives affected them. Many supported and loved their fathers, others lived with complexity reconciling the dissonance between the man they loved and the man who hurt so many people. Unfortunately there wasn't enough information to fully flesh out the children's biographies. I was hoping for more depth, but the lack of free media in most of these countries have left the impossible. Maybe due to the same problem, the writing was at times repetitive.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Len Knighton

    Jay Nordlinger writes in what might be called a conversational style, as if he is talking to you. He writes about 20 dictators and their families and often backtracks so the reader can keep them all straight. I thought the book was long, that writing about twenty monsters and their children was a bit ambitious. As he reminds us in the concluding chapter, there are many similarities between the children; some became monsters, others did not. Three stars

  23. 4 out of 5

    McCall Hollie

    Really interesting to learn about the kids of famous dictators and how their fathers have (or have not) shaped their lives. The writing style is way too casual though and often read like high school essay.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ann Caswell

    This book belonged to my father-in-law who was a history buff. Written in a lighter style than you would expect due to the subject matter. Interesting read even though it wouldn't have been my choice.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sandie

    A look at the children of 20 dictators; how did having a 'monster' as a father affect them. Interesting, but sometimes chilling, read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Elaine Haynes

    Read 2 chapters and quit. It reads like a history book,which i am not into. Borrowed it from a friend and passed it on. Not for me.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Robin Fairhurst

    A fascinating revelation of the children of history's truly evil people, some of them we know by name and some we don't. It's a battle between feeling sympathy and disgust.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Really fascinating and insightful read

  29. 5 out of 5

    Becca

    This was a fascinating and educational read. I gave it four instead of five stars only because some chapters seemed to be less researched (and therefore less interesting) than others. It was clear that some stories (Hitler, Stalin, etc.) are just juicer than others.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mark Lykins

    Entertaining read but it needs an editor really badly. Edit: cleaned up a typo. Should practice what I preach, haha.

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