Seduction Of The Innocent: The Adventures of Doctor Quarter

>> Tuesday, August 20, 2013

If you like comic books, you know Fredric Wertham as the guy who tried to destroy the industry in the 1950s.  He went around complaining about how violent and awful they were until Estes Kefauver, United States Senator from Tennessee, convened Congressional hearings that humiliated EC Comics publisher William Gaines and led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, a censoring body that caused Batman to be totally lame and ended the Golden Age of "pre-Code" comics.

A lot of that preceding paragraph is a little wrong or misleading.  I write with complete affection and respect for the ever-lovable Bill Gaines that he mostly humiliated himself (nevertheless, if there's a Valhalla for rebels and heroes of American counterculture, may he be swilling the best beer at the best table in the joint).  The Comics Code Authority was an industry project, not something imposed by the government; indeed, it's the acme of Fredric Wertham not getting what he wanted out of the whole thing, seeing as how he was trying to get Congress to use the Commerce Clause to ban comics sales to kids, and what the CCA mostly did was slap approvals on titles from the biggest publishers (National, basically) almost regardless of content while making life impossible for smaller, scrappier publishers.  Congress didn't do much.  And Batman, by the way, was already well on his way to becoming kind of lame (the long slide would continue until the early 1970s, when Denny O'Neil would basically reinvent the character nearly-from-scratch, basically keeping only his backstory).

But the worst part of all of that is that Fredric Wertham became famous--or infamous--for the wrong thing.  And this was something I only realized right before I made a point of finally reading Seduction Of The Innocent, having spent decades thinking Wertham was a schmuck.  The truth was that he should have been a hero.  Could have been a hero.  Would have been a hero, if he hadn't stumbled into a monomaniacal obsession with a burgeoning industry he decided was killing the community he'd made a commitment to.

Wertham was born in Germany in 1895.  He studied medicine and decided to become a psychiatrist.  In 1922, he came to the United States, settling in New York City, and within a few years he was proffering expert testimony in criminal cases, frequently on behalf of the defense.  This is one of the first things you need to know about Dr. Fredric Wertham: that from nearly the beginning of his professional career, he was concerned with trying to figure out why people did bad things that brought them into conflict with the law.  He came to a general conclusion about that, too, and it runs through Seduction Of The Innocent as a primary theme and seems to have influenced much of his other work: Wertham was committed to a sense that there weren't really any bad people at all, only basically good people who couldn't live up to that potentiality, whether because of some neurological defect or, very frequently, because of the ways their environment molded them so that they couldn't comply with the expectations of society, or perhaps, even, society had sent such mixed signals about what was expected that they couldn't be wholly faulted for their failure to comprehend what the right thing was supposed to be in the first place.

There's something else I find noble and tragic about that last bit, something that is probably the second essential thing you need to know about Fredric Wertham: as far as I can tell, he applied that sense that everybody was basically decent, but that decency could be stymied or thwarted or shorted out by mixed signals, to everybody.  And that's not tautological, that he applied this belief he had about everybody to everybody.  Fredric Wertham, remember, was living and practicing in the United States.  In the middle of the 20th Century.

And the United States was, and is, an extremely racist nation.  But in the 20th Century, the United States was something more and worse: it was a racist and segregated nation, with separation of the races a matter not just of convention (de facto segregation) but of law (de jure segregation).

Fredric Wertham's crusade on comics, the thing he's most famous for, shouldn't even be the second most famous thing about him.  The second most famous thing about Fredric Wertham should be what he did in 1946.  No, wait--that's the year his efforts bore fruit.  It actually started about ten years before that.

A long and well-known consequence of America's racial issues is that minorities end up being disproportionately charged, convicted of, and punished for crimes.  Wertham was cognizant of this, and he was also aware that there were no mental health services whatsoever available for minorities, perhaps aside from prison hospitals, which isn't a solution to anything at all.  Wertham couldn't do much about institutionalized racism, but psychiatry was something he was becoming a nationally-recognized expert in, and through the 1930s he tried to garner funding and support for more widespread mental health care.  He didn't have much success.

There's an old district in New York City called Harlem, which eventually became a center of African-American resettlement during the diaspora that occurred during the second half of the 19th Century after the American Civil War, when thousands and thousands of African Americans, understandably not wanting to be anywhere near the men and women who formerly abused them, moved north during Reconstruction.  For several decades, reaching a pinnacle in the 1920s, Harlem was a pretty amazing place, ground zero for African American culture, and by extension an engine of American culture--deeply-engrained racism and various forms of segregation didn't keep white Americans from borrowing art, most famously jazz.  But the Great Depression devastated the neighborhood and Harlem never really recovered, becoming a notorious slum.

In New York City, Harlem produced a disproportionate percentage of NYC's juvenile delinquency cases, and so it was to Harlem Wertham went when he gave up on establishment funding to set up a volunteer-run psychiatric clinic with support from neighborhood churches (including donated space to work in), advice and assistance from African-American community leaders such as Paul Robeson and Ralph Ellison, and help from non-profits like Planned Parenthood.  The Lafargue Clinic, named for Paul Lafargue, was open to anyone (regardless of ethnicity or class), but the location made the clinic most accessible to African-Americans and Puerto Ricans living in Harlem and the vicinity; psychiatric services were offered for free if need be, but patients were generally charged twenty-five cents (around three bucks today, according to inflation calculators I checked) as a matter of maintaining dignity, to remove any embarrassment or sense of stigma that might be felt over receiving charity (hence, Wertham evidently found himself being nicknamed "Doctor Quarter" by locals).

I don't think there's any way to overstate just how revolutionary and groundbreaking this was: nobody was offering psychiatric help to the poor, and especially to poor African-Americans, and especially to poor African-American kids, at all.  Radical thing number one.  And radical thing number two, Wertham's belief that anyone and anybody ought to have access to what folks 'round the middle of the 20th Century were often calling "mental hygiene", as opposed to rich people being able to faddishly pursue psychoanalysis.  And radical thing number three, Wertham's belief that people ought to be able to receive mental health services when they needed them, as opposed to locking them up after it was too late to offer preventative health care.  And radical thing number four, that in an era where euegnics had been made unpalatable by the actions of the Nazi regime in Europe but quite a lot of people (including intellectuals and public leaders) still harbored beliefs in racial superiority, Wertham's belief that people were just people, that the difference between a juvenile delinquent in Harlem and some posh rich white kid somewhere wasn't a matter of inherent qualities but merely one of opportunities and influences.  Speaking of which, kind-of-radical thing number five, Wertham's belief that positive influences should be offered to everyone, i.e. his optimism in the human potential of every individual, which (judging by quite a lot of comments threads on political opinion websites) remains a pretty wild and controversial assertion.

And this should have been only Wertham's second claim to fame.

I'm very indebted to several sources for this, including Bart Beaty's Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture and James E. Reibman's "Ralph Ellison, Fredric Wertham, M.D., and the Lafargue Clinic: Civil Rights and Psychiatric Services in Harlem" (full text of Reibman's law review article isn't available at that link, I'm afraid, though I have access to it; the citation, if you need it, is 26 Okla. City U.L. Rev. 1041).  Other sources are linked to in the main text of the post, including Wikipedia for general biographical information, dates, etc..


mattw Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 2:35:00 PM EDT  

Wow. So in a way, he was kind of a misguided superhero.

Eric Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 2:43:00 PM EDT  

He kinda was. And there's more to come.

And, hopefully, the "more to come" will cover one of the interesting and frustrating things about reading Seduction, which is that even the ways in which he was misguided aren't as wholly indefensible as they're sometimes framed. Don't get me wrong: Seduction is a mess, there's lots of problems with it, Wertham was wrong about a lot of things, and he committed some of the sins he accused others of. But even all that isn't as simple as it's often presented.

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