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Friday, May 11, 2012

You have a very wolfy roar.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest follows Randle Patrick McMurphy during his time on a mental ward in the 1950's. He wages an epic battle with Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward, and earns the friendship, admiration, and idolization of his fellow patients.  McMurphy teaches the men how to be human again, and through a series of small (and large) rebellions against Nurse Ratched, he shows them that they can stand up for themselves once and for all. McMurphy gets ward policies changed, brings humor to a world of solemn sadness, breathes life into everyone around him (doctors and patients), takes the men on a glorious fishing trip, and even sneaks a woman onto the ward to sleep with Billy Bibbitt, one of the patients, while throwing a raucous party in the nighttime hours with the sanctioning of the evening guard.  His various actions have repercussions, though, and while McMurphy manages to make it through several bouts of electroshock "therapy" after getting into a fight with the aides over mistreatment of George, a patient afraid of dirt, his final battle with Nurse Ratched -- the Nurse shames Billy Bibbitt so severely after finding out about him spending the night with the woman on the ward that he commits suicide, and after she blames McMurphy, he attacks her and tries to strangle her -- leads to the Nurse getting McMurphy lobotomized. Mack's friend and our narrator, "Chief" Bromden, another patient on the ward, knows that McMurphy would never want to live after that, and he suffocates him with a pillow. Several of the men leave the ward voluntarily, a few are transferred, and the Chief runs off into the night.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was fantastic. I admit it was hard for me to read at times (I have an irrational fear that one day someone will discover I'm crazy and send me to a mental ward - I know, bizarre!) but it was so powerful. It dealt with extremely dark subject matter but balanced it with the charm and levity of McMurphy and then later, the patients coming to life around him. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. I apologize if you read the spoiler and ruined the ending for yourself, but it's still completely worth reading.

Some thoughts...

I read up on electroshock therapy while reading this book, and what I found was disturbing.  It was developed in 1938 by two neuropsychiatrists who found that when pigs are being prepared for slaughter and shocked in the brain, inducing a seizure, they wake up calmer and much more subdued.  The exact words used were "meek and manageable".  Research on the procedure is mixed, but the most recent literature reviews suggest that the costs far outweigh the benefits.  It can cause severe memory loss, and while in some cases it can help to treat severe depression temporarily, its effects are only short-lived.  A few frightening facts:
-70% of EST (electroshock therapy) patients are women, because they have much higher tendencies to severe depression.
-EST is still used, though in *most* cases patient consent is now required. Patient consent was not required until 2009 in the UK.
-Only about 1500 people in the US receive EST annually in recent years, whereas nearly 100,000 received it in the 1980's.
-Many patients received settlements for memory damage from EST, but only one case was successfully tried against a hospital -- Peggy Salters sued for nearly $600,000 in lost wages because she lost 30 years of her life after EST and no longer remembered the skills for how to be a nurse.
-Sylvia Plath wrote poems about her EST and its frightening effects.
-Ernest Hemingway committed suicide shortly after receiving EST at the Mayo Clinic, reportedly saying to his biographer "Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient..."

-I was struck by the knowledge as I read that there was really no possible good ending to be expected. While the men hatch plans for McMurphy to escape after his EST and before the lobotomy, I knew in my heart that he wouldn't leave. At several points, Harding (a patient) and the Chief make comments on how McMurphy can make it through, saying things like "You're safe as long as you keep control" or "He's safe as long as he can laugh."  I'm not sure whether Mack lost control or whether he could no longer laugh, but I knew he wouldn't make it out.

-The title of this post is a comment Harding makes to McMurphy when they're discussing the men on the ward: "Mr. McMurphy...my friend...I'm not a chicken, I'm a rabbit...All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees, hippity-hopping through our Walt Disney world.  Oh, don't misunderstand me, we're not in here because we're rabbits - we'd be rabbits wherever we were - we're all in here because we can't adjust to our rabbithood. We need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach us our place." Harding goes on, "Mr. Bibbitt, hop around for Mr. McMurphy here. Mr. Cheswick, show him how furry you are." I love this image, and the idea of the men as rabbits. It also reminded me of Lennie, and him wanting to tend the soft, furry little creatures. Harding tells McMurphy that he's a wolf, and when McMurphy tries to deny the analogy, Harding argues, with a grin, "You have a very wolfy roar."

-McMurphy is always challenging the ridiculous ward policies. One of my favorites is when he tries to get the cabinet unlocked early to get access to his toothpaste.  The aide argues that they can't have patients just brushing their teeth whenever they want, to which McMurphy replies, "Lordy, can you imagine? Teeth bein' brushed at six-thirty, six-twenty - who can tell? Maybe even six o'clock. Yeah, I can see your point."  When the aide continues to clean the baseboard with soap and ignores McMurphy's requests, McMurphy proceeds to stick his toothbrush into the bucket of soap, saying, "Well, I generally use paste, but this will do fine for me. I thank you. We'll look into that ward policy business later." Tee hee hee. :)

-At one point, McMurphy appears in the hallway with nothing on but a towel, greeting the nurse as "Miss Rat-shed". After she demands he change, he rips off his towel and strolls back down the hallway, in the nude. (ABUFFO!) I snorted into my book when I read this.

-McMurphy tries to get the ward policy on TV changed to allow the men to watch the World Series, but the Nurse argues that they need a majority vote. All of the verbal patients vote yes (20 in total) but Nurse Ratched argues that that doesn't constitute a majority because there are 20 non-verbal patients who didn't vote. The Chief, who claims to be deaf and dumb (but we know is not) raises his hand and breaks the tie. The nurse argues that the meeting was already over when the Chief voted, but when the time comes, McMurphy plops down in front of the TV and turns on the game.  The nurse immediately cuts the power and the screen turns to a fuzzy gray, but Mack stays planted in front of the TV, and the men come to join him, one by one. They continue this routine for all the following games, gathering round a gray screen and telling stories and jokes, pretending they can see the game, to the nurse's great dismay. I'd watch a gray screen with McMurphy any day, especially if it would annoy Nurse Rat-shed!

-One of the most difficult moments for McMurphy in the book comes when Harding reveals to him that only a handful of them are actually committed, and the majority of them are on the ward voluntarily. Mack is horrified, and he can't understand why they would choose to stay in this place; Harding reminds him that they are rabbits, and that they can't hack it in the outside world. This was such a pivotal moment in the book -- to us, Mack seems the least crazy (in fact, he got himself transferred on purpose because he was on a dismal prison work farm) and yet he is one of the few who can't leave voluntarily.

-When only one of the two women (of ill repute, shall we say? nicer than the lingo in the book) McMurphy wrangles into driving the men on the fishing trip shows up, the nurse is delighted. She tells McMurphy that they can't possibly all fit in one car, and that he'll have to leave at least half the men behind. In typical Mack style, he ignores her and proceeds to convince the doctor that he should come on the fishing trip with them! The doctor rushes out into the hallway past Nurse Ratched, explaining, "Good deal of paperwork I can get done on the boat." Amazing :)

-At first, the men are really nervous to be outside (when they leave for the fishing trip) and because they're all still in their hospital clothes, the men at the gas station start trying to scam them and make fun of them because they're mental patients. After McMurphy stands up to the gas station attendants, the patients become more confident and start bossing the attendants around and poking fun. When they pass a man on a bicycle later who asks if their uniforms are because they're part of some club, Harding replies, "No, my friend. We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psycho-ceramics, the cracked pots of mankind. Would you like me to decipher a Rorschach for you? No? You must hurry on? Ah, he's gone. Pity." Harding is my favorite :0)

-I was frequently struck by the idea that in many ways, the ward creates psychoses in the patients. They are constantly in fear of Nurse Ratched, they are forced into bizarre routines and medication schedules, and their freedom is completely constrained by the will of the nurse and the doctors. I wrote in the margins at one point, "All the forced habits that make you crazier than before." It must be a challenge to keep order and safety in a mental ward, but I sincerely hope that strides have been made to reduce psychoses and neurotic behavior, rather than increase its likelihood.

-In writing out my notes for this blog, I wrote a single line at the bottom of the page: "McMurphy makes men brave."

-The men discuss their futures on the night of the party on the ward, and McMurphy asks what will become of the men. Harding answers: "I can't speak for them.  They've still got their problems, just like all of us.  They're still sick men in lots of ways.  But at least there's that: they are sick men now. No more rabbits, Mack. Maybe they can be well men someday. I can't say."

Suzy and I are off to continue basking in the Philadelphia sunshine.  I'm off to meet a close friend in France. Or no, an acquaintance. That's not right, is it? (No, Karen. That's SO not right.)

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