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Abbé de Coulmier: The therapist who dared to treat the Marquis de Sade

Content warning: The following article contains language which some readers may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised.

Portrait of the Abbé de Coulmier, the progressive director of the Charenton asylum. Wikicommons.

As with another one of my articles, on Francis Willis, the physician who took on the cases of monarchs George III of England and Mary I of Portugal, my subject for this piece is another historic healthcare provider with an even more infamous and challenging patient than two royals who nearly toppled over their own dynasties.

Imagine, if you dare, being in charge of the care of a notorious, licentious writer whose idea of conducting research for his depraved novels is committing unspeakable sex crimes. François Simonet de Coulmier, otherwise known as the Abbé de Coulmier (1741-1818), had the twisted honour of treating Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, otherwise known as the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). To save some time and space, they’ll be referred to from this point on as simply Sade and Coulmier, though there was nothing simple about either man.

The Marquis de Sade, the great challenge of Coulmier's career as a mental health carer. Wikicommons.

The two gentlemen in question couldn’t have been more of a mismatch.

Coulmier hailed from a humble, middle-class Dijon background, while Sade — a titled marquis — was born straight into the French Parisian aristocracy. Coulmier was educated for the church, and eventually became a Catholic priest, while Sade devoted his life to the pursuit of church-forbidden pleasures (often at the expense of others). Coulmier was a staunch humanitarian who believed in people’s intrinsic goodness, while Sade was... Sade.

The pair were brought together under one roof in 1803 when the French government decided France had had enough of Sadean scandals. Sade, at the age of sixty-three, was declared insane and placed under the jurisdiction of the Charenton Asylum in Charenton-Saint-Maurice (now Saint-Maurice, Val-de-Marne, France). Coulmier, at the time, was the institution’s head director, and Sade became his official charge, a daunting prospect for anyone, but most especially for a man of the cloth.

Regardless, Coulmier was up for the challenge. His philosophy in running his asylum is (debatably) a kinder fate than Sade deserved. Coulmier’s psychotherapeutic methods were ground-breaking for Napoleonic France. Though the Revolution was over, there was a special Terror of its own hidden within the walls of "lunatic" asylums. Patients were treated more like animals than humans, and were rarely offered the opportunity for reformation. Coulmier subverted this standard regime by valuing creative expression and individuality. He encouraged his patients to occupy themselves with the arts and provided the materials they needed to channel their unused energies into something constructive.

Under this overarching policy, his patient Sade was allowed an extraordinary privilege: he was given the space and resources to write his salacious stories, which Coulmier regarded as a safer alternative to Sade terrorizing real French women and men for sexual satisfaction. Even more extraordinarily, Sade was permitted to act as a director himself, penning and putting on plays with the other Charenton inmates. Brave theatregoers of the general public were allowed to enter the asylum to view these plays as part of the audience, for a fee.

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like an entirely practical arrangement. The inmates who participated in the production of Sade’s plays were kept busy, and the ones who didn’t had some entertainment to look forward to. Charenton as a whole benefitted, as the plays brought in much-needed extra income. And Sade himself was perhaps expelling some demons by being given permission to express himself in more harmless ways than what he was infamous for. However, Coulmier came under fire by both the medicinal community and the French government for his "too-humane" treatment of Sade and the other patients, leading to his eventual removal from the position of director by the ultraconservative and less forgiving Bourbon royal family, as soon as they came back into power. They wanted Sade under tighter reigns, so Coulmier's tenure came to an end.

Theatrical poster for Quills, the controversial film about Sade's years at Charenton Asylum. Wikicommons.

In the year 2000, director Philip Kaufman released the film Quills, a dramatisation of Sade’s final years at Charenton asylum in which Sade and Coulmier are played by Geoffrey Rush and Joaquin Phoenix, respectfully. The film exists as a base-breaker between those who adore it as a stand-alone work of art about Sade and those who remain more loyal to history than to cinema. The greatest critic of Quills, and its manhandling of Sade and Coulmier as characters, was the person Kaufman perhaps should have been trying his hardest to please. In 1999, Neil Schaeffer published his widely acclaimed The Marquis de Sade: A Life, which was used, very, very loosely, as the source material for Quills. Dates, events, and even the manner of Sade’s ultimate demise (no spoilers) were played around with by Kaufman like a directionless chef ignoring the instructions of a recipe book. Schaeffer was so outraged by this mismanagement of his research in the name of theatrics that he took a stand in an article in The Guardian shortly after the film’s release. “Perverting Sade,” Schaeffer calls his self-defence, and I admire him for his tenacity.

As a historian myself, I feel obligated to take Schaeffer's side on the matter of his being entitled to justice for being unhappily associated with the film, and mistakenly credited as a writer-consultant. However, I’m torn. I’m a storyteller too, and I also understand what Kaufman was trying to do with his ingredients. It’s a complicated situation.

Charenton Asylum, the home of Sade's last years and the main setting for Quills. It was later renamed the Esquirol Hospital. Wikicommons.

It is known that Coulmier’s influence on Sade and the rest of the patients at Charenton was primarily positive, and that throughout his time as the asylum’s director, Coulmier remained a steady, reasonable, and reliable authority figure. Quills, however, reimagines Sade and Coulmier’s patient-therapist dynamic into a sinister game of wills, with the swashbuckling Sade’s predatory ways up against the vulnerable Coulmier’s crumbling moral high ground. It adds an element of contrived tension for the viewers. Who will win this dangerous game, the man wielding the devil’s pen, or the man clinging to his holy rosary, his grip slipping? In one scene, Sade attempts to seduce Coulmier and add the priest among his countless sexual conquests, and a tearful and reluctantly aroused Coulmier just barely resists him.

And again, without spoilers, the ending of the film is considered by many to be the ultimate bastardisation of Coulmier’s legacy. According to Schaeffer, this portrayal of events is a gross misrepresentation — one can even go as far as to call it an insult — of the two men’s real relationship, which the historian maintains was the closest thing to a healthy bond Sade ever enjoyed in his seventy-four rampaging years. "Coulmier was perhaps the first true male friend Sade made in his life," Schaeffer insists. "And this may indicate that some improvement had taken place in his mental health. The movie sacrifices the truth of this relationship and of Coulmier's own fate to a surreal and didactic conclusion that has no connection with the truth". There is an argument here that Quills might have traded a fascinating chapter in Sade’s life, in which he might have flirted a bit with redemption, in favour of climatic melodrama.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there were the film critics who thoroughly enjoyed this racier take on history, preferring well-executed and entertaining inaccuracy over a more mundane reality. Perhaps not being a historian helps. Or not expecting a film about small successes in the history of mental health research.

Roger Ebert in his approving review of Quills seemed to have appreciated the suspenseful subplot of Coulmier’s inevitable corruption by Sade, lightheartedly describing the scenario as the incongruity of the "young, handsome man forbidden by religion from pursuing fruits which fall into the hands of the scabrous old letch."

Critic Chris Chang in his review takes a neutral stance, praising the actors’ performances while questioning its confusing messages. Chang in particular is critical of how the film depicted the rivalry between Coulmier and his critic/competitor Dr Royer-Collard (played by Michael Caine) who, to contrast Coulmier’s purity and goodness, is painted as a sadistic paedophile rapist who relishes torturing and exploiting his patients. Another Kauffman invention that strays far, far away from the truth. The real Dr Royer-Collard was thoroughly disgusted by Sade’s criminal record and reputation and assessed him as being fully in control of his decision-making, campaigning unsuccessfully to have Sade transported out of the asylum to a regular prison. This was precisely what the real Coulmier, who had developed a degree of affection for Sade, strove to avoid.

Portrait of Dr. Royer-Collard, Coulmier's rival in psychotherapy and greatest critic. Wikicommons.

For me, however, the Abbé de Coulmier is characterized in film, the real man represents a bright spot in what is otherwise a dark period in the history of mental health treatment. It’s a comfort to know that, like Francis Willis, there were carers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were actually trying, rather than just strapping their patients up in straight jackets, leaving them to wriggle around for hours in a cage, and calling it a day.

Of course, Coulmier came nowhere close to "curing" Sade. Nothing stopped the Marquis’s heinous imagination or withheld him completely from his transgressions. But what Coulmier can take full credit for is his genuine attempt to foster a healthful environment at Charenton, which can be looked back upon as an early aspirational model for modern-day psychiatric institutions. Perhaps the next time the world encounters a Marquis de Sade, we’ll be better prepared.


If you are interested in reading more about Sade, Coulmier, or Quills, see my list of resources below:


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