So my little sister is dyslexic. Severely. It’s so bad that, in high school, she got her textbooks from the Braille Institute on audio book, because she simply could not read them well enough on paper to get her homework done. She wrote us a letter home from camp once, and we had to wait until she got home before we were sure what it said. My dad was dyslexic, too, though I didn’t know that for years after he died. My mom’s got a dyslexic brother. My boyfriend is dyslexic. What I’m saying, here, is that it’s a condition I have a lot of experience with, and I want to raise Wertham from the dead so I can kick him really, really hard until he admits how very wrong he was on the subject.
Naturally, comic books are to blame for reading problems. He generously admits that, yes, there were people with reading difficulties before comic books existed; the word, after all, was coined in 1887. However, that’s clearly nothing compared to how comic books have ruined everything. And so we launch into chapter five, “Retooling for Illiteracy: The Influence of Comic Books on Reading.”
Literacy rates in the middle of the last century were at well over ninety percent. That’s really good, right? Yeah, but Wertham phrases it as “one in twenty-five adults cannot read at all.” Which, while pretty much true, is also clearly intended to make it sound worse than it is. When we get into functional literacy, that’s a different issue to consider, it’s true. It’s important and valuable. A large percentage of adults could not—indeed, cannot—read well enough to get through basic life. That’s awful, and that’s something that should have more attention paid to it. We could really have a serious conversation about—oh, that’s comic books, too, even in adults who grew up before they existed? Yeah, should have guessed.
Actually, this chapter may be the one that’s made me angriest so far. There is, for one thing, such a ridiculous amount of arrogance going. Wertham claims to be able to cure “word blindness.” That’s a term that isn’t used much. It can mean dyslexia, and claiming to cure that is bad enough. But it can also mean alexia, a complete inability to read at all, usually caused by stroke, brain damage, or similar. Even with modern technology, incurable. I doubt you could even relieve the symptoms a little. But Wertham says he can.
He also gives several pages over to a list of children reading below grade level (though a couple aren’t even a full grade behind). He gives names, which are likely fake, ages, grades, IQ, and so forth. He also gives incredibly specific reading level—can someone tell me what a .7th grade reading level is? He details what brought the child to his attention, including some fairly heartbreaking stories of, for example, eleven children crowded into three bunk beds or apartments with rat-holes, broken floorboards, and so forth. Only one child gets mentioned as coming from a stable home.
But, of course, he in most cases goes into considerably more detail about their comic book-reading. Wertham is quite clear in his insistence that comics are clearly a major problem in these children’s lives. I mean, sure, the average IQ of the fourteen children is 66; the fact that several of them aren’t even a full grade behind in reading is actually fairly impressive. Being half a grade behind in reading relative to the grade you’re in when you have an IQ of 61 and are described as a “very neglected child” is impressive even if you’re twelve at the time and in the second grade. But Wertham scoffs at this idea.
Reading difficulties are of course common in the school classes for children with retarded mental development. We have therefore in our investigation made special studies in these classes. They afford additional conclusive proof that severe reading difficulties and maximum comic book reading go hand in hand, and that far from being a help to reading, comic books are a causal and reinforcing factor in children’s reading disorders.
I ask you—a causal factor in the low reading level of a child with an IQ more than two standard deviations below normal? It’s hard to credit, isn’t it? But Wertham brushes off the real problems of these children in other ways as well.
The hereditary factor has been grossly exaggerated. The theories according to which reading disabilities are chiefly due to heredity express the most reactionary attitude. They relieve us of the responsibility, which is so necessary for purposes of prevention, to evaluate properly the psychological and social factors.
The most significant causes of reading difficulties are: visual defects—particularly far-sightedness and poor fusion resulting from eye-muscle imbalance; auditory defects; speech defects; prolonged illness; frequent absences from school; emotional maladjustment; foreign language background; home conditions in their socio-economic and emotional aspects; poor teaching; lack of reading readiness.
Note what doesn’t make his list. Never mind dyslexia; he considers far-sightedness to be a more significant cause of reading difficulty than actual developmental disability. Wertham does not seem to consider the idea that people might have real, organic reasons to have difficulty reading. Your child has Down Syndrome? Not significant compared to the damage of comic books. A fall caused brain damage? It could be worse; it could have been comic books! And dyslexia just basically might as well not exist, because that’s comic books, too!
Actually, before my little sister was diagnosed, she got glasses. They assumed that her reading issues were because she couldn’t see properly, not because of any real issue she was having, and so they went for that first. It was only when her fourth grade teacher noticed the pattern of test results and so forth that my sister got treatment. And while, to my mother’s annoyance, I won’t deny “emotional maladjustment,” I have that, too, and I was always far above reading level. Okay, a different emotional maladjustment, but still.
Yes, this is still in the days when autism was believed to be called by “refrigerator mothers,” so I don’t really expect great insight into the causes of various mental health issues. However, he seems determined to ignore the possibility that any of them are legitimate. He rejects any diagnosis in children; well, that still isn’t uncommon. But he even rejects diagnoses of learning disabilities and really seems to believe that all children could be taught to read at grade level regardless of other issues.
Even assuming he’s right, he still shows a fundamental lack of understanding of children. And, come to that, quality teaching. He argues that the children can easily conceal from teachers and parents that they aren’t really reading comic books because it’s possible to fake it with the pictures, but if you’re really paying attention to a kid, you’ll spot that. At least if you know what you’re doing. I missed my sister’s dyslexia, but I was only four years older than she. Besides, she didn’t really read comic books.
He also seems to fail to understand the idea that a child ashamed of their reading ability might deliberately hide that fact by pretending to read comics. A skilled educator—and he’s right when he asserts that there aren’t enough of them, particularly educators trained in learning disabilities—can pick up on that, and from there, it is absolutely possible to use comics to develop a further interest in reading. No matter what Wertham believes. He certainly does not appear to have considered the idea that someone might read comic books because they are unable to read anything more, not that they are unable to read other books because they read comic books.
In fact, if what he says about comic books is true, we’re in even bigger trouble than we thought. After all, his complaints include the idea that it’s possible to tell the story from the pictures. My kid’s got a lot of children’s books, and you can usually piece together most of the story from the pictures, because they don’t expect him to be able to read it himself, but going through the book on his own is considered good practice for later reading.
Then again, Wertham is being his usual smug self in this chapter, implying that the only books worth reading are classics. I can’t help wondering if he’s aware of how many moralizers just like him had been decrying Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a book he praises, when it was new. Or how appalled the Catholic Church had been about Don Quixote. Maybe he wasn’t all that fond of children’s picture books after all.
Oh, and he mentions five people by name but not a child who apparently killed a policeman in the UK. He does, on the other hand, imply that the child could have been saved by remedial reading lessons. He also mentions a study in Munich that found that only ten children out of 51,000 had “serious reading disorders,” but he of course does not give enough detail so we can look up the study for ourselves and find out if it has methodological problems.