Ken Kesey participated in a CIA program known as Project MKUltra. The project experimented with various drugs and techniques on human subjects to expand methods of interrogation and torture. Kesey worked as an orderly at a mental hospital where some MKUltra tests took place. He volunteered to partake and personally recorded his experiences, expressing a fondness for LSD. No, this is not an InfoWars article. Gross.
Kesey’s role at the mental institution helped him hit a sweet spot in his writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest*. By working the night shift at the hospital, he could observe patients from the institution’s perspective. Alternatively, his involvement in experiments (with questionable legality and ethics) allowed him to see from the patient’s side. The line between “sane” and “insane” blurs when you realize firsthand that larger forces are at play, designed to manipulate. You are a pawn in their big game.
Checkmate! Kesey isn’t anyone’s bitch. After reading about him in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I’m impressed with his ability to be in all the craziness but also above all the craziness. He’s a participant but also seemingly omniscient. I mean, the guy elected to try electroshock therapy on himself so that he could accurately write about the experience in Cuckoo.
And, in my opinion, he nails it. Kesey’s vivid characters are no accident. Our narrator is “Chief” Bromden, a schizophrenic half-Native American. He and the rest of the ward are greatly affected when a new, raucous man, Randal McMurphy, is committed to the hospital. McMurphy is not mentally ill in the conventional sense—he uses insanity as a means to avoid his sentence at a prison work farm. Gradually, he brings clarity to the other patients who had formerly subserviently yielded to every order from above. The head nurse, Nurse Ratched, is not pleased with the patients’ newfound gall, and she and McMurphy butt heads in big ways.
Kesey is the ultimate real-life anti-conformist, so it’s fitting that he’d write a novel that addresses the oppressive powers of institutions—specifically government-sanctioned ones. Ironically, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of many novels often found on banned-books lists. Nothing like trying to stifle a book about the cruelty of stifling an individual’s agency.
Mental health services in our country are still inadequate, but they’re not as barbaric as they were during the time of Kesey’s writing. Of course, the hospital in the book is symbolic of other domineering authorities that Kesey railed against; however, there is also a literal denunciation of mental health procedures within the novel, particularly electroshock therapy.
While Kesey’s novel receives largely positive reception, there are some complaints about the text’s overt racism (the orderlies’ race is ridiculed and the N-word is used) and underlying sexism (McMurphy fights “the matriarchy” aka a woman nurse and generally women are depicted as conniving to emasculate the men around them). McMurphy’s questionable character certainly warrants discussion, but it doesn’t make Cuckoo a *bad book* unworthy of reading. As I mention in my review of The Awakening, characters are complex and imperfect, which is exactly what makes them interesting, McMurphy is a sexist, racist pig, so he speaks and acts like a sexist, racist, pig. That doesn’t mean that his crusade against conformity should be ignored. His character flaws and insecurities add to the intricacy of the discussion.
Equipped with the knowledge of Kesey’s background that contributed to the unique perspective in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I give the novel 4 out of 5 camel humps. In the future, I would love to compare his work to Girl Interrupted, which is a more contemporary display of the problems that continue to plague mental health diagnoses and treatment.
*Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York, The Viking Press, Inc., 1962. Print.