One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Ken Kesey
Genre: classic, fiction, psychology
Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. Here is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome powers that keep them all imprisoned.
A fascinating and heartbreaking book with a unique perspective on the brutal psychiatric system in the 60s and 70s takes us down the rabbit hole. This book hits many sore points for me as I’ve struggled with mild depression and to imagine I could have ended up in the hands of these people back in the day… Spending time outdoors, physical activity, close bonds with your family, and a pet or two can do wonders for minor complaints. Even a good balanced diet can help you feel better – not every complaint need be treated with medication. It just takes some time and effort.
The characters in the book start out with minor psychological problems that can be cured with understanding and therapy, but are blown out of proportion with institutionalisation in a totalitarian ward under the heavy hand of the manipulative and even sadistic head nurse Ratched. Just the mention of the systematic application of electric shocks to all patients as some sort of punishment and intimidation tactic made me want to hurl because these things actually happened to people. And the lobotomies – holy hell! Where is the Hippocratic Oath, where is human decency?! Even nowadays people are over-medicated for minor complaints and my hair was just standing on end the more of the abuse was revealed. Did the number of suicides inside the ward not ring an alarm somewhere?!
“This world . . . belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak. We must face up to this. No more than right that it should be this way. We must learn to accept it as a law of the natural world. The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognize the wolf is the strong. In defense, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about. And he endures, he goes on. He knows his place. He most certainly doesn’t challenge the wolf to combat. Now, would that be wise? Would it?”
Chief Bromden, our protagonist, sees everything and senses even more. He’s very intelligent but the electroshocks left their mark on him with the combination of PTSD he’s suffered before – he’s basically retreated so deep that he functions more like an automaton than a person and that is also how the caretakers and the nursing staff in the ward perceive him. His race is against him as well – as half Native American they automatically perceive him as stupid, forgetting he went to college and served in the army. The more he begins to remember of his past, the more coherent his memories are, the stronger and more coherent his voice becomes. He has an absolutely amazing tale to tell, exposing the abuse of his tribe by the government.
It takes Bromden a long time to push through the mental fog and the rigorous discipline in the ward and rediscover his agency. At first you believe he has some sort of psychosis as he talks about mind-control and spying devices, machinery and so on but you soon realise this is just his way of articulating the psychological control of the institution – they basically strip their ‘prisoners’ of any will, break and grind them into these childlike figures that jump to attention at staff’s command. Everything in the ward is designed to keep patients in a docile, broken state, systematically dismantling their self-confidence, and preventing them from forming friendships and alliances. It’s sickening. They are POWs – I could hardly see them as anything else than prisoners of war and even McMurphy who had actually been one in China points out the similarities. He even adds that at least their captors had the decency not to treat them as children.
“But the rest are even scared to open up and laugh. You know, that’s the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.”
I liked McMurphy, his brash, loud personality and the imaginative ways of messing with the head nurse. He isn’t without faults of course and he could modify his behaviour – the gambling, drinking, and fighting, but basically he’s just a petty criminal with a history of lascivious behaviour. He doesn’t believe to be someone else or hear voices – it’s just absurd form the start that he ends up in the ward. Yet he strolls in and takes them by storm; he does far more to help patients deal with their problems than the whole institution. It’s sad actually that it takes one man with no degree in psychology to help people, but I was so happy someone started to fight for them and succeed.
There are also setbacks and tragic outcomes for some of the patients – it would be naive to not expect that when they’ve been so brutalised on top of their psychological problems. In fact, you have this sense throughout the book that something truly horrific is waiting to happen but the uplifting passages lull you into a feeling of safety. Notwithstanding the victories, the mental toll of the fight begins to show with McMurphy with time. As he loses some of his energy, Bromden gets stronger, taking over the slack with other patients in the fight and defiance of rules. They are a colourful bunch to be sure and that’s all I’m going to say – read the book. It’s worth it.
“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
Not only does the book expose the psychiatric system it also shows us the racism, sexism, and other kinds of prejudices in society. The forced compliancy to some sort of ideal in society robs people of individuality and self-expression, actually making or designating them sick when they don’t comply to the unwritten but understood rules. What was once considered to be some sort of eccentricity is now pathological. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows us in a literary format what Michel Foucault told us in Madness and Civilization (1960).
There’s also a movie adaptation of the book with Jack Nicholson as McMurphy from 1975. I haven’t seen it and from the reviews it does appear the movie changed some events from the book. Still, it’s on my TBW (to-be-watched) long-list. The trailer might spoil some things for you – just a word of warning.