The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

by Damion Searls


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The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • New York Post • Sunday Times (UK) • Irish Independent

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In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the unlikely story of the test’s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.

Praise for The Inkblots

“Impressively thorough . . . part biography of Herman Rorschach, psychoanalytic super sleuth, and part chronicle of the test’s afterlife in clinical practice and the popular imagination . . . Searls is a nuanced and scholarly writer . . . genuinely fascinating.”The New York Times Book Review

“A marvelous book about how one man and his enigmatic test came to shape our collective imagination. The Rorschach test is a great subject and The Inkblots is worthy of it: beguiling, fascinating, and full of new discoveries every time you look.” —David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804136549
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,362,352
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Damion Searls has written for Harper’s, n+1, and The Paris Review, and has translated the work of authors including Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, and five Nobel Prize winners. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and Cullman Center fellowships.

Read an Excerpt


All Becomes Movement and Life

One late December morning in 1910, Hermann Rorschach, twenty-­six years old, woke up early. He walked across the cold room and pushed the bedroom curtain aside, letting in the pale white light that comes before a late northern sunrise—­not enough to wake his wife, just enough to reveal her face and the thick black hair spilling out from under their comforter. It had snowed in the night, as he’d thought it would. Lake Constance had been gray for weeks; the water’s blue was months away, but the world was beautiful like this, too, with no one in sight along the shore or on the little path in front of their tidy two-­room apartment. The scene was not just empty of human movement but drained of color, like a penny postcard, a landscape in black and white.

He lit his first cigarette of the morning, boiled some coffee, dressed, and left quietly as Olga slept. It was a busier week than usual at the clinic, with Christmas around the corner. There were only three doctors to look after four hundred patients, so he and the others were responsible for everything: staff meetings, visiting the patients on twice-­daily rounds, organizing special events. Still, Rorschach let himself enjoy the morning’s solitary walk through the clinic grounds. The notebook he always carried with him stayed in his pocket. It was cold, though nothing compared to the Christmas he’d spent in Moscow four years earlier.

Rorschach was especially looking forward to the holiday this year: he and Olga were reunited, they would be sharing a tree as husband and wife for the first time. The clinic celebration would be on the twenty-­third; on the twenty-­fourth, the doctors would carry a small tree lit with candles from one building to another, for the patients who couldn’t join in the communal ceremony. On the twenty-­fifth the Rorschachs would be free to go back to his childhood home and pay a visit to his stepmother. This he tried to put out of his mind.

Christmas season at the asylum meant group singing three times a week, and dance classes run by a male nurse who played a guitar, a harmonica, and a triangle with his foot, all at the same time. Rorschach didn’t like to dance, but for Olga’s sake he forced himself to take lessons. One Christmastime duty he truly enjoyed was directing the holiday plays. They were staging three this year, including one with projected images—­photographs of landscapes and people from the clinic. What a surprise it would be for the patients to suddenly see faces they knew on the screen, larger than life.

Many of the patients were too far gone to thank their relatives for Christmas presents, so Rorschach wrote little notes on their behalf, sometimes fifteen a day. On the whole, though, his patients liked the holidays as much as their troubled souls allowed. Rorschach’s adviser used to tell the story of a patient so dangerous and unruly she had been kept in a cell for years. Her hostility was understandable in the restrictive, coercive clinical environment, but when she was taken to a Christmas celebration she behaved perfectly, reciting the poems she had memorized especially for January 2, Berchtold Day. Two weeks later she was released.

He tried to apply his teacher’s lessons here. He took photos of his patients, not only for his own sake and for the patient files, but because they liked posing for the camera. He gave them art supplies: pencil and paper, papier-­mâché, modeling clay.

As Rorschach’s feet crunched the snow on the clinic’s grounds, his thoughts on new ways to give his patients something to enjoy, he would naturally have mused on the holidays of his own childhood and the games he had played then: sled races, Capture the Castle, Hare and Hounds, Hide and Seek, and the game where you spill some ink on a sheet of paper, fold it in half, and see what it looks like.

Hermann Rorschach was born in November of 1884, a light-­bringing year. The Statue of Liberty, officially titled Liberty Enlightening the World, was presented to the US ambassador in Paris on America’s Independence Day. Temesvár in Austria-­Hungary became the first city in continental Europe with electric streetlights, put up not long after those in Newcastle, England, and Wabash, Indiana. George Eastman patented the first workable roll of photographic film, which would soon let anyone make pictures with “the Pencil of Nature” by capturing light itself.

Those years, of early photography and primitive movies, are probably the hardest era in history for us, today, to see: in our mind’s eye, everything then looks stiff and rickety, black and white. But Zurich, where Rorschach was born, was a modern, dynamic city, the largest in Switzerland. Its railway station dates from 1871, the famous main shopping street from 1867, the quays along the Limmat River from midcentury. And November in Zurich is shocks of orange and yellow under a gray sky: oak and elm leaves, fire-­red maples rustling in the wind. Back then, too, the people of Zurich lived under pale blue skies, hiked through bright alpine meadows dotted with deep blue gentian and edelweiss.

Rorschach was not born where his family had been rooted for centuries: Arbon, a town on Lake Constance some fifty miles east. A small town called Rorschach is four miles past Arbon down the coast of the lake, and that must have been the family’s place of origin, but the Rorschachs could trace their ancestors in Arbon back to 1437, and the history of the “Roschachs” there reaches back another thousand years, to a.d. 496. This was not so unusual in a place where people stayed put for generations, where you were a citizen of your canton (state) and city as well as country. A few ancestors roamed—­one great-­great-­uncle Hans Jakob Roschach (1764–­1837), known as “the Lisboner,” made it as far as Portugal, where he worked as a designer and perhaps created some of the mesmerizing, repeating patterns for the tiles that cover the capital city. But it was Hermann’s parents who truly broke away.

Hermann’s father, Ulrich, a painter, was born on April 11, 1853, twelve days after another future painter, Vincent van Gogh. The son of a weaver, Ulrich left home at age fifteen to study art in Germany, traveling as far as the Netherlands. He returned to Arbon to open a painter’s studio and in 1882 married a woman named Philippine Wiedenkeller (born February 9, 1854), from a line of carpenters and boatmen with a long history of marrying Rorschachs.

The couple’s first child, Klara, born in 1883, died at six weeks old, and Philippine’s twin sister died four months later. After these hard blows the couple sold the studio and moved to Zurich, where Ulrich enrolled at the School of Applied Arts in the fall of 1884. For Ulrich to move to the city at age thirty-­one, with no stable income, was unusual in staid Switzerland, but he and Philippine must have been eager to have their next child in happier surroundings. Hermann was born at 278 Haldenstrasse, in Wiedikon (Zurich), at 10 p.m. on November 8. Ulrich did well in art school and got a good job as a middle school drawing and painting teacher in Schaffhausen, a city some thirty miles north. By Hermann’s second birthday, the family was settled where he would grow up.

Schaffhausen is a small, picturesque city full of Renaissance buildings and fountains, situated on the Rhine, the river that forms the northern border of Switzerland. “On the banks of the Rhine, meadows alternate with forests whose trees are reflected, dreamlike, in the dark green water,” says a guidebook from the time. House numbers had not been introduced yet, so each building had a name—­the Palm Branch, the Knight’s House, the Fountain—­and distinctive decorations: stone lions, painted facades, bay windows jutting out like giant cuckoo clocks, gargoyles, cupids.

The city was not stuck in the past. The Munot, an imposing circular fortress on a vineyard-­covered hill with a moat and a grand view, dating from the sixteenth century, had been restored for tourism in the nineteenth. The railroad had arrived, and a new electricity plant was exploiting the river’s plentiful water power. The Rhine poured out of Lake Constance at the Rhine Falls nearby, low but wide enough to be the largest waterfall in Europe. The English painter J. M. W. Turner drew and painted the falls for forty years, showing the water massive like a mountain and the mountains themselves dissolving in whirlpools of paint and light; Mary Shelley described standing on the lowest platform while “the spray fell thickly on us . . . looking up, we saw wave, and rock, and cloud, and the clear heavens through its glittering ever-­moving veil. This was a new sight, exceeding anything I had ever before seen.” As the guidebook put it: “A heavy mountain of water hurls itself at you like a dark fate; it plummets, and all that was solid becomes movement and life.”

After Hermann’s sister Anna was born in Schaffhausen, on August 10, 1888, the growing family rented a new house on the Geissberg, a steep twenty-­minute hike uphill out of town to the west, where Hermann’s brother, Paul, would be born (December 10, 1891). The house was roomier, with larger windows and a mansard roof, more French château than Swiss chalet, and with forests and fields to explore nearby. The landlord’s children became Hermann’s playmates. Inspired by James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking adventures, they played Pioneers and Indians, with Hermann and his friends slinking through the trees around a nearby gravel quarry and making off with Anna, the only “white woman” they had.

This was the setting of the children’s happiest memories. Hermann liked to listen to the roar of the ocean he had never seen, in a seashell a missionary relative of their landlord had brought back from abroad. He built wooden mazes for his pet white mice to run through. When he came down with the measles at age eight or nine, his father cut out enchanting tissue-­paper puppets and Hermann made them dance in a glass-­lid box. On walks, Ulrich told his children the history of the city’s beautiful old buildings and fountains and the meaning of the images they bore; he took them butterfly hunting, read to them, taught them the names of the flowers and trees. Paul was growing into a lively, chubby little boy, while Hermann, according to a cousin, “could look at something for a very long time, absorbed in his thoughts. He was a well-­behaved child, quiet like his father.” This cousin told the nine-­year-­old Hermann fairy tales—­Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin—­“which he liked because he was a dreamer.”

Philippine Rorschach, warm and energetic, liked to entertain her children with old folk songs and was an excellent cook: pudding with cream and fruit was a favorite with the children, and every year she would throw a pig roast for all of her husband’s colleagues. Ulrich’s own parents had fought bitterly, to the point where Ulrich felt they had never loved each other; it was important to him to create a loving home for his children, the kind he had never had. With Philippine he did. You could joke with her—­light a firecracker under her wide skirts, as Hermann’s cousin remembered having happened once—­and she would join in the laughter.

Ulrich, too, was respected and genuinely liked among colleagues and students. He had a minor speech impediment, probably a lisp, “which he could, however, overcome when he tried.” It made him unusually reserved, but he was kindhearted to students during exams, giving hand and head signals and whispered encouragement. “I can still see this modest man, so ready to help, before my eyes more than half a century later,” one student would recall. Or else he would spend half an hour correcting a student’s drawing, patiently making line after line, erasing the student’s wrong efforts, “until finally the picture stood before me, not differing from the model in any way. His memory for forms was astonishing; his lines were absolutely sure and true.”

Though artists in Switzerland were not trained at universities or given a liberal arts education, Ulrich was a broadly cultured man. In his twenties he had published a small compilation of poetry, Wildflowers: Poems for Heart and Mind, writing many of the poems himself. His daughter Anna claimed he knew Sanskrit—­and whether he had somehow learned it or spoke fake Sanskrit to fool the kids and amuse himself says much the same thing about him.

In his spare time, he wrote a hundred-­page “Outline of a Theory of Form, by Ulr. Rorschach, Drawing Teacher.” This was not a collection of middle school lecture notes or exercises but a treatise, opening with “Space and Spatial Apportionment” and “Time and Temporal Divisions.” “Light and Color” eventually moved into “the primary forms, created by concentration, rotation, and crystallization,” and then Ulrich set out on “an orienting stroll through the realm of Form”: thirty pages of a kind of encyclopedia of the visual world. Part II covered “The Laws of Form”—­rhythm, direction, and proportion—­which Ulrich found in everything from music, leaves, and the human body to Greek sculpture, modern turbines, and armies. “Who among us,” Ulrich mused, “has not often and with pleasure turned our eyes and imagination to the ever-­changing shapes and movements of the clouds and the mist?” The manuscript ended by discussing human psychology: our consciousness, too, Ulrich wrote, is ruled by the basic laws of form. It was a deep and thoughtful work, not of much practical use.

After three or four years in the house on the Geissberg, the Rorschachs moved back into the city, to a new residential area near the Munot fortress, closer to the children’s school. Hermann was active, a good ice skater, and there were sledding parties where the children would link their sleds together in a long line and ride down the hill around the Munot on wide streets into the city, before there were too many cars. Ulrich wrote a play that was performed on the roof terrace of the Munot with Anna and Hermann as actors; another time, he was commissioned to design a new flag for a Schaffhausen club, and the children looked for wildflowers for him to use as models. Afterward they were delighted to look up at the flag embroidered with his design in the colors of their poppies and cornflowers. Hermann, for his part, showed skill from an early age in drawing landscapes, plants, and people. From woodcarving, cutouts, and sewing to novels, plays, and architecture, his childhood was a creative one.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction: Tea Leaves 1

1 All Becomes Movement and Life 11

2 Klex 21

3 I Want to Read People 29

4 Extraordinary Discoveries and Warring Worlds 38

5 A Path of One's Own 53

6 Little Inkblots Full of Shapes 65

7 Hermann Rorschach Feels Has Brain Being Sliced Apart 78

8 The Darkest and Most Elaborate Delusions 88

9 Pebbles in a Riverbed 102

10 A Very Simple Experiment 113

11 It Provokes Interest and Head-Shaking Everywhere 126

12 The Psychology He Sees Is His Psychology 150

13 Right on the Threshold to a Better Future 162

14 The Inkblots Come to America 168

15 Fascinating, Stunning, Creative, Dominant 181

16 The Queen of Tests 198

17 Iconic as a Stethoscope 208

18 The Nazi Rorschachs 222

19 A Crisis of Images 237

20 The System 248

21 Different People See Different Things 261

22 Beyond True or False 271

23 Looking Ahead 285

24 The Rorschach Test Is Not a Rorschach Test 305

Appendix: The Rorschach Family, 1922-2010 317

Hermann Rorschach's Character Olga Rorschach-Shtempelin 319

Acknowledgments 323

Notes 327

Illustration Credits 389

Index 391

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The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
onemused More than 1 year ago
"The Inkblots" is part biography and part history. The first part gives us the biography of Hermann Rorschach and the second part discusses the Rorschach test. The book begins with a bang- someone seeking work in childcare undergoes a psych evaluation- and even though they pass most of the tests easily, the Rorschach shows huge red flags that are confirmed years later. The book then travels to discuss Hermann's childhood in Switzerland and follows his life until the development of the test before returning to the test itself. While I found the parts about the test really intriguing, the biography portion was less exciting. As a heads up though, I am not a huge fan of biographies in general, so this may have been me. I found it rather dull with a few interesting tidbits sprinkled throughout. The most interesting parts were about how the test had been used since its development and its cultural evolution. Additionally, although the author has ideas about the test, it would have been more interesting to hear more from trained psychologists about their impressions. There are a few glimpses into how psychologists have used it, and it's mentioned about a psychologist on the other side who was willing to aid the author's curiosity and administer it to him, but for the most part, their perspectives are only short asides. There's some debate about the test and its interpretations which is only mentioned briefly here and there, and I would have liked to get into more about that. For the most part, this book was heavy on the biography and less on the psychological history of the iconic inkblot test. For me, this was not quite what I was hoping for, but it is well written and I think overall interesting. Please note that I received an ARC from a goodreads giveaway. All opinions are my own.
Vicki_Goodwin More than 1 year ago
The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing was a powerful book. It allowed you into the heart and mind of the creator of the famed inkblot tests and it also shed light on the various ways it has been used and misused. I found the personality of Hermann Rorschach to be just beautiful. He endured so much in his younger years, all the while he was far more intelligent than the normal person his age. He saw deeper and used his powerful intuitive abilities to make a test that truly helped people that had been mistreated and left in the asylums with misdiagnoses and cut off from even family. The way that the government used the inkblots was pretty unsettling to me and I worried about the powerful use in a way that was not quite intended by Rorschach. Just a wonderful piece of history with a lot of photographs and human moments. This book is why I love Historical Non-Fiction.
SheTreadsSoftly More than 1 year ago
The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls is a very highly recommended fascinating examination of the short life of Rorschach and the phenomenal spread and influence of the iconic test he developed. The first part of The Inkblots is an account of Rorschach's life, while the second is the history of the Rorschach Test and psychological evaluation. In 1917 Rorschach was working at an asylum in Switzerland when he developed his inkblot test. Rorschach, the son of an artist, had artistic talent himself which aided him in carefully designing all of the final ten inkblots. His goal was to find a tool to use what we see and how we describe it as a way to find insight into the human mind. "Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see." The shapes he developed are bilaterally symmetrical. The shapes suggest both movement and form. This is a test where the psychological insight it reveals is based on the interpretation of what you see as it strives to measure imagination and personality. It is not a test with correct or incorrect answers. Today the ten shapes can readily be seen with a simple online search. Rorschach tragically died in 1922 at age 37, but his test took on a life of its own, spreading across the world and especially took hold in America. It was used as a means of psychological evaluation in a wide variety of different situations. In the second half of the book Searls covers the history of psychology and the problems and changes associated with scoring the test. It also entered the realm of popular culture and at one time inkblots imitating the test could even be found in advertising. I especially enjoyed this biography/history of psychology and thought the writing was exceptional. It is easy to understand while providing the background information and details you need to follow the information presented. It is well-researched, thoughtful, and intriguing. While I was totally engrossed in the whole book, the first part detailing Rorschach's life was especially detailed and interesting. Searls biographical account covers Rorschach's early life and his progressive beliefs as he grew up. Rorschach is presented as a very likeable man. Searls found a vast amount of material on Rorschach from a biographer who died before he wrote his book. Once we reach the second part of the book, which focuses on the spread of the test, the feuds, controversy, and revisions begin. The Inkblots has all the special elements I love to see in nonfiction. The book includes many photos. There is an appendix focusing on his wife, Olga, and an excerpt of a tribute to her husband she wrote years later. There is a note by Searls in his acknowledgements explaining how he found original source material. Finally, there are extensive source notes for each chapter, which is always appreciated. IF you are anything like me, you will want to see the original ten inkblots. They are easily found online and there is even an online inkblot test (which I didn't take therefore can't vouch for its validity.) Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crown/Archetype via Library Thing.
bjdoureaux More than 1 year ago
Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach believed that who we truly are can be found not in what we say, but in what we see. In 1917 he created an experiment that would go on to test this theory. The experiment consisted of ten carefully created inkblots. In this book, the first biography written about Rorschach, Searls discusses the man, his life, and his work. We learn how culture shaped the test; how the test shaped culture (especially American culture); and how culture, in turn, reshaped the test, again and again. The only thing that will stop me from giving this book five stars is that it became a bit stiff toward the end. What started as a writing style that felt more like storytelling turned more clinical and systematic. Perhaps it was unavoidable given the content, but it slowed my reading. Otherwise, this is an excellent read. I knew nothing about Rorschach going into this book, and as I finished I left like I was leaving an old friend. Maybe because I see a bit of myself in him. He's someone I think I would have enjoyed talking to. It was Rorschach's understanding and insight into both the human mind and the world around him that made the inkblots work. This was proven time and again through the years as changes were made to how the test was given and scored. It wasn't something that could be quantified or standardized. Rorschach knew this, and expressed that he saw the inkblots more as an experiment than a test. Yet, he was able to use it, and teach others to use it, to uncover mental health issues and devise treatments. The section of the book that interested me most was the use of the inkblots at Nuremburg on Nazi war criminals. The results were both fascinating and chilling, and something I'd like to read more about. But Hermann Rorschach was a fascinating man himself. The book contains copies of a few of Rorschach's inkblots, as well as some discussion of how scoring works. Searls also utilized many personal letters when covering Rorschach's life, which adds a personal touch that drew me in, and the notes section is extensive. Searls did his research, and it shows. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.
PJtheEMT4 More than 1 year ago
The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls is much more than a simple biography of the man behind the well known psychological assessment tool. This new volume is the complex story about the life Hermann Rorschach and the inspiration behind the psychological test he created. Not only that, the author, Searls delves deeply into the controversies surrounding the usage of the Ink Blot test in the clinical field. What may seem like a superficial test made up of simple abstract or geometric images, ironically reveals a wealth of insightful analysis of the deep recesses of the mind. For example, as blob resembling an inkblot could reveal a wealth of hidden subconscious information for the trained clinician conducting the test on the patient. As the test taker reads into ink blot, providing his or her subjective description, guided by the clinician, subconscious thoughts and emotions are revealed as the unique perspective of the test taker and his inner emotions guide the description. The act of describing the ink blot is therapeutic and revealing in of itself and it can be used as an assessment tool to assess one's emotional or psychological state for job applicants and custody cases. This book is an enlightening eyeopening revelation not only for the clinician but also for the layman as well. For some readers, this book may provide fuel for their own paranoia and psychosis as well. Anyone interested in the field of psychology will enjoy this book. Each reader will complete this book as a changed person with a new insight into their own minds. As a blogger I received a copy of this book published by Crown for the purpose of writing this review.