For today’s post, let’s examine the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I think I have demonstrated, by quoting his work extensively, that Dr. Wertham’s intentions were to protect children. Can we argue the merits of this cause?
His spirited monologue, which I refer to as the “let the children live!” speech, clearly examples what he wants for children.
Below is another example of his altruistic vision of the innocent child.
After a lengthy explanation on the use of the Rorschach test (in which he nobly reiterates, as with all tests, the Rorschach cannot be used alone, but must be used in conjunction with clinical and other methods when diagnosing and treating a patient) Wertham reacts to a notion derived from the examination.
The Rorschach Test is a valid scientific method. I was one of the first psychiatrists to use it in this country and published research on it over twenty years ago. In my experience with children and adults I have found it a revealing auxiliary method. But in recent years it has been too often used uncritically, interpreted with the bias of a purely biological determinism, leaving out all social influence, and given by psychologists with either faulty clinical orientation, or with no clinical orientation at all. Under these circumstances, the Rorschach Test like any other wrongly applied scientific method has given wrong results. It has been used, for example, to bolster the conception of more or less fixed psychological-biological phases of childhood development. And this is a conception which has caused parents whose children do not conform to textbooks a great deal of anxiety. It has led psychologists to socially unrealistic generalizations. A recent text on children’s Rorschach responses describes as the “essence” of the average normal seven-year-old child a most abnormal preoccupation with morbidity, mutilation, pain, decay, blood and violence. But that is not the normal essence of the average American child, nor of any other child! You cannot draw true conclusions from any test if you ignore the broad educational, social and cultural influences on the child, his family and his street. These influences, of which comic books are just one (although a very potent one), favor, condone, purvey and glorify violence. The violent meaning of the Rorschach responses is not the norm for the age of seven; unfortunately it seems to be becoming the norm for a civilization of adults. (Seduction of the Innocent 56)
2. The Bad
Recently, I have immersed myself in contemporary readings and research on childhood, media, and violence. I have some experience with it, and I certainly had my opinions about the much discussed, argued, and polarizing topic. However, I am trying to expand my view on the subject and gain a multi-frame perspective. I hope to gain a wider, clearer view of contemporary opinion, thereby giving me a richer understanding of Wertham’s ideas.
My hope is that I can have a better grasp on what, at the moment, seems completely implausible and irresponsible.
Take for instance the following example provided by Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent:
A boy of ten was referred to the Clinic after he had been accused of pushing a younger boy into the water so that the small boy drowned. Another boy had seen him do it, but since he himself denied it the authorities felt it was one boy’s word against another and the case was dismissed as “accidental death.” The Clinic was asked to give the suspected boy emotional guidance…
He was a voracious comic-book reader…
He was known to be a bully. He had bullied the boy who was drowned to such an extent that the boy’s mother had gone to the authorities to ask for protection for her boy. Steeped in crime-comics lore, his attitude was a mixture of bravado and evasiveness. Nothing indicated that he had any feelings of guilt. The [Word] Association Test showed a definite blocking to key words such as drowning, water, little boy and pushing. After careful study of the whole case we came to the conclusion that the little boy would not have drowned if our boy had not pushed him in, and that our patient would not have been pushed to the murder if his mind had not been imbued with readiness for violence and murder by his continuous comic-book reading. (58-59)
That is, if ever there were, a definitive statement. That’s heavy stuff. And honestly, I need more. This statement demands that Wertham provide the evidence of the “careful study” the clinic conducted.
I am left to my own devices on determining the validity of this statement. If I am to be a responsible reader, media consumer, thinker, then I must seek out multiple interpretations of comics’ influence on behavior. Right?
Then there is the following example which, to my reasoning, borders on the absurd:
To advise a child not to read a comic book works only if you can explain to him your reasons. For example, a ten-year-old girl from a cultivated and literate home asked me why I thought it was harmful to read Wonder Woman (a crime comic which we have found to be one of the most harmful). She saw in her home many good books and I took that as a starting point, explaining to her what good stories and novels are. I told her: Supposing you get used to eating sandwiches made with very strong seasonings, with onions and peppers and highly spiced mustard. You will lose your taste for simple bread and butter and for finer food. The same is true of reading strong comic books. If later on you want to read a good novel it may describe how a young boy and girl sit together and watch the rain falling. They talk about themselves and the pages of the book describe what their innermost little thoughts are. This is what is called literature. But you will never be able to appreciate that if in comic-book fashion you expect that at any minute someone will appear and pitch both of them out of the window.
In this case the girl understood, and the advice worked. (64-65)
3. The Ugly
At the end of the day, I am in total agreement with the good doctor on this question: Do I want my five and seven year old daughters reading and seeing images about murdered women, severed heads, popped eyeballs, rape, robbery, sadism, grotesque monsters, and many other wonders of the horrible?
Would I be disturbed if I learned my daughters read the following comic that Wertham describes in Seduction of the Innocent:
A thirteen-year-old boy told me once that he saw in a comic book a picture of gangsters tying two living men to their car and dragging them to death on their faces over a rough road. He could not remember which comic book it was in but said it was one of the most popular ones [True Crime Vol. 1#2 and again in Vol. 2#1].
At first I did not believe him and thought that this must be his own spinning-out of a cruel fantasy, perhaps stimulated by something similar. What he had told me about was one of the cruel, primitive, bloody rites which did exist in prehistoric times, but disappeared at the dawn of history. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, after slaying Hector, ties the dead body to his chariot and triumphantly races around the city of Troy. Homer described with repugnance and pity the bloody rite of dragging a dead body behind a war chariot – repressing the earlier, still bloodier one of dragging a living captive to his death.
Homer’s story is indeed a grisly one of anger, humiliation, and violence. And it is also one that has been depicted much over the centuries. It is timeless, a classic. The fascination for violence runs long and deep and the questions of who and what does it serve is an ongoing debate that travels through Seduction of the Innocent and right up to today’s violence in video games debate.
Could a popular comic book for children, I asked myself, return to pre-Homeric savagery to stimulate children’s fantasy to such barbaric cruelty?
Later the boy remembered that he had swapped this comic book along with other choice ones with another boy, and he brought it to me. Underneath the title a little enclosed inscription reads: “Every word is true!” Then comes the picture of a car that is speeding away. Two men are tied by their feet to the rear bumper and lie face down. One has his hands tied be hind his back and the lower part of his face is dragging in the road. The other man’s hands are not tied and his arms are stretched out. The text in the balloons indicates that three men in the car are talking:
“A couple more miles oughta do th’ trick!”
“It better! These #-”**!! GRAVEL ROADS are tough on tires!”
“But ya gotta admit, there’s nothing like ‘em for ERASING FACES!”
Next to these balloons is a huge leering face, eyes wide and gloating and mouth showing upper and lower teeth in a big grin:
“SUPERB! Even Big Phil will admire this job – if he lives long enough to identify the MEAT!”
The boy who brought me the comic book explained to me that of course these men were still alive: “They may have been roughed up a little, but they are being killed by being dragged to death on their stomachs and faces.” You can see that very plainly, he pointed out to me, from the carefully drawn fact that they both desperately try to hold up their heads — the one with outstretched hands still succeeding at it, the other still jerking his head up but now failing to do so enough to keep his face off the gravel road. “Corpses,” my young expert explained, “couldn’t do that.”
Two years later this story was reprinted. This time the story was promoted from the middle of the book to first place, and the dragging-to-death illustration was the frontispiece.” (81-82)
Yes. Yes, I would be highly disturbed and distraught if my daughters saw that comic.
4. A Curiosity (in Honor of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)
In my reading of Wertham’s various books and articles, I have come to the conclusion that he was not a fan, user, and believer of the serial, or Oxford, comma. Perhaps it was the European in him. Would he have been a Vampire Weekend fan? If only we knew.
5. It Came From the Archives!!!
Wertham kept a tremendous amount of correspondence; what he received and copies of what he sent in return.
Here is a postcard I find particularly amusing. I needn’t say much on its behalf. It speaks for itself:
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