11 January 2019


Damion Searls. The Inkblots - Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. Broadway Books, 2018.

When I first took a look at the cover of this book, the title prompted a stray thought to arise in my mind.  Was this not the name of a black American vocal group that was popular in the 1940s and early 50s? An online check quickly confirmed that they were, of course, known as 'The Ink Spots'. Presumably they chose that name to emphasise that they were all black, but they were certainly not making any reference to the famous 'Rorschach Inkblot Test', nor do they have any relevance to this book review. 
My point in mentioning that trivial query is to give an illustration of how our human minds work, by association. This happens most obviously with words and images.  Word association research for psychological insights was pioneered by Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton. The participant was instructed to say the first word that came to mind on hearing each word in a series given by the researcher. Freud and Jung both experimented with the technique for what it might reveal about the subconscious.

When it comes to the use of images to explore the subconscious of a participant by their response to, or interpretation of, an abstract 'ink blot' shape, Hermann Rorschach (1884 - 1922) is the man we remember. And yet, apart from his eponymous test, what else do we know of him? In general, very little, which is why this book is of such great interest. Until now there has not been a full biography of Rorschach's tragically short life. In fact, this book is effectively two biographies in one. The first part gives us an overall appreciation of the man, his life, career and character. The second part covers the evolution and usage of the Ink Blot Test itself over the more than 100 years of its life, or perhaps the term 'afterlife' would be more apt.

The photograph of Rorschach on the book's cover shows a surprisingly modern-looking man in the prime of life, handsome and charismatic in a way that is very reminiscent of the film star Brad Pitt. His hair is short and spiky, adding to his visual appeal, but I felt there was a quality in his eyes that revealed a young man with deep intelligence, curiosity, sensitivity, and empathy. These are indeed the qualities that Searls skilfully presents to create a living portrait of Rorschach from the mass of source material, such as personal letters, that he painstakingly gathered for this project.

As the final part of the subtitle confirms, Searls develops a theme that runs through the whole book, that of 'the power of seeing', the key to understanding the simple genius of the Inkblot Test in which there is no right or wrong answer.  It all depends on your perception. "Tell me what you see" is a prompt that may be used by the practitioner to invite the subject to reveal personal associations and thought processes in a way that is not obviously judgemental. Rorschach's emphasis on the quality of empathy is all about how we connect with the world around us, both in our inner associations and how we project them back to others.


Rorschach was fascinated by inkblots from an early age. Searls reveals a most interesting fact from his research: "In a twist of fate that seems too good to be true, Rorschach's nickname in school was 'Klex', the German word for 'inkblot'. Was young Blot Rorschach already tinkering with ink, his destiny foretold?"

For one interested in destiny and life purpose, synchronicity is often a signpost to help make a decision, or to confirm a meaning to what has already happened. Searls refers to 1884, the year of Rorschach's birth, as 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." It was also the year that electric street-lights first appeared in continental Europe, and in America the first workable roll of photographic film was patented by George Eastman. Zurich, where Rorschach was born, was a modern, dynamic city, the largest in Switzerland, and a melting pot of intellect and innovation.

Fate intervened in young Hermann's life on several occasions. Searls tells some engaging stories of a happy childhood, with a sister and then a brother coming after him into a happy family. But his dear mother died when he was only 12, a severe blow. His father re-married but the three children suffered yet more when their fears of having a 'wicked stepmother' became all too true. She was rigid and "strict to the point of cruelty", although years later his kind heart moved him to express appreciation for her in letters to his sister Anna, to whom he remained very close. In 1903 his father became ill and died when Hermann was only 19. He had to grow up quickly, and it was this event that galvanized him into the decision to train and pursue a career helping the afflicted in mental health asylums.

Rorschach could have been a great artist. He was inspired by his father, an art teacher, and might have followed that path had his father not died at that time when we was still weighing up his options. On page 17 of the book there are two classical portrait drawings side by side, one by his father and one by Hermann. They are both impressively excellent, conveying the idiosyncratic expressions and characters of the elderly male subjects. This alone showed me that the young Rorschach had an eye of compassion and empathy, which must have served him and his patients very well.

He did find happiness with a good wife, a Russian woman named Olga with whom he became engaged in 1909, the same year he graduated in medicine. They went on to have two children, but they did not in turn produce any offspring so there are no living descendants of Rorschach in the world today. But he lives on in his ten standardised inkblot images and the test he devised that to this day, despite controversies along the way, is still used in some psychological assessments. And now, thanks to Damion Searls' very fine biography, Hermann Rorschach will deservedly be remembered as a man as well as a name. – Kevin Murphy.

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