Mental Slavery: Psychoanalytic Studies of Caribbean People

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Mental Slavery is a unique and timely contribution to the field of trans-cultural psychoanalysis, casting light on an area previously neglected within mainstream psychoanalytic writing.Barbara Fletchman Smith examines the complex effects of the experience of slavery and its impact on generations of Caribbean people, with particular reference to families who have settled in the UK. She brings many subtle insights to a fascinating subject, drawing on her detailed knowledge of many Caribbean cultures, both past and present. Through vivid examples from her clinical practice, Fletchman Smith argues for a much wider perspective on the issues presented by Caribbean patients, and the role played in these by the historical past. Misunderstanding of Caribbean patients which, formerly, had been blamed on racist attitudes on the part of the therapist, is here revealed in a new light. Although the author does not deny that racist attitudes exist, throughout her book she presents a powerful case for a more discerning approach to both the negative and positive aspects of the Caribbean experience. This is a must for trainees, clinicians and all who have an interest in psychoanalysis and cultural studies.

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1. Slavery: The Historical Background

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Before taking a look at the inside of patients of Caribbean origin, I think it would be appropriate to take a look outside, at the historical connections between Africans in the Caribbean, and the British.2

I have grouped together the different countries of the Caribbean, but in the full knowledge that they are very different from one another. To me their differences are less important than their similarities because the people of these countries— together with African-Americans—share a historical past.

The terms ‘British of Caribbean origin’, ‘African-Caribbean’, ‘Afro-British’, ‘Black British’, ‘Black English’, ‘Scots or Welsh of Caribbean origin’ are all used currently to describe the group of men and women upon which I wish to focus. The wide variety of definitions is part of a wider process of re-assembling identities, currently taking place in the post-empire, post-independence period. Indeed, ‘people of Caribbean origin’ also include the descendants of indentured labourers from Europe, Asia and elsewhere, and Caribbean people who migrated to the USA will have experiences in common with those who migrated to the UK. The majority of the population in most Caribbean countries, however, continues to be ethnic African.3 So although I am focusing upon people of African origin, I am aware that most people from the Caribbean are racially mixed to some degree. It is true to say that they are predominantly ethnically African, and their descendants in Britain are also viewed as such. In a climate in which racism thrives, one runs the risks of ‘singling out’ this group of people as a ‘problem’. However, this is a risk I am prepared to take. By damaging others, people also damage themselves, and I suspect that if I were to focus on the children of former slave-owners, then I would discover traumas there too. In the making of empires, it is inevitable that crimes will be committed.

 

2. Psychosis and Neurosis: the Theoretical Background

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By applying psychoanalysis to the study of psychotic breakdown, Freud opened up a whole new avenue of understanding.

In 1911 he published ‘Psycho-Analytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)’, in which he set out his most detailed formulation of paranoia. He based this theory upon a reading of Daniel Paul Schreber’s autobiographical study, Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1955), although he had formulated his ideas well before coming across the case of Schreber. Schreber’s book started out as a series of notes, initially intended to help his wife understand his condition. But then he concluded that his experience of psychotic illness—or ‘nervous illness’, as he called it—might interest a larger audience.

I will not describe in detail Freud’s study of Schreber. However, Freud’s major conclusion from his encounter with the case was that psychoanalysis can provide an understanding of psychosis as well as neurosis. Schreber’s Memoirs provided Freud with a vehicle for expressing his views on paranoia. He traced the ways in which paranoia can turn into something more serious—the total disintegration of a psychotic breakdown.

 

3. A Young Man's Psychotic Breakdown

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The Murderer, a novel by Roy Heath, was first published in 1978. It tells the story of the progress of a young man through a psychotic illness whom—whilst in an extremely paranoid state— commits murder.

The author is Guyanese. Guyana is a country with slavery in its history, as well as violent resistance to slavery, and a vibrant pre-slavery heritage. Indeed, Amerindians survive in the interior of the country to this day.

Guyana has a small population for its size. Large parts of the country are unfamiliar to its inhabitants, except in the form of stories and myths. The country is situated below sea-level and is subject to periodic flooding, which perhaps has a bearing on the name of the hero of Heath’s novel—Galton Flood.

Heath presents a graphic account of a young man going mad, and I shall use features of the story to explore various ideas on the developmental factors which facilitate paranoia. I am interested especially in how psychotic breakdown assumes its shape, and how it is handled by the people around the person who experiences it.

 

4. The Psychoanalysis of Galton Flood

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Galton is the opposite of his brother Selwyn. Galton is physically taller, but his development is stunted in every other way (p. 3). Heath presents Galton as lacking freedom, self-assurance, and a sense of feeling loved. Galton feels trapped and stifled by the influence of a mother with many fears, who displays a tendency to split her world into good and bad. She exercises strict control over her child’s contact with his father and the outside world, and his father colludes in this. There is very little of the father in Galton’s life, and even when his father is present he seems a somewhat reduced figure:

Galton remembered the father of his childhood as a jovial man who in later years fell silent whenever he came home at night. His heroic efforts to avoid quarrelling with his wife were not always successful, (p. 4)

This process of wearing down and reducing the father must have taken years, and in the meantime the two brothers would have had very different experiences of their parents. This could account—in part—for the different ways in which they developed.

 

5. On a Male Baby's Earliest Vicissitudes

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Much of Galton Flood’s fictional babyhood is not made available to us. However, in this chapter I shall present more detailed observations on what passes between a young male baby and his parents—in particular his mother—by referring to actual case material. I hope to demonstrate the ways in which the child sometimes learns fear from his parents, and the ways in which this makes it difficult for him to resolve the Oedipus complex.

* * *

Baby G was born in the United Kingdom. His mother emigrated to the UK when she was eleven-years-old, in order to rejoin her mother after some years of separation. During this time Baby G’s mother had been cared for by a maternal aunt and grandmother. My understanding of the situation is that there were no men actively involved in her care, and that Baby G’s grandmother had migrated to the UK entirely on her own.

Baby G’s mother became pregnant for the first time during her teens. The father of this first child wanted to marry her. She refused this offer and eventually he married another woman, but he maintained an interest in their child, Baby G’s half-brother. He also provided some voluntary financial support, and their son went to him for regular weekend visits.

 

6. A Little Girl's Story

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Although people of Caribbean origin—and other African people—have lived in the UK for centuries, there is a shared belief among the British (of all colours) that blacks are newly arrived.14

The Caribbean people who arrived in the UK in the 1950s and in the early 1960s—that is, during the height of post-Second World War migration—entered a world of full employment. They left behind countries which had recently become independent, or were in the process of becoming so. Like most immigrants, they came in search of a better life—economically speaking. They had a set of priorities and values different from those of the English working class, alongside whom most of them lived. Even to this day, the professionals with whom people of Caribbean origin come into contact—that is, teachers, social workers, careers officers—sometimes regard the desires and aspirations of these children and their parents as crazy and unrealistic. To such professionals, people of Caribbean origin sometimes appear not to know ‘their place’. For instance, Caribbean parents were complaining bitterly and vociferously about the education their children were receiving some thirty years before their indigenous neighbours protested and action was finally taken to improve standards. A defeatist attitude prevailed amongst the indigenous working class: that poverty-stricken neighbourhoods should be expected to contain hopeless schools, and that this is one’s lot in life.

 

7. Masculinity in Crisis

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The neuroses of women of Caribbean origin cannot be considered in isolation from the troubles of the men. However, it seems to me that the difficulties which men and women experience in relating to one another are external as well as internal.

For instance, externally there are the difficulties presented by the effects of slavery, migration, racial prejudice, and discrimination. These lead to disruption of the established systems for social intercourse, and entail that alternative systems have to be built instead. For young adults there are the additional external difficulties of leaving home and living independently, which are exacerbated by unemployment and the lack of an adequate income. Freud himself was quite clear on the importance of work (Freud 1930: 101), yet independent research has revealed the heavy burden of unemployment which young black people—especially men—have to bear. Figures for the UK in May 1996 indicate that 36 per cent of black men aged 16-24-years were unemployed, compared with 17 per cent of white men (Institute of Race Relations 1999).

 

8. Parental Distress and Childhood Disturbance

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At thirteen-months-old, Little S, and his family, were referred to child guidance by a doctor at a mother and baby clinic. Both parents had visited the clinic at the father’s insistence. He was concerned about Little S’s behaviour: he was throwing food around, rocking, and head-banging against the side of his cot. The referring doctor mentioned that—physically—Little S was developing satisfactorily, and seemed well-cared for.

The family—father, mother, S the older son, and Little S— arrived for their first appointment half-an-hour late. Father was very reluctant to come in and see me, and only came in when Older S asked him to do so. I was struck by how extremely unhappy both the parents looked. Mother was thirty-five years old. She looked young for her age, and wore her hair in a girlish style. Father, however, looked all of his forty-one years.

Father began by telling me that he thought his son had a medical problem and should see a doctor. At this, mother gave father a look of contempt and pointed out that S had already been to the doctor. However, they were both worried about their child and agreed that his behaviour was growing worse. They described how S was rocking and banging his head first on one end, and then at the other end of his cot. He was also covering his ears, as if he had earache. When he rocked the noise he made travelled throughout their house.

 

9. A Feeling of 'Not Belonging'

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A feeling of not belonging can arise in any adult, but seems to be especially prevalent and acute among people who have been trans-racially adopted, or who are sent away to boarding school very early in their lives. However, slavery can also produce this feeling in people, because it creates a paradox: you belong to the owner, and yet—at the same time—you do not belong anywhere.

In the Caribbean, there has always been a system of informal adoption—that is, adoption by private arrangement, between family or friends, without the intervention of the State. There is no doubt that some children have benefited greatly from this system. Even so, the breaking of all ties with the natural parents, which became the hallmark of the ‘permanency movement’ of the 1980s,17 seems to me to have been very unfortunate. Total severance of relations with the natural parents creates unnecessary conflict in the children, as well as a sense of permanent separation, and of broken relationships which are impossible to mend. In the 1990s there has been another shift away from the breakage of ties, towards a maintenance of relationships with the natural parents.

 

10. On 'Struggle'

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The term ‘struggle’ is very much a part of the vocabulary of British Caribbean people. Although there are many social, political, and personal definitions of ‘struggle’, for the most part it is understood as referring to something which occurs between the individual and his or her outside world.

To my mind, ‘struggle’ is best understood as the refusal of a non-frustrating object—that is, as the rejection, by a person, of any object which might provide that person with satisfaction. In other words, ‘to struggle’ is to set oneself wilfully in direct opposition to ease and freedom. The circumstances which can lead a person to reject what might otherwise provide them with satisfaction will differ in each case. In my opinion, however, emotional deprivation, coupled with severe frustration from the external world, seem to be at the heart of all forms of struggle.

Because the person engaged in struggle chooses to reject satisfaction, this leads to a characteristic attitude of ‘acceptance’ of suffering and distress. During slavery, for instance, this ‘acceptance’ of suffering, this determination to struggle, was adopted with the simple aim of survival.

 

11. Childhood Troubles in the Workplace

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K approached an educational psychologist, to request a classroom observation of her son, J, and for suggestions on ways she might help J at home. Subsequently her son was seen by the psychologist and a child psychotherapist, and a decision was made to offer him educational therapy.

J made very good use of this opportunity. From having been entirely unable to read, suddenly his interest in books took off. However, in the meantime, K—despite having brought her son to therapy—was now threatening to disrupt the treatment he was receiving, because she was completely unable to trust other people to help J. She simply couldn’t understand how it was that she herself could not manage to meet all J’s needs.

J’s educational therapist expressed an opinion that J needed a protected space to think and to make sense of things for himself; a place, in other words, in which he might not be intruded upon. It transpired that K herself had been heavily intruded upon by her mother when she was a child, and therefore knew no other way of being with her children.

 

12. When a Mother Dies

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Seeds of rivalry and of open conflict between Caribbean Africans and migrants from India were sown in the period immediately following the abolition of slavery. After slavery, free men had the opportunity—for the first time—of organising their labour in order to receive the highest price for it. In response to this, however, the plantation owners simply imported indentured labour from India, China, Europe, and the region referred to today as the Middle East.

George Lamming, in his Foreword to Walter Rodney’s A History of the Guyanese Working People 1881-1905, writes:

Indentured labour was bound labour. It was deprived of all mobility and was therefore condemned to provide that reliability of service a crop like sugar demanded. The planter class, with the full permission of metropolitan power, had given itself the legal right to deploy this labour as it pleased… [W]hat the ruling class could not acquire by the normal play of the market forces had now been appropriated through legal sanctions. Indentured Indian labour was enslaved by the tyranny of the law that decided their relations to the land where they walked, and worked, and slept… The presence of this indentured labour had a direct and immediate effect on the bargaining power of the free labour force. (Lamming, in Rodney 1981)

 

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