One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey) -Throwback 60

Cover artist: Paul Bacon

Caution: Major spoilers!

The 1960s were a time of big change in the United States. The Civil Rights movement was in full force as Black communities fought for equality, the Cold War had been ongoing for years, the space race was happening, and tensions were high. One of the fights that is often overlooked is Deinstitutionalisation: the fight to change mental health practices, and replace long-stay mental health facilities that basically tortured those staying there. One piece of art from the time that really focused on this is the novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

Published in 1962, the book is told by ‘Chief’ Bromden, a Native American man who has been a patient at a psychiatric hospital since World War Two, who staff believe to be deaf and mute. The story begins with the admission of a new patent, Randall Patrick Murphy, who pretends to have mental health issues in order to serve out his criminal sentence in the hospital rather than a prison work farm.

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Randall is instantly a force for disruption in the hospital, and regularly clashes with the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who rules the facility with absolute authority and manipulative practices. Randall regularly breaks the rules, and begins to try to encourage the other patients to stand up to Ratched. When one of Randall’s plans to have a party goes wrong, one of the young patients, Billy, finally stands up for himself. Unfortunately, thanks to the cruelty of Ratched, Billy ends up spiralling into despair and takes his own life.

This event spurs Randall into a violent outburst, where he attacks Ratched and tries to choke her. The attack is stopped, though Ratched is left unable to talk. In reprisal for the event, Ratched has Randall lobotomised, leaving him in an unresponsive, vegetative state. The book ends with The Chief – who it was revealed could talk, and made a connection with Randall – releasing his friend from his suffering by suffocating him to death with a pillow, before breaking his way through a window and escaping the facility.

Ken Kesey wrote the book a few years before it was published, in the 1950s, and did so in part to show the brutality of the US mental health system. Kesey had spent time working as a night shift orderly in a mental health facility in California, and had seen these horrors first hand. He spent time talking with patients, learning their stories, and discovered some of the things that were being done to them. As well as this, Kesey took part in experiments into psychoactive drugs as part of the notorious MKUltra programme. Kesey believed, as did many members of the Deinstitutionalisation movement, that psychiatric drugs were a much better way of helping patients, and his own experiences with this would go on to help form parts of his book.

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Kesey also used the book to talk about the nature of institutions, and not just the mental health system. The character of The Chief talks to Randall about The Combine, his name for the authorities that manipulate people. Throughout the book The Combine is represented by Nurse Ratched, and her ways of controlling and manipulating the ward through her subtle system of shaming people and rewarding actions that she deems desirable. The patients fail to see that Ratched is controlling them, shaping their actions, and forcing them to conform to her way of thinking; something that many have seen as a stand-in for the American government over the decades since the book was published.

The book received mixed reactions when it was released, with some praising it for its themes and its approach to the mental health system, holding it up as an important piece of work that deserved to be on lists of ‘must read’ titles, but others thought less fondly of it. Some places claimed that the book was promoting criminal activity and sexual acts via Randall’s actions, and that the themes would try to convince young readers to rebel against authority figures. The book was removed from classroom reading lists across a number of states during the 1970s, and one school in Idaho outright banned it, firing the teacher who tried to use it in their classroom.

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Despite these outcries, the book sold well, and soon found itself on bestseller lists across the world. It was also quickly adapted into a play starring Kirk Douglas and Gene Wilder, which premiered only a year after the book was released. The novel was also adapted into a film in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson, which would go on to be a major hit and win numerous Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes, amongst other awards.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is often included on lists of all time great novels, of books that everyone should read at least once. When it first came out it helped to get people thinking about the awful conditions in the mental health system, and now that those have thankfully changed it can help to remind us of what things used to be like, so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was first published on 1st February 1962.

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