Analyst Pegs Personalities to the Letter

Handwriting characteristics can shed light on a penman's personality and behaviors, said JoNeal Hendricks Scully '59. She's used her knowledge to help state police solve violent crimes.

Handwriting characteristics can shed light on a penman’s personality and behaviors, said JoNeal Hendricks Scully ’59. She’s used her knowledge to help state police solve violent crimes. Photo by Norm Shafer.

For JoNeal Hendricks Scully ’59, a handwritten note can be the scene of a crime. She zeroes in on evidence others might miss, probing each penned character for possible leads. Is it larger or smaller than normal? More pointed or more round? Slanted to the left or to the right?

Little details can give Scully big tips about a penman’s personality. She has used them to weigh in on everything from criminal investigations to romantic relationships. But her decades-long career as a certified handwriting analyst came together much like the mysteries she solves – one clue at a time.

“It’s like working a puzzle,” said Scully, who studied history, education, and psychology at Mary Washington. “You keep coming around and around. You’re looking for so many things.”

Scully taught school for a while after college, but it wasn’t for her. Three years overseas, two children, and one decade later, she decided to revisit her love of psychology. She was excited until the graduate-school information she gathered let her down. “I realized I didn’t want to take any of those classes,” she said.

Instead, Scully, always more intrigued by possibilities than probabilities, found herself gravitating toward courses in parapsychology and metaphysics. “I was suddenly in my glory,” she said. “To me, this was far more interesting than studying what traditional psychology offered.”

One class stood out. A medical doctor who did research on the correlation between the physiology of the hand and the personality types set forth by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung taught a class that touched on hand gestures and handwriting analysis.

“When I started, I was interested in helping people understand their own personalities and behavioral patterns,” said Scully. “I’ve had people dissolve into tears of relief. It’s strange because I’m simply applying the skills I’ve learned, but for that person, it can be life-changing.”

As she watched society get more and more violent, Scully saw how dysfunctional behavior contributed to the problem, and she had an idea. Her expertise as a handwriting analyst might also be valuable in law enforcement. She volunteered her services to local police, but they put her to work stuffing envelopes.

“They had no idea how I could help,” Scully said. “I realized, ‘I can’t teach them. I have to teach myself.’ ”

To be more specific about her role, she needed to know more about the crime-fighting world. She went back to school for certifications in administration of justice and private investigation. That’s when a professor made a critical connection. He introduced Scully to Virginia State Police Special Agent Larry McCann, an FBI-trained profiler who used behavioral science to help solve violent crimes.

The two worked as partners. McCann provided handwriting samples; Scully used them to supply personal details about the writer − things that might’ve slipped through the cracks before she came on boards.

Scully has helped identify writers of threatening notes, scrutinize custody letters, shed light on custody cases, select juries, and advise companies on hiring.

Many people don’t understand her work or its importance, Scully said, but that doesn’t stop her. “I realized I could spend my time trying to convince people, or I could just go ahead and do it.”