Friday, February 18, 2011

Diagram for Delinquents Update #4: Fredric Wertham, Shape Shifter?

1. Diagram for Delinquents News
I'd like to continue to look at provenance again this week.

While in the archives we photographed a micro-portion of the amount of newspaper clippings that Wertham had collected on comics, crime, juvenile delinquency, and violence. I wish we had the time to capture all of it.

We were lucky to have found the original article that served as a source illustration for both Wertham's November, 1953 Ladies' Home Journal article called "What Parents Don't Know about Comic Books," and later again in 1954 in Seduction of the Innocent.

It was exhilarating to come across this heavily used piece of inspiration!

The source (click to enlarge):

The "Diagram Gang's" map was first cited in "What Parents Don't Know about Comic Books."

Much of the article is later reiterated in SOTI, and there are a few points I would like to share with you as I am very interested in hearing your thoughts.The article is essentially a microcosm of the main arguments in SOTI. So my concerns and supports are just about the same for the article as the book.

As I have mentioned in the past, I am very uncomfortable with much of Wertham's comics writing because of its overwrought delivery, which comes off as completely alarmist. Almost to the point of paranoid. This alarmist delivery begins to lack credibility as there are no sources cited for Wertham's claims and examples. Perhaps this is a modern or academic perspective, but nonetheless, it's what I have trouble with most. For example, in the following statement from "What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books," does anything strike you as troubling about what's being said here:

"In the spring of 1951 a teen-ager driving a stolen car tried to run down a policeman who had stepped out of his radio car to arrest him. People wondered at such cold-blooded brutality. How can a young boy get such an idea? For comic-book readers this is a lesson of the elementary grades, described and illustrated over and over again. For instance, in a comic book on the stands in hundreds of thousands of copies at that very time:

'That was the cold-blooded way he ran down and killed one guy! And only a few minutes before that he robbed a jewelry store!'" (click at left to enlarge)

Further, I almost cannot picture this outrageous scene outside of a silent film that Wertham describes:

"Some comic books teach how to steal from the youngest tots. You pick them up bodily, hold them upside down and shake them so that coins will fall out of their pockets. Not only do I know from boys that they have learned this and practiced it, but similar cases have been reported... where children... 'turned boys upside down to get pennies from their pockets.'"

I'm sorry, but this seems like a lot of effort when you can threaten a smaller child or just reach in to their pockets yourself to pull the money out.

But then, Wertham leaps into an earnest, altruistic, and passionate, albeit slightly overwrought appeal for what he wants for children. It is hard to argue with, and I am emotionally moved by his words:

"Set the children free! Give them a chance! Don't inculcate them with your ugly passions when they have hardly learned to read. Don't teach them all  the violence, the shrewdness, the hardness of your own life. Don't spoil the spontaneity of their dreams. Don't lead them halfway to delinquency and when they get there clap them up into your reformatories for what is now euphemistically called group living.

They want to play games of adventure and fun, not your games with weapons and wars and killing. They want to learn how the world goes, what people do who achieve something or discover something. They want to grow up into men and women. Set the children free!"

And finally, Wertham often demonstrates ideas of such a progressive nature he is nothing short of a pioneer of his time:

"In reaction of my proposals I found an interesting fact. People are always ready to censor sex. But they have not yet learned the role of temptation, propaganda, seduction and indoctrination in the field of crime and violence."

And later he writes:

"Mental health is just as important as physical health. Its protection should be based on the same kind of scientific clinical thinking as public health."

Are these not continued problems, EVEN to this day?

It was a great pleasure to find the pre-press image of the "Diagram Gang's" map in the Wertham archives (above right. click to enlarge). As I mentioned in previous posts, to hold objects that Wertham held, studied, and wrote, is such a tactile and exhilarating historical experience.

The "Diagram Gang's" map is used in an example of what comic books "teach" children. Wertham juxtaposes the map with a similar illustration from the DC comic published Gang Busters #3 (left. click to enlarge). (Thank you Stephen O'Day of seductionoftheinnocent.org for confirmation on this!)

Wertham's usage of the image is summed up in a caption on an illustration page in Seduction of the Innocent. It describes, what he feels, all the images contained on that page represent. It reads, "MODERN JUVENILE DELINQUENCY INVOLVES KNOWLEDGE OF TECHNIQUE." (image below. click to enlarge.)

IN SOTI Wertham describes "knowledge of technique." He goes on to cite some nefarious examples of learned techniques. However, the below examples are tame compared to some of the more grisly examples used in violent cases he claims that were influenced by comics.

"Juvenile delinquency is not just a prank nor an 'emotional illness.' The modern and more serious forms of delinquency involve knowledge of technique. By showing the technique, comic books also suggest the content. The moral lesson is that innocence doesn't pay.

A very experienced youth counselor in the course of group therapy in an institution asked two groups of delinquent boys whether and what they had learned about delinquency from comic books. From the first group, composed of nine boys from thirteen to fifteen, everyone said that he had received helpful suggestions from comic books:

1) 'Now listen to this. If you see a bathroom window lit up you know someone is at home. If it's still lit next day, no one is at home. They leave the key in the mailbox, under mats or in corners. If you see a milk bottle and a note in it, the note gives you a pretty good idea of the house. If you keep up with the notes, you know everything. Another thing: after a bride and groom get married they have a lot of presents they keep in the house, so the only thing you have to do is get two tickets to a show like Oklahoma, cost about $5.50 apiece. You send them to the bride and groom and they're pretty sure to go. On most tickets they have a date, so that you know when they go. When they're gone, you go in and take your time and help yourself. As smart as I am, I never thought of this. I got it all from the comics.'

2) 'I got my bad ideas from the comics, stabbing, robbing, stealing guns and all that stuff. In a comic book I read two kids rob a store and steal guns and get away and grow up to be bank robbers. So I did the same thing - only I didn't grow up to be a bank robber - yet!'

3) 'I read about a perfect robbery and used parts of it. This was in a crime comic magazine and it said these three men were still at large and didn't get caught, so I figured I could pull the same stuff.'"

As Wertham puts it: "By teaching the technique, comic books also teach the content."

2. It Came From the Archives!!!
Dr. Wertham saw many patients. They ranged in age, gender, race, and class. His archives were vast. We concentrated mainly on his papers on comics, but we came across a lot of material that pertained to many different aspects of his psychiatric practice.

One curious method he used was the Mosaic Test. While this practice won't make it's way into my film, my one regret now is that we didn't photograph more of it, simply because it is so fascinating.

Wertham wrote a chapter in the book Projective Psychology edited by Lawrence Edwin Abt & Leopold Bellak in 1950. The chapter is titled, "The Mosaic Test: Technique and Psychopathological Deductions."

The test was first developed by Margaret Lowenfeld as "a valuable aid in estimating emotional stability," and was adapted and heavily used by Wertham.

The test uses three dimensional and colored squares, diamonds, triangles, and oblong circles.

Wertham describes the procedure:

"The test should be explained to the subject in a friendly manner, first in general and then specifically... In other words, it is important to have the subject start out in as good a frame of mind as possible,
on the one hand taking it not too lightly, on the other not too fearfully.

The subject is shown the pieces in a box. The examiner takes out a sample of each shape and shows it to the subject, and then a sample of each color, explaining that all the shapes come in every color, and every color in each shape...

After the subject has been shown what material he can work with, he is asked to make anything he wants to on the board before which he is sitting in a comfortable position....

The examiner should look on while the subject makes the design, but his watching should be very unobtrusive; and he should do something else (like reading) at the same time, so the patient can feel free. The verbal responses of the patient while he is making the design at least the significant ones should be taken down and entered on the chart.

Sometimes subjects want to destroy a half-finished or almost completely finished design. The examiner should not permit the individual to obliterate his original design completely. He can, however, permit him to change the design and to add to it.

When the subject has finished his design, the examiner should ask in general terms what he was thinking of when he was making it: What does it represent? What did he want to make? What does it look like? What was in his mind? Does he like it? What does he think of it?...

When the design is completed, a life-size record is made of it on paper."

The chapter's next section explains the analysis of results. The most intriguing, to me, is the following explanation:

"My method of interpreting mosaics is far more limited and at the same time felt to be more valid. In thousands of cases it has been found that mosaics represent certain basic or dominant processes corresponding to definite clinical entities or reaction types. Certain mental diseases are clearly and definitely revealed by the Mosaic Test. This has been verified in schizophrenia, for example, in hundreds of cases. I have never seen a patient suffering from a clear-cut case of schizophrenia make a normal design, nor have I ever seen a definitely normal person make a clear-cut schizophrenic design." (click left image to enlarge example of schizophrenic Mosaic Test)

It is completely incredible to me that so much can be drawn from such a simple exercise. In the section titled: "Diagnostic Interpretations," Wertham breaks down the diagnostic categories:

Normals, Schizophrenics, Paraphrenic (paranoid psychoses, paranoia, the paraphrenia of Kraepelin, and the more strictly so-called schizophrenic paranoid psychoses), Organic Brain Disease, Mental Deficiency, Manic-depressive psychosis or Manic states, Depressive states, Disorders of consciousness, Epilepsy, Psychopathic personalities, Psychoneurosis...

All of that from some little colored shapes... It's difficult for me to even comprehend the possibility of an accurate diagnosis. But, I am no scientist.

I photographed one particular Mosaic Test in Wertham's archives that captured my imagination. Who was this boy? Why was he there? What was "wrong" with him? Was he angry? Was he happy? Where is he now?

The test result (below. click to enlarge), titled: "The Olden Days" also contains a small description by the boy. "The man is imprisoned with chains."

Perhaps the most compelling part is the transcription of the test's results, which were paper-clipped to the back. The diagnosis is terse and the accompanying note is horrific.

"The mosaic definitely shows that he is not a schizophrenic."

"This boy had twenty shock therapys a year ago in Bellevue."

This small note, though matter-of-fact in its delivery, seems to possess indignation for the unnecessary treatment.

I found no evidence of the race of this particular patient, but at Wertham's Lafargue Clinic in Harlem they particularly battled the misdiagnoses of African-American patients that led to mistreatment, specifically electroconvulsive shock therapy or ECT.

By coincidence, as I was gathering material for this blog post, comics scholar, Leonard Rifas, sent me an article he recently read. Written by medical historian Dennis Doyle, "Where the Need is Greatest': Social Psychiatry and Race-Blind Universalism in Harlem's Lafargue Clinic, 1946-1958." appears in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 83:4, Winter, 2009. (Thank you Leonard.)

The essay is a detailed investigation of the philosophies and practices at the Lafargue Clinic.

The article, along with a host of new discoveries and insights, details the improper prescribing of electroshock therapy to black patients, due to misdiagnosed cases of schizophrenia in facilities outside of Lafargue.

Doyle writes:

At Lafargue, "the race-blind universalism was an integral component of the matrix of ideas and assumptions informing the social psychiatrist. A patient’s blackness was clinically acknowledged only as a physical indicator of the extra emotional stress that might be socially imposed on him or her. Thus an awareness of the social fact of blackness, in combination with the clinic’s devotion to universalism, generally shaped how Lafargue’s staff understood, diagnosed, and treated patients.

In fact, this dual devotion made Lafargue’s psychiatrists confident that they diagnosed and treated black Harlem patients with more accuracy than anyone else could provide. In particular, Hilde Mosse contended that many of her young black male patients at Lafargue had been misdiagnosed elsewhere as schizophrenic. In the March 1958 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Mosse made the powerful charge that Bellevue and New York’s state mental hospitals had overdiagnosed schizophrenia among '[c]hildren in trouble for many reasons.' Analyzing sixty cases of Lafargue children an outside clinic had diagnosed as schizophrenic, she concluded that for 'practically all of them the diagnosis was wrong.' She argued that most of these children simply had behavior problems and were not schizophrenic... However, in her article, Mosse carefully resisted making the outright claim that racial discrimination had caused this mislabeling of urban black children. Still, she implied as much, concluding her article with the warning that the overdiagnosis of childhood schizophrenia was 'a threat to children living in a socially difficult milieu.' As far as her experience indicated, a poor black child ensnared within the court system was likely to be sent to a public institution and misdiagnosed as some sort of psychotic. Psychosis was, as it is now, a diagnosis that had been disproportionately applied to African Americans... Of course, Mosse believed that Lafargue’s antiracist clinicans would have been far more likely to seek and provide socially contextualized diagnoses. Mosse suggested that as long as Bellevue’s staff remained blind to the social realities that these children had to face, they would never be able to accurately assign meaning to their behavior.

Given this general awareness of black Harlem’s 'cultural pattern,' Mosse felt that the Lafargue staff was much less likely than the average clinic to overdiagnose psychosis in African Americans. An internal memorandum cowritten by Mosse asserted as late as 1956 that 'when we diagnose psychosis we mean it.' Mosse was overly cautious with this label because she believed that such a misdiagnosis could actually be 'dangerous' for black patients. Typically, long-term institutionalization and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) followed whenever a black Harlemite was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Mosse’s first Lafargue patient had been given ten ECT treatments at another clinic. Having diagnosed the patient as depressed, Mosse felt that “[s]hock treatment was certainly contraindicated and harmful.” Mosse was personally disheartened that “symptoms are frequently misinterpreted. This has serious consequences . . .'

In several Lafargue cases, the allegedly misdiagnosed patients had been given ECT. Mosse suspected that each patient’s personality and affect had been damaged by the unnecessary shock treatments. Mosse’s 1956 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry really can best be understood, then, as an attempt to spare some African American patients such a fate by at least changing some clinicians’ minds."

This is stunning evidence of Wertham, Mosse, and their associates at Lafargue as advocates and caregivers for the underrepresented, the disenfranchised, the discriminated, the casted-off.

Wertham was certainly on the same mission when he set out to protect ALL children from inappropriate and violent comics. But the question is, why has he become one of the most infamous and villainized historical figures in the story of comics. That's what we hope to present.

Additional research, insight, and conversation provided by R.H. Langan. Thanks Bob!


  1. Glad to be helping.

    His expansion of the Mosaic Test is really interesting because he took something that at first was only very vague in terms of what it was saying and made a very effective classification system out of it. To cull in great detail patterns of art in schizophrenics and other mental types not only makes for an effective diagnostic aid, but maybe more importantly underscores that there are patterns of thought- but in terms of the healthy mind and the neurotic but also in terms of personality type, which he acknowledges in that paper.

    In the paper he makes note that certain patterns seem to correlate with people who tend to have broader understandings, compared to those who perceive closer to fine-grained details. There are similar tests that seem to make note of an expressive personality verses a reserved type. Both of those differences in people correlate with psychological types outlined by Jung, and later expanded to create personality models like Myers-Briggs and Keirsey. So while Wertham stresses the mosaic test is not good for studying the structure of personality as a whole, I think he tapped into things that would disagree with that belief. Certainly the fact that recent researchers have observed people forming mandalas with the test is pretty fascinating as we discussed, mandalas being the archetypal symbol of individuation according to Jung.

    I think it's key to figure out just what got Wertham into comic books. One of my best friends is a musician and a really big comic enthusiast, and when telling him about your documentary he referred to Wertham as a "red scare asshole", a depiction that ostensibly makes sense seeing the man's work was from the 50s and 60s. And yet, we know Wertham was clearly very liberal on social issues, despised the alarmist culture and was against the media manipulation of the mind. When it came to mental manipulation, why did he focus on comics in particular? What made him equate the paranoia surrounding McCarthyism with a kid reading Detective Comics?

    My belief is that Wertham was essentially from an entirely different background; that of early 20th century European culture, and he simply misinterpreted comics as something that they really weren't- that is, as another tool of manipulation rather than just a more urban form of artwork that psychoanalysts tend to laud. The one guy, Dwight Dwecker, who ran a fanzine and had contact with Wertham regarding the nature of fanzines, seems to think that Wertham never really got the point of fanzines, and kind of observed them like an old guy might view kids playing Halo on the 360 today; using his past experiences to try to infer what's going on, but not really getting it. Maybe this describes not only Wertham's dabbling into fanzines, but comics as well- maybe he simply never got it.

  2. (cont.) But just what his rationale for crusading against comics- what made him so certain this was logically consistent with everything else he stood for, even though to you and I it can't possibly seem so- is what's so interesting. Arguing against Wertham's case is almost secondary in that sense; one could peg him for his lack of quantitative data, although I don't think that's a very fair or valid complaint; or perhaps one could point out that conceptually his argument that comics degenerate the mind is very weak, seeing that comics could be interpreted in a myriad of ways- in other words a neurotic person might interpret a comic in a neurotic way, whereas a well-adjusted person wouldn't. Furthermore one could invoke the auteur theory to diminish some of his claims like Superman being fascist; the creators of Superman were Jewish and so I'm honestly not sure how much weight that would carry at the height of Nazism. And I think a lot of the supposed homosexual undertones people read in Batman- haven't some suggested the TV show had that element?- came AFTER the comic code neutered Batman into a fairly childish series for a few years. Of course, even if the homosexual claims were true- and I think the fact people read Batman and Robin as homosexuals again just shows how anyone will interpret art how they wish, rather than evidence of any absolute symbolism- the fact Wertham suggests latent homosexuality would be dangerous is an artifact of his heritage and the 1950s.

    For my Gleaner article this week I'm thinking of writing about the history of psychology, and how the word psychology is often carelessly used to describe many disparate disciplines. The experimental nature of psychology in America has very little to do in terms of history or philosophy of the schools of analysis founded by Freud, Adler, Jung and later Frankl, or the German school of Gestalt thinking. And in Britain, the word psychology is synonymous with neuroscience- indeed, the psychoanalysis program I'm going to at UEssex isn't even in their psych department, but rather in sociology.

    This is relevant because I think Wertham is unique, in the sense he's an amalgam of several of these discrete disciplines. He practiced psychoanalysis later on but later infused a good deal of the American school into his methods; and he tangled with the New York intellectuals that form a lot of today's American psychological movement. Basically, I think the more we know about Wertham's place in the big mess that's the history of psychology- and it's a huge mess- the more we'll see he's really not so contradictory.