One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Reading challenge book 40 – A book written by someone under 30

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

Amazon link here

Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the age of 27, having spent a year working as an orderly in a mental institution. I’ve owned this book for a while but in a horrible edition, so I never pushed through after a couple of pages. I’m glad that now I have. I think I’m also grateful that I read this before seeing the film – Jack Nicholson is such a strong actor that it was good to come to the book with a blank slate.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a mental institution, before the days of de-institutionalisation, and is written from the POV of Chief Bromden, a half-American-Indian, who is thought to be deaf and dumb. He can’t cope with everyday life and his disorder manifests in hallucinations; in particular Bromden is very sensitive to his environment and his hallucinations are influenced by other people’s emotions. They are described incredibly vividly, in beautiful language:

As I get closer [to the staff room] I see there’s a light seeping out this peephole, green light, bitter as bile. The staff meeting is about to start in there, is why there’s this green seepage; it’ll be all over the walls and the windows by the time the meeting is halfway through, for me to sponge off and squeeze in my bucket…

Cleaning the staff room is always bad. The things I’ve had to clean up in these meetings nobody’d believe; horrible things, poisons manufactured right out of skin pores and acids in the air strong enough to melt a man. I’ve seen it.

His detachment from reality, particularly when he feels powerless, leads to his hallucinations of a thick fog (detaching him from his surroundings), though he believes the fog is a physical phenomenon that is generated by the Big Nurse who runs his ward.

What does it mean to be a man?

One of the themes of this book is emasculation. The psychiatric ward is ruled by the Big Nurse, who is portrayed at the start of the book as being all powerful. She has connections to the Powers-that-Be in the hospital, she has three black orderlies working for her who are effectively her henchmen in the ward, and she uses electroshock therapy and lobotomies as disciplinary tools (not stopping at threats). With her strength of mind she dominates everyone, even the ward’s doctor.

Meanwhile, the inmates are initially shown as ‘weak rabbits’. Harding, one of the saner inmates, has a smoking-hot wife, but it’s implied that he can’t get it up for her and his impotence is a topic of conversation in group therapy. Billy Bibbit, a 31 year-old inmate, is completely dominated by his mother; on a visit to the ward, he talks about finding a wife and going to college but she laughs at him and basically tells him not to worry his pretty little head about such things. Bromden’s American mother is also shown as overshadowing his father, and ultimately plays a part in facilitating the sale of the tribe’s land.

The inmates hate their life in the ward, but feel powerless and unable to function in the real world. Their fear and lack of strength couldn’t be illustrated more strongly than by the fact that while most of them are not forcibly committed and could leave the ward at any time, they are too afraid to do so.

Into this stalks McMurphy, a man diagnosed (incorrectly, I think) as a psychopath. He’s a tattooed caricature of a real man – he gambles, smokes, and during the course of his first morning on the ward, declares his intention to be the bull goose loony. (I love that phrase!) He doesn’t understand what he sees on the ward: why the other inmates are afraid to laugh, or speak up, or act as men. So he decides to help them be men, despite the cost to himself. In that decision and McMurphy’s subsequent actions, I see Ken Kesey showing the reader what being a man really is.

Part of the inmates’ journey to regaining their courage is their (re)discovery of their sexuality, which happens to involves hi-jinx with prostitutes, etc. This doesn’t bother me at all, but McMurphy uses sexual aggression against women to spur them on, and that’s something I’m really not comfortable with as a message. The use of sexual violence to subjugate is all too prevalent in the wider world, even though its use fits well into the context of the book.

Institutionalisation

My knowledge of institutionalisation and incarceration is limited, based on Girl, InterruptedOrange is the New Black and The Noonday Demon (okay, that’s a little more scientific). To me, it seems undeniable that for someone with mental difficulties to be incarcerated in a group of other people with mental health issues must be terrifying. Even if this gives a patient close attention, allowing a more intense treatment plan and providing carers to prevent self-harm, it’s difficult for me to see how for the majority of patients, this is worth the loss of normality.

Institutionalisation carries the same pitfalls that are present when any group of people holds power over another: the temptation to abuse that power (think the Stanford Prison Experiment.)  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest couldn’t demonstrate this more clearly than the Big Nurse’s threat to lobotomise patients who don’t comply with ward rules. The patients  are prevented from taking ownership of their recovery in any way other than that prescribed:

It is a Catch-22: only a sane man would question an irrational system, but the act of questioning means his sanity will inevitably be compromised.

In summary…

It took me some time to immerse into One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest -the language is a little tricky and there was a fair bit of world-building to start – but after 50 pages or so I was completely drawn in. This is an incredibly though-provoking book, with some truly horrifying elements. It makes me so grateful to be living in the 21st century, where mental health isn’t the bogey-man that it once was, and lends hope that we’ll see similar progress in the next 100 years to that we’ve already experienced.

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