(Book Review) The Inkblots by Damion Searls

Only An Inkblot, You Say?

The Story of Rorschach and His Test

By Pam Munter

The clinical psychologist hands a card to the man sitting directly across from her and asks, “What might this be?” It’s the standard opening in the administration of the ten-card Rorschach test, aka, the “inkblot test,” first published by Hermann Rorschach in 1921. The same question could be asked of this lengthy and over-inclusive history. In his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls tells us more than we need to know in some cases and not enough in others. As a result, there’s a herky-jerky quality that keeps the reader off-balance.

Is this a biography of Rorschach? The story of the evolution of the test? A cultural history of clinical psychology in the twentieth century? A saga of the bitter feud between the pioneers who developed differing interpretational schemes? Yes. It is all this and more. The prodigious amount of research done by Damion Searls is condensed within a little over 300 pages, too much for a single volume.

There are ten cards in the Rorschach test, each symmetrical in nature. Some are black and white, some have a touch of color, several are in full color. There are no right or wrong answers. But when used with other assessment techniques, its proponents allege it can tell the clinician all she needs to know to formulate a diagnosis or a treatment plan for psychotherapy.

For lay people, “Rorschach” refers to an amorphous blot that could be anything, its interpretation dependent on one’s perceptions. To wit: Hillary Clinton told a newspaper reporter, “I’m a Rorschach Test.” There are dozens of textbooks on the subject and thousands of documented research studies on its effectiveness – or lack of same. Searls produces a graph showing the frequency of references to the word “Rorschach” in print from 1920 to 2010, demonstrating its peak to be around 1955.

Searls’ most absorbing section includes a description of the man, detailing not only observations from colleagues and his wife but also a verbatim account of one of his own dreams. There are plentiful photos, but we don’t need them. Searls draws us a vivid semantic picture: “He was five foot ten, slim and athletic. He tended to walk quickly and purposefully, hands clasped behind his back, and to talk quietly and calmly; he was lively, serious, nimble with his fingers…” Rorschach was also an artist as well as a psychiatrist and it’s in his finest work he is able to meld these dual passions. There are some delicious anecdotes here such as the story during his early university days about going to art galleries with friends, asking them what effect each work had on them. Like a movie flashback, we savor the foreshadowing.

There’s an implicit notion that Rorschach could have had ADD. His wife told one interviewer that the secret to his success was “his constantly moving between different activities. He never worked for hours at a time at one thing…Long conversations on a single topic tired him, even if it was one he found interesting.”

Rorschach lived in a rich time in history, surrounded by legends. His teacher was Carl Jung and he was a contemporary of Einstein, Lenin and Freud, himself. Searls explores the historical antecedents for the inkblot method in detail, coyly adding, “In a twist of fate that seems too good to be true, Rorschach’s nickname in school was ‘Klex,’ the German word for ‘inkblot.’”

Somewhere near the middle of the book Rorschach dies suddenly of peritonitis at the age of 37 and much of the pacing of the book perishes with him. Searls devotes only a couple of paragraphs to his surprising ending then segues to subsequent controversies about the test. The feud between its two early interpretors, Samuel Beck and Bruno Klopfer, could have been a tasty morsel but is weighted down without sufficient human element.

Perhaps we could have heard more about the shift in the American cultural focus from character to personality, which fed the mania for psychological testing in the first place. He writes, “…character was good or bad, but a personality was appealing or unappealing.” This also presaged the emergence of pop psychology and self-help books, still ubiquitous today.

Searls admits Hermann Rorschach didn’t fully understand how or why these particular inkblots “worked.” In fact, Searls downplays the controversy about the effectiveness of the test. There has long been a substantial and vocal group of clinical psychologists who avow that a skilled interviewer can elicit an accurate diagnosis from a probing interview alone.

Among the topics here is a mini-history of the rise of clinical psychology and psychotherapy after World War II, but it barely covers the basics and probably should have been left for another volume. By now, we’re missing Dr. Rorschach, himself.

We are not told how many credentialed clinical programs still even teach the Rorschach, though he acknowledges it’s on the decline. With the rise of HMOs and the cost of health care, fewer insurance programs cover the high cost of labor-intensive projective psychological testing. It’s more commonly used now in research than in clinical practice.

Toward the end of the book, the author is administered the Rorschach and the tells us about the experience without revealing too much about the interpretation. Had this come at an earlier point, it would have given the non-psychologist reader a context as well as a firm connection with the author. But placed here, it seems like an afterthought, a literary postscript.

Each topic is fascinating but the whole is a bit overwhelming, especially for the lay reader. Some of the transitions are difficult to follow, the paths not taken, disappointing.


Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary and others.

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