Monday, October 31, 2005

Horror story

A boy of ten came to the Lafargue Clinic with the main complaint that he won't concentrate on his schoolwork. He had previously had a psychiatric examination through a public social agency where he received the customary cliche diagnosis of deep emotional disorder and where it was noted that his mother is seductive and stimulating to him. A Rorschach report stressed his underlying feelings of hostility and destructiveness and stated that the boy is attempting to repress his hostile and destructive tendencies at the expense of spontaneity.

When I studied this boy carefully, I found that he had a difficult father, but the imagery of his destructiveness came mainly from the fact that he was an inveterate reader of "murder comics." His real life difficulty was that he could not read. ("I don't read comic books. I only look at pictures.") Thus the correct interpretation of the Rorschach Test responses needs a knowledge of the whole picture and of the period in which the child lives. Circumstances in the United States today are different from those in the Switzerland of decades ago when Dr. Rorschach devised and worked out his test.

Happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


The application of psychological tests is apt to be overdone in a mechanical way. Yet they are indispensable to child psychiatry. The Rorschach (ink blot) Test, if expertly and judiciously interpreted, is an important tool in my study. This test consists of a series of ten ink-blot pictures. The subject is asked what he sees in them. It should not be given by itself, but should always be correlated with clinical findings and other tests. I have noticed that in Rorschach tests children may see forms that adults usually do not see. Investigated, they often turn out to be forms related to what they have seen in comic books, especially weird and horror comics, e.g. ghost forms, fantastic hands, etc. These are apt to be misinterpreted by psychologists as meaning complex-determined anxieties and phobias, whereas actually they are just reminiscences from comic-book illustrations. Here according to my findings an important inroad has been made into children's imagination and imagery, and of course also into their actions.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Young teach The Younger

In children's lives other persons, parents especially, of course, but also older and younger siblings, play an important role. So it is necessary to obtain a picture of these other dramatis personae, not only as they are reflected in the child's mind, but as they really are. Interviewing younger children to hear what they have to say of a child is often very enlightening, sometimes more so than what parents say. Yet I have rarely seen in charts a quotation of what brothers or sisters have to say about a young patient. In my study of crime comic books it is interesting to see siblings because comic books are often a family affair. Younger children clandestinely or openly read the comics of their older brothers and sisters.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Don't force things

If one wishes to obtain the spontaneous expressions of children, it is only the amateur who attempts to exclude himself and then observe some pseudospontaneous reaction of the child. Children do not dislike authority. On the contrary, they have a strong inner urge to find and follow authorities whom they can trust. They may not always understand what is best for them, but they learn that, and a large part of a child's inner life consists in this search, disappointment, finding and retrospective correction. If the examining psychiatrist tries to eliminate himself as a personality and as an adult whom the child knows to be older and therefore more experienced, he will get only artificial results.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


To establish proper circumstances which give a child the chance to express himself is difficult. Children do not like doctors' offices any more than adults do. Nor do they like being asked embarrassing questions in front of their parents. The way to gain their confidence is to treat them as persons in their own right. The paradox that this goes beyond examination and in itself is a step in therapy should not deter one. All child psychology worthy of the name is very close to educational and reeducational methods. It is in the very process of education that the child is best understood.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Visiting the bed-ridden

I have gone over many psychiatric charts of children taken in hospitals, in clinics and by consultants of private agencies. And I have often been astonished how few quotes, if any, they contain, of what the children themselves actually say.

I have given routine psychiatric examinations to children where they are interviewed by a psychiatrist. I have taken the history of the child's development from his parents, or from those with whom he has lived and who brought him up. Whenever possible, social workers have studied the child's social environment, obtained school reports, interviewed teachers, and relayed information from other agencies who had contact with the child or his family. In the same way, pertinent information was obtained from hospitals, private doctors and clergymen. In cases where courts were involved, probation reports were added to the record or probation officers interviewed.

In cases where children confided to me that they belonged to gangs and gave me permission to speak to other gang members, I made an attempt to hear their story. As much as possible I tried to ascertain the recreational influences to which children are exposed: games, community centers, radio, television, books. It is in that setting and with that perspective that I began to realize and ascertain the influence of comic books.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The psychiatric study of children is in general not nearly so standardized as that of adults

The so-called mental status, that is to say the formal examination for the more gross symptoms, such as disorientation or defects of judgment, or mood disorders, is not very productive. In adults we can take the life history of a patient and learn a great deal about him from his reactions to typical outer events. And we can proceed to study his inner life history as a sequence unfolding according to a certain pattern. The life history of children is not only briefer, but presents the paradox that while one can understand it only if one has a good picture of the child's environment, the story itself is an inner life history.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The little thief is still a minority, though

Over the last few years cases of this type have greatly increased: the young child in the grip of the lure of comic books, the frustrated parent who is baffled by this invasion of his home by a powerful industry. But even so, cases that came to my attention just on account of comic- book reading form only a small proportion.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The little thief, part two (consequence)

The thief's father, a physician, tells me, "He says he knows he's doing wrong, but he wants the money for comic books. He hasn't spent it on anything else. He has comic books all over the house. He reads them at the table and doesn't eat properly. Last summer when he went to camp every child had comic books and he brought a big bundle home with him. These books distract him from doing his lessons. Why, he's even gotten a sex angle from them. He told his mother that if she'd take off her blouse she'd be as pretty as a comic-book girl! What shall we do about him?"

The father himself, a gentle person, has taken the drastic step of burning up all the comic books he found in his house.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The little thief can not resist the shiny prize

Another typical case where comic books figure in the reasons for referral is an eight-year-old boy who had suddenly begun to take money in his home. This boy was brought up in a cultured and secure home. He has been reading comic books, some of which he bought in a near-by candy store where large quantities of them are alluringly displayed.

Friday, October 21, 2005


The very fact that in the beginning I did not know the best advice to give in such cases as I'm describing is an added incentive to keep up my studies. The common assumption that the child must be "unhealthy in the first place" proved in most instances to have no relation at all to the facts. What was unhealthy in most instances were the comic books when we inspected them. Children, like adults, without necessarily being sick or neurotic, are different in their powers of resistance to such stimulations.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I'm drunk as I write this

A social acquaintance states the following about his nephew: "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 comics.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Extreme and abnormal 'avidity'

The reasons given why contact is often sought for children with physicians or psychiatrists or psychologists or social workers usually does not include any reference to comic books. But from the very beginning there are cases where the reading of comic books is part of the complaint. In these cases the main complaint is what the Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop, an authority on juvenile gangs, calls the "extreme avidity" of their comic-book reading. "These comics may be a counterpart of what youngsters see in the movies," he says, "but at least they cannot live with the movies day in and day out as they do with their comics. They take them to bed with them. They walk along the street on their way to school reading them. When they go on an outing for sheer fun, for vacation, along goes an average of five or six magazines per child, and an abnormal amount of attention is given them. They read them going; they read them there; they read them coming home; they swap them; so that the whole thing borders on extreme and abnormal avidity."

If all the children who pass through a period of this "extreme and abnormal avidity" are really sick children in the first place, as experts of the comic-book industry would have us believe, this would be a sick generation. But such arguments are so superficial, and so evidently special pleading, that the only thing worth noting about them is that so many adults are naive enough to give them credence. It is necessary to analyze the comic books themselves, the children in relation to them and the social conditions under which these children live.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sixteen year old boys and girls is my limit

A large proportion of children are normal children who come to my attention for some social reason, including children of superior endowment, who are candidates for scholarships for special educational facilities. The upper age limit of children in whom I am most interested (although I do not adhere to it rigidly) is sixteen. Data is obtained also from older teen-agers and adults referring to their earlier comic-book-reading stage.

Monday, October 17, 2005

My studies dip to the very low and to the very young

The material available for this study covers the largest cross-section of children as they are seen in mental hygiene clinics: children who are referred by every variety of public and private child-care agency; who have come to the attention of the juvenile part of the Police Bureau or the Children's Courts: who are seen in the course of private practice or are confined for observation in psychiatric wards for adolescents, or are confined for physical diseases in pediatric wards, or seen in pediatric clinics.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Keeping it clean

If one wants to go beyond narrow formal questions and intends to include the largest variety of different children, it would be a top-heavy procedure to start and execute a study devoted to one factor such as comic books alone. For this reason we have from the beginning integrated our studies of comic books with our general routine work in mental hygiene and child psychiatry. Good clinical work is good clinical research. In other words, in doing thorough clinical work the psychiatrist cannot help reaching into unexplored no-man's land. It will happen again and again that in cases that seem baffling in their symptomatology, refractory to treatment or show unusual manifestations, he will come up against new factors that are not in the books.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hard and fast answers to hard and fast questions

Child psychologists often publish results of studies based on the questionnaire method. They take a group of children and ask them: "Do you do this (or that)? How often do you do it? Do you read this (or that)? What do you like better (this or that) ?" - and so on. This questionnaire method is inadequate. To ask children a series of simple questions and expect real enlightenment from their answers is even more misleading than to carry out the same procedure with adults. The younger the child, the more erroneous are the conclusions likely to be drawn. Children love to express themselves, but giving hard and fast answers to hard and fast questions is neither their favorite nor their natural method. Even if they do their best, the procedure is crude and leaves out all the finer shades of the dynamics of childhood thinking. On this premise we decided from the very beginning not to rely on any single method, but to use all the methods of modern child psychiatry which were suitable and possible in the individual case.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I'm a listener

In the ordinary process of education children are told that they should listen and learn. In the psychiatric investigation of children's minds just the opposite is true: it is we who have to listen and learn. And this is what I and my associates have tried to do throughout our research.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I take children very seriously

When TIME magazine, at one stage of my investigations, reported my statement that the violence of crime comic books is a contributing factor to the increasing violence in juvenile delinquency, the father of a boy of four wrote a critical letter to the magazine in which he said, "It occurs to me that Dr. Wertham takes a child's mind too seriously." Is it possible to take a child's mind "too seriously"? Is anything to be gained by the current cheap generalization that healthy normal children are not affected by bad things and that for unhealthy abnormal children bad things do not make much difference either, because the children are bad anyhow? It is my growing conviction that this view is a wonderful excuse for adults to do whatever they choose. They can conceal their disregard for social responsibility behind a scientific-sounding abstraction which is not even true and can proceed either to exploit children's immaturity or permit it to be exploited by whole industries.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Intense and long-lasting is just as important as good or bad

It is not scientifically sound to narrow down the problem with comics to whether the influence of comic books is just "good" or "bad." That cannot be a sound starting-point. The question is, do they have a discernible influence, and if they have how does it work, how intense and long-lasting is it, and in what fields and regions of the child's mind does it manifest itself.

I know what I'm talking about because his is exactly how I started.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Clues and possessions

The method I use to do my research is to read, over the years, very many comic books and analyze and classify them from as many points of view as possible. Many different patterns can be discerned in these comic books, according to the publisher, writer, draftsmen, the prevailing trend and the special genre. A lot of comic books have come to me from children themselves. And if it is feasible, whenever children refer to something they have seen in a comic book I ask them to bring me that particular comic book. When they no longer have it, I add its name to a list of "wanted" comics and try to get ahold of a copy of it later on.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A question of aptitude

Such opinions of comic books as harmless show that these reformatory officials not only do not have enough contact with their charges, but also are not sufficiently acquainted with the observations of their employees. A number of psychologists and social workers employed in reformatories have told us over the years what an unwholesome influence comic books are in these institutions. Others have told us that supervisors in reformatories—like many parents—give lots of crime comics to children in order to keep them quiet. As an example of the problems comic books present in reformatories, one social worker stated that "when it came to drawing, the boys drew pictures from the comic books that showed violence or a preoccupation with unhealthy sexual attitudes."

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Same goes for state reformatories

The same example cited yesterday is true for superintendents of institutions for delinquents. These men have stated their opinions that there is no connection between the behavior of juveniles and crime-comic-book reading. How would they have found out, sitting at their desks far removed both physically and psychologically from the lives of inmates, to whom for years in these institutions crime comic books have been fed as a steady diet? One Lafargue psychiatrist who worked for a time in a big state reformatory for boys has vividly described how many hours these confined children spend on crime comic books (with which the reformatory is filled to the brim) and his dismay at seeing how children who had got into trouble while reading many crime comic books were sentenced to years of incarceration to read even more of them. That is one of the paradoxes of the social problem of crime comic books: that those with the authority over children have for years neglected to pay any attention to this literature, which for many children is practically their only reading, have prescribed it for children in their charge as remedy and recreation, have paid no attention to the consequences, and now state as their professional opinion that comic books do not do any harm. Those are not the ways of science.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Fools and mental food

Several times when some of the earlier results of our research were presented, somebody from the field of child care would get up to state that he had never seen a child who influenced by comic books. This statement in itself is preposterous, of course. For nothing that occupies a child for several hours a day over a long period can be entirely without influence on him. The trouble with these arguments was that these people had not studied the contents of comic books, had failed for years to take notice of their very existence as a potentially harmful factor, and had never examined children for their influence. Or the proud protagonists of negative results had—without realizing the implications—even encouraged children to read crime comic books as recreation and proper mental nourishment!

Friday, October 07, 2005

You must learn the slang

To study the psychological effects of comics on children one must first have more than a superficial and scanty knowledge of what is in them. For if in children's nightmares or in their play or in the productions in psychological tests, any association or reference occurs to the "Venusians" or "Voltamen," to "a syntho-shade" or to the precise instructions on how to "case wealthy homes" for burglaries, you will not understand the response if you do not know the stimulus.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The pamphlet and the noose

The problem of what comic books do to children, or rather what they have already done to a whole generation, is threefold. Its solution requires a knowledge of comic books, of the minds of children, and of the processes, the mechanisms, by which comic-book reading influences children. When, for example, a young child hangs himself and beneath the dead child is found an open comic book luridly describing and depicting a hanging (as has happened in a number of cases), the mechanics of the relationship between the two have to be investigated, e.g. the processes of imitation and experimentation in childhood.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

3 - The Road to the Child

Methods of Examination

"And then one should search ... for connec-
tions, conditions and situations that have acted
at once or slowly, and with which perhaps the
origin of the abnormal deviation may be justi-
fiably linked ... Moreover, it is necessary to
understand why these conditions and situations
have brought about such results in the patient,
when in another person they would occur with-
out the slightest effect; and furthermore, why
they all lead in the case of one person to just
such an abnormal complex, while in another to
a totally different one."

— Pavlov

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A man raised by apes, and other lies

Once in the waiting room of the Clinic I saw a little boy crouched over a comic book, oblivious to everything around him. In passing I could see the title of the story he was reading. Big capitals spelled out T A R Z A N. Surely, I thought, the adventures of Tarzan are harmless enough for juveniles of any age. But I was misled, as many parents no doubt are. When I looked at this comic later I found on the inside cover the picture of a man tied up in an agonizing position—a man "found dead in a Dallas park, his hands tied behind him and two bullets in his worthless carcass"; another man shot in the back as he is thrown out of a car ("Get out, ya stinking rat!")—and more of the same. Tarzan was not the whole title of the story I had seen the boy in the waiting room reading. There was a subtitle "The Wyoming Killer" and two other headings, "From Police Files" and "A True Crime Story." The story was not about Tarzan, but about a hero who robbed a bank and shot five men to death.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Arousal, the curious "Thing"

A brief comment today about a comic book story, a "scientific Suspenstory" (sic!). This book illustrates how many crime comic stories cannot be described as giving any "emotional release" because apart from their other inadequacies they do not come to any end. The taste for violence is aroused—and maintained. The story begins with "a hideous thing" and ends:

"The doctor is dead! But where is the THING? WHERE? WHERE IS IT RIGHT NOW?"

Where is the Thing, indeed.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Bogus literary expression

One of the horror-type comic books for children is called Nightmare, A Psychological Study. It is about a young man who mixes up nightmares with reality and dies a horrible death, buried when the cement foundation of a building is poured over him. He has received incompetent advice from a psychiatrist, Dr. Froyd, who, on his office door is called "Dr. Fredric Froyd, psychiatrist." (Shades of Dr. Frederick Muttontop!)

The literary style of this "psychology study" shows the same predilection for non-language expletives familiar in other comics. The psychiatric defenders of the comic-book industry maintain that this kind of thing helps Junior with his emotional self-expression. And the educational defenders of the industry claim it helps him with his literary expression.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Frequently children remember only snatches from comic books. A fifteen-year-old girl, asked which comics she remembered, said, "I like one where a man puts a needle in a woman's eye. The eye is all bloodshot and frightened. And another one with a hunchback man carrying a woman from the grave or to the grave. I read four or five a day." This is typical of how crime comics are reflected in a child's mind. Nothing here of crime prevention or of ethical lessons.

Many children, when asked what comic books they like, answer simply like the ten-year-old who reads ten a week, "I like murder comics."