What I Learned from // One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

“One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey tells the story of a group of Oregon men living in a mental ward and the staff meant to get them sane through cruelty and control. There is Randle Patrick McMurphy, who is new to the ward. He’s street-smart, stubborn, rambunctious, and ready to have some fun.

Standing in his way is Big Nurse Ratched who likes her ward kept quiet and is determined to bring McMurphy under control by any means necessary. We follow it all from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a half-Indian schizophrenic who can see the authoritarian gears grinding behind the walls and working through McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.

This book was definitely something altogether different. I can certainly see how it came to be one of the most banned books in America. The writing is intense from the very outset, and the imagery is vivid and often disturbing.

My heart raced along with Chief Bromden while he hid from the orderlies. I was afraid of Nurse Ratched and her way of breaking the will of anyone by using condescending kindness and patience. I was sad to see the way the “chronics” were treated, or the way “acutes” were turned into “chronics.” I wondered at the great big “Combine” working keeping us all in control and conforming. I wanted to fight the Combine, and keep it from churning us out, one by one, to the roles ready-made made for us.

I was in awe of McMurphy and confused by him too. I couldn’t understand whether he was supposed to be good or bad, but I know he stood for something big, and bold, and free.

“And later hiding in the latrine from the black boys I’d look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anybody could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I learned that in the real world heroes and villains are bigger than right and wrong. That a person can save you and swindle you at the same time and that the best of intentions, the kindest smiles, and the gentlest treatment can make a prison out of a person.

Kesey reminded me that joy, spontaneity, and adventure are an important part of the quality of someone’s life and ought to be a part of their recovery, even if it leads to a little mess and the occasional setback. The alternative is worse.

I learned that a person needs to be free. A person needs to feel like a person. They need to know they mean something and that the way they see the world is valid. A person needs to be built up and loved the way they are. Yes, we are all special snowflakes and while that may not entitle us to any special privileges in this world is does mean the right to be our beautiful, unique selves. It means we have the right to joy and proper mental care free of someone else’s biased view of what it means to be “normal.”

But we can never claim those rights without first recognizing the way we allow them to be taken from us in the first place. In this modern world. Each of us has to make his mind for himself what rules he will and won’t follow, not because he is told, but because he agrees with the reasoning behind the rule.

“Rules? PISS ON YOUR FUCKING RULES!”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a reminder to us all not to place too much trust in authority and to never stop asking why things have to be the way they are. This book is about the ways we control each other and the need to constantly question that control.

This book certainly asks a lot of questions. In a world where any deviation of behavior makes a person crazy, does the word mean anything anymore? How do we treat people who are depressed, anxious, or unhappy? How do we treat people who we have deemed are beyond our help? How do we decide, why do we decide, that people aren’t worth seeing, helping, or caring about anymore? How do we recognize who is trying to help us, and what help looks like when we see it if we aren’t of sound mind? What makes a person good or bad? What makes a person a person?

“Papa says if you don’t watch it people will force you one or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Some of the other themes I wasn’t so comfortable with. There seemed to be a misogynist tones weaved below the action that threw me off and made it hard for me to fall head over heels with the book. It’s hard to cheer for the little guy when a big part of why he hates the figure of the authority is her womanness.

Nurse Ratched wasn’t a good person, but it wasn’t because she was a woman. There are plenty of men at the top of every one of societies institutions using physical violence and mental manipulation to keep the masses controlled. Men love destroying the masculinity in one another as much as any woman ever would.

This is my only gripe with the book, but maybe the book wasn’t written with someone like me in mind.

I recommend reading it regardless though. It was still an enjoyable and exciting read and, let’s be honest, no author is perfect, and no story can be either. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some good to get out of exploring it. This book is all about questioning, and just like we question the motivates and meaning of Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, we can certainly question Ken Kesey himself.

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Featured photo is by paul morris on Unsplash

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