One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Literature (1962 - 272 pp.)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is my first exposure to the Beat Generation in years. During what mainstream society dubbed "the American High", Ken Kesey sets a chilling tale inside a psychiatric facility. Kesey's experiences working as a maintenance staffer in a psychiatric facility in Oregon were a direct inspiration for a story that, although set in one of the most optimistic societies in world history, presents few options for its characters other than complete bleakness. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's characters, especially Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, are examined 10 billion ways in numerous publications, so I'll stick to my views on the setting and plot.
As someone who can barely stand the sight of blood, Kesey's descriptions of contemporary 1950s psychiatric surgery made me lose sleep. Both forms of lobotomy once used in the United States (prefrontal and transorbital) are discussed at length, through the eyes of the narrator Bromden, who never sees a surgery being performed but sees the aftereffects. Ruckly, one of the less heralded characters, receives a transorbital lobotomy near the start of the book that leaves him with "black-and-blue eyes" and barely responsive. (20) Another transorbital lobotomy near the end of the book gives a character "a face milk-white, except for the heavy purple bruises around the eyes" that renders him "like one of those store dummies". (269) The patients also compare lobotomy to castration.* (165) These lobotomy horror stories remind me of Authorson v Canada.** a class action in which Canadian war veterans sued for the interest accrued on their pension funds; the representative plaintiff Joseph Authorson had received a prefrontal lobotomy while in a psychiatric institution in London, Ontario.
Electroshock therapy (EST) is not presented in a much better light. Bromden frequently wakes from bouts of EST, which leaves him in a mental fog so severe the reader is forced to question the veracity of many of the book's events. When the other patients explain EST to McMurphy, what results is possibly the scariest lines of the book:
McMurphy shakes his head. "Hoo-wee! Electricity through the head. Man, that's like electrocuting a guy for murder."
"The reasons for both activities are much more closely related than you might think; they are both cures." (164)Patient death is common in the facility, whether by natural causes or unnatural causes such as drowning (151), none of which appears to concern Ratched or many of the other staff.
The level of cruelty the reader sees from Bromden's perspective is comparable to a kangaroo court: "...it might be beneficial that he receive some shock therapy - unless he realizes his mistakes." (235) This invites an immediate comparison to communism. (236) The patients' words and actions are written off as delusions of their compromised mental states, which has the horrifying side-effect of making everything the staff says right, and everything a patient says wrong. In this way, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest becomes a tale about scientific veracity, and even about morality as well; can a "wrong" philosophical, or even moral, belief be recast as mental illness in order to attack the believer?*** Back to the staff's self-proclaimed inherent rightness, what if the staff decide to perform EST or a lobotomy on someone who isn't insane? The Rosenhan experiment, conducted only a few short years after Kesey released One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, identifies the possibility of misdiagnosis or staff misconduct in psychiatric institutions.
The entire psychiatric facility is, in its own way, subject to lobotomy and EST. When Bromden briefly wanders the facility at night, after evading bedtime, his escape of sorts doesn't reveal some sort of Animal Farm-style elitism. Instead, he sees "dreamy doll faces of the workmen" and the furnace's fire "like a thundering pulse". (80) Even when there is no staffer to inflict the facility's violent treatments on Bromden, he sees them everywhere he goes.
The main events in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are thankfully unthinkable in 2018. However, it remains far scarier than most horror novels, and its themes of science and rightness remain relevant.
Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 5
NOTE: 31-year old Billy's mother describes him as "a middle-aged man" despite only being 31 years old. She also treats him like a child. (247) As a 31-year old, I can attest that I'm not yet middle-aged! Perhaps Billy's mother is the crazy one.
*For more literal castration, consider Kyu in "Awake to Emptiness".
**2003 SCC 39 at paras 21-24.
***For example, the psychological/philosophical/moral idea put forth in this study claiming that belief in meritocracy may have mental health consequences.