Home » Attilia’s cigarettes – Mental Health Forum

Attilia’s cigarettes – Mental Health Forum

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by Peppe Dell’Acqua

It was 6 September 1971, I had graduated in Naples in June, I left for Parma where, in the psychiatric hospital of Colorno, I was to meet Franco Basaglia.

The Colorno psychiatric hospital was all inside the ducal palace of Maria Luigia di Borbone. The departments one inside the other: really horrendous. To get from one place to another, one had to have an immeasurable number of gates and doors opened and closed. Male and female section and then calm, agitated, observation as usual. The Duchess’s large and beautiful park was largely occupied by a racecourse. High fences divided a small piece of lawn overlooking the ground floor departments from the rest. In this piece of lawn the nurses of the Chiarugi ward – quiet women – had organized a nice breakfast on the grass inviting men and women from the other wards.

Franco Rotelli, one of the young psychiatrists of the group, was in charge of that department. Slightly older than me, he had already worked in the judicial psychiatric hospital of Castiglione delle Stiviere. He had been in Colorno for just under a year. A lady of about fifty arrived, tall, robust, with the broad face of a peasant, I think her name was Attilia. She went up to Rotelli and pulled out of a large pocket of her jacket a half carton of National exports long with filter, badly wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. She silent, embarrassed, very awkward with her big hands she tried to place the gift in the hands of the doctor of her ward. Rotelli smiled equally awkward, without saying a word he took the cigarettes and held them in her hands for a while. Then he continued to stay close to Signora Attilia without saying anything. A moment longer and the lady has joined the others.

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Another world!

I realized the stupid and violent gratuity I had experienced in the university clinic in Naples. The violated bodies, exposed to the professor’s gaze. I became aware of the paternalism, the arrogance and the histrionics of the doctors and nurses. Rotelli simply manifesting his difficulty gave value to Attilia’s gift and gesture. You understand in those moments something that has to do with what you are looking for. I certainly understood that I would never go back to the clinic.

I can’t talk about Franco without these images returning to me, as has always happened in these fifty years of work. It wasn’t easy to work with him, visionary and restless he forced you to question yourself every day. We shouldn’t fall in love with the pure beautiful things we did. The urgency of change hurt him until it hurt. Basaglia had left us. Immediately all the work of the seventies was revealed as a very strong premise. A thought with strong roots, visions we could just glimpse. Franco, reckless, accepted the bet. It was necessary to make flesh, everyday life, those words that day after day were to become mental health centres, social cooperatives, associations, theatres, football fields, aggregations of all kinds and palpable freedom for sick prisoners and nurse prisoners. Have the courage to explore the unknown. No experience in the world could show us the way. Franco, as in the meeting with Attilia, has always worked so that we all have in mind the arrogance and power that is in the profession of psychiatry, with psychiatrists increasingly stupidly kind and unaware.

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One for all. Imagine returning San Giovanni park to the city. It seemed to some administrators that leaving the park abandoned could mean the cancellation of what had happened in that place and which in the meantime was traveling all over the world. It was a long and patient journey to put together the municipality, the university, the health company, with the sole alliance, at that moment, of the president of the province.

St. John’s is now what we call a collective and community mental health enterprise. I can find few similar and lasting experiences like this around the world.

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