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Questioning a local graphologist's claims about handwriting and personality. 

Michelle Dresbold's career sounds fascinating. She's an abstract impressionist painter, but also the only civilian to attend the U.S. Secret Service's advanced document-examination training on forgery and handwriting identification. It's expertise she's used to spot phony will signatures, and in dozens of criminal cases with Pittsburgh police and county district attorney's and coroner's offices.

However, her book Sex, Lies, and Handwriting: A Top Expert Reveals the Secrets in Your Handwriting (Free Press), co-authored by James Kwalwasser, and now in paperback, concerns another of her obsessions. "I wanted this to be more like a juicy novel," says Dresbold, a Pittsburgh native and resident. And juice there is, mostly the sanguinary kind.

Dresbold analyzes serial killers, swindlers, perverts and plain jerks via "handwriting personality profiling," or graphology. The book targets the telling pen strokes of such infamous rogues as Jack the Ripper and Jim Jones.

Dresbold suggests that readers keep an open mind about what the book calls "brainwriting." But even so, within the first 40 pages, some of her bold, fundamental claims seem questionable: Handwriting zones correspond to zones of the body; parts of the cursive pronoun "I" represent the writer's mother and father. The book's bubbly prose doesn't provide evidence for these or many other claims, which seem to rest entirely on analogy.

But Dresbold, interviewed by phone from San Francisco, says evidence is out there, from Confucius and Aristotle to early 20th-century psychiatrists. "So there's been studies from all over the world on the correlation between handwriting and personality."

Why, then, does the book rely almost exclusively on Dresbold's blithe readings of individual criminals, politicians, and celebrities -- whose personality traits she surely knew before she saw their slanted t-bars or curly strangler strokes? Even the anonymous letters to her syndicated newspaper column, "The Handwriting Doctor," reprinted in the book, always provide biographical and situational data along with a handwriting sample.

Besides, correlation does not demonstrate underlying causes of behavior, especially in such a multi-factored construct as personality. To judge it based on handwriting alone -- as Dresbold claims to do for the police, nervous spouses and employers -- is risky, not to mention inadmissible in court.

Dresbold, however, says that causation is demonstrated. She cites an exercise from Chapter 1, in which the writer draws sharp angles and then curves. "And the person, inside, can feel how the movements of the hand are reflected in your emotion. And then I will go from one step to the next to the next." How those steps lead to the supposedly dangerous slant of the "diabolical d," to choose just one example, is never explained.

"It's not like astrology or palm-reading or tea-leaf reading," says Dresbold, perhaps anticipating common comparisons between graphology and such cold readings. "I'm reading the person's choice, whether it's conscious or subconscious, of what they're actually putting on a page."

One controlled study to assess graphology's validity found that a letter's content, not its handwriting, was the key to personality prediction, and that graphologists and untrained readers performed equally well. But Dresbold questions the expertise of the "trained" participants of such studies. "If you really did studies of people like me who are extremely well trained, I think the correlation between personality and handwriting would be way, way up there."

Dresbold may indeed be exceptionally intuitive, and many of her reported insights sound remarkable. (Though they're still worth double-checking: In the book's introduction, Dresbold says she once told police a child's scrawled plea for help showed "absolutely no signs of stress or danger, so the writer is definitely not a kidnap victim," which proved true. However, an Oct. 18, 1997, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the case says, "Dresbold couldn't tell detectives whether the printing was done under stress.")

It's a shame -- or perhaps a service -- that Sex, Lies, and Handwriting fails to prove the author's personality-profiling techniques. Regrettable, too, is that all this overshadows Dresbold's legitimate forensic work, which has solved local crimes like an arson in Oakland and voter fraud in Kennedy. Now that might make a good book.

click to enlarge Michelle Dresbold explores poison penmanship.
  • Michelle Dresbold explores poison penmanship.

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