Writes of Passage
Inside a cramped studio apartment on South Beach, a tiny 95-year-old woman in white polyester pants and a white jacket is watching some of the preliminary skirmishings in the O.J. Simpson trial on TV. Hunched over in her rocking chair, peering intently at the screen, Charlotte Leibel, like millions of other Americans, holds strong opinions about the case. As deputy district attorney Marcia Clark talks on-screen, Leibel suddenly bursts out, "He's guilty as hell!" But unlike most observers of the trial, this particular viewer has unique insights into O.J.'s personality, perceptions so special that the tabloid TV show Hard Copy featured her in December as an expert commentator on...O.J. Simpson's handwriting. And this past Tuesday, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, right alongside Tom Arnold.
Leibel, it turns out, has about 50 years' experience analyzing the handwriting of thousands of people for clues to the human personality. Her Simpson findings were ballyhooed at the top of the Hard Copy show as O.J.'s "Secret Message" contained in the "suicide note" he wrote on the day he fled in Al Cowlings's notorious white Bronco. The note, first read aloud by his friend Robert Kardashian at a news conference last June, proclaimed O.J.'s innocence and love for his ex-wife, Nicole, but Charlotte Leibel didn't care about any of that -- she just looked at the individual letters and the style of Simpson's penmanship.
She based her analysis on a careful examination of what she and other handwriting analysts say are telltale signs, such as the slant and size of letters and the way loops and strokes are formed. During Leibel's segment on Hard Copy, the TV announcer breathlessly intoned, "Now one of America's leading handwriting experts has just finished examining the note, and what she has to say may shock some of O.J. Simpson's supporters." From her couch in her apartment in a public housing project on Alton Road, Leibel told the TV interviewer, "When I saw his writing, I was pretty well convinced that he was capable of violence."
Her views on O.J. are discussed in more detail in a book one of her acolytes arranged to publish this month, Change Your Handwriting...Change Your Life. It is a revised version of a 1972 book that illustrates not only how to analyze handwriting but how to change your personality by altering your handwriting. This supposedly is accomplished through "graphotherapy," an obscure self-help technique. (Personal problems can be solved, Leibel contends, by spending 30 minutes a day for several months practicing new handwriting styles. "It's the only way they [people] can really help themselves," she says in a forceful manner. "Handwriting is brainwriting. By changing it, you're changing the brain.")
As for O.J., Leibel never had the opportunity to work directly with him to change his handwriting, so he remains stuck with the unique stylistic quirks that mark him, in Leibel's view, as a dangerous man. "I've never seen such violence," asserts Leibel, who's also studied Charles Manson and other sociopaths, as well as nobler celebrities. "O.J.'s jealousy is seen in the wavering of pressure as he writes," she notes. "His printing is disconnected" -- which, she explains, indicates his independence, stubbornness, and strong feelings that could lead to violence. Our grade school teachers were right: Penmanship, it seems, does count.
Over time, Leibel claims, she has discovered traits in celebrities that were not widely known at the time she did her analysis. For instance, in the 1960s, Leibel studied Eleanor Roosevelt's signature closely and discovered that she had homosexual tendencies. The giveaway, to Leibel, was the distorted way the former first lady made her lower loops in letters, such as f, which supposedly reflect sexual impulses; hers had a squarelike appearance. In recent years, historians have discussed the possibility of a homosexual friendship between Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok. Whatever she discovers, Leibel holds no doubts about the general accuracy of her methods.
"It's the most valuable science in detecting personality that there is," she says. (Although enthusiastic clients and handwriting experts back up her view, critics point out that few well-designed studies exist to confirm the validity of "graphology," or handwriting analysis.)
As in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, Leibel's purported ability to probe the innermost depths of the human spirit often leads her to discover hidden truths about people's sex lives. When John F. Kennedy was still in office, Leibel took one look at the enormous y stem in his signature and concluded, "He had the most outstanding sexual appetite I ever saw." (Only after his death did the country learn that he was what today would be called a "sex addict.")
Indeed, Leibel doesn't pull her punches when making any of her pronouncements, whether you're one of the common folk or a candidate for higher office. For example, Leibel recalls speaking to a local women's Republican club in 1968 when one of the members handed her a handwriting sample of a politician about whom she claims she knew virtually nothing: Richard Nixon. After glancing at the paper, Leibel told the stunned audience, "What an opportunist!" Nixon was elected president, but after he resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, she remembers, one of the club officials told her, "By golly, you were right!"
Leibel doesn't claim to be foolproof, but she ends most of these tales of her powers by noting, "I was 100 percent right." It's no accident that she makes sure to cross her t's near the top of the stem: It's a sign, she says, of high self-esteem.
There are plenty of people who hold Leibel in the same high regard. In fact she still has a handful of clients and friends who see her for handwriting analysis, counseling, and graphotherapy. On a recent weekday morning, she is working with a woman we'll call Louise, a rather tense middle-age recovering alcoholic. Leibel first analyzed Louise's handwriting last spring, when the woman was having drinking problems, then began "treating" her after she left an addiction treatment center last summer. (Leibel usually charges a $35 fee for a 90-minute session.) Louise has sobered up, joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and for this session has brought along a sample of her handwriting from December. Despite the presence of onlookers, Leibel mercilessly dissects Louise's writing A and personality.
Leibel also remembers clearly the way Louise's handwriting once looked. She has, amazingly enough, the same vivid memory for a person's handwriting that some people have for faces. "Her original writing was entangled in the lines below," Leibel explains. "She was very confused."
She turns to Louise:"You needed graphotherapy very badly. I showed you how to abandon [writing] entanglements. You began to untangle yourself and think clearly."
Louise bristles a bit at this. "I also stopped the intake of alcohol," she points out.
Leibel then takes the pages of Louise's recent writing and brings them close to her face, staring at each little detail of the writing with a circular magnifying glass that she keeps hung around her neck with a string. "Your writing now shows you are thinking pretty clearly," she says. "You've shortened your loops and you've begun to regain control." Then she adds, "You still have compulsions and obsessions. That would require a little psychotherapy." Louise murmurs in assent.
Leibel offers Louise more bad news gleaned from the writing. "Your feelings of inferiority are no good, either," she says. "Instead of having a small I, you should lift it up." As the session continues, Leibel asks Louise to write a few more lines on the spot. Using both samples, she finds that Louise is resentful, guarded, and repressed -- all of which prompts Louise's agreement.
Suddenly Leibel squints her eyes at the writing, looks up, and announces, "Your sex life is stunted." Louise is briefly taken aback, then regains her composure and says, "Yes, I live a celibate lifestyle."
Leibel blithely moves on, scanning the lines with her magnifier and continuing to list Louise's strengths and weaknesses. Near the end, Leibel concludes, "You still need treatment. I can help you accelerate your psychotherapy. Their costs at $110 an hour are quite expensive, but if you work with me, I can help you in a couple of months."
Leibel advises Louise to spend 30 minutes a day writing about her problems and hopes, along with copying an "affirmation" that Louise selects herself: the "serenity prayer" widely used in AA.
When it's all over, Louise is rather nonchalant about the apparent accuracy and value of Leibel's analysis. "None of it struck me as surprising," she shrugs. "I totally believe in what she's doing. Everything she said is true."
"What's my batting average with you?" Leibel asks.
"As far as your being right-on? I'd say 100 percent."
"Isn't that something?" Leibel beams, preening a bit at her kitchen table.
And Louise credits her handwriting work with Leibel as helping her to think more clearly.
Whatever its value, Leibel's odd therapeutic approach -- as improbable and unaccepted as it is -- actually has won plaudits from a surprisingly respectable variety of adherents. "It's not hocus-pocus," says 25-year-old Reed Martin, currently studying for his master's in business administration at Columbia University in New York City. Martin began visiting Leibel for handwriting counseling when he was a Miami teenager troubled by mediocre grades, mercurial moods, and a certain aimlessness in life. Today, he notes, "I cross my t's at the top and now look at me" -- a successful Georgetown University and Columbia Journalism School graduate seeking his MBA. He compares the new discipline that has emerged in his life to the benefits that come from any regimen, even organizing the socks in your drawer. And he credits Leibel's wisdom about life with helping him, too: "She's a Yoda-like character in my childhood, teaching me self-discipline and goal orientation."
In addition to having his own script analyzed, Martin began showing Leibel the handwriting of different women he had dated over the years. "At first I dismissed what she said, but she was always dead-on," he contends. In one case, he was surprised to learn that a woman he dated briefly was viewed by Leibel as having homosexual tendencies; that same woman later became an active bisexual on the campus of the college they attended.
"It all sounds ridiculous and fanciful," Martin admits, "but handwriting does relate to certain things in your life."
Weston Agor, now a professor of public administration at the University of Texas in El Paso, is equally fervent in his belief in Leibel's abilities. When he first consulted her in 1980, he was researching how intuition could be applied in executive decision-making, but he didn't have the courage to follow his own intuition. Leibel told him he ought to break up some of the connecting script within some of his words, because that would somehow work to strengthen his intuition. He followed her suggestions, then summoned the determination to write three books, and in 1990 won a $462,000 research grant for his work. Did Leibel's graphotherapy contribute to his success? "Definitely," he says.
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.
Handwriting analysis, although derided by most psychology experts today, had greater prestige when Leibel first started practicing it. Her first teacher, Marcuse, had served as a consultant to famed psychiatrist Carl Jung and had helped promote the concept of handwriting as a key to unlocking the subconscious. Leibel later learned the tenets of graphotherapy -- as opposed to just handwriting analysis -- from a variety of books.
Using all those insights, she slowly began establishing a client base, first in Boston, then in Miami after she moved here in 1946. She gave lectures at Kiwanis and Lions clubs as well as to members of other civic groups, impressing those in the audience and gaining a following that brought her as many as three clients a day. After one talk, for instance, she studied a woman's handwriting and determined that the rigid stroke leading into some letters indicated a strong resentment against a family member (her husband, the woman admitted). Leibel asked her, "Do you have ulcers?"
"I sure do," the woman answered. Leibel's prescription: Abandon the rigid stroke and steer clear of disturbing situations. As Leibel tells it, about a year later, she again met the woman, who reported that her ulcers had disappeared along with the writing stroke that Leibel decried.
Much of Leibel's work over the years has served men and women seeking to determine the compatibility of potential mates -- she firmly believes it's all revealed in the writing. At various times, Leibel claims, she's forecast ill-fated relationships that have ended in divorce, and warned men against "gold diggers" (the giveaway: enlarged lower loops). Sometimes she even has found people who were well matched. But often her clients are not happy to hear what she has to say. Even her own niece complained "that I was horrible and interfered with her relationships." Leibel pauses for a moment and then adds, "She finally had to admit I was right."
Given Leibel's zeal, though, she never has been content with merely counseling others, but rather always has sought to spread the graphology gospel. By the 1960s, she had close to two dozen students she taught privately in Miami Beach, and in 1972 Stein and Day published about 2500 copies of her book, Change Your Handwriting...Change Your Life, a summation of her 30 years of work in the field. It still can be found in many public libraries around the country. She also developed a flair for self-promotion, appearing a few dozen times on local radio and lecturing widely to civic groups.
Eventually, however, she drifted into obscurity, and after her husband lost virtually all their life's savings through bad investments in the commodities market and then died about fifteen years ago, Charlotte Leibel faced a seemingly grim existence. "We were wiped out," she recalls, and, at age 80, she went to work part-time as an adult education teacher for Dade County Public Schools, a job she held until she was 93 years old. Through it all, her feistiness and optimism remained undiminished, even as she found it necessary to move into a housing project for the elderly about two years ago. (She likes the amenities, but "as soon as I get a little money, I'm out of here," she declares, hoping for profits from sales of her book.)
About a year and a half ago, she met a man who would put her back in the limelight. At her chiropractor's office, she struck up a conversation with Jeff Starkman, a long-haired, hard-charging marketing consultant and real estate investor. Skeptical at first when he scribbled a few lines for her, Starkman was wowed by Leibel's ability to determine a variety of his traits and problems, from his fondness for fast cars to his confused thinking that led to serious mistakes (he recently had lost a bundle in real estate). He remembers, "I'm thinking like, 'Fuck, this old lady is practically taking my clothes off'" [by pinpointing so many personal attributes]. She even spotted -- but didn't tell him then -- his bisexuality.
Starkman, now 44 years old, was so impressed that he vowed to republish her book. He also became a loyal student and client, changing his script to write more clearly and with smaller letters, in order to improve his concentration and mental clarity. But his goal of putting out a revised version of her book remained an unrealized ambition. "The book was filled with great material, but it had no sizzle," he says. He needed a fresh angle, and then he got his lucky break: O.J. Simpson was arrested for murder last June.
"He's a great salesman," Leibel now says of her publisher and promoter. The new book includes two analyses of Simpson's handwriting, including one by forensic handwriting expert Ron Rice of Boston. Additionally, its cover is emblazoned with a pink headline about an "exclusive O.J. Simpson profile" and a reproduction of O.J.'s famous note. Starkman and the book's printer, Sol Roskin of Miami-based Hallmark Press, invested the funds needed to produce a first run of about 7000 copies.
Along the way, Starkman has become a skilled novice handwriting analyst himself. During a recent meal, he casually asks the waiter to write a few lines, and then begins reeling off personality traits to the dumbfounded worker. "You do a lot of self-preservation, keeping people at a distance," Starkman says. "Very true," the waiter, Alex Pacallao, responds. Starkman recites other personal features: "You're a most loyal friend.... You're in control of your emotions.... You live a hermetic lifestyle...." The waiter keeps saying yes, and finally exclaims, "This is scary. You've read me more accurately than anyone has ever come close to. I got goose bumps listening to you."
The real expert, of course, remains Charlotte Leibel, who Starkman successfully has placed on Hard Copy, Channel 7, and in the ultimate promotional coup, The Tonight Show. He contacted a producer on the show, hyped Leibel's Hard Copy appearance as if everyone knew about it, and managed to convince The Tonight Show people that, based on tapes of her broadcast appearances, she'd be a hit on their program.
The days prior to her appearance seemed like a good omen. On the flight out to Los Angeles to do the show, she analyzed the pilot's and the crew's handwriting, impressing the pilot enough that he sat down to chat with her for a while after the flight was over. Leibel believes, "If I could examine pilots' handwriting, I could find those pilots that are confused and prone to accidents." And the day before Leibel taped her Tonight Show segment, the ever-hustling Starkman talked his way into the Los Angeles District Attorney's office and managed to present a copy of the book -- and a spiel about Leibel and her TV appearance -- to Marcia Clark's assistant. He says he actually was treated courteously.
On the big day, Leibel came out last, after Tom Arnold and a comedian. Leno held up her book for millions to see and said, "From Miami Beach, Florida, of course, please welcome 95-year-old Charlotte Leibel." He then helped her walk to her chair, a little lady in a colorful red jacket. She got the audience on her side from the outset, telling how she analyzed the handwriting of the pilot and crew on the flight out, to which Leno joked, "A little late to find that out, isn't it?"
"That's true," she answered, "but it's good to know you have capable men running planes. I haven't seen but one, but it was very encouraging." The audience howled with laughter.
She patiently explained to Leno, as she's done for years, that handwriting analysis is a science and is used widely in Europe. "Is that right? Really?" Leno replied, treating her respectfully.
He soon turned his attention to the evaluations she'd done on different celebrities, including himself. "I was very impressed with you," she said, and the audience burst
into raucous applause. Leno posed in mock vanity as she continued, "You're distinctly above average in intelligence, ability, and personality."
"A lovely woman," he said with the faint air of a boulevardier.
"If I was very much younger, I'd make a beeline for you," Leibel told him with a newfound comic flair. It brought down the house.
Leibel smiled broadly and, after the whistles and applause died down, Leno remarked, "Now you know how she got on the show -- but don't tell my wife."
She then reviewed the anonymous celebrity handwriting samples that had been given to her earlier. The first was Tom Arnold's, and Leibel looked over at him and asked, "Is that him?" After the crowd stopped laughing, she began the matter-of-fact evaluation, just like those countless kitchen-table sessions back home. "What I see here is that you like to be involved in big deals," she said. "I got a divorce, actually," Arnold offered, "and at one time I was fairly involved in a big deal." The audience laughed, but Leibel, no follower of celebrity trends, seemed unaware of his famous breakup with Roseanne. Leibel continued, "You need recognition... attention... and admiration," with which Arnold agreed. A bit later she looked at the sample for Arnold Schwarzenegger (with his name emblazoned on the back of the card), but she talked about him as if she was unaware of his identity. "He's a very ambitious and optimistic person, and wants big things, too. There's probably some dramatic ability, too."
Before ending with another plug for Leibel's book, Leno mentioned that she analyzed O.J.'s handwriting in it, but he avoided discussing the specifics of her findings: "I don't want to be prejudicial." As he held up the book one last time, he said, "It's fascinating, it really is fascinating." The segment closed to loud applause. When she left the stage, the producer who booked her gave her a big hug.
A day later Leibel was back in her South Beach public housing project efficiency, ready to analyze some more handwriting. "It was unbelievable to get all that notice," she said, and, as always, she's looking to the future: "I hope it boosts sales -- and I think I'll go on other shows.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.