Writes of Passage

Charlotte Leibel knows all about the handwriting on the wall, and she uses it to unlock the secrets of personality

Despite such testimonials, the use of handwriting analysis and handwriting therapy is usually ridiculed or, at the very least, conducted in secret. "After looking at over 170 well-done studies on graphology, there is no evidence whatsoever that it can detect the human traits they [advocates] say is encoded in handwriting," says Barry Beyerstein, co-editor of a book on the topic, The Write Stuff, and an associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Whether it involves comparing handwriting analysis with such accepted personality evaluation techniques as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or matching their findings with the known attributes of employees, "Graphologists can't perform better than chance," asserts Beyerstein. Last fall a report commissioned by the British Psychological Society concluded that graphology was a waste of money and had "zero predictive effectiveness." (In contrast, Robert Backman, curator of the Handwriting Analysis Research Library, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, contends that there have been 4000 studies over the last century validating elements of the method, although they apparently haven't been well designed enough to mollify critics.)

Graphology is most widely used in Europe, particularly in France, where many companies employ it to analyze job applicants' personalities. Handwriting expert Ron Rice of New England Legal Investigations, a private investigation and document-examination firm, says some American companies -- reportedly including Ford Motors -- use the method for that purpose, as do the FBI and some police departments around the country; none of these organizations, though, will confirm that they've used graphology in that fashion. Rice has handled about 50 business clients that have hired his company to analyze the writing of employees or applicants. "You can laugh, but the phone rings and the checks keep coming in," he says. "They keep us busy." (Assessing Leibel, he adds, "She's a great analyst and a great teacher.")

American businesses, while generally keeping quiet about their activities in this field, occasionally have made discreet inquiries to Leibel about hiring her, she notes. About six years ago, Leibel says, a Washington personnel firm -- she forgets the name -- made overtures to bring her onboard to supplement their own handwriting analysis staff. And about twenty years ago, a representative from Bethlehem Steel made similar inquiries. "I could have had many positions," she says, but she didn't want to move from the sunny climate of Florida.

It's no surprise that Leibel has been sought after: Her level of skill is relatively rare. As she surveys the state of graphology today, she's dismayed by what she terms the "superficial" and "shallow" types who have degraded the technique in recent times. "They used to do their acts in nightclubs," she observes with biting disdain. "They ruined it -- and the best [practitioners] have left." She's now one of just a few widely respected graphologists in the country, and that bothers her: "It makes me feel bad. It's a great science, but I don't see it growing."

When Charlotte Leibel took up graphology in the 1940s, she'd already had enough careers and pursuits for a half-dozen lives. Born to the prosperous Pollack family in 1899 in Boston (her father was an importer-exporter of feathers), she graduated from the New England School of Law in 1922, joined the state bar, and became one of the few women lawyers in the region -- just two years after women were granted the vote. "I couldn't get a job," she recalls. "Nobody wanted to hire a woman." She handled only a few cases, and then decided to audit courses in everything from psychology to anthropology at Harvard University, which generally didn't admit women at the time. Her professors and fellow students viewed her as an oddity. "I was such a rare bird," she says now.

Indeed, she became a proto-new ager before the concept even existed. While at law school, Leibel took up the study of mysticism and became an adherent of theosophy, with its teachings about karma and inner guidance and supernatural dimensions. "It showed me that within you was every possibility you could ever know," she explains. "It was very inspiring."

Her eclectic pursuits continued when she became a caseworker with juvenile delinquents at a Boston social services agency. After she married a pharmacist in 1931, she became a pharmacist, too. However, her work allowed her to see firsthand the dangers of drugs, and as a result she turned to alternative therapies. (The switch has paid off: Although she moves especially slowly since being injured in an accident last July, Leibel is in strikingly good health and remarkably lucid.)

Back in the early 1940s, she was, therefore, just the sort of open-minded person who would respond to a book entitled Handwriting: The Key to Personality, which she found in the Boston public library. "I took the book and tried it out -- and found things about people nobody knew," she remembers. In her typical questing spirit, she soon tracked down one of the country's leading teachers on the subject, Irene Marcuse, and traveled back and forth to New York to take private classes with her. "It changed my life," Leibel proclaims. She studied Marcuse's material for five years, while taking other classes she contends taught her how to discern health problems, including cancer, by examining handwriting.

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