I had intended to start today’s article, which is necessarily going to be fairly autobiographical, with a discussion of the validity of the psychological tests in which Dr. Fredric Wertham expresses faith in chapter three, “The Road to the Child: Methods of Examination.” I can tell you that Rorschach is, while not completely discredited, nowhere near as valuable a diagnostic tool as Wertham insists. His use of word association was almost certainly useless. But I can’t tell you about the Duess Test at all, because about the only think I found online about it was a Psychology Wiki article that was directly plagiarized from the book, leaving out only the parts that make it clear that it’s part of a larger work!
The autobiographical aspects of today’s installment come because chapter three discusses troubled children, and I was one. I didn’t have a great deal of access to comic books, though I absorbed the Spider-Man segments of my Electric Company magazine, and I’ve never been in trouble with the law, but it’s clear to me that I am not entirely dissimilar to some of the children Wertham discusses, and it’s equally clear that he would have gotten practically everything about me wrong.
He begins the chapter with an inherent assumption that comic books are influencing an entire generation, and we’re pretty much all downhill from there. In this chapter, he is primarily detailing his experiences with children at the Lafargue Clinic, including a group referred to as the “Hookey Club,” because many of its members are there because of persistent truancy. There are many, many quotes from children, and none of them sound like things actual children say. Again, I’ve not seen the evidence that the quotes are at best inaccurate, but I don’t really need to in order to be aware of how little they sound like real children.
My experiences with the Hookey Club have confirmed me in my opinion that valuable personality assets slumber in delinquent children. By regarding these children as inferior or emotionally sick or psychopathic, we miss the constellation of social and individual forces that leads to delinquency and deprives these children of really scientific help. To characterize them merely by negative qualities is both unjust and scientifically inaccurate.
This is probably the quote that makes me angriest in today’s chapter. I am a mentally ill adult who was a mentally ill child. Psychopathic, no, but definitely “emotionally sick.” Even if it weren’t for my bipolar disorder, I was grieving the loss of a parent, which is arguably a kind of emotional illness even if you don’t believe it should be considered a mental health disorder. (I believe it can be, depending on circumstances, though it usually isn’t.) Was I inferior? Depends on how you look at it. My coping skills were inferior, certainly. My control of my emotions. I’m sure everyone who knew me back then has at least one story about dealing with my illness.
Just as they all do now. I feel that this paragraph implies that it’s perfectly okay to judge people who are emotionally sick by their negative qualities, and that by calling someone that, you can’t actually help them. Moreover, it’s always simply wrong to point out that a child has mental health problems, even if they demonstrable do, and that you can’t actually help that child anyway. I know this isn’t what he meant; you don’t have to tell me that. But words like this build the stigma that I’ve lived under since I was in third grade.
In fact, Wertham describes a child brought in to see him for what sound like very real problems. Indeed, he even admits that the girl has been exceedingly jealous of a younger sibling since the baby’s birth. He uses a response to the Duess Test, a test wherein children finish stories and you extrapolate to try to understand their inner life, that sounds like a perfectly normal response from a child with sibling issues to be something worth spending almost two pages on despite having no more relevance than the fact that the girl read a lot of comic books. She also sounds like she might have had OCD, something even Freud acknowledged existed.
This is, as always, the problem with the character studies Wertham provides for us of the children he’s treating. He gives us just enough for someone with even a very little awareness of psychology to be seriously concerned, and then he works comic books in by saying that of course they exacerbate the child’s problems. And I don’t know, maybe they do in some or even many cases. But he doesn’t even really point out where it’s possible in the case of this particular girl.
There is also the basic problem that, yes, Wertham was pretty Freudian. He quote a psychiatrist’s analysis of a kid’s drawing of a pirate, and the guy considers everything about the drawing phallic. Wertham concludes that the answer is that the comic books put dirty thoughts into the kid’s mind, not that maybe Freudians should stop obsessing about sex quite so much.
What’s more, his complete lack of awareness of vast amounts of culture intrudes. He talks about a comic a child describes to him wherein two men are dragged, alive, under a car, and he mentions that it’s even more shocking than when Achilles drags the body of Hector around Troy. Which I don’t dispute, of course. On the other hand, the reason Homer speaks so disparagingly of the act is that respect for the dead was an important aspect of Greek culture.
Then there’s the discussion about how Superman isn’t like a fairy tale, because “in fairy tales they don’t get killed.” Which I’m sure would be shocking to such diverse characters as Snow White’s mother, Cinderella’s stepsisters, and the talking horse in “The Goose Girl,” whose severed head is nailed above a gate and sets in motion large amounts of the story. Wertham insists that claims that children are naturally interested in violence are obviously ridiculous, but not only is that demonstrably wrong, it doesn’t explain why children read the comic books he’s disparaging. If children aren’t interested in violence, why not stick to Mickey Mouse?
Another quote that hit close to home for me was how he said a social acquaintance described his nephew. (I assume the social acquaintance is male, because Wertham usually emphasizes when it’s a woman.)
“My sister has a little boy. He reads comic books all the time. And I’ve seen him—it is all the time! He lives in one of those dream worlds. He’s always interested in these books. All his concentration goes to that. All his excitement comes from these comic books. He doesn’t even go out to play ball.” I have never heard such a complaint about harmless animal comic books.
The last is Wertham’s editorial observation. Here, I’d love for him to talk to my mother. Mom used to hate those Sports Illustrated for Kids commercials that asked, “How do you get your kid to start reading?” Because Mom’s goal was to get us to stop and do something else, like clean our rooms or maybe get some exercise. We weren’t reading dozens of comic books; we were reading pretty much anything we could get our hands on. We were always very big on what we used to call “pretend games.” Yeah, we’d sometimes play them with other children, but there weren’t a lot of kids in our neighbourhood, so more often than not, we played them alone. In our own little dream worlds.
Also, how long was that acquaintance spending with the kid that he could know if it was all the time or not? Did he specify any particular kind of comics? Because that’s the whole quote we have, and for all we know, the kid could be reading about the kewpies that Wertham reluctantly approved of in the last chapter. We have literally no way of knowing. Again. Because Wertham is lousy at filling in details.
He compares comic books to spicy food, and talks about how wrong it would be to eat spicy food all the time and how it would spoil you for “simple bread and butter and for finer food.” Which certainly does value the food of some cultures over the food of others, a thing I’m sure he wasn’t aware he was doing but which would cause the Mexican kids, among others, I grew up with to eye him askance. You ever listen to girls from four parts of Mexico argue about what goes in mole? It’s an education.
And, of course, he’s still failing to acknowledge literally everything going on in the wider world and every other possible reason a child might be disturbed. He even explicitly says, in reference to the Duess Test, “In this way typical emotional complexes may be elicited, but, as in other tests, one should be careful not to view the child as if he were an adult neurotic or read too much abnormality into him.” Without defining how to determine what is “too much” abnormality. I mean, it’s broadly good advice, but it’s seriously lacking, because he tends to assume that the children he’s seeing are normal, despite any and all evidence to the contrary.
He talks of one boy whose parents go from “battle to battle” and are constantly taking one another to court, but of course that isn’t why the boy is disturbed; it must be comic books. A child discusses putting together a protection racket—comic books. The idea that maybe the kid had seen a real protection racket at work isn’t mentioned, because obviously, they’re inventions of the comics industry!
Comparison of continuing observations led to definite conclusions. Of course young children are apt to be ‘wild,’ and I saw plenty of them in the thirties. But it was a natural wildness. Many children in the period some ten years later showed a kind of artificial wildness, with a dash of adult brutality and violence far from childlike. From comic books they derive ideas of activity and excitement not in the form of concentrated imaginary play, but in the form of crude and combative action.
Leaving aside the complete lack of evidence, as we must continue to do, can Wertham really think of no reason that children living in the ’40s and ’50s might have some different ideas than children living in the ’30s? Really? He also fails to take into account that children are well known for telling adults, especially authority figures, what they think the adults want to hear. Many of the words he says children said to or near him read very much like children filling in the adult’s prejudices for him. Several of his quotes even include elaborate conspiracy theories about how the comic book industry is obviously in the pay of racketeers to sway children to a life of crime, working for the racketeers.
I could also go a while without having him continue to emphasize how smart these kids are, as if intelligence and mental health issues are never present in the same child. He also unwittingly reveals how lousy his samples are by bragging about how varied they are.
A large proportion of children were normal children who came to our attention for some social reason, including children of superior endowment, who were candidates for scholarships for special educational facilities.
But children “of superior endowment” aren’t normal. The way to get a true sample is not to limit your analysis to children who have come to your attention for other reasons; it’s to seek out children in many locations, of many ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s to control for your variables. Are the children committing complicated crimes usually from high-crime neighbourhoods already? Are the children with violence issues similar in other ways? Are there, perhaps, tens or even hundreds of thousands of children around the country reading Superman and Tales From the Crypt without ill effect?
We’ll never know. No one ever did the study. But since, Wertham’s claims to the contrary, crime rates were actually holding pretty steady and wouldn’t begin seriously increasing for another twenty years after he was writing, we can make a pretty good guess.