Friday, November 25, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates calls for reparations from our Midwestern campus – can we hear him?

Ta-Nehisi Coates 

James Cone came to talk to our University community onWednesday of last week, and Ta-Nehisi Coates came on Sunday.  Cone used a boxing metaphor to describe his writing career, and having these two on campus this week felt like a one-two punch.  Though the first is a black liberation theologian and the second is an atheist, their talks fit hand in glove.  Coming on the heels of the Donald Trump election, their reactions to this disorienting outcome were also complimentary.  I went to the second talk with the reluctant step-daughter’s boyfriend, an avowed liberal theologian who is just starting his professional life at a local church that is on the edge of insolvency.  As we walked away from Coates’ talk, we were both dumbfounded by what Coates had said – he provided an African American economics lesson that we didn’t dispute, but that was so much at variance with our received (and unquestioned) wisdom that we didn’t quite know what to do with the information.

Belvedere Elementary First Grade Class 1953

I grew up in a segregated America.  When I was six, we moved to Florida.  We lived first in Orlando and then moved to West Palm Beach, and I went to school in fourth, fifth and sixth grade at Belvedere elementary school.  It was a neighborhood school.  I walked to it – and was a crossing guard in sixth grade.  There were no blacks that I remember in the school.  The only black person that I remember was the woman who cleaned our house once a week and I remember driving her home and being surprised that she lived in a neighborhood where there were many blacks.  It was a curiosity.  I curious, but also hopelessly uninformed – I was as naïve as the Bridges of Kansas City.

Coates informed us that the histories of white and black America are inextricably intertwined; including through the shared economies of the two worlds.  He noted that America’s revolutionary war debt was largely repaid through slave labor – 60% of our export income was derived from cotton (in his article on reparation in the Atlantic, which I found much less compelling than his talk, he cited this as an 1840 figure – I think our Revolutionary war debt was largely repaid by then – but Hamilton the Musical, and Hamilton by Ron Chernow – which is the source for the musical, make the point that the Southern States paid more than their fair share of the Revolutionary war debt, and did so because they had wealth that was generated by slave labor).  He went on to note that in 1860, America’s single greatest asset based on monetary value – and one that was so large that it was greater in value than all of the other assets we had put together – railroads and banks and properties – was our slaves.

Directly as a result of Brown vs. Board of Education, I was going to be bused in the seventh grade.  In the south, school districts are county wide.  So there was a Palm Beach County board of education.  In the north, school districts are determined by city, so white flight was possible.  People could move out to the suburbs from the city core and find a new school district and students couldn’t be bused across district lines.  In Palm Beach County, there was no place nearby to fly to.  I was going to be bused to an inner city school or, perhaps, to the center of Florida to go school with migrant workers near the everglades (counties in the south of Florida intersect in the middle of the state).

Coates pointed out that segregation, which in our gauzy imagination is just separate drinking fountains and restrooms, was actually a way to enrich the whites who were in power.  Blacks, who were kept from the voting box by intimidation and poll taxes, paid regular taxes, but were not allowed to use the facilities that taxes paid for.  They were not allowed in the libraries, swimming pools, zoos and museums their taxes supported and, perhaps most damagingly, they were not allowed to go to the State Universities.   This was, in Coates’ mind and mine, taxation without representation – the very thing that fueled the American Revolution.  In Virginia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, blacks outnumbered whites – and across the south they made up about 1/3 of the population.  Afraid that blacks would revolt, whites used terror to control them, with the Lynching tree being the foremost means of doing that (lynching did not take place before the civil war because that would have required repaying a slave owner for damaged property).

To avoid going to a predominantly black high school where I was told I likely would have been a target of bullying (something I had already experienced at the hands of whites) and would have had a below standard education or riding a bus two hours out and two hours back to go to a school that would have been primitive at best, my parents intended to enroll me in an all-boys all-white boarding school.  I took the tests and was enrolled.  I looked forward to it in an odd sort of what-does-this-mean way, and I was relieved that I was not going to be beaten.  From Coates’ and Cone’s perspectives, I was being taught to fear those whom my tribe was responsible for suppressing – and this would prepare me to suppress them later, violently if need be.  While I don’t doubt that, the lived experience was much more one of curiosity.  Who were these people that were to be feared?  Would that I were a person far enough advanced to wonder what it would have been like for them to go to a school in which the teaching was inferior and there was (what was for me a real) threat of violence – but I was curious about others and saw them as static and people to be feared – and therefore I was not in an empathic mindset – they seemed not akin to  me but somehow essentially different.

Coates noted that when the first African Americans arrived – one year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock – the differences between the slaves and the white indentured laborers brought by the colonists to work the extensive land holdings they had were nominal.  The primary difference was that after seven years, the indentured laborers would earn a plot of land and start to compete with their landholding bosses.  But the Africans and the laborers lived together and worked together – they intermarried and found themselves to be in a largely common predicament.  By 1848, the nominal differences were exaggerated until the primary distinction was not between rich and poor but between black and white, and the poorest white, John Calhoun – the Senator from South Carolina is quoted by Coates as saying, belonged along with the rich whites to the upper classes.  No matter how ne’er do well I might be, I am, like Huck Finn’s dad, better than almost half of the population.

I was rescued from whatever horrors living at an all-white Episcopal boarding school would have visited upon me – different and I have no idea whether better or worse than my fate in the public system – by a move north.  My father, for reasons entirely unrelated to my predicament, was transferred to a northern state and we went house-hunting in suburbs that boasted top flight public education – in a system that was almost completely white – there was a small African American community in the suburb that contributed perhaps 2-3% of the students to the public high school.  I never became close to any of them, though was aware of them and interested – though I must again admit sadly – largely as objects rather than as subjects.

Both Cone and Coates emphasize that for the United States to become whole, we must recognize the ways in which white and black America are intimately – across a vast divide – entangled.  They are both viewing that divide from the African American side, necessarily.  And from that side, Cone is seeing the ability of the blacks to survive the terrors that they have – to experience religious freedom and a tremendous sense of community despite the malicious intent of European Americans while Coates is seeing all that African Americans have contributed to the wealth that this country has amassed – and the poverty that has been their reward.  Cone spoke on behalf of the black blood shed – and Coates spoke on behalf of the labor that has not been recognized.  They were both accounting for their ethnic heritage and they were finding tremendous value in it.  I think this is a necessary step for the African American Community – but equally necessary – and potentially more difficult for the European Community to take.

In our conversation when leaving the Coates lecture, two white, reasonably liberal guys said to each other, in essence, “Huh, the narrative Coates just presented is different than the one we have lived with.  Our experience is that blacks are seen as a drag on the economy – they are on welfare or in prison and white America has to support them.”  In the wake of the talk, this seemed like a hopelessly naïve position, but I believe it to be the dominant culture’s position and I bet many blacks would agree with it.  While I don’t think I can reconcile the positions in this piece any more than Coates can figure out a reparation figure in a lengthy Atlantic article – he recommends that the legislature take that up and think it through – I think part of the reparation process he proposes would, then, be an accounting.  How do we take our vastly different narratives and weave them together into a cogent understanding of something as big and complex and nuanced as our shared history necessarily is?

We live within the city limits of a large northern city.  Our kids have all gone to an integrated public magnet high school.  (My son, much to the dismay of the much more progressive reluctant wife, went to an (integrated) private Montessori elementary school while her daughters went to a nearby public Montessori elementary school).  The kids have all experienced having friends who are bright and highly motivated who are unable to keep up with the rigors of the selective high school not through lack of discipline, but because of poverty and/or chaos at home.  They have seen, up close and personal, what Lyndon Johnson meant by poverty for blacks is different than it is for whites.  The safety net just isn’t as strong.


Both Cone and Coates were nonplussed about the election.  Both essentially agreed with Dave Chappelle’s position in his SNL monologue when he stated, in effect, we have seen you guys do this before and we never expected that you weren’t going to do something like this.  Both Cone and Coates suggested that the African American community may be better prepared to weather this than the liberal European American Community; our side is used to getting our way.  I think that Trump’s election forces us to face some truths that we have not wanted to face – but that Cone and Coates, between them, can help us address.  We have wanted to believe that, by educating American, in our classrooms and through mass media, about the virtues of diversity, we have created a sea change in the hearts and souls of the dominant culture.  This has not happened.  We still live in a world of us and them – whether the them is blacks, whites, Mexicans, Muslims or whomever.

Where are we headed?  What might our goal look like?  Cone suggests that European Americans need to own our oppression to become whole.  I agree with that.  To me, it sounds like a psychoanalytic goal – to own the parts of ourselves that we would disavow.  And that is a really difficult goal to attain.  It is one thing – and a difficult thing – for Cone and Coates to gain a sense of the value of their culture.  Dave Chappelle said he would cast off being black in heart beat if he just could do that (and he is speaking here to a long history of internalized racism that Mamie and Kenneth Clark scientifically observed 75 years ago using dolls that they presented as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education case).  But it is another thing for the dominant culture to value the contributions of a denigrated subculture.  In the process of a productive psychoanalysis, we come to value rather than run from our unconscious selves.  We see that those aspects of who we are that we would deny can be useful to us.  But first we have to come to realize that we have an unconscious – and we have to own it as part of ourselves.  While Cone and Coates cry out for us to own the African Americans as an integral part of our American selves, Trump has become the mouthpiece for millions who would disown that.

In a New York Times editorial this week, Mark Lilla maintains that one of the errors that Hillary made was to pander to the various subgroups of the culture.  He points out that if you fail to mention the subgroup of anyone in the audience they feel excluded and don’t feel you are on their side.   Cone and Coates are working towards a more inclusive message.  That message, in 1960s lingo, is something like, “We are all Bozos on this bus,” meaning that, like it or not, we are one country and ultimately one world, and we are a complicated country and world – one that is full of contradictions – some of them so deep and powerful that we cringe when we think of looking at them.  But, if we are going to get out of this mess, we need to do that.  And the first place to do that is to look at the parts of ourselves that we would rather not see.  We need to see things that apparently serve us well – “I am a member of the upper class” – as things that actually hinder us - “We are all on this boat together and the only way that it will continue to rise is if we recognize the value of every part of that boat.”

So, it is not surprising that Cone, Coates and Chappelle are all pretty jaundiced about our ability to do this.  We live in an age where we would rather turn away than sit with something that is uncomfortable – and we have always been thus.  Many of us who are motivated to do the necessary work are, like me, naïve.  We believe that there will be solutions that involve a Rodney King-like ability for us to just get along and we don’t realize that we ourselves are as much of an impediment to that as the redneck out in the sticks – because it is just as uncomfortable for us to confront what we would rather not see as it is for him – and we should be much better prepared to do so.  I think it was Chappelle who said, “I am with Colin Kaepernick.  I will just take a knee and watch these white guys duke it out.”  Well, if we are going to duke it out, we need to work on better arming ourselves, including by recognizing how necessary we are, light and dark, to each other, including because we can serve as mirrors to each other that will afford a better understanding of ourselves – one that we would not be able to honestly achieve on our own.

Of course, underlying all of this, is a conversation about the value of labor.  How do we determine what work has what value?  I don't know the answer to this.  Especially as we approach a post industrial economy, this opens up even bigger questions - what do we do that is of value?  The liberal redneck pointed out recently that both parties in this country are run by elites - and rely on people who work with their hands to support them. His position is that neither party actually cares for the vast majority of those who vote for them.  In truth, of course, most of us care about those who are closest to us.  It is truly hard to have a sense of the common good.  Cone and Coates call on us to think about that, in spite of ourselves.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree

James Cone is a Black Liberation Theologian who delivered a “last lecture” at my school this week.  His thesis is so simple, clear and direct that it is hard to believe that we don’t all know it, not just the theologians among us.  He believes that the best way for Americans to understand the New Testament – the best way to read about and understand Jesus – is through the eyes of African Americans.  He says this because White America, post slavery, used the Lynching Tree in the same way that the Roman Empire used the cross – to terrorize and maintain suppression of oppressed peoples.  The experience of blacks in America is more like that of the Jews in Israel in the first century than is that of the whites and, if we are to understand the message of Jesus, we should be thinking through the eyes of those who have lived like the people he led lived – not through the eyes of those oppressed him and those like him.

In this age of Trump, it is more the rule than the exception for everyone to be functioning from the role of the oppressed.  Just this week, Trump is demanding an apology from the cast of Hamilton for violating the safe space the theater is supposed to afford to all people, including the Vice President elect Mike Pence who was called out after the performance to listen to a message begging him to lead all peoples in his new role in a National office.  While it is true that the fourth wall is one whose violation can lead to problems, it is also hard to see how the theater – especially a ground breaking theatrical performance like Hamilton – is supposed to be a safe place.  The whole intent of the musical is to simultaneously tell history and to question our primary assumptions about what kind of place the United States is.  And it is concerning that our President elect would consider citizens articulating their beliefs to those in power as inappropriate in a democracy.  But I think that is a consistent theme in our National rhetoric, and Cone is trying to call our attention to it.

Before getting back to Cone, though, I think it is important to note that not all of white America has always been empowered.  A painting in our local museum depicts a poor white farming family headed north before the civil war.  Indeed, the painting is intended as a political message calling for the abolition of slavery as it is damaging to the poor southern white farmers.  They are depicted leaving the south because they cannot compete with the rich landowners who have slave labor.  The hardships of their lives are depicted in the sorry state of the livestock they can take with them and their bedraggled appearance.

Cone, in his appearance here, delivered an electric performance in which he summarized his writing career, which culminated in the writing of The Cross and Lynching Tree.  He clarified that he was working, from his first book forward, to articulate “the cry of black blood” spilled in the process of keeping blacks oppressed.  He noted that Lynchings did not occur before the end of the civil war because blacks were property and anyone lynching someone would have been tried for damages and would have had to compensate the owners.  After the war, especially where blacks outnumbered whites – and where whites had mistreated blacks when they had been slaves – there was tremendous fear of what the blacks would do to whites.  Lynchings – including spectacle lynchings which thousands of people, black and white, attended were intended to instill fear and to retain political, physical, economic and social control.  

In the face of bodily control, religion, then, afforded Blacks freedom.  There are two forms of this freedom – the first is spiritual.  Here, they are able to think and feel what they will in a religious context.  They are also able to experience the feeling of freedom that comes from surviving – and remembering – the damage that is done to one’s child, brother, sister, or parent.  The sharing of these memories – which is intended to retain social control, does that, but it creates a shared cultural experience – the experience of being the oppressed.  From our current election, we can see the power of that experience – it can motivate people to come together and to vote the bums out – to vote in a person with no job experience into one of the most complicated jobs in the world.

I have written before about the ability of terror to be atremendously effective means of communicating feeling states.  We felt a whole raft of feelings in the wake of September 11th.  And many of those, I believe, were the feelings of those who were terrorizing us – feelings of hopelessness and rage and mistrust and, of course, fear.  And they effectively put those feelings (as it were) in us.  In a similar way, the whites, through lynching, put a whole series of feelings – feelings that Cone and I believe they were struggling with and disavowed – into those that they lynched.  And, because those who were lynched were actually disempowered, they had to bear those feelings – they had to know what it means to face the very real possibility that your life can be taken from you at any moment – including for something that you didn’t do.  And isn’t that the human state?  Isn’t that precisely what Freud, in Moses and Monotheism, stated that religion was invented to help us manage – the fear of death?  And who has had to manage that fear more than the African American community?

Cone talked about God, and acknowledged that God is not something that we, as humans, can know.  He said that God, from the point of theology, is what we imagine – succinctly, God is imagination.  And our imagination is culturally determined.  We see the God that our culture opens up to us.  So Cone’s image of God is an intentionally culturally determined God – Cone listened to the Blues and Spirituals, Soul and Jazz as a means of imaging what God looks like from the African American experience.

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last weekend, we were told the story of how Rock and Roll’s roots lie in that very same music.  Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin were all inducted into the Hall before the Beatles, as it should be.  And what Cone maintained is that, if we don’t, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does, remember the roots of our identity, we are in danger of co-opting the experience of the oppressed and interpreting it from the perspective of the oppressor.  So, the Roman Catholic Church is, to my mind, somewhat of an irony – the Romans take on the role of the oppressed in their identification with the Christ that they Crucified.  And the Puritans, who arrived on Plymouth Rock one year after first slaves came to America, can, from a position of power, deny their role as oppressors (even as they ran from persecution) as they and others came to a land where slavery occurred in the north as well as the south and where separate but equal was enforced by the Supreme Court until 1954 – and by various subterfuges after that - so that our schools are more segregated now than they were at the time of Brown vs. Board.

The danger in cathecting the experience of the oppressed from the position of the oppressor is that, from Cone’s position, we naively experience ourselves as being lily pure when in fact we aren’t.  When Cone was asked in an interview with Bill Moyers if Cone could forgive Moyers, he responded that he could not forgive, but he could accept Moyers, as a white, as a brother – as a bad brother – but as a brother.  By this I think he was encouraging us to remember that we have done both wonderful and horrific things – and that we have done those together.  Cone explicitly stated that our history is not the history of the whites or the blacks, but a shared and common history.  He is not asking that we tell a history that excludes one or the other, but that we tell an inclusive history.  And, from this perspective, he would rather be coming at the problem from the perspective of the people who have been lynched rather than those who have done the lynching.  From his perspective, it is the ones who have done the lynching that will have the most difficulty integrating their experience.

I think this is a minority opinion.  One of the reasons that we integrated the schools in the wake of Brown vs. the Board of Education had to do with the results of psychological tests – the first time psychological tests were admitted as evidence in a supreme court decision.  These tests were administered by Richard and Mamie Scott and showed that black children as young as 4, 5, 6, and 7 years old had internalized a racial identity – and the hatred of the dominant culture towards that race.  In a brilliant Saturday Night Live monologue acknowledging the election of Trump, Dave Chapelle notes that even though he has done the best that he can to distance himself from being black by becoming rich that, if he could, he would shed his racial identity.  Of course, he doesn’t and he can’t, which brings us full circle to Cone.  The identity that we are given – that we must bear, becomes the vehicle for understanding the world.  Chapelle absolutely does this.  And he and Cone, through their contact with their identities, have a lot to tell white America about our own.   To his credit, Mike Pence acknowledged today that he was not offended by what the cast had to tell him from the stage - and he stated that Trump (and by implication he, himself) would lead all the people of the United States.  We will see if they can do that from the radical position that Cone proposes - a position that involves integrating our strengths and weaknesses - including acknowledging our tremendous power - and the very real limits to that power, the knowledge that this life we value so highly will, inevitably, be taken from us.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Rorschach

This has been a sad week.  Donald Trump was elected President and, on a much smaller scale, our faculty voted yesterday (9 to 1, with one abstention) to make a clinical psychology graduate course that I teach, the Rorschach, an elective rather than a required class.  Big deal, you may say, does every clinician need to know how to administer the Rorschach?  Isn’t that an old and outdated test?  And what difference does it make if students are taught one technique or another?  And, by the way, can’t they still take the class if they want to?  What’s your beef?

 You probably think of the Rorschach as an inkblot test.  That would make sense because Hermann Rorschach, when he published the test in 1921, stated that it was an inkblot test – and the 10 Rorschach cards look, at first blush, like inkblots.  Unfortunately, Hermann died of appendicitis before he could come clean (I reviewed biography of Rorschach published in 2017 here).  The stimuli in his test are actually his pen and ink drawings with a watercolor wash on some of them.  They have become archetypal symbols of psychology, and have even been plastered on dinnerware...

We didn’t know for sure that the inkblots were intentional drawings until the 1990s when John Exner visited Rorschach’s daughter and she allowed him to see Rorschach’s files.  In them, Exner discovered some old pen and ink drawings of Rorschach’s – he was a competent artist – as well as some inkblots – blotches of ink on paper that had been folded in half so that the resulting blot was symmetrical – and they resembled – but were clearly not the same as Rorschach’s stimuli.

Rorschach originally used inkblots to try to assess his patients.  But it is now apparent – and we have access to his data with the original inkblots – that his patients needed stimuli that were less vague – they needed stimuli that looked more like things.  They had trouble seeing things in the relatively amorphous blots.  So Rorschach created his masterpieces.   

Rorschach Blot Details

You can find Rorschach’s art on the internet – we tried to keep them as protected test materials, but ultimately failed to do that.  If you look at them closely, you will see that Rorschach drew things, but in strange and confusing ways.  You will find pink polar bears, and two people that clearly have both breasts and penises.  And these stimuli (our patients have always known they were drawings – they frequently ask us things like, “What was the artist trying to paint here?”), were crafted by Rorschach to help him observe the perceptual and conceptual challenges that his hospitalized patients faced in making sense of the world that they lived in.  For instance, it can be hard, when your thinking is strained, to screen out irrelevant stimuli – so you say, “This is a pink bear” rather than simply saying “This is a bear.”  Similarly, you are more likely to say, “This is a woman with a penis” rather than saying, “This is a man,” or “This is a woman.”

Rorschach also discovered that his test distinguished between various personality styles.  So, for instance, extroverts – people who are more tuned to others in their environment and who tend to be more emotionally spontaneous - tend to use the colors on the blots in the things that they reported seeing.  Introverts – people who are more likely to read a book than get together with others for coffee and who tend to be more focused on solving problems cognitively than emotionally, tend to report seeing people engaged in various activities more frequently.  And some people, whom Rorschach called ambitents, seem to be good at both styles of functioning.  

So what is the big deal about not requiring students to learn this particular means of assessing personality?  Aren’t there others way of doing that?  And there are.  We currently have, and will continue to have a required course on self- report personality assessment.  In this means of assessing personality, people take true/false or Likert scaled items and their responses are compared to norms to determine whether they are responding in ways that are similar to extroverts, ambitents, or introverts – or to people with symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, or bipolar disorder.  This way of assessing personality and psychopathology is much easier to administer, score and interpret.  These have been becoming the dominant means of assessing personality and psychopathology – along with interviews – over the past twenty or thirty years.  I am a big fan of these instruments.  I have taught this other course as well and use these instruments in my practice.  I find them critical and important sources of information.  I am also loathe to rely on them as a sole source of information.

The Rorschach, unlike self-report instruments, does not rely on the person who is being assessed to observe and rate their own behavior.  Instead, the clinician does this.  We present the person with a complex problem to solve – what does this abstract painting look like?  And we observe how they solve the problem and compare their solutions, after coding them, to the solutions of many other people.

The Rorschach is referred to as a projective test, meaning that people project their personal and interpersonal dilemmas onto the stimuli and we can make inferences about their dilemmas by decoding the projection.  This has been an important part of the interpretation of the Rorschach, but it is only a part – and a part with considerable controversy associated with it.  From my perspective, and that of other Rorschachers, the Rorschach is actually an objective measure of personality and psychopathology – because observers, using a standard set of stimuli, are observing and rating in a reliable and valid manner, the psychological functioning of another person.

In teaching The History of Psychology this semester, it has become apparent that the field of psychology is a shaky marriage between two very different traditions.  Academic psychologists, almost to a person, trace their lineage to Wilhelm Wundt, a German academician who, last in the 1800s, essentially invented the field of psychology by training people to closely observe and report their perceptions of the world.  He worked within the philosophical and scientific tradition of John Locke, a thinker who proposed that we are blank slates when we are born and that the best way to study ourselves and the world is through experimental techniques.  This is a bottom up process for creating a model of human functioning.  The behavioral tradition is a direct descendant of this tradition.   

Freud, the other father of psychology, also trained in the experimental tradition, but worked from a Leibnizian perspective – a perspective that supposes we are born with various structures that determine who we will become.  Though this is partly an issue of nurture (Wundt) vs. Nature (Freud), the essential difference that I would like to highlight is that Freud engaged with people as they presented to him in his consulting practice – as whole people who had difficulties they were asking for help with.  And he  responded by trying to do something that is next to impossible – he came up with a variety of models for how the mind, the most complex entity in the known universe, functions.  His models were, not surprisingly, incredibly complex.  And they were flawed.  And the century of fixes that very smart people added have made an already complicated system even more complex.

The Rorschach was originally used by Rorschach himself in the manner of Wundt/Locke.  Rorschach collected data on coded responses with the aim of distinguishing between normal and pathological response sets – and that help to articulate different personality styles.  After Rorschach’s premature death, a variety of individuals got hold of the instrument and developed it in different ways.  In the 1970s, John Exner began integrating these systems into his own “comprehensive” system.  When he died in 2006, a group that had worked with him published a report of the Rorschach variables that have strong research support and then used this to create a new system to evaluate Rorschach responses that is called R-PAS. 

In the United States currently, the two largest psychiatric hospitals are in prisons – one in Chicago and the other in Los Angeles.  When I went to a workshop to learn about this new scoring system for the Rorschach, there were a number of psychologists there from the California state penal system.  In the penal system, the mentally ill receive long term care – and it is when long term care is offered that it makes the most sense to really get to know a patient.  In most of the rest of the mental health care system in the US, the emphasis is on short term treatments that are focused on treating symptoms – sometimes as narrow as sleeplessness – and the assessments that are needed here are self report screening devices that quantify the intensity of a problem area or distinguish between similar sets of symptoms to better understand what configuration of symptoms is present – and to see if they are being caused by something more serious that is underlying the presentation. 

Unless our students end up working in prisons or a few other settings, it is less and less likely that they will be using the Rorschach as an instrument.  So, our faculty is voting to end its use based on the likelihood that it will not be part of their practice.  Why should they devote a semester class to learning an instrument they will not administer?  Good question.  I have puzzled over that question as this vote has been approaching. 

The best answer I have come up with comes from a completely different part of the curriculum.  Our students devote multiple courses to learning research methods and statistics and they write a dissertation.  The intent is manifold – to teach them how to do research, to read research articles, but more importantly to teach them how to think as a researcher.  Almost none of our students engage in research after they graduate, but my hope is that they all – to some extent – think like researchers when they are meeting with patients.  They should have hypotheses about what is causing the patient distress and they should evaluate how helpful the interventions that they are making are proving to be.

The Rorschach is a tool that we can use to teach our students to think like clinicians.  It teaches them to code their patient’s behaviors – to observe the behaviors and “score” them.  It teaches the characteristics of disturbed thinking and teaches them about how our emotions and thoughts interact.  The process of integrating these observations into a test report is one that teaches them how to articulate how this particular person is put together.  I think of my Rorschach course as being largely a writing class.  As one of my students recently put it, I am teaching the students to write an "imaginarrative".  I pointed out to the student that this neologism is codable in the Rorschach system, but also appreciated what he was stating.

The Rorschach teaches our students that the difficulties our patients face happen in a particular and weird context – the difficulties happen in the context of the person themselves who is having the difficulties.  In order to best treat the disorder, we need to know who the person is that has the disorder and  how the disorder is wrapped into and around the person who is experiencing it.  Using the Rorschach to create an “imaginarrative” is a top down approach to getting to know a person.  We are going to create distortions in the process of imagining them.  But it is the best tool I know to do this in an empirically supported way that occurs relatively quickly.  It also facilitates what I think is a central tenet of being a psychologist: we treat people, we don't treat illnesses.  

Mary Jo Peebles and Tony Bram recently published a book articulating how to use the Rorschach, self-report scales, and intelligence testing into what they call “Psychological Testing that Matters.”  They are teaching in that book the principles that I am referring to here.  And, in the year it was published, it was the American Psychological Association’s best selling book.  There continues to be interest on the part of psychologists in getting to know our patients and to telling others about them. 

Trump won this election by promising the American people a simpler world – one that he would create.  We have always craved that.  We want our burgers and fries to be the same whether we are pulling off the interstate in Walla Walla or Tucumcari; simple, predictable, the same.  People are, however, incredibly diverse.  Even within a homogeneous culture, once we look under the hood, we turn out to be unique.  Academic psychology has long been focused on what makes us alike.  Clinical psychology has focused more on the unique qualities of the individual.  My hope, in my career, was that I could be trained as both an academician and a clinician and that I could carry the clinical approach of Freud – and Rogers and other clinical heroes - into Wundt’s academy.  This week I feel like I got Trumped.

Postscript:  Since this post, a very nice biography of Hermann Rorscach has been published, which I have reviewed here.

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