One of the most evocative images in “Psychobook,” a lavish coffee-table compendium of psychological tests, forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press, is a black-and-white photograph of a kerchiefed young woman of Eastern European appearance, standing at the desk of a uniformed official, holding a bevelled wooden block. According to the caption, the block is part of a puzzle devised by Howard Andrew Knox, a physician at Ellis Island, to determine the mental capacities of new arrivals to the United States. The photograph is dated “ca. 1910”—around the time Kafka started work on the immigrant novel that would be published as “Amerika.” This fact may or may not be related to the image, depending on the viewer. No less than the many tests in its pages, “Psychobook” is itself a kind of inkblot, certain to evoke different emotions and associations from different people. For this reader, one recurring sensation was that of a deeply American beleaguerment, with some Eastern European overtones. I thought again and again of the immigrant woman, landing like Kafka’s hero on American shores after a long and, one feels, psychically taxing boat ride, facing the first of many new puzzles in a strange new land.
“Psychobook” comprises an eclectic assortment of tests from the early twentieth century to the present, along with new artworks and whimsical questionnaires inspired by the originals. These materials are interlaced with vintage and contemporary photographs, portraits, collages, and film stills of psychologists analyzing patients or staring incisively into space, sometimes in idiosyncratically decorated Manhattan offices. It’s not immediately clear why this book exists, but it would probably look great in a therapist’s waiting room.
The volume opens with an essay by Lionel Shriver, who expresses a lifelong hostility to psychological testing, rooted in her experiences as a teen-age nonconformist in the nineteen-sixties and extending into her career as a novelist, professionally loath to reduce human identity to a type or score. A second introductory essay, by Oisín Wall, discusses the historical use of psychological tests to enforce normative ideals and weed out the “abnormal or deviant.” Wall locates the tests’ origins in eighteenth-century craniometry and phrenology, which established that “the best heads” belonged to “white middle-class men from northern Europe.” Later, when phrenology yielded to other kinds of biometry and then to intelligence tests, the bias stuck. In 1912, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard concluded that the vast majority of Hungarians, Italians, Jews, and Russians arriving at Ellis Island were “feebleminded.” By the end of the First World War, fifteen states had passed eugenic-sterilization laws; by the nineteen-seventies, some sixty thousand “mental defectives” had been sterilized in America.
The sinister, normative strain in psychometry is perhaps best represented by the Szondi test, from 1935, which presents subjects with photographs of the eight kinds of psychopathic individual—“homosexual, sadist, epileptic, hysteric, catatonic, paranoid, depressive, and maniac”—and gauges how the subjects react. (“If your psychotherapist turns up with one of these, make an excuse and leave,” the caption reads.) Other, more innocent-seeming tests nonetheless interpret any number of personal preferences as pathological symptoms. According to a 1947 color test, a fondness for purple is a sign of “emotional immaturity,” which causes the subject to “get stuck in dreams of wishful thinking and fantasy.”
The materials are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, and the purpose doesn’t seem to be to encourage historical thinking. Nonetheless, the entire American twentieth century feels somehow encapsulated in the Wilson-Patterson Attitude Inventory, from 1975, which invites subjects to measure their “conservatism” by identifying either positively or negatively with a list of nouns: “jazz,” “Bible truth,” “co-education,” “working mothers,” “coloured immigration,” “socialism,” “evolution theory,” “fluoridation,” “white superiority,” “casual living,” “miracles,” “hippies,” “suicide,” “striptease shows,” “birth control,” “easy divorce,” “white lies,” “empire building,” and “mixed marriage.”
Readers wishing to bask in a “Mad Men”-ish sense of retro discrimination may enjoy perusing the many mid-century photographic representations of the analytic situation, most of which involve an astute-looking man perched over a recumbent, troubled woman. The Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study, from 1978, continues the theme. It invites subjects to cope with imaginary frustrations by filling in the blank speech bubbles of cartoon men in trying situations; in each illustration, a second figure with an already-filled-in speech bubble amplifies or explicates the frustration being depicted. (“It’s a shame my car had to break down and make you miss your train.” “Here’s your newspaper I borrowed—I’m sorry the baby tore it.”) In the largest cartoon, the frustrating speech prompt is simply “What do you want?”—spoken by a naked woman, in a bed, to a workman who has climbed up a ladder to her window. Well, that’s all that woman has to do to be frustrating—her body just has to exist there in the bed.
Next to the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study, we find the Modern Life Frustration Test, a series of cartoons by the artist Adam Dant, one of several newly commissioned artworks in “Psychobook,” some, though not all, of which seem to have humorous intent. Dant’s frustrated modern people include a woman at a computer (“Have you tried turning it off and then on again?”), a man in front of a television set (“I thought we could watch this gardening show instead of the football”), and, curiously, multiple insulted novelists (“Is the really poor grammar deliberate in your novel?”; “Hey Arthur! I don’t believe it! Some halfwit actually wants to read your crappy novel!”). The subject’s response to these illustrations may be a good indicator of whether he or she has just written a novel. (I have just written a novel.)
Perhaps the most engaging pages in “Psychobook” are the ones that remind you that psychometry arose more or less concurrently with surrealism. The Make a Picture Story Test, from 1942, consists of a kit of sixty-seven human, superhuman, and animal paper figures—a ghost, a one-legged man, a police officer, a cocker spaniel, Santa Claus—which may be positioned within a psychically laden setting. Subjects are then invited to make up stories about the scene, which the psychologist interprets for signs of lunacy. The sample scene in “Psychobook” shows a young naked boy seen from the back, a man in a suit and tie reading from a long ledger of some kind, and a coiled serpent, positioned in a bedroom with a chest of drawers. The situation is suggestive, but of what? I looked at it for a long time, and concluded that the man in the suit was practicing for a public-speaking contest, and that the boy and the serpent had both turned away in disgust. More anxieties about my novel? I turned to the back of “Psychobook” to look for an explanatory key, but there was none. Instead, I found myself pleasantly distracted by the Abstract Image Test, which includes such gorgeous prompts as a twentieth-century Tantric painting from Rajasthan and a canvas by the Brazilian modernist Alfredo Volpi. (Spoiler alert: the key says that whether you see the Tantric ellipse as a black hole or a brimming center of plenitude may correlate with whether you view the glass of life as half full or half empty.)
But my over-all favorite was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which first appeared, in 1943, as a box of flash cards with true-false statements written on them. The authors of “Psychobook” suggest some of the prompts that a psychologist might have read to his patient. They may easily be rearranged into a kind of poetry:
I am not afraid of toads
My father could be described as dominating
I do not like to see men in their pajamas
I do not like to hear strangers singing
Someone has been trying to get into my car
I wake up fresh and rested most mornings
I think I would like the work of a librarian
There seems to be a lump in my throat much of the time
My sex life is satisfactory
I have not lived the right kind of life
I hardly ever feel pain in the back of the neck
I am an important person
My soul sometimes leaves my body
Contemplating the forking tree of human experiences and personalities latent in these lines, I was reminded of Shriver’s juxtaposition of the psychological test with the novel. A writer, she allows, could conceive of a protagonist as a series of traits and numbers—“two for ‘fearfulness,’ nine for ‘openness to new experience,’ ” and so on—“but good luck coming up with Pierre from War and Peace.” The most useful tests, in the end, aren’t the ones that seem best calculated to identify deviants, depressives, or paranoiacs, but the ones that, like a good novel, remind us how impossible it is to categorize the human mind.
Watch: Raffi Khatchadourian on Colonel James S. Ketchum’s career developing psychochemical weapons during the Cold War.