One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both in the form of Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Formans’ film starring Jack Nicholson and featuring Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in early roles, and Louise Fletcher in her Academy Award winning performance as Nurse Ratched, were powerful influences on me as an adolescent. R.P. McMurphy, Ken Kesey’s alter ego, based in part on Kesey's experience as a psychiatric orderly, is a petty criminal who, at least in the book, chooses an insanity defense in order to get what he believes will be lighter treatment at a psychiatric hospital than he would get in jail. Instead, he runs into Nurse Ratched, authority figure extraordinaire, in her starched uniform and her rules upon rules intended, in her mind, to help the patients improve, but, as is apparent to the most casual observer, serving to protect her world view and to keep the patients repressed. Meanwhile McMurphy’s self-sacrificing rowdy mischievousness leads to actual therapeutic change as the patients unite against “The (Wo)Man” and become cured of their stutters, their self doubts, and, in the final glorious scene, their physical and spiritual imprisonment.
In the movie, we no longer see that Nurse Ratched is also Kesey's alter ego - the scared orderly trying to maintain order with his own internal chaos - instead, we can imagine that Ratched is outside ourselves – an evil to be vanquished or one to be escaped from – rather than an inevitable partner, someone we carry within ourselves who is trying to protect us from ourselves and is also capable of doing terrible violence to ourselves (and those under her care) if we let her. On the other hand, Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, without someone to limit and contain them, terrorized towns when they showed up with their unbridled aggressive acts (I think there is an odd and eery parallel in the events of 9/11). The Merry Pranksters were sustained by money from Kesey’s books, money that required all kinds of Ratcheds working in publishing and then actually printing and selling those books, not to mention wannabe Keseys like me who bought the books to catch a glimpse of the world that I would love to inhabit but didn’t quite dare - in part because I had to show up for my part time job to afford the books I loved.
* (NOTE: Though this quote later turned out to be a hoax, I have left it in this post because it so accurately describes Kesey's writing as I perceive it - even if Dickens never said it, it captures what I am imagining occurs within all of us when we write and when we read. I think that it spread so quickly across the internet because so many people resonated with the sentiment that the underlying logic of these two men meeting, much less communicating wasn't questioned - plus, it was the New York Times that published it. Since this time, I have heard many authors supporting this sentiment - Eric Cornwall who wrote under the pen name John Le Carre, endorsed this on a broadcast with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, he talked about writing about characters allowing him to more authentically inhabit himself by expressing the contradictory aspects of his nature - aspects that were more tightly bound in his functioning, for instance, as a spy, but also as the child of a con man, in real life.)
Postscript 5 years later (2018): I was thinking about this post this morning and realized that I only briefly mentioned in an oblique manner the hero of the book - and the person through whose eyes it is told: Chief Broom. This massive man, whose elective mutism allows him to listen in on all the staff machinations as he apparently mindlessly sweeps his broom from room to room in the hospital is the moral center of the film. A psychotic inpatient, he is also a Native American from Washington State, Kesey's home before he moved to San Francisco and became a psychiatric hospital orderly. To get inside the mind of his narrator, Kesey wrote in the first person about Broom's psychotic episodes while taking LSD. Most of the writings were discarded because they were drivel, but Kesey hung onto and edited in a sober state enough of them to give the best account of what it is like to be psychotic that he could muster. The underlying message of the Native American, whose close proximity to nature was disrupted by the intrusion of the Europeans, reclaiming his soul as a result of interacting with the most destructive European of all - the psychopath with a heart of gold McMurphy - may account for the lasting value of this book and film. Despite my dismissal above of McMurphy and Kesey as role models - their questioning of the inherited values of dominating nature rather than appreciating it - of control versus wonderment - have tremendous resonance with me and, I believe, many viewers who are concerned about the dangers of dictating to nature rather than learning from her.
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