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Psychological stress is a pervasive aspect of border life, argues a journalist

Wall Disease: The Psychological Toll of Living Up Against a Border

Jessica Wapner
The Experiment
128 pp.
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With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, politicians and pundits heralded a new age: a world without walls. But the celebration was short-lived. Walls, once again the rage, are now part of a global rise in border militarization that, while aimed at keeping undocumented migrants, drug traffickers, and terrorists out, has led to increased violence against, and death among, undocumented migrants and refugees.

A less understood aspect of border fortifications is their impact on the people who live near them, including the citizens they are ostensibly designed to protect. In her new book, Wall Disease, journalist Jessica Wapner argues that these impacts include the emergence of an illness first characterized by psychologist Dietfried Müller-Hegemann in the 1970s. Drawing from his observations of a number of East Germans, Müller-Hegemann coined the term “wall disease” to describe a condition experienced by those living near physical barriers whose symptoms include a sense of social isolation, dejection, and suicidal thoughts.

Wapner argues that wall disease is now a global phenomenon, resulting from the worldwide proliferation of border walls and the increasing poverty and violence found near them. To support her case, she draws on various sources, including firsthand accounts from the U.S.-Mexico border, border studies scholarship, and psychological studies.

The book begins with a visit to Texas, where Wapner learns that the border wall slashes through private property and nature preserves. Here, Wapner recounts her discussions with border resident and anti–border wall activist Reynaldo Anzaldúa about how his family’s relation to their U.S. land has changed now that it falls south of the border wall. “We know we’re going to lose this,” he tells her. “It’s not about the money, it’s about our love of the land.”

Wapner describes the history of international borders, drawing attention to how, until World War I, passports were not needed for travel and highlighting the recent and somewhat arbitrary creation of certain borders, such as the one that divides India and Pakistan, and how these borders have fomented violence. Citing research conducted by border study scholars Reece Jones and Élisabeth Vallet, she explores the dangers associated with living near border walls, including cases in which border agents have killed migrants and incidents of border residents being sprayed with the pesticides used to clear vegetation near walls.

Interspersed throughout these accounts are discussions of how the brain responds to closed spaces, violence, imprisonment, and poverty. Wapner describes, for example, Edvard Moser’s studies on how “border cells” in the brains of rats fire in response to wall-like edges. “When we create a map of our environment, it is rarely a purely physical map,” Moser tells Wapner. “Elements of the map also depend on how important they are to us emotionally.” Wapner also cites research by psychologist Oshin Vartanian, who has found that open spaces are essential for maintaining mental health.

The psychological toll of living near a wall is spreading well beyond physical borders. In many countries, border agents now subscribe to the view that “the border is everywhere.” In southern Texas, for example, there are border patrol checkpoints, where travelers must provide proof of citizenship, as far as 75 miles north of the international boundary with Mexico.

Governments have waived laws, declared states of emergency, eased restrictions on the use of force, and changed rules for search, seizure, and arrest within up to 100 miles of international boundaries. While Wapner’s book does not focus on these political dynamics, we feel that it is important to note that diminishing rights are a key aspect of many border residents’ opposition to walls. Indeed, the psychological effects of being constantly surveilled and having one’s citizenship questioned, along with the fear of potentially having one’s rights taken away, are all factors deserving of greater study.

Although more journalistic than scholarly, Wall Disease is nonetheless an important contribution that raises public awareness about the potential harm caused by border walls. The book is also a clarion call for scientists to develop a broader interdisciplinary understanding of the impacts of such fortifications.

About the author

The reviewers are at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA 23173, USA, and the authors of Fencing in Democracy: Border Walls, Necrocitizenship, and the Security State (Duke Univ. Press, 2020). Email: