Yesterday we looked at a group of kids who couldn’t read because they’re personal lives meant they had other things on their mind than Great Expectations (because you know Wertham isn’t interested in Doc Savage or Zorro), but of course comics got the blame as the cause, not a symptom or byproduct. Again, I am a huge fan of books but if kids are having reading problems or just don’t like to read comics didn’t cause it. Except in the good doctor’s mind because he has a bias against something that goes against how he thinks you should read.
Today we’re starting with Wertham discussing reading disorders. Actually, he did bring it up earlier in the chapter but that was set-up introductory stuff. I’m guessing his editor finally got on him to learn how to make the writing interesting, but we’ll see in later chapters. I’m relatively sure we’ll get to later chapters, but you’ll want to catch up with this one before we resume our dive.
Reading disorders, whatever their cause, are profoundly disturbing in a child’s life. These children have to perform on a level far above their functioning capacity in an atmosphere of competition, and under the critique of teachers and parents they are exposed to an ever-present threat. They have to cope with something they do not understand. Almost with the precision of an experiment they are placed in a situation of ever-increasing frustration and disorientation. Going over the records of such children, I find noted over and over again: lack of self esteem; no self-confidence in school; “seems to lack interest in subjects he used to like”; estrangement from parents; shame; suspicion; hostility; feelings of inferiority; fear; truancy; running away from home; such characteristics as disruptive, unmanageable, rebellious, over-aggressive, destructive, discouraged; attitude of defeat; “doubts his learning ability in any field.”
Of course some of us got that from major harassment by peers while school officials looked the other way. I kid (somewhat) but as a lover of reading I don’t know what I would do if I had a reading disorder. I feel for these kids, especially given how we as a species treat (or various types of mistreat) people who can’t read.
Over the years I have found a relatively high correlation between delinquency and reading disorders; that is to say, a disproportionate number of poor or non-readers become delinquent, and a disproportionate number of delinquents have pronounced reading disorders. Often such children are harmed by comic books in two ways. Comics reading reinforces the reading disorder, if it has not helped to cause it in the first place, and the child, frustrated by failure, is made more liable to commit a defiant act. At the same time comic books suggest all kinds of specific defiant acts to commit.
This time the emphasis is mine. Notice how he sneaks that in there, just keeping at the forefront of your mind that it’s the comic’s fault in light of other evidence we’ve seen. I would have even given him the benefit of the doubt concerning the alleged reinforcement, but then he has to make comics the cause rather than the symptom. He just refuses to let any thought that comics are not from the Devil out of this conversation. The next paragraph he brings up a judge who “has paid particular attention to reading” and while the judge doesn’t blame comics, his assertion that a lot of the juveniles who show up in his court read a lot of comics allows Wertham to make the connection that comics caused them to turn bad, rather than “kids like comics and these are kids”.
In cases of serious delinquency or crime the problem of severe reading disability sometimes comes up and usually receives little attention. It would be wrong to think that in such cases inability to read has driven an individual directly to the antisocial act. But it is equally wrong to disregard entirely such a severe handicap, which often in devious ways drives a young person to all kinds of emotional short circuits.
I’m already at the point where I’m afraid to agree with him because it gets followed up by something far off of the mark. If frustration at not being able to read and the various shortcuts he or she takes that lead into bad situations later on does open them to terrible things later on that’s sad. But isn’t it possible that anything could have driven a kid to a criminal act (a movie, the nightly news, a radio play, the newspaper–probably not in this case or the wrong or unfinished book would have done the same) and it just happened to be the comic as opposed to one of those other methods?
He goes on to a case in England where a boy, who is described as a good kid (aren’t they all?), shot a police officer. Wertham includes this section from the father’s testimony on the witness stand.
Q.: In spite of that he never managed to read?
A.: No. He suffered from what I believe is known as word blindness.
Q.: As a result of that, the only reading matter he is familiar with is what are called comic books?
Q.: Eighteen months ago he went to a Bible class?
A.: Yes. But unfortunately he did not like that because he was very nervous of being asked to read a lesson and as he could not read, it would have been a very embarrassing experience for him, and for that reason he said he did not want to continue.
Here’s how the website Medicinenet describes word blindness:
A neurological disorder characterized by loss of the ability to read or understand the written word. Word blindness is a complex visual disturbance resulting from disease in the visual-association areas at the back of the brain. Someone who has had a stroke may be left with pure (total) or partial word blindness. Partial word blindness permits the individual to recognize letters but only read only certain types of words such as the concrete noun “inn” but not the more abstract preposition “in”.
I don’t know if the kid had a stroke (it’s rare for a 15-year-old to have had a stroke I would think) but how did this lead to killing a cop?
“Word blindness” constitutes a severe reading disability. According to my experience it can be greatly improved, and even cured, by competent therapy. Here then is a boy who has to struggle against a serious handicap. This creates a gap in his life which is filled for him by adult society with crime comic books. What he learned from them was apparent enough at the trial. It was testified that he had shouted at the policeman: “Come on, you brave coppers! Let us have it out!”
I can match this almost verbally: “Let’s see you try to take me, you big brave coppers!” says a comic book on my desk.
Unless you’re dragging in a comic from England I doubt he’s read it. Frankly it’s not an iconic enough line that it couldn’t be a coincidence…SINCE THE BOY CAN’T READ! Like, at all! Plus he’s in England and your comic is probably from the US. He would have had to import it or the US publisher would have had to reprint his comic out of the country, and I don’t know how often that happened in the 1950s. The odds of this being a comic he was badly quoting is quite low.
This sixteen-year-old boy was sentenced to jail for life, his nineteen-year-old co-defendant, who was also illiterate and could not read anything except comic books, was hanged. It is, of course, easier to hang a boy than to give him remedial-reading instruction, and still easier to say he would have committed the crime anyhow. “Let us put out of our minds in this case any question of comics,” said the judge. But who can say that the crime would have occurred if this boy’s reading disability had been cured early and he had been given decent literature to read instead of comic books?
HE SUFFERS FROM WORD BLINDNESS! HE CANNOT READ AT ALL UNLESS IT’S PARTIAL WORD BLINDNESS! He wouldn’t be able to read “decent literature” and don’t tell me there aren’t horrible people in classic literature for him to emulate. Most of the characters William Shakespeare created were horrible people. Oliver Twist and Pinocchio ran into nothing but horrible people to emulate! Yes, let’s celebrate charming old ladies like Miss Havisham, who is so bitter she was stood up at the altar that she wants to use her own daughter to make a random boy suffer heartbreak before he’s old enough to vote! Jim Hawkins hung out with pirates! Huckleberry Finn was a troublemaker who tricked kids (and paid for it, even if with karma, but still…) and kept getting his best friend into trouble on a regular basis. BIG trouble! A number of comic characters and storylines were inspired by the very same literature Wertham insists is the ONLY thing kids should be reading, and they are not nice people to know. It just takes longer to see what actually happens to these characters.
Again, these are great stories and kids should be exposed to them, and in one form or another are since they inspired writers of other media (do you know how many Romeo & Juliet homages and adaptations there are in kids shows alone?) but it is hypocritical to complain about the bad characters in comics when horrible people aren’t reserved for 10¢ pulp novels and pre-Hayes code movies. Or even post-Hayes code movies.
It is safe to say that it is almost impossible to exaggerate the havoc reading disabilities cause in a child’s life. There is one redeeming feature. Reading disorders, of whatever cause, may be long-drawn-out affairs, but they need not be permanent. They are amenable to competent treatment. This must consist first of all in remedial-reading instruction, which preferably should be given three times a week, by trained instructors. It is not good enough if the newspapers carry an official announcement of a remedial-reading program giving teachers what is euphemistically called “intensive training” that lasts “one week”!
Competent remedial-reading teaching may show good results in a pupil even in four to six months. Not only does the reading itself improve, but often beneficial effects like the appearance of positive emotional attitudes may be observed. Sometimes the progress is stormy, with periods of increased aggressiveness and marked resistance. The children give up unfavorable attitudes eventually, though, and become aware of their ability to learn. Sometimes it is just as difficult to determine what makes these children well as to decide what caused the trouble in the first place. The relationship to the teacher and to the other children in remedial-reading teaching plays a big role. But the most important thing is the patient, competent actual remedial-reading training itself.
This is very positive and gives hope. I just wanted to include it because with all the ranting I’m doing against Wertham I want to show he’s not a bad person and may be good at his job. The problem is a harsh bias against a media format he didn’t grow up with and doesn’t know how to read because it goes against his favorite media format while I fully enjoy them both. I think it’s wrong to hate Fredrick Wertham for the aftermath his book caused in the world of comics, even when being upset at him for doing so when he was just as clueless as the parents and government officials he influence. It’s the blind leading the blind. He also laments that there wasn’t enough help given to poor readers and that maybe being able to read would have left him left open to darker influences, including comics they were too young to read because of the graphic nature, but also the criminal element around them and ostracize himself or herself from people who care about them because they’re worried of how they’ll be treated–based on how they already were because their reading problem wasn’t properly diagnosed.
It’s early yet but I want to stop here because the final part of his chapter may not all fit here, yet it’s an important thing to go over. In our final installment on this chapter we look at Wertham’s own comic illiteracy. And if we’re lucky I may be having a special guest on this one. It’s a last-minute idea so I have to hear back from him first.