The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Chapter 5 : Colonial War and Mental Disorders | Summary




In this chapter Frantz Fanon gives case histories of numerous patients he treated for mental disorders from 1954 to 1959. This period covers his work as chief of staff of the psychiatric ward at Blida-Joinville Hospital, which ended in 1956. The rest of the cases are drawn from his work with the Army of National Liberation. Fanon demonstrates how the war for Algerian independence affects the mental health of the participants and bystanders in Algeria. The patients he sees are both European and Algerian.

Fanon points out the war is just a special and intense case of the pressures colonialism has already placed on people. Even before the war, colonialism was already "a fertile purveyor for psychiatric hospitals," writes Fanon. This means colonialism caused many people mental problems severe enough to require hospitalization.

The hospitalized patients, in turn, illustrate particularly intense instances of the way colonialism shapes people. That is, they show how everyone in Algeria is affected by colonialism. The dehumanizing aspect of colonialism, Fanon writes, forces people to constantly ask themselves, "In reality, who am I?"

Fanon contrasts colonialism with other forms of military domination. French men under German occupation, he says, "remained men." This is not true in Algeria, Fanon claims. Colonization views the colonized people as part of nature. Like "the palm trees and the camels," Algerians "make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French."

The war in Algeria is also different from other wars, writes Fanon. There was already significant psychiatric literature on war trauma after the first and second world wars. But in contrast to those wars, "this colonial war is singular even in the pathology that it gives rise to."

Fanon discusses some scientific-psychiatric terminology. He says "clinical psychiatry" would consider the patients he describes as people with "reactionary psychoses." This means their mental illness is a response to an event. In the cases Fanon describes, those events are "the bloodthirsty and pitiless atmosphere," the widespread "inhuman practices" of colonial war, and the sense "people have of being caught up in a veritable Apocalypse." He also believes these patients are worse off than people with garden-variety psychoses not brought on by a colonial war. "The future of such patients is mortgaged," he writes.

For the rest of the chapter Fanon discusses his case studies in groups he names Series A, B, C, and D. Series D is followed by a discussion of Algerian criminality.

Series A

Fanon gives case histories of five psychiatric patients who had "mental disorders of the reactionary type," meaning their disorders were reactions to events. Three of the patients are Algerian and two are European. All five are reacting to events in the Algerian war of national liberation.

Case number 1 is of "impotence in an Algerian following the rape of his wife." The patient, B—, had been active in the nationalist cause. After a crackdown, he fled the city and "joined the nearest band of Maquis." Maquis are rural guerrilla fighters. He left behind his wife and infant daughter. In revenge, French soldiers raped his wife.

After two years with the guerrilla fighters, B— received word about his wife. She asked him "to forget her, for she had been dishonored." Soon after, B— experienced impotence.

Fanon quotes at length from B—'s statement. Their marriage had not been a love match, and he hadn't felt very close to her and had thought of leaving her. Sometime after the rape he realized "they'd raped her because they were looking for me." She had not talked to the police, even after the rape. Moved by her sacrifice, B— thinks of staying with his wife with renewed dedication. At the same time, he finds it hard to get past the rape. He also considers his daughter sullied by the rape. Talking to Fanon seems to make him feel better.

The second case is of "undifferentiated homicidal impulsions." The patient, S—, a villager, had been on the sidelines of the war. His only involvement had been to occasionally give aid to guerrilla fighters. The French decide to punish his whole village for aiding the guerrillas. They burned the houses, beat the women, and shot 29 men. S— was also shot but, remarkably, survived.

His symptoms are a feeling of persecution and also frequent outbursts of murderous intent. He feels unsafe when anyone is behind him, and he often swears he will kill everyone. He is convinced the Algerians around him "are really Frenchmen" in disguise. He attacks fellow patients, nurses, and others. His symptoms gradually lessen.

The third case is of "marked anxiety psychosis of the depersonalization type." The patient, Dj—, was a soldier in the ALN (French for Armée de Libération Nationale), Algeria's Army of National Liberation. He received word his mother had been killed. In an act of somewhat unfocused revenge, Dj— murdered the wife of a violent colonialist. The colonialist had not killed Dj—'s mother himself, and his wife in any case was a civilian. Dj—'s superiors in the ALN disarmed him, but he was not put on trial. When Fanon treats him, Dj— is suffering from nightmares in which he is visited by his murder victim. Eventually the nightmares disappear, but in Fanon's opinion Dj— is still very disturbed and needs more time to heal.

The fourth case is A—, a European policeman, who is treated for "behavior disturbances." At night he closes the shutters despite the Algerian heat and stuffs his ears with cotton. He does these things "to make the screams seem less piercing." Although a civil policeman, A— had worked on torture and interrogation of Algerian guerrilla fighters. A— is particularly haunted by the screams of "the ones who died at the police headquarters." A— crosses paths at the hospital with someone he had personally tortured. This sets off a crisis in A— and in the torture victim, who attempts suicide. A— is eventually allowed to retire to France.

The fifth case is also a European, R—, a police inspector who has begun abusing his wife and children. Like A—, he has been a torturer. He seems to see it as a technical problem: how much torture to apply in order to make a prisoner talk. "It's a question of personal success," he tells Fanon. "You have to have a flair for it," he adds. He can discuss it calmly and even coldly. But he is falling apart in the rest of his life, arguing with his wife and hitting his children.

R— was denied sick leave. He did not want "a psychiatrist's certificate" stating he needed time off. So Fanon attempts to treat him "while working full time." R— asks Fanon "to help him to go on torturing Algerian patriots" without suffering any symptoms. R— would like to be able to torture "without any prickings of conscience, without any behavior problems, and with complete equanimity."

Series B

In this section Fanon considers five cases of mental disorders; some are individuals and some are groups. Fanon categorizes their mental disorders as originating in "the atmosphere of total war which reigns in Algeria."

The first case is of two Algerian teenage boys, ages 13 and 14, who killed a European boy, one of their schoolmates. They were arrested and they confessed. The 13-year-old remarks of their victim, "He was a good friend of ours." The 14-year-old asks Fanon difficult questions. He notes "Algerians are killed every day," and yet, he asks, "So why are only Algerians found in the prisons?" Fanon points out the other crimes are no reason for them to have killed their schoolmate. But Fanon cannot answer the boy's questions, either.

The second case is of a 22-year-old man who suffers "accusatory delirium and suicidal conduct disguised as 'terrorist activity.'" The man had been focused on his career as a maker of copy machines. On "the first of November, 1954," Fanon remarks, he was "absorbed by strictly professional problems." November 1, 1954, was the first day of the FLN-led war for Algerian independence. (The war started during the night of October 31, 1954.) As the war continues the young man begins to think everyone considers him a traitor. He withdraws from contact and stays shut up in his room, refusing food. One day he hears voices accusing him: "Traitor, traitor, coward ... all your brothers who are dying." He leaves his room and wanders the streets. French police treat him with deference because he looks European. He takes this too to be a sign they are in on the plot. At a police station he throws himself upon a soldier and tries to take his gun, shouting, "I am an Algerian." The police question him, but they eventually realize he is mentally ill. He is sent to the hospital.

The third case is a young French woman who has developed neurotic problems. Her mental illness stems from the death of her father, a civil servant, in an ambush. Her father had participated enthusiastically in the repression of the FLN. Algerians were tortured in her house, the woman says. "In my heart," the woman states, "I knew ... those Algerians were right."

One day the young woman was told her father had been injured. He had been on a military expedition when his unit was ambushed by the Army of National Liberation. She went to the hospital and found him in a coma. He died shortly thereafter. At his funeral he was lauded as a hero, and the young woman was sickened. The French government offers her a pension, but she says, "I don't want their money. It is the price of the blood spilt by my father."

The fourth case considers "behavior disturbances in young Algerians" under age 10. These are refugees whose parents are fighting for independence, or whose parents were killed in the war. They exhibit various symptoms of what they have suffered in war: a fear of loud noises, sleeplessness, and an enjoyment of sadistic games.

The fifth case is of "puerperal psychoses among the refugees." The word puerperal refers to childbirth. These are refugee women who became mentally ill around the time they were to give birth. Many of them are refugees from the French government's "burnt earth policy." (Also known as "scorched earth policy," burnt earth is a military strategy aimed at destroying everything that might help the enemy guerrillas: shelter, crops, livestock, and so on.) There is also an "atmosphere of permanent insecurity," owing to the French troops bombing and machine-gunning Algerian civilians. The women have such symptoms as agitation, rage, and delusions.

Series C

In this section Fanon details the emotional and intellectual consequences of torture, as well as mental disorders resulting from torture. He discusses groups of people this time rather than individual patients.

The first group discussed, "Category No. 1," consists of people tortured for the purpose of getting them to talk. In the language of the colonial forces, this is "preventive torture," presumably because it will prevent guerrillas' actions from succeeding. To preserve the torture victims' ability to talk, the torturers have tried to leave them in a condition capable of speech. Nonetheless, the victims are traumatized by the experience.

Fanon further subdivides this group into two categories: "1. Those who know something. 2. Those who know nothing." In hospital settings Fanon generally only runs into the second group, people who were tortured and then eventually released because they knew nothing. He never sees the first group in hospitals. Algerian patriots, as Fanon calls them, who talk to the torturers are "killed immediately afterward." Those patriots who do not talk under torture tend not to seek hospital treatment, apparently.

Fanon describes the various torture techniques used to retrieve information. These include soapy enemas administered with high water pressure (often resulting in death), anal penetration with bottles, and others.

The torture survivors exhibit various symptoms: depression, loss of appetite, and an inability to stay still. Emotionally, they suffer a staggering feeling of injustice. They also exhibit "indifference to all moral arguments." Instead, "force is the only thing that counts."

In "Category No. 2" are those who have been tortured with electricity. They have three responses. The first is cenesthopathy, or the experience of abnormal sensations. These patients feel pins-and-needles sensations, as if electricity were still being applied to them. The second response is emotional. The patients feel depressed or lack the will to do anything (abulia). The third response is an electricity phobia. Some of the tortured are afraid to touch light switches or electrical appliances.

The third category consists of those who had been given "truth serum," or Pentothal. Fanon notes many doctors and psychiatrists collaborate in the torture of Algerian patriots. In the case of Pentothal, they pose as non-torturers, presenting themselves as neutral or friendly medical personnel. They give vitamin injections or other harmless injections for a few days. Then "the intravenous injection of Pentothal is given. The interrogation begins."

Fanon then describes the psychiatric symptoms. These are not the immediate effects of the Pentothal injection; they are the delayed effects of having been questioned on Pentothal. The effects include "verbal stereotypy" (saying the same thing over and over again, such as "I didn't talk"). Others suffer "clouded" perception, unable to say for sure whether a certain object exists. Other symptoms are a fear of private conversations, and wariness.

The fourth and final category Fanon analyzes consists of those who have been brainwashed. "Brainwashing" means using psychological torture techniques to get people to accept radically different beliefs than their own. Fanon subdivides this category into intellectuals and nonintellectuals, because they are brainwashed in different ways. He briefly describes the methods, although his main interest is in how people are affected by the torture afterwards.

Intellectuals are pressured to become collaborators, says Fanon. They are asked to draw others into fruitless debates about basic principles. Other brainwashing methods include drilling certain principles into the tortured, such as "Algeria is not a nation" and "Algerian patriotism is nonsense." Another brainwashing method for intellectuals is the "pathological communal life," that is, keeping the intellectual surrounded so they have no chance for solitary reflection.

The responses to these forms of torture include an aversion to all discussions in which three or more people are present. Another response is an inability to make any concrete statement. For the brainwashed, any positive statement is immediately followed by its opposite.

Fanon describes the brainwashing of nonintellectuals much more briefly. They too are expected to adopt anti-FLN beliefs. For example, they are ordered to shout over and over they do not belong to the FLN, or to shout "Long live France." These commands are enforced by physical torture. The mental symptoms afterward are "not serious." Such patients simply require physical rest.

Series D

Fanon considers psychosomatic disorders. The usual definition of psychosomatic disorder is a bodily disorder with its origins in mental disorder. Fanon defines them as bodily disorders "favored by a conflicting situation." This enables Fanon to locate the problem in the conflict between settler and native, rather than in a conflict between different parts of the patient's mind. Faced with an unbearable conflict, the patient succeeds in diverting their focus onto a bodily malady.

Criminal Impulses Found in North Africans Which Have Their Origin in the National War of Liberation

This discussion of Algerian criminality focuses on "criminal impulses ... [with] their origin in the national war of liberation." Fanon wants to return every Algerian to "the full stature of a man."

Fanon first reviews the lengthy psychiatric literature on Algerian, North African, and African criminality. A large body of scientific literature was devoted to showing how African nervous systems, African moral dispositions, or African brains were predisposed to crime: "born slackers, born liars, born robbers, and born criminals." Fanon is quoting Dr. Carothers, an expert from the United Nations' World Health Organization, who claims the African "makes very little use of his [brain's] frontal lobes." Carothers concludes, "All the particularities of African psychiatry can be put down to frontal [lobe] laziness."

The theories are marked by "[intellectual] poverty and absurdity." But Fanon does not deny the existence of crime in Algeria. He analyzes Algerian criminality in two ways. First, the alleged laziness and petty thievery at work are the Algerian's only way to resist the crushing discipline of work in a colonial system. In an exploitative system, "laziness" may be the only way for the Algerian to resist total domination. Second, Fanon shows Algerian crime against other Algerians is a displaced aggression against the French. He compares the colonial situation to a concentration camp, where "men killed each other for a bit of bread." Likewise, the colony is a world where every native has become the enemy of every other. Thus, an "Algerian's criminality [is] ... the direct product of the colonial situation." Finally, Fanon puts Algerian criminality in perspective by showing crime has diminished greatly during the war of liberation.


From the first chapter Frantz Fanon has been concerned with how the colonized people are affected by their encounter with the colonizers. In earlier chapters Fanon represented the encounter in an abstract, stylized way. Thus, in earlier chapters the settler comes face to face with the native, and the settler refuses to recognize his or her humanity. The result of this refused recognition is an inferiority complex in the native. For a time, he believes he is an animal, or evil, just as the settler says.

At the outset of this chapter Fanon again summarizes this encounter in abstract, conceptual terms. Colonialism is "a systematic negation of the other person." Colonialism is determined "to deny the other person all attributes of humanity." In reaction, the native does not know who they are. "In reality, who am I?" the native asks themselves. But for the rest of this chapter Fanon leaves these ideal, abstract types behind. Instead of the native he describes actual case histories, even if they are anonymous. Even the sections or series describing groups of patients are still based on actual case records.

This shift from the abstract to the actual does several things. It provides testimony about the effects of colonial violence, particularly the torture of suspected guerrillas. The use of actual psychiatric cases also shows the depth of the damage. The wealth of detail also gives Fanon a chance to show how colonial domination has different psychological effects from just any military occupation. Finally, Fanon's analysis of the "colonized personality" indirectly suggests the potential for a new and fully human personality after the end of colonialism. With these aims in mind, Fanon shows how numerous symptoms can be explained as reactions to colonial violence. The cases involve either reactions to specific acts of violence, or reactions to the general atmosphere of violence.

Fanon's analysis of Algerian criminality is another departure from the style of the rest of the book. He cites Carothers's theories at great length. The depth of Fanon's commitment to Freudian psychoanalysis is debated by scholars, but Fanon's scorn for Carothers's theories of the African brain may show some influence of psychoanalysis on Fanon. Psychoanalysis is a form of psychotherapy promulgated by 20th-century Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1836–1939). Freud believed mental disorders were caused by deep-rooted mental conflict, often stemming from childhood or infancy. But Fanon also has other reasons to reject Carothers. The focus on African brains and "frontal [lobe] laziness" ignores an enormous social fact: the native exists under the domination of the settler.

Fanon finds the source of most Algerian criminal behavior in colonialism. Because of the tremendous cost of aggression toward settlers, the colonized turn against one another. Fanon displays a subtle turn of mind in his analysis of petty crimes under colonialism. The colonialist view of such minor crimes is to classify them under a general personality trait of the native: "disrespect for the law." One pro-native line of defense might be to downplay these petty crimes, to say they are not so bad. Fanon turns this around. He shows there is a seething hatred at work under the most trivial trespasses of one native against another under colonialism. For example, Fanon points to some trivial-sounding crimes: "to steal dates or to allow a sheep to eat the neighbor's grass." Those petty crimes are actually "attempts at murder," Fanon claims. On the one hand, they are murderous in intent because life under colonialism is precarious for the native. The level of poverty and malnutrition is such that a minor theft of food or grazing could have serious consequences. On the other hand, to call the crimes murderous is to adequately assess the violence engendered by colonialism.

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