Friday, July 11, 2008

What Does Hans Reiser's Handwriting Tell Us?

On April 28, 2008, after a six-month trial, 44-year-old Hans Reiser was convicted of murder-in-the-first-degree of his estranged wife, Nina. The case generated much media publicity due mainly to the defendant’s reputation of being a computer genius who had created the open-source Linux file system, the ReiserFS.

Local publicity was intense from the beginning [1] because the case originated as a missing person mystery: 31-year-old Nina had disappeared on a hot Labor Day weekend in 2006, after dropping off the couple’s two young children at Hans’ Oakland hills residence in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several search parties were undertaken, as well as huge billboards in conspicuous areas publicizing the missing woman. The trial also garnered the attention of the community [2] and the national media, including ABC’s 20-20 and CBS’s 48 Hours.

More than other murder trials, the Reiser case attracted its share of those who continue to insist on the defendant’s innocence even after the jury delivered a guilty verdict. On July 7, 2008, however, two days before Reiser’s sentencing, he led police to where he had buried his wife’s body, thereby removing all doubt about his culpability. His decision to do so was prompted by an agreement with the district attorney’s office, in which his sentence would be reduced from the first-degree murder penalty of 25 years to life imprisonment, to the second-degree penalty of 15 years to life.

Before that, Reiser had tried to finagle the system, playing the body’s location as a trump card or bargaining chip, to be wielded only when all his other maneuvers had failed.

He first had his defense attorney William Du Bois file a motion declaring him to be “mentally incompetent” and “unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of the defense in a rational manner.” Next, in a handwritten note to his trial judge, dated June 29, 2008, Hans asked that Du Bois be replaced by another lawyer, John Feury, who had been Hans’ divorce attorney. (The note can be viewed on Feury, in turn, filed a motion stating that Hans was mentally competent. Then Hans pointed the finger of guilt at his erstwhile best friend, Sean Sturgeon (who had carried on an adulterous affair with Nina), insisting that his only role was in assisting Sturgeon in burying Nina’s body. But the police gave Hans a lie detector test, which he flunked. Finally, when all else failed, Hans admitted he had strangled Nina in a heated argument, and led police to her skeletal remains buried in a 4’ x 4’ hole in a steep ravine in a regional park half a mile from his home.

Seeing Reiser’s handwritten note piqued my curiosity. I dug up a book I have on graphology [3] and consulted numerous websites on handwriting analysis. Admittedly, I am a rank amateur at this. Accordingly, in the following analysis of Hans Reiser’s handwriting, I will give reasons for each of my claims. I invite any professional grapho-analyst who is reading this to disagree, correct, or amend!

Danger Signs

Right off the bat, I wanted to see if Hans’ handwriting bears the telltale signs of someone who is seriously psychologically disturbed. In graphology, those danger signs include the following:

1. Felon’s claw: This is any letter that goes below the baseline, such as a lower-case “y”, “g”, or “z”, whose down stroke comes straight down and then veers up the left into a claw-like loop. This is someone who is underhanded and a back-stabber. It’s called the felon’s claw because it is found in the handwriting of prison inmates and the mentally unbalanced. Graphologist Andrea McNichol claims that 80% of convicted felons display this characteristic. [4]

2. Maniac “d”: A lower-case “d” whose stem falls over or collapses to the right. It indicates great pride and, more importantly, the writer’s extreme reaction to insults to his/her pride. Graphologist Bob Wallace claims that O. J. Simpson and the 1960s Zodiac killer both display this characteristic. [5]

3. Stinger: A little double-hook inside the lower-case letters “o”, “a”, “c”, or “d”. Stingers point to manipulation and often, anger at the opposite sex.

Hans’ handwriting contains none of the above signs that are characteristic of a severe mental disorder, which contradicts his defense attorney’s motion, now withdrawn, that Hans was “mentally incompetent.” Now, onto the rest of the analysis.

One of the first things that graphologists look for is the slant of the handwriting. The left represents the self, whereas the right represents others. Therefore, the degree to which handwriting slants to the right or left reveals how much the writer wants to be involved with others.

A left slant is a person who is self-interested, self–involved, skeptical of and emotionally aloof from others; whereas a right slant is empathic and open to others. An extreme right slant, however, is someone who cannot control his/her emotional expressions and is prone to hysteria. A person with vertical writing is someone who is objective and balanced, whose head rules the heart, and who assumes a neutral posture until s/he decides whether or not s/he approves of the subject matter.

Slant also shows how spontaneous one’s emotional reactions are and how receptive the writer is to external and internal events. It reveals how well a person controls his/her emotional responses after filtering them through the rational mind. Emotional equilibrium is shown in the steadiness of the slant, but a person whose writing alternately slants to the right, then to the left, is in great emotional turmoil. One website claims that whereas only 10% of the general population has a wobbly slant, as many as 70 to 80% of convicted felons have this characteristic. [6]

In Han’s case, his handwriting is consistently slightly slanted to the right, which indicates that he is expressive of his feelings (no surprise to those who observed his testimony in court) and somewhat impulsive. His heart rules more than his head. He also has some empathy for the feelings of others.

Slant can also mean slope—whether the baseline of a person’s handwriting is level, or slopes upward or downward. An upward slant is indicative of the writer’s optimism. In Hans’ case, however, his baselines slightly slope down, which suggests he is in a pessimistic frame of mind.

The next thing I looked for is the width of margins. Assuming that the pdf view is an accurate representation of Han’s actual note, his narrow left margin indicates a clinging to the past (his childhood?) and a need for security, neither of which is surprising given his murder conviction and incarceration.

A narrow or no margin at all, left or right, also indicates frugality and the writer’s strong focus on money. Indeed, during his murder trial, Hans’ concern about finances was discussed. He gave that as one of the reasons why he allegedly slept in his Honda CRX; he also accused Nina for embezzling from his software company, Namesys.

Pressure refers to the force with which one writes. In graphology, too light a touch signifies indecisiveness, while a very heavy hand may point to a domineering personality. [7] In Hans’ case, the pressure is variable, alternately heavy and light, which suggests erratic emotions and uneven depth-of-emotion.

Graphologists divide each line of writing into three areas or zones: the middle, upper and lower. The middle zone is the baseline where one finds letters with no upper or lower extensions, e.g., the lower-case “a”, “n”, “o”, “w”, etc. Other letters have extensions into the upper or lower zones, e.g., “b”, “d”, “t”, “g”, “y”, etc. Only one letter, the lower-case “f” in script form (instead of printed), extends into both the upper and lower zones.

The upper zone is the area where one finds the stems and loops of letters like “f”, “t”, “l”; the dots of “i” and “j”; and “t” bars. This area represents a person’s thoughts, interests, aspirations and spirit; some graphologists identify a well-developed upper zone as indicative of a concern for the higher truths of philosophical, spiritual, moral, or theoretical matters. Kerrie Spencer maintains that upper loops that are way out of proportion to the rest of the writing points to a person whose thoughts are not terribly rational. [8]

The lower zone is where one finds the lower strokes and loops of such lower-case letters as “g”, “p”, “y”, etc. It is where the writer expresses his/her physical vigor, material demands, and sex drive. Spencer maintains that lower extensions that are way out of proportion to the rest of the handwriting indicate a person who has urgent, repressed, inhibited, or perverse sexual fantasies.
In Hans’ case, his upper zone is well developed but not exaggerated. In contrast, his lower zone has rather short lower extensions of “g”s and “y”s. Hans’ stunted lower zone signifies a lack of determination, a sedentary disposition or lifestyle, weak physical strength or a disinterest in physicality, and a blunting of the sex drive. All of which is unsurprising for an incarcerated man who is facing the depressing prospect of perhaps a lifetime in jail.

Personal Pronoun “I”
One of the more important signs to look for in handwriting is how the capital-letter “I” is written. This is because “I” is the personal pronoun, representative of one’s self. A person who writes his/her “I” consistently in the same manner has a stable self-image and knows who s/he is, unlike someone whose “I” is changeable and inconsistent. Graphologists also regard a script-form “I” (i.e., an “I” with a looped upstroke and base-stroke) as indicative of the writer’s relationship with his/her parents.

In Hans’ case, he writes his capital “I” in a consistent manner, which means he has a good idea who he is. His capital “I”s are of a good size, but not disproportionately large, indicating a fair amount of self-esteem.

He also writes his “I” in script form with a looped upstroke and a larger cup-shaped base-stroke, which points to a strong connection to both parents. The looped upstroke signifies his connection to his mother, Beverly Palmer. But Hans begins that upper loop with an initial upstroke at the baseline, which makes his capital “I” resemble a small-letter “l”. In graphology, that initial upstroke to a letter is called a “resentment stroke,” which suggests that although Hans is close to his mother, he feels some resentment against her.

Even more interesting is the looped base-stroke of his capital “I”. Not only is it larger than the upper loop, it resembles a small-letter “c”. The cup-shaped and larger base-stroke of Hans’ capital “I” is suggestive of a stronger, more open, and nurturing (or dependent?) relationship with his father, Ramon.

Lower-case “t”
Graphologists place great importance on the lower-case “t” because how it is written reveals a great deal about the writer’s personality.

To begin with, the “t” of a direct or forthright person is simple, without an initial upstroke—the resentment stroke—at or below the baseline. In Hans’ case, some of his “t”s (as well as his “y”s) begin with an initial upstroke, which means he is not straightforward in his communication, as attested to by his rambling meandering 11-day testimony on the stand. He is also quite angry and resentful.

The fact that Hans’ “t”s (and “d”s) have high stems points to his pride. He is also persistent or obstinate, as indicated in the upstroke and downstroke of his “t”s forming a teepee or steeple.

Then there are his horizontal t-bars. They are completed (Hans is not a procrastinator), short (Hans lacks enthusiasm; his energy is only available for short spurts), either level or slanting slightly downward (pessimism), and are halfway down the stem instead of on top of or above the stem (practical goals and a lack of self-confidence).

In graphology, the presence of loops within a writer’s lower-case “a” and “o” is indicative of dishonesty, secrecy, and deception, especially when double-loops are found inside the “o” letter. The larger the inner loop, the more secrets are withheld from others. Graphologists also emphasize whether the inner loop within “o” is on the left or right side. A loop on the left side signifies self-deception.

In Hans’ case, his lower-case “a”s are clear and not retraced. However, his lower-case “o” not only is retraced in some cases, it also contains a small right loop, which is indicative of some dishonesty toward others. Moreover, secrecy is indicated in his lower-case “s” being closed instead of open. All of which is confirmed by Hans’ repeated lies in and out of court, including one instance of admitted perjury, and his keeping secret the location of Nina’s body.

Other characteristics
Here are some other of Hans’ attributes that can be gleaned from his handwriting:

* Intuition: minimal, as indicated by the fact that there are few breaks in his letters.

* Sense of humor: minimal, as indicated by a short, if any, beginning stroke on his capital or small “M” or “N”.

* Generosity: moderate, as indicated by a medium-length final on the end of his lower-case “y” and “g”.

* Sensitivity to criticism about his work: minimal or none, as indicated by his lower-case “t” not being looped.

* Some sensitivity to criticism about his person, as indicated in the stem of his lower-case “d” being looped. But even here, his sensitivity is not great because the loop is quite narrow, nor is his “d” always looped.

* Jealousy: some, as indicated by the small clockwise near-circle of the base-stroke of Hans’ capital “I”.

* Friends: a few, as indicated in the infrequent and narrow lower loops of Hans’ lower-case “y”, "g" and “j”. Hans may be protective of himself by being selective in his choice of friends.

* Hans’ squared lower-case “r”s indicate manual dexterity, as in engineering talent.

* He is not selfish, indicated by the absence of curled initial loops of his capital letters. He is somewhat generous with friends and family, as indicated by his ending his words with a small upstroke.

* He has a fairly good organizational ability, as indicated by the balanced upper and lower loops of his lower-case “f”.

* He has good attention to details, as indicated by his dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”.

* Irritability and some impatience are shown in his i-dots being flicks or short dashes instead of dots. Those i-flicks or dashes are also to the right of the i-stems, especially in the word “Reiser” of his signature, where the i-flick is so to the right that it is on top of the next letter “s”.


(1) See Henry K. Lee’s blogs on the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle,
(2) See David Kravets’ blogs on the trial for,
(3) Josh Batchelor, Handwriting Reveals You, 2003.
(5) Bob Wallace, “Page Full o’ Fun,”
(6) “10 Secrets Your Handwriting Might Reveal,”
(7) Linda Sorcie Smith, “Tips for analyzing people's handwriting,”
(8) Kerrie Spencer, “The Three Zones (Used in Handwriting Analysis,”


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to mention that, at best, the jury is out (pun intended) on the validity of graphology. See

M. Chang said...

Hello, anonymous:

I'm always in favor of healthy skepticism, so thank you for your comment! Here are the pros & cons on graphology, beginning with the cons.

Graphologists claim that handwriting analysis is a science. But science is defined by its (a)methods (observation, hypothesis testing, experiments, etc.); (b) principles (replicability, verifiability, objectivity, etc.); and (c) results (explanation & prediction).

As far as I know, graphologists don't really satisfy many of the conditions. Whatever explanation it offers is that handwriting reveals the writer's personality because we write "with our heart," whatever that means.

On the "pros" side, however, businesses hire graphologists to screen & vet their personnel, especially job applicants. There also seems to be a general agreement among graphologists as to what various handwriting signs mean.