A history of 20th-century psychology focused on the life, work, and legacy of the inventor of the inkblot test.
Translator, essayist, and fiction writer Searls (What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, 2009, etc.) became fascinated by the “rich and strange” set of inkblots that, he discovered, are still used for psychological assessment. His investigation into the life of their creator, Swiss physician Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922), led to a trove of material collected by a biographer who died before he could write his book; along with other material, that archive informs Searls’ richly detailed, sensitive biography of Rorschach’s short life and long afterlife. A student of Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung, Rorschach was trained at a time when “an orgy of testing” dominated psychology. The son of an artist, with artistic talent himself, Rorschach was alert to modernist art movements, which shaped his ideas about the power of visual images to reveal personality and the power of culture to shape perception. He worked assiduously to craft precisely the symmetrical, mysterious, suggestive images that comprise his test, and he devised “a single psychological system” of evaluation that considered the viewer’s response to Movement, Color, and Form. Although he admitted that “it is always daring to draw conclusions about the way a person experiences life from the results of an experiment,” when he compared his evaluations of patients against other doctors’ diagnoses, he was encouraged about his accuracy. As Searls admits, Rorschach never convincingly explained how and why the inkblots worked. Unfortunately, his system, and the permutations that followed as generations of psychologists attempted to standardize it, proves difficult to follow in the author’s otherwise engrossing narrative. Searls is stronger when characterizing the “feuds and backbiting” that the test inspired among practitioners in America, where it “was a lightning rod from the start,” and Europe, where, for example, it was applied to assess Nazis on trial at Nuremberg.
Searls shows persuasively how the creation and reinvention of inkblots has reflected psychologists’ scientific and cultural perspectives.