06/27/2013 12:40 EDT | Updated 08/27/2013 05:12 EDT

What Paula Deen's Handwriting Teaches Us

Paula Deen has admitted to using language that most would call racist, and now her world has officially turned upside down. She probably gets it now: what you say is more important than what you cook. Her type 2 diabetes has likely made her more mindful of what she puts in her mouth, and now she will be a little bit more careful about what comes out of it. Watching prominent figures undo their best success is a puzzling phenomenon. How can people so carelessly trigger their own downfall? There's something to be learned here.

As a therapist, I make it my business to learn about people in myriad ways. As a graphologist, I'm intrigued by what we might learn about people by taking a look at their handwriting. Paula Deen is an interesting case in point.


Paula Deen's handwriting

In the above handwriting sample, one graphic feature stands out. Compare the bloated capitals with the tiny last letter of the first name. Contrast the width of some letters with the narrowness of, say, the 'n' at the end of 'cookin'. Graphologists have a word for this sort of variability in handwriting: irregularity. Regularity describes the degree to which letters are evenly shaped, showing consistency in their size, height and width.

When letters vacillate greatly in size -- when one is bloated and huge and another is absolutely tiny -- graphologists conjecture (barring any obvious cognitive, visual or motor disabilities that might account for the variability) that the writer has difficulties with self-regulation. This is the writer who drops the ball. Her ability to calibrate her words or deeds is hit and miss. Those bloated capitals reveal the importance of appearances for this writer, a need to live up to a public image, but by the last letter of her first and her last name, she falters. Suddenly, the faculty that modulates responses and behaviours goes lax. Emotional reactions or impulsiveness may compromise her performance. What started with a flare ends with a fizzle.


Martha Stewart's signature

Contrast her handwriting with that of Martha Stewart. Perfectly regulated, Martha will have a self-trust that would elude Paula Deen, although, admittedly, with all the bubbly roundedness in Deen's writing, that celebrity exudes a warmth and friendliness mostly unfamiliar to Martha Stewart. The control in Martha's handwriting, though, reveals a writer who doesn't miss a beat. She's steady and even-keeled. She doesn't fall asleep at the wheel.

And what does all this have to do with you?

Plato, in Phaedrus, understands the psyche as having three intertwined parts. In his allegory, there is a charioteer in a constant struggle to steer and unify two winged horses, one black and one white. The black horse represents the bodily appetites that fuel a craving for physical pleasure and comfort. Unbridled, this horse leads us astray. The white horse represents the noble spirit which hungers to express higher virtues. The charioteer, the rational self, struggles to guide these wayward horses, each pulling in a separate direction. Moving the enterprise forward successfully is an exercise in governance. Masterful control is the secret to having a ride that is steady and productive.

And now you see where this is going: we can conjecture that Paula Deen and Martha Stewart both find a place in the market because they, as archetypes, each find a place in our psyche. And on a day-to-day basis we constantly decide with which of these inner selves to do business, sometimes pandering to that hunger for comfort or even gluttony, other times letting more evolved priorities reign supreme. On a busy day, we may adjudicate between these two parts on a minute to minute basis.

And, that being the case, when making those daily decisions that are the stuff of life, it is best to keep in mind what we learned on the news this week: incredible though it may seem, an empire can be lost in an instant.

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This column is designed to introduce the clinical application of the psychology of handwriting, a European technique mostly unfamiliar in North America. Readers can bear in mind that graphology is appropriately used alongside other assessment methods, never used in isolation. This method is discussed fully in my book Clinical Graphology: An Interpretive Manual for Mental Health Practitioners, recently published by Charles C Thomas Publishers.

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