I purchased this book five years ago and began to read it for one of the Cannonballs but stopped after about 20 or 30 pages. I had not seen the award-winning film (still haven’t) but I knew it was about patients in a psych ward and a sadistic nurse. I stopped reading because I knew, just based on the first few pages, that actions would be described that I did not want to read, so I put it aside and decided to come back to it some day. It’s been surfacing in my stack periodically ever since then. I’ve seen it reviewed on CBR a couple of times. The novel is referenced in Tommy Orange’s There There, which I reviewed recently. Since my first attempt to read it, I have read a couple of other books dealing with mental illness and psych wards, so, thanks to the nudge from CBR10 bingo, today is the day I take on the white whale.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962 and is considered a classic. Laudatory articles appeared for its 50th anniversary in 2012, and it has also been staged as a play. It is, as mentioned above, set in a psych ward in Oregon and covers the span of a few months there when the order established by the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched, is thrown into disarray by the arrival of Thomas Randall McMurphy. The ward cares for men who are either “chronic” mental patients with no hope of recovery or “acutes” who might recover. Miss Ratched is a former army nurse, 50-ish, with a porcelain complexion, reddish orange lips, and big breasts (this is mentioned several times). She runs a tight ship with the assistance of three orderlies, African American men, who seem to know what she wants before she has to ask. Ratched turns a blind eye to their physical abuse of the patients and condones what they do in the name of maintaining order and her authority. The men on this ward are broken psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, until McMurphy arrives. McMurphy has been sent to the ward from a prison farm where he engaged in acts of violence and was labeled a psychopath. McMurphy seems happy to be there, laughing even, because he thinks the ward will be a vacation compared to the prison farm. The descriptions of McMurphy make him sound mythical, like a cross between Paul Bunyan and Bill Brasky.
He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don’t slide; he’s got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes.
…This guy is red headed with long red sideburns and a tangle of curls out from under his cap, been needing cut a long time, and he’s broad as Papa was tall, broad across the jaw and shoulders and chest, a broad white devilish grin…. A seam runs across his nose and one cheekbone where somebody’s laid him a good one in a fight, and the stitches are still in the seam.
McMurphy is physically imposing, charismatic, a conman, a ringleader; he is also a criminal. He is the kind of man who can lead an escape from a communist prison in Korea and then get a dishonorable discharge for insubordination. His record includes arrests for drunk and disorderly, fighting and brawling, gambling, and rape of a 15-year-old. McMurphy says the girl claimed to be 17 and was “plenty willing” despite the results of a doctor’s examination. The girl dropped the charges after facing intimidation, and McMurphy left town. McMurphy insists his own innocence, saying,
Hoo boy, I had to leave. Doc, let me tell you … that little hustler would of actually burnt me to a frazzle by the time she reached legal sixteen. She got to where she was tripping me and beating me to the floor.
The tenor on the ward changes immediately upon McMurphy’s arrival. The other men on the ward, timid and fearful, hardly know what to do with him at first, but they can see that he upsets the balance of power in the ward. He’s laughing and grinning, fresh from a fight, with tattoos and scars all over. He’s unapologetic. He speaks to the orderlies and Big Nurse with his own authority, daring to question the way things are done and encouraging the other patients to join him. He jokes with the other patients and gets them involved in his games and schemes. As he slowly wins the men’s trust and respect, McMurphy organizes protests so that they can watch the World Series, gets a separate rec room for them, and even organizes an outdoor excursion to go deep sea fishing. McMurphy uses his strengths as a gambler and conman to win over reluctant and cowering patients who have forgotten how to be assertive men, and he also gets the backing of the ward’s doctor, a male, who seems as taken in by him as the patients are.
McMurphy is a direct threat to the long unquestioned authority of Nurse Ratched, and it becomes clear that these two are headed for a showdown. Both characters are shrewd and hardened warriors, masters at manipulating the fears and desires of others. Ratched represents the establishment, the “combine” as the narrator calls it. She and the black orderlies represent power and authority while the patients in the ward are mere cogs in the machine, and when cogs don’t work correctly, they must be repaired. In this case, that involves interventions such as drugs and shock therapy. McMurphy represents the individual who refuses to conform or simply cannot conform, the cog that doesn’t work properly. The question is what if it is the machine itself that is the problem? Maybe these individuals who don’t fit the norm don’t need to fit. I suspect that one of the reasons One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is so popular is because of this theme of the outsider, the non-conformist fighting against an unjust system. That sort of individualism has long been celebrated in our culture. Cuckoo’s Nest also drew attention to the dangerous and barbaric treatment of patients in mental health institutions. Kesey famously worked in such an institution and voluntarily allowed himself to be subjected to government sponsored drug testing (including LSD) before he wrote this novel.
Yet, I have some issues with this novel and have a hard time accepting it as the classic that others see. The problems revolve around race, gender, and power. Let me say up front that there is no excusing Ratched or the orderlies for their conduct; what they do is reprehensible and horrifying. My problem is that Kesey makes women and minorities, in 1962, representatives and executors of “the power.” Think about that. In 1962 when this novel was published, civil rights activists like John Lewis were organizing boycotts and sit-ins and were being arrested and brutalized by authorities for doing so. Women and minorities were still struggling to be accepted as equals to white men with equal access to educational and economic opportunities (and still are struggling). The female characters in this novel are problematic for a few reasons. With the exception of the “Jap nurse,” who plays a small role, women are either bitches who emasculate men or prostitutes who happily give of themselves to make the white men whole again. Make no mistake, the “combine,” i.e., the establishment/machine, runs thanks to women and minorities such as these, and so when they get their comeuppance at the hands of white men, we are supposed to cheer. Harding, one of the “acutes” who has a college education and a wife who disdains him, explains to McMurphy,
In this hospital … the doctor doesn’t hold the power of hiring and firing. That power goes to the supervisor, and the supervisor is a woman, a dear old friend of Miss Ratched’s…. We are victims of a matriarchy here, my friend, and the doctor is just as helpless against it as we are.
…man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy…. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been the conquerors….
So, even though women cannot hold the highest levels of authority, it doesn’t matter because they will abuse any power they are given; even the male doctor, who outranks the nurse, is powerless against it. The weapon, which I take to be a man’s dick or masculinity or perhaps the power to rape, is being taken away. When McMurphy says he couldn’t “get it up” for Ratched even if she looked like Marilyn Monroe, Harding says, “There you are. She’s won.”
UGH! Is it just me or does this read like an incel manifesto? Any credit Kesey gets for drawing attention to conditions at mental hospitals is offset by this treatment of women and minorities as being irresponsible and dangerous with power, power which they do not possess in reality. Speaking of minorities, let’s take a look at our narrator Chief Bromden. Bromden is half Native American and the biggest, strongest man on the ward. He is well over six-feet tall and everyone thinks he is deaf and dumb because he never speaks or registers that he understands what is going on around him. The way he is described and behaves in this novel seems a bit too “noble savage” to me, and I have to think that a white man writing as a Native American today would catch all manner of shit for it, and rightfully so. Anyway, Bromden is labeled a “chronic,” but McMurphy — all-seeing and all-knowing, king of conmen — sees right through him. As Bromden narrates what happens on the ward once McMurphy arrives, we are to understand that McMurphy helps Bromden reclaim his own mind and his power again. McMurphy is the red-haired, blue-eyed white savior for Bromden and the acutes on the ward, his disciples, and he sacrifices himself willingly for them. There are even crucifixion images in there.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seems dated to me. Anyone who wants to read about mental illness and treatment of the mentally ill would do better to read something like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, or Woman on the Edge of Time, or I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (all by female authors, by the way). Cuckoo’s Nest is less about mental illness than it is about change and middle class white men’s inability to roll with it. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s supposed to be about non-conformists’ mistreatment at the hands of authority, but women and minorities know a thing or two about being outsiders and about mistreatment and injustice; the idea that they of all people can capitalize on a system that white men built and do so at the expense of white men is just stupid. Also consider that other than Bromden, there are no men of color as patients on the ward. Because they would just be incarcerated? Because they lack the socio-economic status to gain access to such treatments? Just something to think about.
And with that, I leave the white whale behind me.