April 1st, 2017

Back to square one

In a recent Thursday night, my wife and I drove into Harvard Square to hear a talk by Damion Searls, the author of “The Inkblots,” a new book about Hermann Rorschach and the test that Searls described as once having been as emblematic of the psychologist as the stethoscope is of the physician.

The square is a short drive from our home over a long road rich in memories and connections to the beginnings of my career as a psychologist. I have not traveled this road alone and have always been grateful for my companions on the way – my wife and children, old and new friends, teachers, colleagues, patients and students. My life has been rich in the company of good people and, as I was reminded that Thursday, at least one good psychological test.

It was the summer of 1968 and I stood on the corner between the Cambridge Savings Bank and the Tasty, a tiny restaurant known for its hot dogs and for adding “ty” to the Harvard motto, “Veritas.”

I was a 20-year-old college kid from New Jersey and I had just finished my junior year at Villanova. Now I was in Massachusetts about to start my first summer job with profoundly impaired children in a learning lab at the Walter E. Fernald State School in nearby Waltham.

My traveling companions on this first visit to Harvard Square were my uncle Charlie, an outrider at Suffolk Downs and two of his cronies from the track.

Charlie was my mother’s oldest brother, whom I had met only a few times. He was a former trotter driver who dressed sharply and appreciated the finer things in life. To afford them and still have enough money to send home to his family, Charlie lived in a stable with his horse.

Until I found a place of my own, I lived there with them. His cronies were tall, hulking men, not at all like my slim, dapper uncle. They had strong Boston accents and an outspoken critical view of the long-haired hippies they brought me to see in the square.

Charlie got me the summer job through one of his friends at the track, a surgeon who had worked his way through medical school by exercising horses. Now here I was standing on a corner in Harvard Square, escorted into my professional life by this trio of emissaries from a world that I knew only from the movies and snatches of family conversation about Charlie’s adventures.

I took my first step into the square and entered into what was to become my life’s work. The children at Fernald made me want to understand how people survive the tragedies that upend their lives.

So, I returned the following summer and remained for graduate school at Boston University and what would turn out to be the rest of my career. My professors at BU taught me to read people by paying attention to the stories they told and to the glimpses of deeper meaning that are always there if you know where to look.

Professor Bill Hire taught generations of BU students how to look with the Rorschach and I have been doing that ever since.

Through it all, the square remained an important crossroads in my life. In the early days, it was the transfer point to the electric bus that took me to Fernald after I made my way across the city of Boston on two subway lines every morning. When I traded my lodgings in the stable for staff housing at Fernald, the square was the place for dinner and an occasional lecture open to the public during Harvard’s summer session.

For five dollars, you could buy a meal ticket at Elsie’s and eat for a week under the gaze of John F. Kennedy, smiling from a black-and-white photo behind the counter.

Now we were back in Harvard Square, my wife and I, sharing a booth in a restaurant that wasn’t there 50 years ago. Elsie’s is long gone and all that remains of the Tasty is the name on another establishment nothing like its predecessor. Schoenhof’s, the incomparable foreign bookstore, is packing up and becoming an online only business.

There is even talk of the iconic news stand in the very heart of the square moving out because of soaring rents. Even so, enough of the old fixtures remain to lend their solidity and grace to the new ones. Or maybe it’s just the spirit of the place that pervades everything, imbuing the new with a sense of tradition and the old with new vitality.

After dinner, we took our seats in a semicircle of chairs in front of the speaker’s podium at the Harvard Book Store, established in 1932 and still here. I had come to learn more about Hermann Rorschach and the test in whose company I have been traveling throughout my career.

Ten inkblots, meticulously crafted by a man who wrote that he wanted to “read people” and “cure souls,” have made their indelible mark on clinical psychology, psychiatry and culture itself. They have been idealized, misunderstood, underestimated, discarded and reincarnated throughout their 96-year history and they are still here.

They have survived far beyond the brief 37 years allotted to their creator, an idealistic physician, artist and family man who never lost sight of the person behind the mental illness. Like the square itself, they endure as a testament to the richness, complexity and integrity of human experience. In this place of continuity and change, I am grateful to be still here with them.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

 

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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