One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

During the Covid-19 lockdown my family each evening has been watching a film together. Last week included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), inspiring me to re-read the novel it was based on, published in 1962, and led to this blogpost.

One flew east, one flew west, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Cuckoos have a practice of laying an egg in another bird’s nest. The newly hatched cuckoo chick throws out the other eggs and live chicks and by this act of displacement asserts power and control. Cuckoo’s nest is slang for the madhouse, and female genitalia.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) was published at a time when the psychiatry boom in America was at the peak of its prestige. Psychiatrists were the doctor-priests of rationality confident that the unruly psyche could be subdued by medicine and cured by therapy. Kesey’s novel was published at a time when other thinkers were doubting this orthodoxy and interrogating the borderline between the sane and the insane – Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness (1960), R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self a Study of Sanity and Madness (1960), Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folly (1961) and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (1961). 

In the late 1950s and early 60s Kesey was working on a mental ward at Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital. He observed the practices of therapeutic community where patients were encouraged in groups to confess their secrets, and pharmaceutical therapy. Kesey viewed the first as a trick of coercion, and the second as an instrument to tranquillise the inmates out of insolence rather than a cure. He not only saw electroconvulsive shock treatment at Menlo Park but volunteered for it on one occasion. He wrote the novel on the ward, staff thinking he was writing up patient reports.

The narrater of the novel is Chief Bromden committed to the Oregon State mental hospital since the second world war. He has faked a deaf-mute condition that fools all inmates and staff. Tricksters were prevalent in North American Indian literature noted for their uncanniness, unaccountability and the subversion of hierarchy. This half white-half Native American is the novel’s first fool and trickster. The Chief’s fooling has fooled those around him but it has also trapped him in silence.

The main oppositions in the novel: sanity and madness, good and evil, containment and liberty, free will and determinism, is fought out between Nurse Ratched and Randal P. McMurphy. The male psychiatrists have taken a back seat and Nurse Ratched imposes her iron rule over the residents on her ward. McMurphy arrives, joins the inmates and is loud, wild, brings a sense of joy in living and a dedication to free expression. Faking his madness, to avoid a prison stretch, he strides into this sterile world and as a way of asserting his independence sets about challenging Nurse Ratched.

A ratchet is a device in which a paw allows a gear to go in one direction only. This nurse is a mechanical automaton, stone-hearted with cold eyes revealing nothing but the desire for power. She makes no attempt to understand her patients over whom she exhibits a rigid authority. The Chief calls her a ‘watchful robot’. A former army nurse who makes sure everything runs efficiently and on time, Nurse Ratched is professional, calm and unemotional. She is a churchgoer who on weekends benevolently does volunteer work about town giving canned goods and soap to a young couple struggling financially. She pretends to give the inmates a say in how the ward is run but hidden behind this sham is her inflexible governance. Puritanical, sexless, inscrutable, highly manipulative she combines cold professionalism and sentimental piety.

Randall P. McMurphy is serving six months for statutory rape of a 15 year old. In his mid-thirties, never married he is a menace, amoral, elusive, a confidence man, a hell raiser with convictions for assault and battery, drunkenness and gambling. He thinks he can manipulate the system and has simulated madness to bring about being transferred for the last four months of his prison sentence into what he imagines is a cushy option. He has elected for the funny farm over the prison farm. But he has miscalculated: the prison must by law release you at the end of your sentence but the psychiatric hospital will only only release you if you are deemed well enough. Nurse Ratched, he discovers to his dismay, has power over his release date.

Taking a pastoral attitude to his fellow inmates he shows solidarity with the underdogs by adopting a hostile contempt towards the medics. He comes to understand that none of the residents are crazier than ‘the average asshole out on the street’. In the army in Korea McMurphy led an escape from a Communist prison camp and obtained a Distinguished Service Cross followed by a dishonourable discharge for insubordination. He likens Nurse Ratched’s group therapy to his time in ‘a Red Chinese prison camp’. His initials RPM also mean revolutions per minute indicating the intensity of his opposition. Where Nurse Ratched and the staff are sane robots, McMurphy is the human who elects to appear insane.

McMurphy has an inkling things are not right when he realises that no inmate is able to laugh properly but merely smirk behind their hand. His laughter is described by the Chief as the first the ward has heard in years. McMurphy’s view is that anyone who cannot laugh has no chance of surviving. For him laughter is a potent defence against society’s insanity. He knows that you can’t really be strong until you can access what he calls ‘the parched laughter deep inside your stomach’. He calls himself ‘a bull goose loony’ but he is actually the sage-Fool. His playfulness and foolery are his attempt to obtain mastery of the ward. He brings the wildness of comedy and encourages the others to have the strength of laughter. The other trickster on the ward, Chief Brompton, sees McMurphy for what he is. Nurse Ratched never laughs in the novel. McMurphy leads the rebellion, but the rebellion he leads includes laughter’s assault on earnestness.  

In part three McMurphy leads the chronics (the acutes wait on the ward) on a fishing trip. The captain of the boat, which is called The Lark, is blindsided by McMurphy who casts off without him and appoints George as captain. George warms up the motor and is placed in charge of direction. Where the other boats are trolling up and down the coast George keeps pushing out for the open sea ‘we had the sea to ourselves’. On their way to the boat Harding says ‘Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become.’ George takes his eye off where he is supposed to be going and the boat runs into a drifting log surrounded by black seagulls and the engine cuts out. McMurphy is a master of tricks and fishing is one of the oldest tricks. George comes down to fish with the rest, the boat is now drifting meaninglessly, over an hour away from the shoreline. These inmates are the loose cannons on a Ship of Fools floating without direction on an ocean.The wind comes up and the sea breaks into green and silver chunks while the dusk sky threatens to come down. As the swell gets higher McMurphy, who is now drunk on beer, tells grim tales of shipwrecks and sharks. They return to land and then the hospital drunk, blood-speckled, sunburnt, stinking of fish ‘like conquering heroes’. After the fishing trip Harding and Scanlan are heard in thunderous laughter.

One problematic aspect of this novel, which on mental health is so broad-minded, is the questionable castration obsession. Only the prostitutes are portrayed as good women. McMurphy diagnoses Nurse Ratched as an emasculator: she is ‘a ball-cutter, I’ve seen a thousand of ‘em…people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to.’ Fear of castration saturates the male characters. Harding lives in fear of his adulterous wife. Billy’s mother has infantilised him by prevented him developing into a full sexual adult. The Chief narrates that his mother’s antics turned his father to alcoholism. One inmate, Rawler, cuts off his own testicles and the narrator says ‘all he had to do was wait’. McMurphy thinks he must re-establish the residents masculinity to bring about their liberation. When Candise, one of the prostitutes, gets onto the ward she is asked what she was committed for and McMurphy says that she is part of the cure. After Billy has had lost his virginity to Candise his stutter ceases. Nurse Ratched uses the resident’s fear of emasculation to maintain control. When Billy is found inflagrante she threatens to tell his mother which drives him to suicide. Harding says ‘we are all victims of matriarchy here’. Did Kesey imagine that a boost of testosterone and some chest thumping would be the cure that these men needed? 

By the end of the novel McMurphy becomes trapped by one of his tricks and the rebellion and laughter are tranquillised by his lobotomy. McMurphy’s creative destruction creates the crack that opens up the Chief’s escape. The boat is back in port, the inmates re-interred in the asylum, Billy has committed suicide, McMurphy has been silenced, Rawler has self-castrated, the Chief runs free and Nurse Ratched calmly and methodically returns to continue her rounds. She has arranged for the brain of the feigned-Fool to be mashed and he returns to the ward a simpleton, completely cuckoo.

The madness of corporate America bore down on nonconforming insurrectionists and a demented bureaucracy incarcerated sane citizens. McMurphy is the individual who refuses to submit to the order of the state. In a dehumanised society only the renegade lays claim to humanity. Catch-22 was: to be excused flying duty you have to be mad, but to want to be excused flying duty is evidence of being sane. Kesey’s novel has its equivalent bind: show a willingness to walk free from the mental hospital and your suspect ebullience will be suppressed, to obtain release you must be subservient to the treatment that weakens your desire to be free. Which is more mad conforming to the mindless system or trying to escape the system altogether risking the madhouse? As the inmate Scanlon says: ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

Masquerading as science, the definition of mental illness was a means of social control. Nurse Ratched believed she was doing right, her institutional acts of evil propelled by a self deceiving false consciousness. She is calm, precise, articulate, scientifically trained, a rationalist, a therapist, a dispenser of medicine, an instrument of evil is in the guise of a saint. Goethe’s Faust says “I am part of that power which eternally desires evil and eternally works good”. McMurphy is a paedophile, a gambler, a conman, a provocateur, an instrument of good in the guise of a devil. This is a troubling reversal. Nurse Ratched the prim, churchgoer with sexless femininity is an emasculator and McMurphy a rapist with rancid masculinity a liberator. Kesey’s novel battles against those who would subordinate the unpredictability of the human spirit into a scientific schematic form. This hospital is control disguised as concern, incarceration masquerading as medicine and domination bestowed as altruism. Either conform and hope to be released or maintain your integrity and stay on the ward. The judges of normality have gone cuckoo.

The Milos Forman film of the novel was shot in the first few months of 1975 at Oregon State Mental Hospital. The head of the hospital Dr Brooks permitted the filming to take place on one of his wards if real inmates worked on the film. He thought it would be good for their mental health to take part in such a project. Seventy nine patients were involved in front of and behind the camera. Several of the supposed residents of the ward shown in the film were actual detainees on the ward. Dr Brooks himself turned actor and played Dr Spivey, the psychiatrist in charge of assessing McMurphy’s psychiatric health. Milos Forman chose largely unknown actors to play the supporting cast to Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, selecting them in part for their distinctive physical looks. He auditioned them in eleven mock group therapy sessions. Several of the actors once on the project slept on the ward at night. The actor Sydney Lassick who played Cheswick became increasingly erratic and unpredictable during the shoot, concerning Dr Brooks to such an extent that he advised Lassick be taken off the set for the good of his mental health. Jack Nicholson was playing the part of McMurphy feigning mental illness surrounded by real inmates from the hospital who were pretending to be actors pretending to be themselves, meanwhile actors pretending to be inmates were sleeping on the ward and beginning to show signs of mental illness. Kesey disassociated himself from the film and refused to watch it, but it managed in its own way to corrode the borderline between the sane and insane.

Tomorrow night I have suggested we settle down to enjoy A Clockwork Orange, another tale of conformity and its discontents.


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