If you’ve been reading the CBLDF blog for a while, you are undoubtedly familiar with Frederic Wertham, the child psychologist whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent claimed that comics transformed innocent children into depraved juvenile delinquents, making Wertham almost single-handedly responsible for decades of comics censorship. Although it is already fairly obvious to most modern-day readers that Wertham’s conclusions were laughable and completely groundless, new research proves that even the “supporting evidence” in the book was largely fabricated. Carol Tilley, a University of Illinois professor of Library Science, compared Wertham’s notes to the final published version of Seduction and found that “the doctor revised children’s ages, distorted their quotes, omitted other causal factors and in general ‘played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics.’”
Tilley says Seduction of the Innocent lacks citations or a bibliography, making it difficult for casual readers to verify Wertham’s data. As one of the first researchers to access Wertham’s personal papers after they were made available by the Library of Congress in 2010, Tilley came across quotations from children — patients of Wertham and his colleagues — that she recognized from Seduction. However, in many cases the quotes differed drastically from what eventually made it into print.
In one instance, Wertham used the testimony of a 13-year-old boy who had sexually abused another boy to support his claim that Batman comics encouraged homosexual behavior. Wertham conveniently neglected to mention that the patient had previously been sexually abused and actually preferred Superman. In another case, Wertham took quotes from a single source, a boy identified in his files as Carlisle, and attributed them to five different patients. Carlisle admitted that crime comics gave him ideas on how to commit burglaries, and Wertham seized on the opportunity to make this influence seem more widespread than it actually was.
Tilley found that misrepresentations were repeated so often in Seduction that there can be no doubt that they were deliberate:
[Wertham]…would take things from different days, from different parts of a transcript, reorganize them, omit words, make small changes that, in effect, change the kids’ arguments or change their viewpoints. He did this in so many instances that it’s hard to overlook.
Unfortunately, as we know, Wertham’s fallacious tome met with great success when it was published in 1954. The National Education Association named it their book of the year, and it directly inspired the infamous Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency, during which Wertham gave “expert” testimony. In response, the comics industry formed the Comics Magazine Association of America, which in turn implemented the Comics Code Authority. The Authority’s strict, self-imposed rules on everything from drug use to criminal retribution to respect for authority all but destroyed the horror, crime, and adventure comic genres. Superhero comics managed to hold on but only with major changes — for instance, the introduction of Batwoman provided Batman with a female love interest to dispel any notion of a homosexual relationship with Robin.
Tilley’s invaluable research on Wertham and comics is ongoing. Her 30-page article “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics” can be found in the November-December 2012 issue of the journal Information & Culture. (Check your local friendly university library to see the full article!) A paper that she recently presented at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting about how comics could have been better served by libraries will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.