Wertham, Fredric (1895-1981)
Wertham, Fredric (1895-1981)
Although Fredric Wertham is remembered primarily as the author of Seduction of the Innocent (1954), an incisive, blistering attack on the violence and horror purveyed by the comic book industry, his research took him through this era of crime comics to the culture that violent movies and television created. In 1966 Wertham wrote: "Television represents one of the greatest technological advances and is an entirely new, potent method of communication. Unfortunately as it is presently used, it does have something in common with crime comic books: the devotion to violence. In the School for Violence, television represents the classic course." The climate of violence developing since this observation has, if anything, increased with the emergence of new technologies, like the Internet and videos, and become more noxious in the late 1990s. Competition for audience share, demand for advertising revenue, and misguided applications of constitutional rights have all encouraged aggressive displays of violent behavior to be broadcast. Though originally derided, Wertham's observations that the grammar of violence and its impact on the culture constitutes a public health issue have been sustained by the research of Leonard Eron, George Gerbner, and Albert Bandura. Nevertheless, Wertham was not a Luddite, opposed to technological advances, but a physician of wide and deeply humane interests, an advocate of social reform, and a defender of civil liberties.
Born 20 March 1895 in Nuremberg, Germany, Fredric Wertham was one of five children of Sigmund and Mathilde Wertheimer, non-religious, assimilated middle-class Jews. As a young man on the eve of the World War I, Wertham spent several summers in England where he found the environment there open and relaxed, a stark contrast to the rigid, disciplined, and intellectually pedantic German culture at home. During this period he explored Fabian socialism, the writings of Karl Marx, and, more importantly, became an avid reader of Charles Dickens' writings on social reform. When war broke out in 1914, Wertham, pursuing medical studies at King's College, London University, found himself stranded in England and, as a German national, was for a short time interned in a prison camp near Wakefield, then paroled. An admirer of British society, Wertham remained in England during the war, reading medicine and literature. After the war he continued his studies at the Universities of Erlangen and Munich, obtaining his M.D. degree from the University of Wurzburg in 1921. Paris and Vienna were additional venues of postgraduate study before he joined Emile Kraepelin's clinic in Munich.
Wertham left Germany in 1922 to work with Kraepelin's protege Alfred Meyer at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. During his years at Johns Hopkins, Wertham established a friendship with H. L. Mencken and worked with Clarence Darrow, becoming one of the first psychiatrists willing to testify on behalf of indigent black defendants. It was also during this period that he met and married Florence Hesketh, an artist doing biological research as a Charleton Fellow in Medicine at Johns Hopkins. Hesketh drew all the cell plate illustrations for The Brain as an Organ: Its Postmortem Study and Interpretation (1934), for which Wertham received the first psychiatric grant made by the National Research Council. In addition, Wertham published the first study on the effects of mescaline and did pioneer work on insulin use in psychotherapy. He developed the mosaic test in which a patient manipulated small multicolored pieces of wood into a freely chosen design, which was evaluated for what it revealed about the patient's ego. Wertham's diagnostic technique was often used in conjunction with paintings by patients, such as the watercolors done by Zelda Fitzgerald when she was under treatment at the Phipps Clinic.
During the 1930s Wertham's expertise as a forensic psychiatrist became known to the general public. His involvement in a number of spectacular murder cases, which he discussed in Dark Legend: A Study in Murder (1941) and The Show of Violence (1948), led him to advocate the duty of a psychiatrist to bring the psychiatric background of murder into the relationship with the law and the society it represents. Wertham's support for an intelligent use of the McNaughton's rule determining legal insanity, his understanding of how environmental forces shape individual responses, and his argument that violence and murder are diseases of society all persuaded him that violence is not innate, and so could be prevented.
Dark Legend investigates the story of Gino, a seventeen-yearold Italian-American who, commanded by the ghost of his dead father, murdered his promiscuous mother. Wertham's compelling narrative of his patient draws upon the myth of Orestes and the legend of Hamlet to explore matricide. The incisive analysis of matricide set out in Dark Legend prompted Ernest Jones to remark, "Freud and I both underestimated the importance of the mother problem in Hamlet. You have made a real contribution." Dark Legend is significant because it ties an actual murder case to important psychological types in literature and supports a shift in an understanding of matriarchy among American psychiatrists.
In The Show of Violence Wertham explains for the layman his theory of the Catathymic Crisis, where "a violent act—against another person or against oneself—provides the only solution to profound emotional conflict whose real nature remains below the threshold of the consciousness of the patient." He discusses his own role in several celebrated murder cases, including the pathetic Madeline, a young mother who killed her two children and then failed in her suicide attempt; the notorious child-murderer Albert Fish; the "mad sculptor" Robert Irwin; and the professional gunman Martin Lavin. In each case Wertham probes the social background, the medical history, the political implications, and the legal response to uncover the effect societal forces had in the creation of the impulse to murder.
In 1932 Wertham moved to New York City where he became a senior psychiatrist at Bellevue and organized for the Court of General Sessions the nation's first clinic providing a psychiatric screening for every convicted felon. Wertham became director of psychiatric services at Queens Hospital Center in 1940 and pioneered a clinic for sex offenders, The Quaker Emergency Service Readjustment Center, in 1947. With the encouragement of Earl Brown, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, Wertham enlisted a multi-racial, volunteer staff to establish in Harlem in 1946 a clinic dedicated to alleviating the "free-floating hostility" afflicting many in that community, and to understanding the realities of black life in America. Named in memory of Karl Marx's son-in-law, Dr. Paul Lefargue, the Lafargue Clinic became one of the most noteworthy institutions to serve poor Americans and to promote the cause of civil rights.
In order to prepare for discrimination cases in Delaware, attorneys Louis Redding, Jack Greenberg, and Thurgood Marshall needed medical testimony on the harm segregation caused children. Wertham's studies showed that the practice of racial separation "creates a mental health problem in many Negro children with a resulting impediment in their educational progress." Wertham's testimony was significant because his research was the first to examine both black and white children attending segregated schools. The evidence revealed the possibly that white children, too, may be harmed by school segregation. The Delaware cases became part of the legal argument used in the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).
In addition to bringing psychotherapy to a neglected community, Wertham's work at the Lafargue Clinic led to the developments of his later ideas on the contribution horror and crime comic books made to a climate of juvenile violence. In 1948 Wertham organized the first symposium dealing with media violence at the New York Academy of Medicine. Not only did Wertham identify media-induced violence as a public health issue, but he also challenged "psychotherapy to overcome its own claustrophilia and take an interest in the social forces that bear on an individual." This research attracted widespread national attention, opening additional fora for Wertham to publicize his studies on the enigma of preventable violence. The quest to understand and prevent violence—the core of Wertham's psychiatric practice—shaped his thinking on how the mass media create a climate that both encourages and legitimizes violent anti-social acts.
In the 1950s America faced two primary fears: communism and juvenile delinquency. The axis on which these two met found Wertham, whose studies probed the social dynamics that permitted the development of these fears and the underlying violence that inflamed their intensity. Attorney Emanuel Bloch believed that Wertham might be willing to appear for the defense in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius. Convicted as members of a conspiracy to send stolen atomic-bomb secrets to Russia, the Rosenbergs nevertheless maintained their innocence and averred that they were victims of a United States government frame-up. Political passions, fears of the "Red Menace," and charges of treason and betrayal swirled at the time against a backdrop the Korean War and Soviet activity in Eastern Europe. Such circumstances persuaded many prominent individuals to keep a low profile in order not to be tainted by helping the Rosenbergs.
Although the court absolutely refused to allow Wertham direct access to Ethel Rosenberg, it gave him permission to testify in federal court under oath about her mental condition. Not only did this order deny Rosenberg due process, it created the paradoxical situation of permitting Wertham to testify about the mental condition of a patient whom he was not allowed to examine. Using Bloch as an intermediary and relying on second-hand information, Wertham not only accepted these limitations, but also braved a vicious and often improper cross-examination. Nevertheless, his understanding of the condition "prison psychosis" and his humanitarian concern for Rosenberg's health made his testimony compelling. Within a few days Washington reversed itself and moved Julius Rosenberg to Sing Sing where husband and wife would be allowed to visit each other regularly. Moreover, Wertham was brought in to deal with the Rosenberg children, Michael and Robert, whom he advised and whose adoption by the Meeropol family he helped to make successful.
It was precisely Wertham's reputation for fearlessness and integrity that encouraged Senator Estes Kefauver to appoint him sole psychiatric consultant to the Senate Subcommittee for the Study of Organized Crime (1950). Not only did Wertham bring his expertise as a forensic psychiatrist to Kefauver's committee, but his experience in dealing with New York crime and governmental institutions made his observations particularly trenchant. The role organized crime played in American society was one that engendered fear, revulsion, cynicism, respect, and even admiration, especially for the way in which violent crime could be of service to politics. These televised hearings drew national attention, revealing the influence television had in shaping public opinion, and set the stage for the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (1953-1956), which explored how juvenile delinquency led to adult crime.
A major theme of the investigation into juvenile delinquency was the impact the mass media exerted on youth and on a separate emerging youth culture. Wertham, who had published a series of articles and given lectures describing his research on the unhealthful effects of mass media violence, decided his work merited a book-length study aimed at the general public. In Seduction of the Innocent (1954) Wertham sets out his argument on the connection between the rise of juvenile delinquency and the role of crime comic books in promoting violent activity. The brutal and sadistic activity in these comics created a culture of violence and a coarsening of society. Such comic books routinely featured mutilation, gore, branding, blind-ing—so prominent as to receive its own classification of "eyemotif"—racism, bigotry, and especially, crude, sexual exploitation of women. Wertham testified that these comics, so attractive and easily available to children, exploited them and harmed their development; he concluded that access to violent comics for children under fourteen years of age must be controlled. Although Wertham was maligned as a censor—a charge he vigorously denied—his work did stimulate the comic book industry to adopt a code labeling the suitability of each comic book published (The Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, October 26, 1954).
Wertham's studies on juvenile delinquency led him to probe deeper into the role various media play in creating, perpetuating, and distorting the social problems of teenagers. Not only comic books but also mass news publications, television, and the movies influenced behavior and distorted perceptions of teenagers and different ethnic groups. In The Circle of Guilt (1956) Wertham discovers the truth behind the death of "model boy" Billy Blankenship, murdered allegedly without provocation by Puerto Rican "hoodlum" Frank Santana in a New York City street fight. The paradigm of fear, racism, distrust, and prejudice many New Yorkers held conveniently fit Santana. Wertham, whose intuition told him that the case presented by the press reflected cultural prejudice rather than an understanding of the violent circumstances, agreed to investigate. He discovered that Blankenship was active in teenage gang activities and that Santana had an undeveloped personality, one lacking in hostility, anger, or resentment. Despite Wertham's testimony, the court handed down a harsh sentence of 25 years to life for second degree murder. His outrage at this sentence and at the prevailing climate of violence and prejudice compelled Wertham to write The Circle of Guilt, which exposes both failure and hypocrisy on the part of the legal system in complicity with the social service establishment. More importantly, this book reflects the violence afflicting society and the refusal to confront its own insidious cultural stereotyping.
In 1966 Wertham published his major study on human violence, A Sign for Cain: An Exploration of Human Violence. To answer the paradoxical question: "Can we abolish violence without violence?" Wertham probed "why violence is becoming more entrenched in our society" than many believe, and argued that if we are willing, it is within our capacity "to conquer and to abolish it." Essentially a sociological history of violence in Western culture, A Sign for Cain focuses on the effects of mass media exposure on the virulence of political tyrannies in this century, on the emergence of the legal and medical legitimization of violence, and on the willing acceptance of the value of violence.
Wertham's thinking on the nature of violence provokes controversy among social theorists who interpret scientific data in ways to explain away anti-social behavior. Although such theorists admit the existence of cultural shaping, they argue that an instinctive drive for aggression is present at birth. The widespread acceptance of this idea of "an inborn biologically fixed instinct of violence in man," Wertham argues is "a theory that creates an entirely false and nihilistic destructive image of man." Violence may be the result of "negative factors in the personality and in the social medium where the growth of personality takes place." Indeed, Wertham avers that "the primary natural tendency [of man is] to maintain and care for the intactness and integrity of others. Man does not have an 'instinct' of violence; he has the capacity and the physiological apparatus for violence." To Wertham, man has survived as a species not because of an instinct for violence but because people value cooperation.
His interest in youth and how communication by the young shapes the culture led Wertham to publish his last book, The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication (1973). Arguing that fanzines—magazines created by fans of fantasy and science fiction—are a revealing form of communication because they are "free from outside interference, without control or manipulation from above, without censorship, visible or invisible," Wertham sees them as not just a product of our society but a reaction to it. Fanzines show the capacity of the individual fan to reshape violent material in a socially useful way. The paraculture that is the world of fanzines contains patterns of fantasy, art, and literature manifesting healthy creativity, independence, and social responsibility. The fan-produced magazine expresses a genuine voice wanting to be heard, defying the overpowering roar of the mass media. Since fanzine artists and writers stress the role of heroes who have "cleared their minds of cant," Wertham sees in the integrity of heroes and super-heroes "a message for our unheroic age."
The last years of Fredric Wertham's life were spent at his beloved Blue Hills, a former Pennsylvania Dutch farm near the Hawk Mountain Bird Sanctuary at Kempton. He died November 18, 1981.
—James E. Reibman
Barker, Martin. "Fredric Wertham—The Sad Case of the Unhappy Humanist." In Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign, edited by John A. Lent. Cranbury, New Jersey, Associated University Presses, 1999, 215-233.
——. A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. London, Pluto Press, 1984.
Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Violence: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 1975, 1977.
Reibman, James E. "Fredric Wertham: A Social Psychiatrist Characterizes Crime Comic Books and Media Violence as Public Health Issues." In Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Post-war Anti-Comics Campaign, edited by John A. Lent. Cranbury, New Jersey, Associated University Presses, Inc., 1999, 234-268.
——. "The Life of Dr. Fredric Wertham." The Fredric Wertham Collection: Gift of His Wife Hesketh. Cambridge, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, 1990, 11-22.
——. My Brother's Keeper: The Life of Fredric Wertham, M. D. Forthcoming.
Reibman, James E. and N. C. Christopher Couch, editors. A Fredric Wertham Reader. Seattle, Fantagraphics Press, 2000.