R J Comeau - Curriculum Design & Research
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Excerpt from Fanon’s last chapter, COLONIAL WAR AND MENTAL DISORDERS
But the war goes on; and we will have to bind up for years to come the many, sometimes ineffaceable, wounds that the colonialist onslaught has inflicted on our people.
That imperialism which today is fighting against a true liberation of mankind leaves in its wake here and there tinctures of decay which we must search out and mercilessly expel from our land and our spirits.
We shall deal here with the problem of mental disorders which arise from the war of national liberation which the Algerian people are carrying on.
Perhaps these notes on psychiatry will be found ill-timed and singularly out of place in such a book; but we can do nothing about that.
We cannot be held responsible that in this war psychiatric phenomena entailing disorders affecting behavior and thought have taken on importance where those who carry out the “pacification” are concerned, or that these same disorders are notable among the “pacified” population. The truth is that colonialism in its essence was already taking on the aspect of a fertile purveyor for psychiatric hospitals. We have since 1954 in various scientific works drawn the attention of both French and international psychiatrists to the difficulties that arise when seeking to “cure” a native properly, that is to say, when seeking to make him thoroughly a part of a social background of the colonial type.
Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?”
The defensive attitudes created by this violent bringing together of the colonized man and the colonial system form themselves into a structure which then reveals the colonized personality. This “sensitivity” is easily understood if we simply study and are alive to the number and depth of the injuries inflicted upon a native during a single day spent amidst the colonial regime. It must in any case be remembered that a colonized people is not only simply a dominated people. Under the German occupation the French remained men; under the French occupation, the Germans remained men. In Algeria there is not simply the domination but the decision to the letter not to occupy anything more than the sum total of the land. The Algerians, the veiled women, the palm trees and the camels make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French.
Hostile nature, obstinate and fundamentally rebellious, is in fact represented in the colonies by the bush, by mosquitoes, natives, and fever, and colonization is a success when all this indocile nature has finally been tamed. Railways across the bush, the draining of swamps and a native population which is non-existent politically and economically are in fact one and the same thing.
In the period of colonization when it is not contested by armed resistance, when the sum total of harmful nervous stimuli overstep a certain threshold, the defensive attitudes of the natives give way and they then find themselves crowding the mental hospitals. There is thus during this calm period of successful colonization a regular and important mental pathology which is the direct product of oppression.
Today the war of national liberation which has been carried on by the Algerian people for the last seven years has become a favorable breeding ground for mental disorders, because so far as the Algerians are concerned it is a total war. We shall mention here some Algerian cases which have been attended by us and who seem to us to be particularly eloquent. We need hardly say that we are not concerned with producing a scientific work. We avoid all arguments over semiology, nosology, or therapeutics. The few technical terms used serve merely as references. We must, however, insist on two points. Firstly, as a general rule, clinical psychiatry classifies the different disturbances shown by our patients under the heading “reactionary psychoses.” In doing this, prominence is given to the event which has given rise to the disorder, although in some cases mention is made of the previous history of the case (the psychological, affective, and biological condition of the patient) and of the type of background from whence he comes. It seems to us that in the cases here chosen the events giving rise to the disorder are chiefly the bloodthirsty and pitiless atmosphere, the generalization of inhuman practices, and the firm impression that people have of being caught up in a veritable Apocalypse.
Case No. 2 of Series A is a typical reactionary psychosis, but Case Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5 of Series B give evidence of a much more widely spread causality although we cannot really speak of one particular event giving rise to the disorders. These are reactionary psychoses, if we want to use a ready-made label; but here we must give particular priority to the war: a war which in whole and in part is a colonial war. After the two great world wars, there is no lack of publications on the mental pathology of soldiers taking part in action and civilians who are victims of evacuations and bombardments. The hitherto unemphasized characteristics of certain psychiatric descriptions here given confirm, if confirmation were necessary, that this colonial war is singular even in the pathology that it gives rise to.
Another idea which is strongly held needs in our opinion to be re-examined; this is the notion of the relative harmlessness of these reactional disorders. It is true that others have described, but always as exceptional cases, certain secondary psychoses, that is to say cases where the whole of the personality is disrupted definitively. It seems to us that here the rule is rather the frequent malignancy of these pathological processes. These are disorders which persist for months on end, making a mass attack against the ego, and practically always leaving as their sequel a weakness which is almost visible to the naked eye. According to all available evidence, the future of such patients is mortgaged. An example will best illustrate our point of view.
In one of the African countries which have been independent for several years we had occasion to receive a visit from a patriot who had been in the resistance. This man in his thirties came to ask us for advice and help, for around a certain date each year he suffered from prolonged insomnia, accompanied by anxiety and suicidal obsessions. The critical date was that when on instructions from his organization he had placed a bomb somewhere. Ten people had been killed as a result.
This militant, who never for a single moment thought of repudiating his past action, realized very clearly the manner in which he himself had to pay the price of national independence. It is border-line cases such as his which raise the question of responsibility within the revolutionary framework.
The observations noted here cover the period running from 1954-59. Certain patients were examined in Algeria, either in hospital centers or as private patients. The others were cared for by the health divisions of the Army of National Liberation.
Five cases are cited here. They are cases of Algerians or Europeans who had very clear symptoms of mental disorders of the reactionary type.
Case No. 1: Impotence in an Algerian following the rape of his wife.
B— is a man twenty-six years old. He came to see us on the advice of the Health Service of the FLN for treatment of insomnia and persistent headaches. A former taxi-driver, he had worked in the nationalist parties since he was eighteen. Since 1955 he had been a member of a branch of the FLN. He had several times used his taxi for the transport of political pamphlets and also political personnel. When the repression increased in ferocity, the FLN decided to bring the war into the urban centers. B— thus came to have the task of driving commandos to the vicinity of attacking points, and quite often waited for them at those points to bring them back.
One day however, in the middle of the European part of the town, after fairly considerable fighting a very large number of arrests forced him to abandon his taxi, and the commando unit broke up and scattered. B—, who managed to escape through the enemy lines, took refuge at a friend’s house. Some days later, without having been able to get back to his home, on the orders of his superiors he joined the nearest band of Maquis.
For several months he was without news of his wife and his little girl of a year and eight months. On the other hand he learned that the police spent several weeks on end searching the town. After two years spent in the Maquis he received a message from his wife in which she asked him to forget her, for she had been dishonored and he ought not to think of taking up their life together again. He was extremely anxious and asked his commander’s leave to go home secretly. This was refused him, but on the other hand measures were taken for a member of the FLN to make contact with B—’s wife and parents.
Two weeks later a detailed report reached the commander of B—’s unit.
His abandoned taxi had been discovered with two machine-gun magazines in it. Immediately afterward French soldiers accompanied by policemen went to his house. Finding he was absent, they took his wife away and kept her for over a week.
She was questioned about the company her husband kept and beaten fairly brutally for two days. But the third day a French soldier (she was not able to say whether he was an officer) made the others leave the room and then raped her. Some time later a second soldier, this time with others present, raped her, saying to her, “If ever you see your filthy husband again don’t forget to tell him what we did to you.” She remained another week without undergoing any fresh questioning. After this she was escorted back to her dwelling. When she told her story to her mother, the latter persuaded her to tell B— everything. Thus as soon as contact was re-established with her husband, she confessed her dishonor to him. Once the first shock had passed, and since moreover every minute of his time was filled by activity, B— was able to overcome his feelings. For several months he had heard many stories of Algerian women who had been raped or tortured, and he had occasion to see the husbands of these violated women; thus his personal misfortunes and his dignity as an injured husband remained in the background.
In 1958, he was entrusted with a mission abroad. When it was time to rejoin his unit, certain fits of absence of mind and sleeplessness made his comrades and superiors anxious about him. His departure was postponed and it was decided he should have a medical examination. This was when we saw him. He seemed at once easy to get to know; a mobile face: perhaps a bit too mobile. Smiles slightly exaggerated; surface well-being: “I’m really very well, very well indeed. I’m feeling better now. Give me a tonic or two, a few vitamins, and I’ll build myself up a bit.” A basic anxiety came up to break the surface. He was at once sent to the hospital.
From the second day on, the screen of optimism melted away, and what we saw in front of us was a thoughtful, depressed man, suffering from loss of appetite, who kept to his bed. He avoided political discussion and showed a marked lack of interest in everything to do with the national struggle. He avoided listening to any news which had a bearing on the war of liberation. Any approach to his difficulties was extremely long, but at the end of several days we were able to reconstruct his story.
During his stay abroad, he tried to carry through a sexual affair which was unsuccessful. Thinking that this was due to fatigue, a normal result of forced marches and periods of undernourishment, he again tried two weeks later. Fresh failure. Talked about it to a friend who advised him to try vitamin B-12. Took this in form of pills; another attempt, another failure. Moreover, a few seconds before the act, he had an irresistible impulse to tear up a photo of his little girl. Such a symbolic liaison might have caused us to think that unconscious impulsions of an incestuous nature were present. However, several interviews and a dream, in which the patient saw the rapid rotting away of a little cat accompanied by unbearably evil smells, led us to take quite another course. “That girl,” he said to us one day, speaking of his little daughter, “has something rotten about her.” From this period on, his insomnia became extremely marked, and in spite of fairly large doses of neuroleptics, a state of anxiety excitation was remarked which the Service found rather worrying. Then he spoke to us for the first time about his wife, laughing and saying to us: “She’s tasted the French.” It was at that moment that we reconstructed the whole story. The weaving of events to form a pattern was made explicit. He told us that before every sexual attempt, he thought of his wife. All his confidences appeared to us to be of fundamental interest.
I married this girl although I loved my cousin. But my cousin’s parents had arranged a match for their daughter with somebody else. So I accepted the first wife my parents found for me. She was nice, but I didn’t love her. I used always to say to myself: “You’re young yet; wait a bit and when you’ve found the right girl, you’ll get a divorce and you’ll make a happy marriage.” So you see I wasn’t very attached to my wife. And with the troubles, I got further apart than ever. In the end, I used to come and eat my meals and sleep almost without speaking to her.
In the Maquis, when I heard that she’d been raped by the French, I first of all felt angry with the swine. Then I said “Oh, well, there’s not much harm done; she wasn’t killed. She can start her life over again.” And then a few weeks later I came to realize that they’d raped her because they were looking for me. In fact, it was to punish her for keeping silence that she’d been violated. She could have very well told them at least the name of one of the chaps in the movement, and from that they could have searched out the whole network, destroyed it, and maybe even arrested me. That wasn’t a simple rape, for want of something better to do, or for sadistic reasons like those I’ve had occasion to see in the villages; it was the rape of an obstinate woman, who was ready to put up with everything rather than sell her husband. And the husband in question, it was me. This woman had saved my life and had protected the organization. It was because of me that she had been dishonored. And yet she didn’t say to me: “Look at all I’ve had to bear for you.” On the contrary, she said: “Forget about me; begin your life over again, for I have been dishonored.”
It was from that moment on that I made my own decision to take back my wife after the war; for it must be said that I’ve seen peasants drying the tears of their wives after having seen them raped under their very eyes. This left me very much shaken; I must admit moreover that at the beginning I couldn’t understand their attitude. But we increasingly came to intervene in such circumstances in order to explain matters to the civilians. I’ve seen civilians willingly proposing marriage to a girl who was violated by the French soldiers, and who was with child by them. All this led me to reconsider the problem of my wife.
So I decided to take her back; but I didn’t know at all how I’d behave when I saw her. And often, while I was looking at the photo of my daughter, I used to think that she too was dishonored, like as if everything that had to do with my wife was rotten. If they’d tortured her or knocked out all her teeth or broken an arm I wouldn’t have minded. But that thing—how can you forget a thing like that? And why did she have to tell me about it all?
He then asked me if his “sexual failing” was in my opinion caused by his worries. I replied: “It is not impossible.” Then he sat up in bed.
“What would you do if all this had happened to you?” “I don’t know.”
“Would you take back your wife?” “I think I would ...” “Ah, there you are, you see. You’re not quite sure.”
He held his head in his hands and after a few seconds left the room.
From that day on, he was progressively more willing to listen to political discussions and at the same time the headaches and lack of appetite lessened considerably.
After two weeks he went back to his unit. Before he left he told me:
“When independence comes, I’ll take my wife back. If it doesn’t work out between us, I’ll come and see you in Algiers.”
 Nosology: a classification or list of diseases
 In the unpublished introduction to the first two editions of L’an V de la Revolution Algerienne, we have already pointed out that a whole generation of Algerians, steeped in wanton, generalized homicide with all the psycho-affective consequences that this entails, will be the human legacy of France in Algeria. Frenchmen who condemn the torture in Algeria constantly adopt a point of view which is strictly French. We do not reproach them for this; we merely point it out: they wish to protect the consciences of the actual torturers who today have full power to carry on their work; they wish at the same time to try to avoid the moral contamination of the young people of France. As far as we are concerned we are totally in accord with this attitude. Certain notes here brought together, especially in Cases 4 and 5 in Series A, are sad illustrations and justifications for this obsession which haunts French believers in democracy. But our purpose is in any case to show that torture, as might well be expected, upsets most profoundly the personality of the person who is tortured. [Fanon’s note]
 The circumstances surrounding the appearance of these disorders are interesting for several reasons. Some months after his country’s independence was declared, he had made the acquaintance of certain nationals of the former colonial power, and he had found them very likeable. These men and women greeted the new independent state warmly and paid tribute to the courage of the patriots who had fought in the struggle for national freedom. The former militant therefore had what might be called an attack of vertigo. He wondered with a feeling of anguish whether among the victims of the bomb there had been people like his new acquaintances. It was true that the cafe that it was aimed at was a meeting place for notorious racists; but there was nothing to prevent a quite ordinary passer-by from going in and having a drink. From the first day that he suffered from vertigo the man tried to avoid thinking of these former occurrences. But paradoxically, a few days before the crucial date, the first symptoms made their appearance. After that, they reappeared with great regularity.
In other words, we are forever pursued by our actions. Their ordering, their circumstances, and their motivation may perfectly well come to be profoundly modified a posteriori. This is merely one of the snares that history and its various influences sets for us. But can we escape becoming dizzy? And who can affirm that vertigo does not haunt the whole of existence? [Fanon’s note]
 Maquis: guerilla fighters
 Neuroleptics: any of the powerful tranquilizers (as the phenothiazines) used especially to treat psychosis and believed to act by blocking dopamine nervous receptors -- called also antipsychotic
Copyright 2013-2015 Robert J. Comeau