By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ken Kesey (Introduction by Robert Faggen)
Narration by: John C. Reilly
The 1960’s is the era of “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, a phrase coined by LSD maven Dr. Timothy Leary. It is an era that reflects on the inherent conflict between the individual and the collective. A fellow LSD experimenter is Ken Kesey, a University of Oregon graduate, who writes his first successful novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. This 50th Anniversary Edition awakens memories of those who experienced the era and/or watched the movie or play of the same title.
Kesey became an icon of individualism and the counter-culture with “…the Cuckoo’s Nest” and his second book, “Sometimes a Great Notion”. Both books became emotionally charged tragic movies about organizational dysfunction. The story of “…the Cuckoo’s Nest” takes place in a Oregon insane asylum; the second takes place in the Oregon woods. “…the Cuckoo’s Nest” stars academy award winner Jack Nicholson; the second stars Paul Newman.
The movie of “…the Cuckoo’s Nest” drifts slightly from Kesey’s book but the point of the story is made in both mediums; i.e. both books and both movies. Organizations are formed for government and private enterprise. Organizations begin as agencies of collective interest. In government, the collective interest is welfare of the public. In private enterprise, the collective interest is the company owner and its employees. In all cases, organizations may devolve into agencies of repression, inequality, and even murder.
Kesey’s main character is Chief Bromden, a half white/half Indian, who is the son of a Columbia Indian chief. Bromden, along with several others, is struggling with debilitating neurotic and psychotic symptoms. They are patients in a Oregon insane asylum. Kesey creates characters that seek treatment or escape from society through self-commitment. However, some patients are committed to the asylum by others.
Randle McMurphy, a gambler and street-wise hustler, is confined to a work camp for a bar fight. He is subsequently committed to an asylum because of exhibited anger-management issues. McMurphy may have conned authorities in order to receive better treatment in an asylum rather than work-camp.
If it is a con, McMurphy finds his con is a bad decision because he cannot be released without approval from the psychiatric ward. McMurphy only has four months of a six month sentence to serve but now he is subject to an asylum management’s assessment which may never allow his release. This threat of interminable incarceration is compounded by organizational policies that allow shock treatment and, in extreme cases, lobotomies for uncontrollable patient behavior.
Kesey creates a character named Nurse Ratched who manages the ward in which McMurphy and the Chief are incarcerated. Nurse Ratched, from force of personality and social intelligence, dominates patients and employees of the psychiatric ward; including the resident psychiatrist. Nurse Ratched is highly manipulative with a firm grasp of ward policy and how it can be used to maintain what she perceives as order and beneficial treatment for the patients. Nurse Ratched acquires an intimate knowledge of patient fears and behavioral responses from weekly “talking therapy” sessions. She uses that intimate knowledge to increase her control over patients by making them feel guilty, repentant, and/or submissive. At least until Randle McMurphy is admitted.
The Chief is the story-teller in Kesey’s novel. He recounts McMurphy’s explanation of what Ratched’s “talking therapy” is doing to the patients. The Chief becomes the organizational conscience of the psychiatric ward.
There is little question that the patients, including McMurphy, need psychiatric help. Patient behaviors described by Kesey range from societal dysfunctional to suicide. Generally, the staff of the ward is representative of what would be considered socially normal human beings. Of course, that is a description that fits Nazi Germany’s administrators and their actions during WWII.
Chief Bromden identifies organizations of people who have missions outside of themselves as part of what he calls the “combine”. It is the “combine” that drives Bromden into the psychiatric ward and it is the “combine” that makes this six foot-seven or eight inch giant feel small. Kesey’s McMurphy recognizes the source of Bromden’s perception of himself and sets about correcting it by subtly dismembering the “combine”, the asylum and society; i.e. at least, Bromden’s perception of them.
The consequence of McMurphy’s actions in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” reveals the potential tyranny of organizations. John Reilly’s narration is an apt tribute to Kesey’s insight to the nature of human beings.