You Can See It In Their I's
By David Feige
Wednesday, December 13,
2006; Page C05
SEX, LIES, AND HANDWRITING
A Top Expert Reveals the Secrets Hidden in Your Handwriting
By Michelle Dresbold with James Kwalwasser
Much of hucksterism turns on an exaggerated
sense of certainty. Wrinkle creams, dietary supplements, vinotherapy, sex enhancers:
All are sold not merely on their inflated (if unsupported) claims but also by the
evangelical testimonials of their faithful.
Michelle Dresbold is one of the faithful. In "Sex, Lies, and Handwriting," she takes us on a
breathless tour of the slashes and curlicues that tip the philanderer's hand or reveal
the serial killer's malignant heart. Renowned in her field for her syndicated column
"The Handwriting Doctor," Dresbold claims to be able to discern from a signature, or
even a letter or two, a profile including "personality traits, family background,
sexual proclivities, emotional baggage, and motives." This is a tall order, and one at
which she, like the discipline she is promoting, ultimately fails. The book, ironically,
makes a strong case for grouping handwriting profilers (though not forensic document
analysts) with the rest of today's charismatic charlatans.
The first section of the book is structured as a
tutorial in which Dresbold takes the reader through a series of either/or choices. Ted
Bundy, we learn, writes big (outgoing) and Ted Kaczynski small (hermit). Picasso, whose
writing sample includes a radiant sun and some flowers, is happy, while Vincent van Gogh,
whose writing "travels downhill," is sad. This simplistic analysis isn't helped by Dresbold's
prose. Exclamation points abound (there is a triple on the very first page); between the
"bonus questions," the sunny sidebars and the giddy aphorisms ("If you can change your
handwriting, you can change your life!"), the book often reads more like a junior high
cheerleading manual than a serious investigation of a subject that has life-and-death
ramifications when introduced in a court of law.
And yet this is a dark book -- one that preys on our fears and amps up our paranoia. On nearly every page, some nefarious ne'er-do-well is unmasked by his (or her) unwitting pen strokes. Stranglers use "strangler strokes," sad people regularly "X" themselves out of their own signatures, and those who use a "diabolical d" (one that slants extremely rightward) are "unpredictable and prone to extreme emotional outbursts." After all, that's how the Zodiac killer wrote.
A particularly scary section of the book is devoted to the analysis of handwriting samples slyly submitted by spouses and significant others. Here we learn that if his "t bars" slope downhill, it's a "sure-fire sign that you're married to a control freak." In a section called "Signs of a Lyin', Cheatin', Cold Dead Beatin' Two-timin', Double-dealin', Mean Mistreatin' Scoundrel," Dresbold earnestly warns readers against unclear O's and A's and the fearsome "forked tongue strokes" (a slash through an "A" or "O"). How do we know that these are danger signs? Both O.J. Simpson and Jeffrey Dahmer used them. And herein lies the essential problem: By rendering almost every example in the book descriptive rather than diagnostic, Dresbold constantly confuses causation and correlation.
There are certainly moments of interest here. Few will be able to resist the temptation to scribble a few lines and use them as an easy guide to self-revelation. But this is the pleasure of the good psychic or the passable sleight-of-hand magician. In the end, the logic is painfully thin, the science dreadfully lacking and the argument for genuine relevance rather than pseudo-scientific curiosity almost nonexistent.
As the book progresses, it gets ever more bizarre. We learn that gay men can be easily spotted by their "lower zones" (the extensions or loops of "f, g, j, p, q, y, and z"): "If his loops swing both ways, chances are he does too." In the pointy top of Sen. Joe McCarthy's "J," Dresbold sees his narrow-mindedness; in a post-Sept. 11 analysis of Osama bin Laden's signature, Dresbold can find an assault rifle, a bomb with a fuse, and "a dead body with blood oozing from the head." If only the CIA had thought to call her.
Finally, in the least satisfying chapter -- enthusiastically titled "Busted by a Handwriting Detective" -- we are presented with four "real-life" cases. In each, Dresbold explains how handwriting analysis solved them. But the profiling tricks we've just spent almost 200 pages learning play no substantive role in the solution of these crimes. Somehow, with all of history to choose from, Dresbold selects four cases that have nothing to do with hidden swastikas, the "diabolical d" or downsloping "t bars." In one case, a man with the mental capacity of a 6-year-old was simply incapable of writing the four-line note used to rob a bank; in another, a dead woman couldn't have reached the place her dying declaration was painted (in her own blood); the third required only an accurate reading of the content of what someone wrote; and the last case (Hitler's forged diaries) was solved despite, rather than because of, the handwriting experts (ultraviolet analysis of the paper revealed the diaries to have been manufactured after his death).
Despite the failure of these forensic investigations, Dresbold remains an evangelist to the end, continuing to assert until the final page that handwriting reveals "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." But after this unfortunate tour of pseudo-scientific prognostication, most readers will prefer to rely on safer metrics.
Still, with Dresbold and her ilk ready to gawk at my lower zones, henceforth I type.
David Feige is the author of "Indefensible:
One Lawyer's Journey into the Inferno of American Justice".