Writer's Cramp

My penmanship, my life

I didn't know quite what to expect from 95-year-old Charlotte Leibel, master graphologist, when I visited her at her Rebecca Towers efficiency apartment on South Beach. Frail-looking, soft-spoken, and wearing a magnifying glass around her neck, she didn't appear to be someone who could penetrate to the depths of my soul merely by looking at a few lines of my notoriously sloppy handwriting. Indeed, I was worried that my handwriting was so poor that she might mistake me for, say, a mass murderer who dabbled in Satanism.

As a youngster, after all, I regularly was berated by menacing nuns who whacked me with a ruler for my poor penmanship. (Actually I'm a Jew who went to public school, but I was so humiliated over my handwriting it felt like I was being tormented by nuns.) Now I faced the dreaded prospect of having my handwriting critiqued for its appearance and for what it said about the guilty secrets of my subconscious. I wasn't sure I could take the bad news she might deliver.

Even before I met Leibel in person, her promoter-cum-publisher Jeff Starkman fast-talked me into giving him a handwriting sample he said he'd analyze in conjunction with her. By the next day, he faxed back to me a laundry list of my various purported weaknesses, salted with a few complimentary phrases; the few positive descriptions were, I assumed, designed to reassure me that my life was still worth living. Nevertheless, as a paragon of strength and stability, a man for whom the phrase "happily well-adjusted" might have been invented, I was shocked -- yes, shocked -- to discover that I was being caricatured as a demented neurotic. The list of descriptive phrases he sent me bore an uncanny resemblance, no doubt, to the FBI psychiatric profile of Sirhan Sirhan, minus the violent tendencies.

One phrase was listed underneath another ad nauseam, in a cascade of largely dispiriting adjectives. Among other things, I was labeled "secretive," "obsessive-compulsive neurotic," "easily irritated," and "indecisive" A and that wasn't the worst of it. (I'd tell you more, but I'd like to hold on to the few shreds of dignity I have left. If you want to see the full list, please send $150 to the Art Levine Psychiatric Fund c/o New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami, FL 33101.) On the plus side, I was told I "see things clearly," was "versatile," and have "good self-esteem" (before I read their graphoanalysis, of course). After reading the list, I was torn about what I should do next: commit myself to a psychiatric hospital or just go ahead and make plans to stalk elected officials with a high-powered rifle? I decided it would be best to get her judgments on me in person.

As Leibel sat on a couch looking closely at a few sentences I had scribbled for her, she glanced up at me and asked, "Are you fatigued?" As I looked pale and rather exhausted, it didn't take a handwriting expert to see that I was tired. Then she said, "You may have borderline anemia," a perception gleaned from the light pressure of my handwriting. (Later, when I had a thorough blood workup done, which I was planning to do anyway, I swear, I learned that while I had a normal blood count, it was on the low side.) I may have been on the verge of physical collapse, Leibel indicated, but, to look on the bright side, at least my different lines of script weren't entangled with each other -- these separated lines meant I exhibited clear thinking.

That was just a temporary respite of good news, however. "Do you waste time before you get down to essentials?" she asked suddenly. I always thought my regimen would be considered the time-consuming but vital mental preparation needed for good writing: a thorough reading of several newspapers to keep me abreast of all the latest developments, then a brief nap and a brisk walk to clear the mind, followed by a long lunch to hone my thoughts. She apparently thought otherwise. "Before you make the letter t or i, you make a beginning stroke," she pointed out, a sign that I wasn't being efficient. "Cut that out."

By the time my first session with her was over, I discovered that I had an inferiority complex (that didn't square, of course, with the earlier analysis done with Starkman that found good self-esteem) and that I was moody and restless at times. The signposts for these problems, Leibel found, were easy to spot: the varying slants of my writing, different size letters, too many extra strokes. "All these have to change," she told me, before helpfully adding, "You need psychological assistance."

In lieu of the expensive psychological treatments her handwriting diagnosis seemed to indicate, I thought I might be a prime candidate for the cheap, short-term approach: graphotherapy, a method that supposedly changes behavioral problems by changing one's handwriting. Given how seriously disturbed she said I was, I was willing to try anything.

At our next session, Leibel told me I had even more problems to tackle, including thinking too slowly. I always had prided myself on my intellect, but evidently my handwriting indicated that I took too long to reach conclusions, perhaps was even a bit slow-witted. "If you work with me, your I.Q. rises," she assured me. (One possible solution she suggested: Make the rounded top of the m far sharper.) For now, though, she wanted me to work primarily on ending those pesky beginning strokes. She also stressed the importance of making a consistent, slightly rightward slant, to help erase shifting moods from my emotional makeup.

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