In the Shadow of Frantz Fanon – A profile of Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, assistant to Frantz Fanon from 1958 to 1961

Marie-Jeanne Manuellan PHOTO/Le Monde Diplomatique

First published in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder.

His office has no door. Truth be told, it is not an office at all: it is a kind of box room, open onto the corridor. Each morning in 1958, the young woman crossed Tunis to sit there. She waits. For what? She does not know. The head doctor, her superior, does not address her. His gaze passes across her as if she did not exist. Sometimes she catches something he says, and she chews it over for whole days. An example? “In Arab culture, breasts are not an erotic object.”

She is the only French woman working at the Tunis psychiatric hospital. She is Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, 31 years of age, maiden name Vacher, born in Meymac (Corrèze). She has a check skirt, she has three children, and is a field social worker married to a coopérant [a man doing a social service instead of military service]. The others in the team are all Tunisians and Algerians. Manuellan knows nothing about psychiatry. Too bad. Tunisia, which has just won its independence, has appointed her to this position, in order to show that the new government is doing better than how things were under the French protectorate.

The chief doctor in this department “doesn’t hang round with French people.” He told her as much in a glacial tone. He explained: “I have responsibilities in the FLN,” the National Liberation Front in the middle of its fight for Algeria’s independence. The young woman warns her husband “I’ve come across a sadist.” The “sadist” is Frantz Fanon, 33 years of age. He is already — all at once — a fervently anti-psychiatry psychiatrist, a high-profile essayist, a Nègre intoning against négritude, a revolutionary and son to a wealthy Martinique family.

Manuellan spends two months in the box room, till the day when the Sadist appears in front of her, telling her: “You are going to follow me during my rounds, listening and noting everything I say.” He introduces her to the patients, “This woman is not a woman, but a tape recorder.” She was his assistant for three years.

The Tribulations of the Sadist and the Tape Recorder

Fanon is the kind of man who makes everyone uneasy. A Frenchman born in the Caribbean who chose to die for Algeria — a country that did not then exist, and whose language he did not speak. Still today, even those who did know him often refuse to talk about him. There are only a few anecdotes going around, and they are always the same ones. At 89 years of age, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan has just published Sous la dictée de Fanon (L’Amourier, 190 pages, €16.15), a book which gives us — for the first time, or almost — the impression of getting closer to Fanon. The tribulations of the Sadist and the Tape Recorder here become a page in the history books…

“I did not know Tunisia,” she remembers, from her chair at the family farm in Corrèze. “I followed my husband there, as a submissive wife.” All the same, over time this reserved family woman evidently caught something off the Sadist. She describes herself as “insolent and aggressive.” A minister once asked her “it seems Fanon was a tetchy type?” Yes, she replied, “with those people he hadn’t any time for.”

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via 3 Quarks Daily

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