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For the Semai, the normal adult man has a good relationship with his wife, loves his children more than anything, has reasonable sexual desires, a good appetite, and a healthy, cool body. He keeps his feelings and thoughts within. He doesn’t cause difficulties for others and does not try to make others, even his own children, do things they resist.

He does not harm strangers, even though he mistrusts them; if attacked he may open his arms hoping to shame the attacker out of his aggressiveness, or he may flee. But the Semai do experience mental aberrations, as described by Robert Knox Dentan in a 1968 journal article just added as a PDF to the Archive of this website.

Numerous types of mental aberrations are known to the Semai, such as echolalia, incoherent speech, mental retardation, disorientation, hallucinations, several types of psychoses, and going berserk. The concept of being berserk was unknown to the Semai before the Communist insurgency of the 1950’s, when many were inducted into the counterinsurgency forces. Characterized by blurred perceptions, uncertain thought processes, and unpredictable behavior, the returned veterans described their aberration as being “drunk on blood.”

The cause of the berserk state for the Semai was the “difficult heart” produced by the slaughter of people one loves, which leads to anger. Since Semai never go berserk in their own society, there is no treatment for the condition. The veterans of the Communist counterinsurgency spoke freely of their experiences, expressing astonishment, though without emotion or moral censure, that they could have acted as they did.

Treatment for mental aberrations by the village medical/magical expert is rendered free of charge as part of the normal system of general reciprocity. The healing takes place in a “sing,” a community festival in which the healer, while in a trance, tries to draw out the evil spirit that is causing the problem. The responsibility for the continuing care of the person afflicted with a mental aberration lies with the immediate blood relatives. While people normally care for their relatives, there is relatively little moral imperative in their society that they do so, or censure from others if they don’t.