Sunday, November 6, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst watches a classic




           One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both in the form of Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Formansfilm 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.
            When first I read the book, I was also enthralled by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic account of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters who roamed the United States in a school bus named Further.  I was an adolescent, and found the collective call to set aside attachment to what is reassuring and instead to forge on ahead into a brave new world of living in NOW a powerful siren pulling me towards a destiny that was somehow different, grander and more substantial than what I had previously been led to believe could be in the cards for me by what I now suddenly realized were inhibited, uptight, establishment individuals who just were not “on the bus”. 
 How surprising, then, to reread the book in my early thirties, while working as a psychologist in a mental hospital, to find myself empathizing with: Nurse Ratched.  She seemed, instead of evil, to be essentially scared.  Sitting on top of a ward full of what seemed unpredictable people, she created a cool, crisp exterior to mask the anxiety that she felt being in charge and charged with caring for 18 men, including the inhibited son of her best friend, but also men with a wide range of moderate to severe disturbances.
            In contrast, in both the book and the movie, R.P. McMurphy is carefree and has nothing to preserve or to protect.  Much like my 16 year old self and Kesey’s Band of Merry Pranksters, he could react against the strictures of Nurse Ratched and have great fun stealing a boat to go deep sea fishing because he was a ward in a loony bin and the worst consequence he would receive is being sent back there. 
            As I saw the movie again the other night on Family movie night, I was curious to see whether the Nurse Ratched character was as sympathetic as she felt on the page.  I suspected that she was not, and, indeed, that turned out to be the case.  The film heightened the tension between the two main characters and hardened the conflict into one that pitted good versus evil instead of two three dimensional characters together hating but respecting each other.  In the penultimate scene in the movie, McMurphy clearly observes Ratched in all of her glorious evilness – he watches it build and we feel his moral superiority, and we revel – even my sweet 12 year-old stepdaughter reveled – in his evening the score.
            The movie version, though, turns the drama into something bigger, and therefore less human, than the struggle between two flawed people.  Especially because it loses track of the idea that, in addition to being mirrors of each other, the protagonists are necessary to each other.  McMurphy can no more live freely without a society, necessarily including the nurse Ratcheds in that society, than she can live without a group of patients who depend on her.  The balance between them is better maintained in the book because they are both aspects of the author – as Dostoyevsky remembers Dickens telling him in this morning’s New York Times Book Review, “that all the good, simple people in his novels… are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love.” *
           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.  
Further, when the Ratcheds are not there, when the institutions like the one depicted in the film are not there to contain, support and, occasionally to treat individuals like the ones depicted in the film, and adequate alternatives are not established in the community, we discover that the mentally ill are living among us – homeless and sometimes desperate, until they engage in criminal activity, if they are lucky, so that they can come to the attention of mental health treatment in the penal system (because the institutions like the one depicted in the film - as problematic as they were - no longer exist.  We phased them out in favor of "community psychiatry", but have never funded that to the point that the mentally ill are adequately cared for).  Of course I am condensing a lot in this paragraph, but I think that mirrors the danger of the collapsing of good and evil into two separate entities the way that the movie does.  When we try to make the world simpler, we come up with simple solutions, but this can, unfortunately, distort the world and lead us to fail to anticipate consequences that are, in retrospect, easy to see as complex problems deserving nuanced solutions.


* (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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