Book review: The Inkblots, by Damion Searls
Beginning as a biography of the oft-overlooked Hermann Rorschach, developer of the eponymous psychological and personality test, and becoming a history of the test’s uses and controversies, The Inkblots is a continually surprising, enlightening work of narrative nonfiction.
For creating a test so famous that it long ago crossed from the specialized psychology domain into pop culture and household status, little is commonly known about Rorschach himself. For a test so ubiquitous, how odd. As the author admits, he approached the inkblots from a cultural perspective, not a psychological one, and was surprised to learn it was still used in therapies and legal proceedings (seconding that surprise). He underscores, “Rorschach’ was a strange word to me, too – person, place, or thing?” I admit that until now I didn’t know the answer, either.
Few in the western world wouldn’t recognize the iconic inkblots; as Searls points out they’ve been used in everything from films to cult comic books to the cover of Jay-Z’s memoir to a near-constant presence in both fashion and advertising, decorating Fifth Avenue storefront windows in a fashion campaign as recently as 2011. Yet a biography of the man who developed it was nonexistent. There’s a lot to learn from his background, the era of psychology and psychiatry in which he studied and worked, and how his own passions and influences shaped his contributions to psychology. The book draws on his own journals and letters and those materials of his family and colleagues close to him throughout his life, providing a well-rounded portrait of both the private and the professional.
Part of the reason for his obscurity may be that he died young, so had less time to contribute advancements compared to peers like Freud and Jung. Rorschach was working on another test before his death, and one wonders what might have come from his life’s work if he’d had more time. In Rorschach’s own words, “In a way it is a beautiful thing, to leave in the middle of life, but it is bitter‘, and “I have done my part, now let others do theirs,” referring to his scientific work. It’s a shock when midway through the narrative Rorschach falls ill and dies suddenly, which until that point has been a lively, deeply personal biography, tracing the course of his life from difficult childhood through his professional studies, work, and making his own family. Somewhere in his humble beginnings in an Alpine Swiss village, he held onto the memory of a childhood game of “…spill[ing] some ink on a sheet of paper, fold it in half, and see what it looks like.”
From there the book switches gears, following the life the test took on after its creator’s death, from its uses in world-famous, or infamous, situations like the Nuremberg trials to its application on job candidates, university students, and in child custody cases. It found especially fertile ground in the “test-hungry time” of 1940s America; as Searls explains, “We increasingly thought of ourselves as having something special inside that could not be accessed with any standard tests, and the Rorschach would prove uniquely able to grasp it.” Yet its value as a diagnostic tool has been continually questioned. I was interested in understanding better the scoring, since it’s interpretive, not a right or wrong scenario.
It turns out much about the test’s workings is quite secretive. We know that the elements of form, color, and movement are the major determinants in a reading of test and taker, with shading and color perception factoring heavily too. Rorschach was very interested in issues of introversion and extraversion, empathy and attachment in sussing out what comprises a personality, and exploration of those concepts took center stage in much of his work. Beyond that, readers are still somewhat in the dark about how exactly it functions.
I found the book’s strongest element to be Rorschach’s life. There’s fun, weirdly surprising stuff to learn about him. He was very attractive, for one: that’s him on the cover, like Brad Pitt at his very best; the stereotype passionate young doctor with female patients falling for him. He was also a Russophile, his wife Olga was a doctor originally from Kazan. They met while studying in Switzerland. Together they lived and worked in Russia, and although that experience broke his illusion of the country and its culture somewhat, his personal interest in all things Russian gave such insight into his character and work. “No one rereads War and Peace during the grueling, two-month-long period of final medical school exams, as Rorschach would do in 1909, merely out of interest in Russian culture – that is what someone does who refuses to be defined by his immediate environment, who is seeking an intellectual and emotional life elsewhere.”
Searls provides an even, thoughtful assessment throughout his tracing of the test’s history and Rorschach’s life materials, helping immensely to explain its popularity and controversies in the changing contexts of the ages. “Seventeen years after Hermann Rorschach’s death, his inkblots were reframed as the ultimate projective method and as a new paradigm of modern personality, both in psychology and in the culture at large. The Rorschach and our idea of who we are coalesced around a single symbolic situation, something like this: The world is a dark, chaotic place. It has only the meaning we give it. But do I perceive the shape of things or create that shape? Do I find a wolf in the inkblot or put one there? (Do I find Mr. Right in a handsome stranger or imagine him there?) I, too, am a dark, chaotic place, roiled by unconscious focus, and others are doing to me just what I am doing to them.”
The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing
by Damion Searls
published February 21, 2017 by Crown Publishing
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.