Breath of Unreason

Megan Vaughan

  • Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa by Richard Keller
    Chicago, 294 pp, £16.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 42973 1

In 1953, Frantz Fanon took over as director of the Hôpital Psychiatrique de Blida-Joinville in Algeria. It is said that Fanon’s first act on taking charge of this overcrowded colonial hospital, in which electroconvulsive therapy was liberally dispensed and lobotomies regularly performed, was to unchain the patients. The story echoes that of Philippe Pinel breaking open the doors of the Bicêtre asylum in Paris during the Revolution and unshackling the inmates. Whether Fanon really did unchain the Algerian patients is doubtful. While in his writings he railed against the racism and violence of psychiatry, and medicine more generally, in the North African colonies, what he did as a professional psychiatrist was quieter and more prosaic. His institutional reforms at Blida were aimed at humanising the hospital and in the process mimicked the colonial city. European patients participated in ‘town meetings’, women attended dress-making sessions, and Muslim men socialised in a ‘Moorish café’.

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