The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test
In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind: a set of ten carefully designed inkblots. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic movements of the day, from Futurism to Dadaism. A visual artist himself, Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.
After Rorschach’s early death, his test quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, and people suffering from mental illness or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.
In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.
Published: February 2017
With The Inkblots, Damion Searls takes us on a hundred year journey through psychiatry and psychology. The focus is, of course, on Hermann Rorschach and his inkblots. We meet Rorschach early in his life, and we spend time getting to know the young man behind one of the most controversial tests in the history of psychology. We learn the driving factors behind Rorschach’s creation, as well as how he ultimately settled on the ten inkblots that have remained the mainstay of the Rorschach test.
When someone is faking health or sickness, or intentionally or unintentionally suppressing other sides of their personality, the Rorschach might be the only assessment to raise a red flag.
I was fascinated by Hermann Rorschach’s story. The author does an excellent job of showing us Rorschach as a scientist, psychologist, artist, and family man. His personality comes alive on the pages. In many ways, Rorschach’s thoughts and motivations were far ahead of his generation, and it took some time for the scientific world to catch up to him. His early death feels all the more tragic in hindsight, and I can’t help but wonder how much more insight he’d have been able to offer had he lived a long life.
But in Dijon he learned that “I never again want to read just books, the way I did in Schaffhausen. I want to read people… What I want is to work at a madhouse. That is no reason not to get a complete training as a doctor, but the most interesting thing in nature is the human soul, and the greatest thing a person can do is to heal these souls, sick souls.”
While Rorschach and the evolution of his inkblot test remains the focus, to a lesser degree this story also encompasses the evolution of psychotherapy and patient treatment. We see the struggle to understand various personalities, with good, bad, and indifferent qualities. We also see the paradox unfolding, as we often find that the more we learn, the less we truly understand.
What mattered was how people saw what they saw – how they took in visual information, and how they understood it, interpreted it, felt about it.
Damion Searls has taken an enormous amount of research, whittled it down, organized it, and brought it to life in story form ideal for everyone from the casual reader to the psychology student.
*I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, via Blogging For Books, in exchange for my honest review.*
Thanks for reading. 🙂