Questioning Insanity, Conformity, in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

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Heather Brodie Pd. 4 5/11/08 Questioning Sanity, Conformity

Either conform and be released, or maintain your integrity and be kept in the ward. (Faggen XVI). During his time working at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, this is the harsh reality that Ken Kesey learned which served as one of the many motivations for writing one his best pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Taking place in 1950s, this novel, when published in 1962, served as an inspiration to many, and continues to have people questioning authority, and more importantly, questioning insanity to this very day. A lot changed during the 1950s and 60s for most Americans. People everywhere started to break out of their shells as the culture around them began to flourish. Clothing style, music, and television took a turn for the better, while the nations younger generations began to speak out on behalf of what they believed in. However, not everything at the time was as perfect as the Cleaver family made it out to be. America, in the depths of the Cold War, was facing more concerns than most could handle. From the war in Vietnam, to racial issues in the South, to the threat of a nuclear war at any moment, many feared what our nation was coming to. For Ken Kesey, the 1950s were a time of coming out and discovering ones self. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Kesey ended up attending the nearby University of Oregon. (Faggen XVII). After graduating in the mid-50s, he and his wife moved to California where he went on to attend Stanford University to study writing. During his second year at Stanford, one of Keseys neighbors, named Vik Lovell, introduced himself to Kesey and informed him about an opportunity that would have a lasting impact on Keseys life. Lovell, who was a psychology graduate, told Kesey about experiments at a nearby hospital involving psychoactive drugs. Kesey applied, was accepted, and began the experiments in the spring of 1960. (Faggen XVII). The doctor deposited me in a little room on his ward, dealt me a couple of pills or a shot or a little glass of bitter juice, and then locked the door. He checked back every forty minutestook some testsand left again.(Kesey, Sketches). According to Kesey it was as effortless as that. When the doctor was not there Kesey simply spent the time examining the inside of his head. During these government sponsored experiments, the CIA was hoping to develop a way of using the mind-altering drugs as a method of mind control during the Cold War. (Faggen XIX). To Kesey however, it was something different. Rather than causing psychosis, as expected by the experimenters, only enlightenment and mind-expansion was experienced by most of the experimentees. After much insight, Kesey became more interested than ever in the inner workings of the mental hospital. More importantly, he wondered about the boundaries set by society between the sane and insane. Like many others at the time, Kesey did not see what made the insane different from everybody else. Throughout endless observations and short discussions with patients on the ward, he began to wonder, were these people really so differentthat they needed to be treated in a special manner? Or, were they only different in fact that society did not feel like dealing with them, and1

therefore took the easy way out by placing them in an institute and forgetting about them. Wanting to discover more about the matter, he began working at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital not long after the experiments were through. (Wilson 288). Becoming seemingly inspired at all that was going on around him, Kesey began his novel. After the novels publication a couple years later, many argued that some of characters of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest arose from Keseys experiences with drugs. Whether Chief Bromden emerged from Keseys mind on mescaline, which is a mind-altering drug used by Native American shamans, or was spurred from an event Kesey witnessed as a child; an Indian leader sacrificing his life for the safety of his tribe, remains unknown. (Faggen XXII). Nevertheless, it is known that a majority of the novels characters are symbolic of the eras culture and ethics. The title itself in a way evokes a hidden truth. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. The cuckoo bird, with its disputed morals, lays its eggs in other birds nests, knowing that when the baby cuckoo hatches, it will push out all of the other birds eggs, allowing himself to have Mom birds full attention. (Faggen XXII). Whether this is an instinct or not, it is a classic model of insanity vs. sanity. What remains indistinct is how this case is any different from a similar act in society, which would normally be looked down upon, rather than in nature where it is just a part of life. On the contrary, it is easy to say that One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is an optimal title for Keseys novel. McMurphy comes ranting and raging into the ward, a place where the patients have not heard a real laugh since admission. From this point, he continues to test the limits until he is slowly but surely shot down. McMurphy, unwilling to conform to any rules or standards however does not symbolize a present day tyrant, or radical, but rather the typical hero archetype. The hero complex, which consists of bravery, intelligence, and drive, does not fit McMurphy manifestly, but throughout the novel as he lowers his shield and more is exposed, it is clear that he is looked up to by the other men of the ward. He is the guy that most of the men in the ward wish they could be, and the guy that the people working in the ward fear. Nurse Ratched, the wards head nurse is also representative of many important concepts of the time period. She herself personifies power and control in the ways that she handles matters of the ward. (Wilson 292). With the exception of McMurphy, most of the patients in Nurse Ratcheds ward are afraid to stand up to her, even if it means being treated unfairly. Through her harsh ways, it is also true that she is an icon of governmental power during the era the novel was written. Although ward policy is similar to a democracy, in that all patients vote on major issues, with Nurse Ratched things were certainly more easily said than done. The patient can not choose what role they play in this democracy, and decisions can effortlessly be overthrown by the authority figures. How can you live in a democracy that expects you to participate, to hold an opinion, and to vote and thereby control and be responsible for your society- but at the same time you must surrender and follow the will of others (Palahniuk IX). These problems and more were most likely paralleled with the current issues our government was facing during the decades of the 50s and 60s. McCarthyism began to take over the nation, causing anti-communist hysterics. People left and right were accused of being communists, some were even accused of being spies. At the same time, scientists were just coming out with creations of nuclear weapons. Some were thrilled with the fact we had become a2

nuclear superpower, while others feared that our nation was not ready to handle such power. (Kallen 95). Racial problems and discrimination were finally beginning to ease as well, the segregation of Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas, became one of the biggest movements of the decade. With federal troops all round, the Little Rock Nine entered the school building, after several unsuccessful attempts, another stepping stone placed in the road to desegregation. (Kallen 120-134). Another very important stepping stone during this time period involving prejudice and discrimination was the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, an African- American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Refusing to move to the back of the bus, Parks was arrested, but this did not end the fight. Hundreds gathered to rally and protest, and refused to ride buses until segregation laws were passed. (Kallen 113). Finally, a great way to begin the 60s was the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the Soviets placed dozens of nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, many Americans feared we would be the targets of an up and coming nuclear war. Eventually, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles out of Cuba, giving the US a sigh of relief. (Rielly 19). Similar to the problems in society at the time, Keseys novel poses the same question between the sane and insane. Surely we are all equal, surely we are all the same. But, are we really? What makes a patient sane, rather then insane? To Nurse Ratched, it merely depends on how willing the patient is to adhere to the rules set by the leaders of the ward. Therefore, what ever Nurse Ratched says must be done. Ultimately, if any patient tries to challenge these rules, they will be kept longer, and they will most likely be punished. Whether this is symbolic of the American legal system, or solely what Kesey witnessed while working at Menlo Park remains argumentative. Aside from all of this, it is apparent that a vast number of the characters of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest were inspired by patients Kesey observed himself while working at Menlo Park. (Wilson 292). One patient Kesey knew, named Maternick, was obsessed with cleanliness, which inspired the creation of the character George who is paranoid about germs himself. Another patient Kesey met at Menlo Park, named Mellanson, inspired the formation of the character Colonel Matterson. The emotional attachment Kesey felt with these patients while he monitored them and jotted down notes was transferred into his writing by creating similar patients, each with their own hardships, their own stories, and their own role in the important lesson taking place. After the events of deinstitutionalization were just beginning to occur, a researcher named David Rosenhan conducted a study wherein he and his fellow researchers decided to fake symptoms of common mental disorders, such as the hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenics, in order to get admitted into psychiatric hospitals. Once they were admitted, Rosenhan and the others simply dropped all the symptoms. In the hospital in front of patients and staff members alike, Rosenhan would act completely normal, but what he began to notice was anytime he did something a little out of the ordinary, the nurse marked it down and considered it a symptom of Rosenhans labeled disorder. The reason for conducting this experiment was because of the massive influx of mental hospital patients admitted during post-WWII through the Cold War era. Rosenhan began to3

wonder why so many patients were being admitted, and how many of them really needed to be there. During the experiment, no matter how normal Rosenhan acted, he still was not released. Similar to McMurphy, Rosenhan realized, in the mental hospital, sane, or insane, you do not get to play by your own rules. Institutionalization and conformity became the subject of many pieces of writing during the post-war era. (Faggen XV). Mental illness was seen many different ways, depending on the person. Much of the nations rebellious youth believed institutions invented the idea of mental illness and it did not really exist. They believed mental illness created in order to explain social outcasts, and to give reasoning as to why some people would not conform and fit in the standards set by society. For most psychiatrists at the time, the debate about mental illness being legitimate or a series of invented labels did not faze them. They were busy wondering whether mental illness had biological, cognitive, or had environmental and social roots. Whether it is a real problem or not, it was real that Kesey turned mental wards into a symbol of conformity and control in the present-day society. (Faggen XVII). Another problem at the time was the controversy over more humane treatment of the mentally ill. Popular methods of curing the ill included forced intake of drugs, electroshock therapy, various forms of psychosurgery, and more. Electroshock therapy, also known as electroconvulsive therapy, which is used various times on McMurphy during the novel, is used to treat forms of schizophrenia, major depression, and manic episodes of bipolar disorder. Although in numerous real-life cases electroshock therapy is proven to be successful, in Keseys novel it is viewed primarily as a punishment, and is done without consent to patients on the ward. Most patients get over harmful effects of the treatment quickly, but in the worst cases patients can sometimes be undoubtly scarred for life. The worst of any treatments, without a doubt, is psychosurgery. The terrible effects are exemplified by McMurphy in the end of the novel, bringing his antics to a final and tragic halt. In contrast to this, the drug experiments of the postwar era had many positive and negative effects on society. During the 60s, more drugs became more readily available to mental hospital patients, a phenomenon called deinstitutionalization occurred. This occurrence allowed patients with manageable disorders to take newly developed drugs at home while living with family if necessary. This event caused a very large reduction in the number of mental hospital patients. On the downside, some drugs, such as the ones involved in the experiments with Kesey, slowly made their way out into society, into everyday life, which some considered a great thing while others did not. Kesey himself was not ashamed to admit that he wrote most of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, assisted by drugs such as LSD and mescaline, borrowed from the hospitals medicine closet. (Wilson 292). According to Kesey, the use of these drugs gave him a new perspective on what was going on in the ward, and a new outlook on the patients there. I really did have a sense that what we were doing [mind-altering drugs] was important, historically important, in a way that still hasnt been understood.(Kesey, Interview). Most people have heard of the psychedelic sixties at point or another, and know a thing or two about it as well. After new drugs, such as LSD in particular, made it out into everyday society, people knew times were changing. Ken Kesey and friends held large parties called Acid Tests, where LSD (lysergic-acid diethylamide) was distributed. The harder times became, more4

people became dependent on drugs, and even used music to help get them through. With the birth of rock and roll in the 50s leading into the 60s, people knew our country was changing. Many also began to speak out for rights, especially in protest of the Vietnam War, which was the longest and most protested war in American history. (Rielly 17). Besides the large amount of protests going on around the country, another problem with the Vietnam War was the fact that thousands of soldiers were coming home as different people. Many suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and a very large number also developed drug addictions. Although these young soldiers went to Vietnam to fight for their country, some willingly, some drafted and unwillingly, many came home and were looked down upon by society. The degree of little respect given to these ex-soldiers did not help in hardships they were facing in being home from the war. Many even ended up going crazy for various reasons. Whether it was the war itself that made these men go crazy, the radicals, hippies, and drug use of sixties, or the fact that everyone simply thought they were crazy still poses a question to historians today. What is known is that this is another classic example of society, conformity, and insanity of the decade that is similarly displayed in Keseys novel. From the emergence of drugs into society, to the arms race, the space race, and desegregation, the 50s and 60s were a big time for America. From the nurse who is a symbol of a debatable government, while ward policies demonstrate our nations dubious laws, there is no doubt that Ken Keseys One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, with its allegorical characters is a latent paradigm of everyday life during this era.

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Works Cited

Faggen, Robert. Introduction. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Kesey, Ken. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. XV-XXVIII

Kallen, Stuart A. The 1950s. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000.

Kesey, Ken. Sketches. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Kesey, Ken. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. VII-VIII

Kesey, Ken. Telephone Interview. 13 Sept. 1992.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Foreword. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Kesey, Ken. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. IX-XIII.

Rielly, Edward J. The 1960s. Westport: Greenwood Press. 2003.

Wilson, George. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Literature and its Time. Joyce Moss.6

Volume 4. Detroit, Gale. 1997.

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