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In the Shadow of Frantz Fanon

A profile of Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, assistant to Frantz Fanon from 1958 to 1961. 

Florence Aubenas21 November 2017

Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, via Le Monde.

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."

In 1958 at the hospital in Tunis, the story revolves around the doctor’s consultation. The department is Fanon. "You had the impression that something exciting was always going to happen," Marie-Jeanne continues. The Tape Recorder went from surprise to surprise, noting down words that she did not understand — "nygtasmus?" And she was terrified by the idea that her spelling mistakes would upset him. He scared her like her father had when she was a child.

Essentially Fanon’s colleagues did not know a lot about him. Any question about his life was cut short with a terse "irrelevant!." That was true even when Jean-Paul Sartre ventured to ask him face to face. Of course, we know his wife Josie. She was white, he was black. So? As he told her when they got married, in Lyon, "one is only black in the whites’ gaze." He was 23, a brilliant student of the Republic, and from a good family. His first book Black Skin, White Masks had just come out. This work was, certainly, a denunciation of racism in France. But in between the lines there shone through his boundless hope: namely, "To free the man of colour from himself."

Expelled from Algeria in 1956

In the hospital, the psychiatrist forced Marie-Jeanne to listen to an Algerian refugee who had been tortured by a policeman. She was ashamed to be French. But she understood that psychiatric hospitals are implacable observatories. Fanon’s first posting was in Bilda, Algeria, in late 1953. "That had been a shock for him. He was constantly thinking back to that," she remembers.

European and indigenous patients lived separately. The French colonial empire, which always denied being based on racial differences, professed the doctrine of primitivism: the founder of the Algiers psychiatry school Antoine Porot wrote that "The North-African indigène is a primitive being with a little-evolved cortex and a vegetative life." At that time Fanon had never been active in any party. "That was not his culture, you could see that," Marie-Jeanne insists. So, his revolution began in a white gown: "decolonising" minds, shining a light on the psychological traumas that colonialism caused. He treated both those who practised torture and those who suffered it, refusing to deliver either to the enemy camp. Lacking for "reliable doctors," the clandestine FLN ultimately turned to him. He was expelled from Algeria in 1956.

That same year, Tunisia’s independence made this country into the FLN’s rearguard base. 150,000 Algerians lived there, both fighters and politicians. It was a state within a state. Fanon was their spokesman: "We saw them as heroes, me included," Manuellan remembers.

She had joined the Communist Party as a young woman together with her cousin Jeanne. She saw this latter as "a glowing figure," a splendid redhead schoolteacher and violinist. "We believed in the kind of commitment that gave meaning to life." She asked a comrade "What is love like, among communists?" The other woman replied: "You have a partner, and there you go." Marie-Jeanne’s partner was Gilbert. They both quit the Party after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and moved to Tunisia.

"You’ll have to work it out"

An intern at the Tunis hospital told Tape Recorder: "The boss wants to see you." This was in June 1959. She immediately thought "What did I do wrong?" Fanon was in plastercast after an accident.

Her: (cautious) "How’s it going?"

Him: (crotchety): "Just the way it looks"

He looked at her so long that it annoyed her. Then came the rebuke: "You think it looks fine, then?" He continues "We are going to do a book." She lights up. "You can type, then?" Of course, she does not know how.

Him: "You’ll have to work it out."

This is one of his favourite expressions. She buys a typing textbook and a second-hand typewriter, which she lugs round for the rest of her days. Fanon fumes: she does not type fast enough. It is decided that she will take notes by hand at the hospital from 7 to 9am, and then type it out at home in the evening. Her husband’s comment: "This Fanon has a hell of a nerve. He tyrannises you, and you accept it."

It’s early in the morning in Fanon’s office, a totally empty room. He walks up and down, "a handsome, elegant, man, even if it annoys me to say that, given the clichés about Black men," this elderly lady confesses. Fanon recited his book without notes or hesitation, "his thinking seemed to spring from the movement of his body, like something physical."

A close relationship develops

December 1959, and Fanon asks her what she will be doing on Christmas Eve.

Her: "A party at our place."

Him: "And why didn’t you invite me?"

Her: "There will be French people there, and you don’t hang around with them"

Him: "Well, if they are like Sartre, I’m not against it."

The Manuellans are panicked: the austere Fanon and his glacial mood will torpedo the party. Can they imagine dancing in front of him? Marie-Jeanne loves to dance. On Christmas Eve the Sadist drinks Johnnie Walker. He dances with her to the tune of Sidney Bechet’s Petite fleur. One guest takes photos of the party. Fanon destroys the film. There today remain just five photos of him.

In Tunis, a close relationship developed between Fanon and the Manuellans. Sundays at the beach where Fanon stubbornly insisted on keeping his clothes on. Belote [a card game]. The cinema, where he sat in the front row, revealing the short-sightedness that he always kept a secret. Political discussions where they criticised the Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba but never the FLN. Fanon sang biguines [dance songs from Martinique]. The Manuellans’ house became one of the few places where he spoke about when he was 18 years old in Martinique, in 1943, the year when he joined General de Gaulle’s troops. "A white men’s war," some Caribbeans thought at the time. Fanon, for his part, spoke of freedom, whether one was "white, black or yellow."

Again, at the Manuellan’s place, one morning in 1961. Fanon rings the bell. "Sit down, I have got quite some news for you. I have leukaemia." Then immediately: "But I am going to fight it."

Her: "How?"

He taps his forehead "With my brain." At the start. he believed himself stronger than the illness. She thought so too. He was already thinking about a new book, after the other one that had come out the previous year. The dictation resumed, as if the leukaemia was just a passing trifle. Jean-Paul Sartre agreed to write the preface, considering the Sadist an exceptional figure.

"Almost a Warholian icon" of Emancipation

In winter 1961 the copies of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (first published in French by Maspero) were confiscated as soon as the book came out. From its very first page, it took a clear line: decolonisation would only take place "after a murderous and decisive confrontation." Then, "at an individual level violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonised of their inferiority complex … it restores their self-confidence." This appeared as the Algerian war was still raging. His image was shattered even among those close to him and those fighting for independence: "When I uttered his name I was putting my neck on the line: he was treated as a bloodthirsty madman," Manuellan remembers.

Fanon was hospitalised. He wrote to his wife: "I can feel that the catastrophe is approaching. I had a vision of you going up the stairs at the theatre in Lyon." That was where they first met. He died on 6 December 1961. Three months later Algeria celebrated its independence.

How many people then came from Africa or the Americas to ask Marie-Jeanne about her old boss? According to the essayist Adam Shatz, since the 1960s Third Worldists and Black movements in the USA have made him an "almost Warholian icon" of emancipation.

The great English-speaking universities take him for a major thinker of the postcolonial. But in France the postcolonial is the subject of polemics and not of scholarship. Here [in France] it was in the 2000s that a new generation of militants adopted Fanon. Some of this generation are militants of émigré backgrounds, for whom the colonial question quite rightly provides a key to the present. Everything that their elders found troubling about Fanon instead enchants these young people, from his unstable identities to his increasingly radical choices.

Marie-Jeanne Manuellan returned to Paris in 1967. When she was 35 she resumed her psychology studies. "Fanon had made me free." He recommended an analyst to her. She hesitated, considering that this would be for him and not for her. The Sadist was expecting to begin an analysis, as soon as this "damned Algerian affair" was over. Nonetheless, the Tape Recorder ultimately made an appointment with an analyst. When she saw the analyst she burst into tears: "I thought that you would be Black."

Filed under: algeria, france, imperialism, tunisia