Book Review: The Inkblots

The Inkblots:  Herman Rorschach, His Iconic Test, And The Power Of Seeing

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Crown Publishing.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

This is the sort of book that I have a lot of responses to, given my interest in psychological testing and personality profiles [1].  One response is to marvel at the way that about half the book is spent as a biography of Herman Rorschach, one of the many important Swiss psychologists of the early 20th century, and about half of the book is spent in the tortured history of his inkblot test and its use among the vicissitudes of trends in psychology, mental health, human resources, and criminology.  Another response is to comment on what I see when I look at one of the more notable of the inkblots, number VIII:  “Like everyone else, it seems, I see this drawing as a bear on a rock over a pool of water.  Yet upon closer analysis, this animal, clearly a quadruped mammal, looks more like a wombat or some other kind of prey animal, with an anxious look on his face as he looks down on his world from a hill.  I wonder why so many see what is obvious the look of a prey animal and see a predator in it.”  Any book that can prompt that kind of diverse response is a worthwhile book, and since the author claims this is the first biography of its subject, it is all the more important for people who want to see whether the man behind the inkblots is worth the fuss.  Spoiler alert:  he is.

The book is organized in twenty-four chapters that take over 300 pages, including an author’s note and an introduction about the enigma of the inkblots as semi-public tea leaves.  The author uncovers in Rorschach’s short life a subject worthy of a movie starring Brad Pitt, with a childhood spent in poverty, dealing with a difficult stepmother and struggling for freedom and ambition and love with an older moody Russian woman and dealing with the complicated political and cultural trends of the age.  Among the author’s many worthwhile insights in this detailed and well-researched book is the insight that psychologists posited theories based upon their own natures.  It is one thing to think that that there is no ultimate truth, and the author (and to be sure, this reader) does not appear to be a relativist, but it is clear that we see the world as we are, and are often inclined to project our own interior psychodrama into the external world and also be influenced from the drama that goes on outside and around us.  The rest of the book, after Rorschach’s early death from appendicitis, consists of a moderately distressing account of shifting attitudes and struggles for legitimacy and a cyclical approach to mental health that has led to current attitudes among health care providers much like that in the dark days before Rorschach and his contemporaries sought to improve care for those suffering from mental illness.

Ultimately, this book is a reminder that when we look at the inkblots in the face of a skillful questioner, the inkblots look into us as well.  I see an anxious wombat on a rock looking at a worrisome world because I am not so unlike a small forest animal easily confused for a predator.  Not all of what everyone sees is the same.  Indeed, among the most powerful parts of this book is the accounts of what people have seen in those ambiguous inkblots.  The contrasts are alarming, between some people seeing disturbing images that would later prefigure an entrance into the criminal world officially, and others seeing in the inkblots a measure of their own inner brokenness.  The author, over and over again, points us to the fact that psychologists are people, that they engage in all kinds of private feuds and engage in petty behavior just like the rest of us, and that the people that they help are people too, complicated in our own ways but all of us human.  And this book is certainly one that can be appreciated, and hopefully one that shines more light on the subject matter the author handles so skillfully.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Inkblots

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Pencil Magic | Edge Induced Cohesion

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