The Inkblots, Damion Searls. New York: Crown Publishers, 2017.
Summary: A biography of Hermann Rorschach and the after-history of the test that bears his name.
I dismissed the whole idea of the Rorschach test as a bunch of balderdash when I was a psychology student in a largely behaviorist-oriented department. After reading Searls book, I might reconsider it, were I actually a practicing psychologist.
Perhaps part of the reason is that until now, apparently, we have not had a biography of the psychiatrist, Hermann Rorschach, who originated a test consisting of ten inkblots, some with color, that when properly interpreted may offer startling insights into the depths of people and how they perceive their world.
The first part of the book narrates Rorschach’s life. The child of an artist father, he first embraced art, and with it both a fascination with movement, but also with how people see art. Eventually he realized that his greater interest was the people, particularly the mentally troubled and he trained as a psychiatrist. These were the days when Freud and Jung held sway and he was trained under their theories. But art continued to fascinate him, including the drawings of patients. Another doctor, Kerner, began using a primitive form of inkblots, and Rorschach was intrigued, and began to experiment on his own, creating a series, eventually ten in number, and developing a coding process for responses based on his clinical experience in Swiss hospitals. What he developed was a test where people describe their perceptions, revealing things about themselves even they may not be conscious of or suppress. He published his findings in a book, Psychodiagnotics, in 1921. A year later, he was dead, from peritonitis resulting from a burst appendix.
The remainder of the book is a history of the use and development of the Rorschach test since that time, and the controversy about the validity of the test, and the ways “Rorschach” has become a metaphor, and the inkblots themselves, cultural icons. We learn of two American psychologists, Bruno Klopfer and David Beck, who both build upon and popularize the Rorschach, and spend most of their lives as the head of two feuding camps. And in their work, we see a subtle shift from Rorschach as a test of perception to Rorschach as a means to elicit “projections.” After studies using the test in various cultures, the next chapter in the story is the popularizing of the test during World War II as a streamlined version is developed as the American military is looking for more effective ways to study the psychological profiles of draftees, to identify those who may have trouble in combat. The test reached its peak after the war, and yet the various versions and interpretive schemes led to increasing questions about its use, and sometimes misuse, particularly in legal disputes, particularly around divorce and custody issues.
One of the most stunning parts of Searls narrative is his discussion of use of the test with the Nuremberg Nazi war criminals, and the unexpected result that there was no single profile of evil, of a war criminal. The profiles differed in all the ways they do with other populations, leading to Hannah Arendt’s characterization of “the banality of evil.” It is sobering to realize that perhaps war criminals aren’t so different from us, and makes you wonder if, under certain circumstances, one could go down the same road.
The book concludes with the more recent history of the test, and the work of John Exner, and his successor Gregory Meyer and the return to Rorschach’s original insights about perception. In the latter parts of the book, he also explores the ways in which “Rorschach” has entered our cultural iconography, both visually and in language (for example, Barack Obama said, “I am like a Rorschach test….Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something” [as cited in the book]). The author describes his own experience of taking a Rorschach test and its continued use.
The big “what if” the book doesn’t explore is what might have happened had Rorschach lived another thirty to fifty years. One wonders if the character of its use might have taken a different course. Or did his death actually facilitate its proliferation, and perhaps with that, the messy disputes over interpretation in the differing camps.
Finally, the book made me look anew at the originality of his idea, that how we articulate what we perceive reveals things about us we might either filter out otherwise, or not even know. There is the self others see, the self we want them to see, and the self we think we are. But there is another–that self unknown as yet to us. It was a self the behaviorists in my psych department denied, but the reality and significance of the undiscovered self has become more important as the years go by. John Calvin observed that growth in the knowledge of God and knowledge of self go hand in hand. I won’t be running out tomorrow to take a Rorschach test, but after reading this book, I will no longer scoff at it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.