Unconsciousness Raising: On Franny Nudelman’s “Fighting Sleep”

January 16, 2020   •   By Benjamin Reiss

Fighting Sleep

Franny Nudelman

WAR IS THE NATURAL ENEMY of sleep. From the point of view of soldiers, the need to stay awake, alert, and fearless on the battlefield inspired ancient Inca warriors to use coca, European and American soldiers in the 20th century to pop amphetamines, and Nazi military leaders to serve up cocktails of opium, cocaine, and crystal meth. The field of sleep research itself has been fed by — and has fueled — military combat. One of the first large-scale sleep studies into circadian rhythms conducted by Nathaniel Kleitman, the so-called “father of sleep research,” was a post–World War II military-funded investigation into the disturbances in sleep patterns experienced by submarine sailors. This quest to create more efficient and effective fighters led to a 1997 study on the effects of caffeine, amphetamines, and modafinil on troops who were kept awake for up to 85 consecutive hours; the idea, according to sociologist Simon Williams, was to “turn sleep into an item of logistic supply […] to treat it like fuel” (modafinil has now found a receptive civilian market, in which it is advertised and prescribed as a remedy for sleepiness caused by sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and shift work sleep disorder).

It has been easier, perhaps, to enforce extended periods of wakefulness on those at the receiving end of a military attack, because the death of the subject does not constitute failure. Montaigne claimed that King Perseus of ancient Macedonia was killed by intentional sleep deprivation while he was held captive in Rome. Closer to our time, sleep deprivation has been used as a tool of torture in the Korean War (on American and South Korean soldiers) and by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib. Withheld sleep as a military tactic is, in this way, part of what Jonathan Crary calls “the violent dispossession of self by external force, the calculated shattering of an individual.”

To protest war, then, is to stand up for the right to sleep. This is the thesis of Franny Nudelman’s haunting and lovingly researched book, Fighting Sleep: The War for the Mind and the US Military. (Full disclosure: Nudelman and I overlapped in the same graduate program late in the last millennium. We knew each other socially but have had little contact since.) At the center of Fighting Sleep is a weeklong protest on the National Mall in Washington, DC, staged by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) in spring 1971. Defying the courts’ injunction against sleeping on the Mall through the night, they carried on in their encampment, making sleep itself an integral part of their protest. The courts had no problem with their sleeping there during the day or protesting wakefully through the night.

In their legal battle to carry on their protest, VVAW members made it clear that their fight for the right to sleep in public was not just a matter of enabling them to carry on their protest, but that their public sleep was itself the protest. Their case featured a twofold appeal to the First Amendment: sleep was a form of expression, and it was a means of peaceable assembly. As future US Senator John Kerry put it: “We feel that the campsite is part of our freedom of speech. […] This is the only way in which we feel we can adequately tell our story to the people in this country.” After winding its way up the courts, this argument was ultimately rejected by Warren Burger’s Supreme Court. But after a VVAW membership vote, the protesters continued to protest, in sleep and waking, through the night; their sleep, at once a form of expression and a means to convey it continuously, thus became a mode of civil disobedience.

Their protest occurred in a climate in which reclaiming one’s own consciousness from systems of oppressive mind-control was understood to be an essential component of liberation struggles. Free your mind and your ass will follow, went the popular song. Direct action was important, but it was often fueled by feminist consciousness-raising groups, antiwar rap sessions, and experimentation with drugs — all of which sought to expand allowable states of mind that might better direct the movements of the ass. Yet sleep-ins were both direct action (going to sleep in public) and accessing a “perceptual state” to be reclaimed from traumatic experience. This was a point made in the famous bed-in of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, whose song “Give Peace a Chance” was sung at the VVAW protest on the Mall. The VVAW’s act of public sleeping also resonated with the tactics of the Indians of All Tribes, who in 1969 slept in empty prison cells on Alcatraz Island, and the protestors against the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which were inflamed by the city’s dictating an 11:00 p.m. curfew.

Yet the VVAW protest referred to a specific kind of military mind control that made their public reclamation of sleep all the more poignant. Ever since World War II, military research into sleep facilitated efforts to produce more efficient fighters; military leaders also used sleep-related therapies to reprogram soldiers’ minds when trauma interfered either with their continued battlefield activities or with their reintegration into society after they returned home.

Postwar psychologists developed two main techniques of repair. The first, “deep” or “continuous” sleep therapy, involved barbiturate-induced insulin comas that would allow traumatic wartime symptoms to abate. The second, psychoanalysis under sedation (sometimes called “narcoanalysis” or the “Amytal interview”), offered what psychologist Karl Menninger called “a short-cut, a time-saving device” in the effort to produce the abreaction necessary to work through profound trauma. Both techniques manipulated sleep or twilight states in order to reprogram soldiers’ or veterans’ damaged minds — not with the intent of liberating them, but with a view toward reintegrating the patients into the war machine or the society that operated it.

In 1946, Menninger commissioned the filmmaker John Huston to make a documentary about the technique. Although Huston’s camera cast a favorable eye on the therapy sessions, the film — Let There Be Light — was suppressed by military police after its initial screening at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, as apparently the scenarios pictured were too upsetting to release to the public. Nudelman, a distinguished scholar of documentary film as well as the literature of protest, tells the story well. She views the film’s encounters between calmly interrogatory therapists and slurred, half-slumbering analysands as a significant development in the technique of documentary interviews — in addition to providing a telling record of psychology’s tangled relationship to the military.

Beyond Huston’s film, the documentary record of such drugged-out interviews is thin, but Nudelman makes the most of them. John Hersey’s story “A Short Talk With Erlanger” also featured the Amytal interview, and in Hersey’s papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library, Nudelman found a fascinating archive of therapeutic records from which the author drew. Fascinating, but almost devoid of retrievable content. Her find consisted of a set of green acetate discs that were used to record the therapeutic sessions; even after their contents were digitized, they were almost inaudible — a damaged state that poetically doubles the elusiveness of the patients’ words. “Like the discs themselves,” she writes, “these traumatized soldiers tended to ‘revert’ to blankness” after they awoke from their sedation.

Some versions of militarily-induced sleep were essentially extensions of the Cold War into the realm of the unconscious. The media reported breathlessly on supposed communist brainwashing techniques, especially after 21 American POWs elected not to come home after the Korean War ended. In this context, the CIA developed its own experiments in mind control, including a program in “psychic driving” that “combined drugs, prolonged sleep, and recorded sound as part of a single system used to destroy, and then rebuild the mind.” As patients were induced into a “clinical coma,” attendants attempted to “repattern” their brains by playing tape recorded messages drawn from the patient’s life history for as long as 20 consecutive hours. If the communists could reprogram, the CIA could deprogram, inducing an escalation in brain warfare paralleling the arms race. Of such stuff thrillers are born. Most notably, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) featured an assassination plot by a brainwashed veteran who becomes (literally) a Chinese/Soviet sleeper agent; he is foiled with knowledge gleaned from a brother-in-arms, who begins to detect clues of the plot in his own nightmares.

The film’s depiction of those nightmares, edging on surrealism, resembled the altered states that would feed the counterculture over the subsequent decade. One of the contributions of Nudelman’s book is to afford a better understanding of how the therapeutic culture of the period dovetailed with politics, counterculture, and protest: techniques pioneered to aid the military could be reclaimed as a source of innovative radicalism. The rap sessions and other consciousness-raising efforts both drew from therapeutic techniques designed to repair the effects of trauma on the individual and transformed them into collective action against the conditions that produced trauma in the first place. Therapy itself could contribute to the “creative dissent” urged by Martin Luther King Jr. It is often said that participating in protests is therapeutic; indeed, the collective emotional comfort, public testimonials, and even co-sleeping of the protest on the Mall drew from therapeutic techniques that had been weaponized on behalf of the war machine.

To protest while sleeping may suggest the ultimate form of passive, or passed-out, resistance. Yet sleep research has taught us that sleep is far from a passive state. Essential brain activities such as consolidating memories and flushing out neurotoxins that have built up during the day require that our bodies remain incapacitated for long stretches; traumatic experience interrupts these processes as it keeps us up at night. Nudelman concludes her book with thoughts about the reemergence of the sleep-in as a tactic during the age of Occupy Wall Street. From the encampments of the 1960s to the occupation of Zuccotti Park, sleeping in public persists as a form of “slow activism” to confront the “slow violence” of our times. Such slow activism represents “patience, a willingness to work for a future that, like it or not, will unfold in its own sweet time.” Fighting for a future in which we can all clean the toxic sludge from our brains is going to require a lot of work, and a lot of patience.


Benjamin Reiss is Samuel Candler Dobbs professor and chair of the English department at Emory University. His most recent book is Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World (Basic Books, 2017).