True Confessions, False Conclusions

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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It was 1962; I was 12, getting ready to choose a high school. I had been happy at the military academy where I had gone and continued to go in the summers, but my parents were wary about letting me stay there all year long. I was becoming a moody little martinet and it was suggested that to find my true teenage calling, I should have a psych exam at NYU’s testing center. I was recently reminded of the experience when Princeton Architectural Press sent over a review copy of rhe forthcoming Psychobook: Games, Tests, Questionnaires, Histories, edited by Julian Rothenstein. It is an intriguing volume of eccentric and exotic methods for institutionally testing intelligence and behaviors, filled with some incredible examples. But what gave me the chills was coming across the chapter on the TAT (Thematic Apperception Test), which I believed changed the direction of my life forever.

According to the online Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, the TAT “is a projective measure intended to evaluate a person’s patterns of thought, attitudes, observational capacity and emotional responses to ambiguous test materials.” These “ambiguous materials” involve a set of 8-by-10 cards that portray men, women, children—young and old—in black-and-white crayon or charcoal renderings of random settings and menacing situations, like these:


Each image is simple yet filled with certain details that contribute to one’s personal interpretation. “The subject is asked to tell the examiner a story about each card that includes the following elements: the event shown in the picture; what has led up to it; what the characters in the picture are feeling and thinking; and the outcome of the event.” I recall the entire process vividly, although clearly recall only one card—the one, I believe, that influenced my existence for a few years to follow, if not a lifetime.

Rothenstein’s book does not include this incriminating image. But among all the others I found, most surprisingly, on the Civil Service Forum of Pakistan, was the one that somehow captured my interest and the examiner’s interest in me. Here it is:


I was barely 12 and had little or no knowledge of life’s pleasures and mysteries, save for a few grade school hygiene classes, but somehow, this image captured my imagination most and my odd narrative explanation ended in hysterical laughter. I won’t reveal the gist of the story because it is still kind of embarrassing, but at the time I thought I was clever in turning what appears to be a tragic scenario into a comedy of manners and mores that would have fit well into HBO’s Sunday lineup.

I’m still uncertain why a 12-year-old would be exposed to the same images as a much older patient. Or how this and the pictures below (which are similar to the ones I was shown) were so damn lugubrious. Although the test remains clear in my mind, I never realized that the laughter resulting from the picture above may have just been a release of all the angst that these and other images produced in me during that two-hour part of a three-day exam in a windowless NYU room.


When the manila envelope containing the evaluations were sent to the house, my parents slipped into their bedroom to review the contents, and after an hour they returned to the living room, said nothing, and I didn’t ask. Little did I know that this was why they were so intent on sending me to boys preparatory, or why I could not have boy or girl friends come visit me when no parent was home. It wasn’t until many years later after NYU, where I ultimately went to college, had kicked me out for being “art director” of the first five issues of Screw magazine, that I accidentally stumbled on the long-forgotten evaluation.

“The subject,” it read, “is an above average intelligent 12-year-old. However, he appears to be too precocious for a child of his age. He either understands what he’s saying or mimics what he has heard from others. But it is our recommendation that he attend a strict high school with defined parameters.” In those days, when you spent a few hundred bucks for a test like this, the results were gospel. Followed to the letter.

Maybe I should be grateful. But as these pictures and Rothstein’s book shows, even modern-day psychological techniques, with the best intentions, were replete with snake oil cures and fool’s promises.

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