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At least part of it was the way it was handed to me - furtively - by a friend in seventh grade: "This one's really good..." he said. "There's a part where a guy cuts his own balls off." Obviously there was more to it than that, but for 12 year-old boys, violence ranked pretty high when comparing literature - second only to sex. Still, the way he said it, and the cagey way he handled the book - like contraband - made me think there was something  special about "Cuckoo's Nest," and I was not disappointed. Later on I'd see it taught in high school and college classes, and let's face it, as required reading - something handed to you by the authorities... it loses some of the magic.

On some levels, it's a very simple book: easy, funny dialogue, lots of action and interesting, but not-too-complex characters... there's a little bit of sex and a whole lot of hallucination and insanity. Perfect reading for two reasonably intelligent 12 year olds... On the other hand, having spent most of my adult life as a vagabond and activist, I'm willing to admit I may have read it when I was a bit too impressionable. (And Googling the the name of the guy who gave it to me finds that he became a professional gambler...)

Still, I don't think "Cuckoo's Nest" changed the course of my life so much as prepared me a bit more for what would happen along the way. Or at least be able to view it more romantically. Institutions like high school and college had their share of bureaucrats and Big Nurses, and I did my best to give them hell, but they were nothing compared to the "Real World."

Kids today... you never had it so good. You think it's tough watching the planet and all hope for civilization slowly crumble away because of ignorance and corporate greed? That's nothing. During the Reagan years we had to wait for it to go all at once in a blinding flash... just because a handful of senile old fools thought they could win a nuclear war. Admit it, compared to that, destroying the world through climate change seems downright sensible.

Unfortunately the novel, as well as the feeling of being the only sane person in a madhouse, haven't lost much relevance through the years, as much as I wish they would. (Remember what it was like trying to explain that Iraq didn't attack us on 9/11?) And even though it was written in 1962, the villains of Cuckoo's Nest - the doctors, nurses and bureaucrats - haven't gone away in the slightest. If anything, the machines of the combine are stronger than ever.

The heroes though - the Chiefs and McMurphys - it seems like they're nowhere to be found these days, except in the pages of that book. Even the patients, broken and tragic as they were, seem comic and well-adjusted - even jolly - compared to the kinds of insanity that lurks the streets (and boardrooms) today.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had a big impact on the psychiatric profession, particularly in the use of lobotomy and habitual electro-shock treatments. Not many novels can claim that kind of real world impact. My first diary here at Kos was about helping an old friend get released from a mental institution in Portland (which is where the novel takes place) and what a terrible mistake that turned out to be. When it comes to choosing sides between a friend and an institution I'd like to think I'd still choose the friend, but nevertheless, if I hadn't helped him out then he might still be alive today. (Despite having him re-institutionalized, he got himself out and drank himself to death over the course of the next few months.) Although Cuckoo's Nest was no doubt part of my romantic but mistaken decision to spring him the first time, it also helped create the changes at hospitals that made my decision such a mistake.

It's funny though, the kinds of visions the narrator, Chief Broom had - all the wires and tubes and rust that he felt lurking inside the walls - that's what it was like being with my friend. His mind and body had become so fused and corrupted with solitude and alcohol that it was like being in the presence of an old, dying machine, and you could practically hear his synapses firing when he tried to speak.

Rather than being absorbed into the machine, I'm convinced my friend lost his mind from exactly the opposite - remaining alone and detached from society for too long. Sometimes reality will outdo even the best of fictions, and frankly, the way he died made self-castration seem almost pleasant.

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Comment Preferences

  •  My experience in an institution.... (15+ / 0-)

    Was warped by Cuckoo's nest. The film was released before I was born, but I watched it as a teen and it changed me. Not as profoundly as it changed you, but it left a mark.

    It's remained in my top five favorite films since first viewing, and it gets better every time. I've always wanted to read the book but fear it will take something away from the movie. Books are always better than movies.

    Anyway, I spent time in an institution and I could not allow myself to trust the authorities there. Instead, I formed tight bonds with my fellow hostages and smoked as many cigarettes as they would let me.

    Institutions today are cleaner and softer than they used to be, but not a lot else has changed. We're all just waiting for our meds, waiting for the next outburst, walking a fine line in hopes that they'll send us home soon.

    Part of me wanted the experience to be more like Cuckoo's Nest. It lacked the physical violence and to me, that would have somehow justified everything. We were all still viewed as animals, we just got condescending pats on our heads instead of shock therapy.

    Thank you for this diary. It's beautifully written and has given me a lot to think about.

    And condolences for the loss of your friend. Sometimes we can't be saviors.

    P.S. I am not a crackpot.

    by BoiseBlue on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 05:27:00 AM PST

  •  A relative of mine spent some time in a mental (13+ / 0-)

    institution in the late 1960s. I visited her there. It was a rather depressing place, in that at four in the afternoon the patients were still wearing pajamas and dressing-gowns. (The relative, by the way, was wearing street clothes and makeup, which was a factor in her release.) The whole time my mother and I were there, the patients asked us for change for the cigarette and soft drink dispensing machines.

    If "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" helped change things for the better for the mentally ill, it is a landmark book. The unfortunate Rosemary Kennedy, JFK's sister, was subjected to a lobotomy. Electroshock therapy sounds like nothing other than torture. How can one human being do that to another?

    Freeway, I've never seen the film, but your diary makes me want to read the book. Thank you for this thoughtful--and thought-provoking--essay. Well done!

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 05:40:04 AM PST

    •  Before you condemn condemn (8+ / 0-)

      electroconvulsive ("electroshock") therapy out of hand, consider: my grandmother was committed to the Cherokee State Hospital in Iowa during the mid-1930s.  It is likely she had severe bipolar disorder (it runs in the family) and had attacked my grandfather with a 2x4.

      Electroconvulsive therapy was in its infancy at the time and was administered to my grandmother.  It was the only available therapy that allowed my grandmother to leave the mental hospital.

      Yes, ECT was abused as a punishment, but it also had, and still has, legitimate uses.

      •  Same with one of my family matriarchs... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Frankenoid, Youffraita

        she went off the rails and tried to... well, never mind what she tried to do, but EST did help bring her back to "normal". This was at an upper tier hospital with highly trained, professional doctors and staff. I'm unsure how EST works on a biological level, but it must've somehow.

        In the wrong hands, or used as a punishment though... well, we've got Tasers for that now I suppose...

        When you put a sign up next to a freeway, people will read it until someone takes it down.

        by freewayblogger on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 08:00:11 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Slight Modification to Cause of Change in Attitude (4+ / 0-)

      regarding "wholesale” use of lobotomy to treat mental illness.

      Probably more directly influencing the change "for the better" in treating the mentally ill is the development of psychotropic drugs in the 50s.

      The decline of the lobotomy was primarily achieved by the introduction of chlorpromazine in the 1950s, the first effective pharmacological therapy for psychosis.  After its approval in 1954, it was administered to approximately 2 million patients in that year alone [27]. The use of psychiatric medications, the rejection of [Walter] Freeman’s procedure by neurosurgeons, and the increasing appeal of psychoanalysis led to the ultimate decline of the frontal lobotomy. Brain Research Reviews .pdf
      The referenced article does much to explain why the lobotomy became such a popular treatment for profound cases, citing hospitalization statistics in the US and the legitimization endowed from the Nobel Prize in Medicine give to its physician advocate and "popularizer" of the procedure, Egas Moniz, in 1949.

      It's hard to consider such statistics drove some to such practices, until you read them.  (Emphasis mine.)

      In 1937, over 400,000 patients lived in
      approximately 477 American psychiatric institutions
      [24].  Over half of the hospital beds in the United States were used by psychiatric patients, and by the 1940s, US$1.5 billion was required to treat mental illness.  From 15 million men, 1.8 million were rejected from the armed forces because of mental illness, and over 500,000 men were later dismissed for the same reason[89]. Thus, mental illness was regarded as a great burden to society, and the lobotomy provided a
      way of relieving the heavy costs of the asylums. Fulton[31] predicted that the use of the lobotomy would save Americans US$1 million per day in taxes to fund psychiatric institutions. It is also crucial to note that prior to the 1950s there were few effective psychoactive medications for the treatment of mental illness, and the use of the lobotomy often allowed patients to leave asylums and re-enter society.
      Between the sheer numbers or patients, the economic impact, the resource savings an alternative to institutionalization offered, and the (poorly studied but asserted) benefits gained, it's easy to see why lobotomy seemed the answer.

      Now, of course, we know indiscriminate lobotomy is quackery, not medicine.

      Cuckoo's Nest probably reinforced what was already underway.  Maybe hastened the end of lobotomization, as you say?

      Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

      by Limelite on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 08:12:05 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Slight correction... (12+ / 0-)

    the Oregon State Hospital was in Salem, the capitol of Oregon, not in Portland.

    Eldest Son got in trouble in middle school for unauthorized reading during class (?!?) -- he was reading Cuckoo's Nest instead of the assigned book.  No clandestine activity involved in getting the book, though; he got it from me!

    However, I prefer Sometimes A Great Notion to Cuckoo's Nest -- even named my business Great Notion!

    •  I agree (7+ / 0-)

      They're both great books, but the sheer scope of SAGN, the characters and the pitch perfect portrayal of rural Oregon is breathtaking.  I've read it 3 times over the past 35 years.  I considered using Hank Stamper as my user name when I first registered here.

      There is a big old house nearby that is close to Reed College and is always rented out to a group of Reedies, and they have painted the phrase "Never give an inch" on the front door.  I recognized the quote immediately the first time it caught my eye, and have often wondered how many people see it and scratch their heads in puzzlement.

      I had an uncle that suffered from mental illness back in the 60's, and who underwent electro-shock "therapy" at the hands of the VA hospital.  Cuckoo's Nest was always a tough read for me because I couldn't help but imagine my uncle with every turn of the page.

      Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be the pains that are withheld for me I realize and I can see...

      by Keith930 on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 06:49:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks, I forgot about that... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Frankenoid, Youffraita

      I knew it wasn't Portland... once.  I'll have to reread SAGN, now that I'm older and presumably wiser.

      When you put a sign up next to a freeway, people will read it until someone takes it down.

      by freewayblogger on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 08:11:43 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  so many layers to this (11+ / 0-)

    book and movie. Of course Nicholson was sheer perfection. Anyway yeah, book is always better than movie but this one, well, I think it impacted me on different levels over time, as I matured. Even without re-reading it, because so many elements of it are still embedded in our pop culture. Nurse Ratshit!! whew.

    I wonder too, freeway, where are today's Chiefs and McMurphys? I think they are still there, here even, and they continue to be scorned and labeled as "batshit crazy" for their defiance and independence, and they are often defeated, sadly, but... they're out there.

    "The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon”
    quotes link

    If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution. ~ Emma Goldman

    by Lady Libertine on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 06:08:19 AM PST

  •  Cuckoo's Nest is tough (9+ / 0-)

    On the one hand it's a gorgeous Christian allegory and a high polemic against totalitarian repression; and on the other, it's a triumphant misogynistic rant, pitting heroic men against evil women. The climax consists of the hero's sexually assaulting the villain by ripping off her blouse and choking her.  And oh, yeah, it's a hell of a read, and stays with you. Such welcome and unwelcome things at once!

  •  Thank you for an excellent diary. (8+ / 0-)

    I can never make up my mind about Cuckoo's Nest. As archer070 says,

    Such welcome and unwelcome things at once!
    My condolences on the loss of your friend.

    "May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house." - George Carlin

    by Most Awesome Nana on Fri Dec 27, 2013 at 06:35:17 AM PST

  •  Hospitalized (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koosah, Youffraita, freewayblogger

    A friend of my son's (16 year old) was recently placed in an institution, partially for stating he hears voices occasionally.   Oddly, earlier this week, the Alaska Supreme Court  reversed a finding of a judge who earlier had commited a man to mental health treatment.  This person who once said  he heard "Lucifer" threaten him and proceeded to hurt himself.  Later, claiming that Jesus spoke to him, telling him "to get on a path of repentance", which all led some of his family to seek help for him.      I feel that since he invoked the name of Jesus and used religion, the courts gave him a pass.    Here is a link to the story:

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