If you’re hoping “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” is your WebMD on how to self-diagnose yourself for depression, anxiety, neuroticism, obsession, schizophrenia, egocentrism, or something else entirely based on a series of 10 inkblots known collectively as the Rorschach test, Damion Searls’ book doesn’t necessarily fit the bill.
If you’re hoping “The Inkblots” will teach you something about the history of the Rorschach test and the man behind it (even if it reads like a dry textbook), then Searls’ book is the one for you.
Searls’ became fascinated with Hermann Rorschach and his test after he encountered Rorschach’s inkblots, “so rich and strange — enticing enough, in any case, for me to spend the next several years exploring their history and their power.” The result is this 416-page book — which contains almost 100 pages of extensive footnotes. (Searls’ Rorschach test results revealed his obsessive tendencies.)
Through its pages, we learn about psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss Russophile who read Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” for fun and looked “like Brad Pitt, maybe with a little Robert Redford thrown in.” Rorschach was the oldest son of a painter, who died from lead poisoning and suffered from “depression, delusions, and bitter, senseless self-recriminations” when Rorschach was 18. Rorschach, who was nicknamed Klex (German for “to daub, to paint mediocre paintings”) because he made pictures out of inkblots, inherited his father’s artistic talents.
His father’s death inspired him to become a doctor, eventually working in an asylum where he encouraged his mental patients to draw. It was there that Rorschach first invented and experimented with his inkblot tests and discovered an open-ended questionnaire about them could reveal how a person thinks.
Rorschach discovered patterns between his patients — how “certain kinds of answers were given almost exclusively by either schizophrenics or people talented at drawing.” He found that certain types of answers (based on movement, color, form and detail) revealed personality traits from introversion to extroversion and emotional instability to thoughtfulness.
“The Rorschach ‘seemed like a mental X-ray machine. You could solve a person by showing them a picture,'” said one of Rorschach’s students.
Rorschach died at 37 before finishing his work, but his students continued his testing. A. Irving Hallowell discovered that cultures influences patterns in answers. For example, Samoans tended to give pure color responses because their language defined colors as nouns (red literally translated to “like fire, like flame”; blue meant “the color of the deep sea”; and green was “the color of everything growing”).
Rorschach’s test eventually took on a life of it’s own, showing up in art (think Andy Warhol’s “Rorschach” paintings); comics (think Alan Moore’s “Watchman,” featuring a masked vigilante named Rorschach); television (think the opening credits of Netflix series “Hemlock Grove”); and political metaphors (Hillary Clinton has been compare to “our national Rorschach test”). Meanwhile, how a Rorschach test is administered and interpreted today depends on who you ask.
If you ask me though, “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” isn’t as fascinating as Rorschach’s pop culture legacy — reading it feels like doing homework — but what I see and think probably says more about me than the book itself.
Disclaimer: I received Damion Searls’ “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.