One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (group 4)

The ward in Cuckoo’s Nest differs from earlier mental institutions we’ve seen in a number of ways. Most patients remain voluntarily; there’s a clear emphasis on community therapy and some reference to democratic possibilities; we see nothing like the filth of Blackwell’s Island or Byberry, and the long-term use of restraints is plainly discouraged. If not by any means cheery, the look of the place seems to be decidedly clean, clinical, orderly, and professional, with polished floors, starched uniforms, and immaculate glass windows. One of my favorite but very minor characters is “Public Relation” who guides tours through the facility, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Bedlam in the 1700s, while asserting how different this hospital is: “What a cheery atmosphere, don’t you agree? . . . Oh, when I think back on the old days, on the filth, the bad food, even, yes, brutality, oh, I realize ladies that we have come a long way in our campaign!”

But if Ratched’s ward makes discipline and control less outwardly brutal and visible to tourists, it shows how fully under the watchful eye of authority the hospital remains. Authority is just exercised differently, through group therapy sessions, the piped music, and silent observation from behind glass walls. It’s striking to me how visible and vulnerable these patients are, despite the tendency to use physical coercion only as a very last resort. In Cuckoo’s Nest more than any asylum we’ve seen, medicine, the protocols of actual and professionalized treatment, become the mechanisms of control. It’s a historical progression that allows for educational tours and good public relations while providing an intensely repressive atmosphere for the patients. Perhaps that’s why visitors see nothing amiss while the chief has visions of inmates crucified on the wall.

What do others see as changes in the Cuckoo’s Nest ward?

3 thoughts on “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (group 4)

  1. Alexander Merrill

    It seems that the previous open brutality and cruel treatment we saw in the past has now been translated into more subtle or rationalized forms. The emotional/psychological torture such as depriving patients of proper clothing or sleep has taken new form under Nurse Ratched’s group therapy sessions in which she essentially publicly shames and humiliates the patients while encouraging them to shame their peers as well. This is such an insidious and manipulative activity in that not only is Nurse Ratched publicly shaming and hamulating the patients, but she also bids them against each other, breeding infighting and tension amongst themselves, it seems as a hope to deter any sort of rebellion. Her goal is foiled by McMurphy’s impulse of camaraderie that he brings to the group and thus Nurse Ratched must go beyond the emotional violence she inflicts on the patients and inflict physical violence on McMurphy through electroshock therapy, and finally, a lobotomy. All of these violent and harmful practices are hidden under the guise of medical treatment, and thus are much more easily hid from the public eye. I find that the escalation in violence toward McMurphy, first emotional then increasingly physical, in the face of his disobedience makes clear that these “treatments” are really just punishment for his behavior deemed “wrong” by Nurse Ratched.

  2. Jacob Morton

    A change that stuck out very plainly to me was “Big Nurse”/Nurse Ratched’s manipulative orchestration of patients during group therapy sessions. I am not claiming that our past readings about more archaic mental facilities were lacking in manipulative tactics of their own–but none followed Ratched’s methodology. That is largely due to the scientific advancements in the understanding of psychology leading up to this criterion of twentieth century literature; we understood the human mind far more deeply and accurately in 1962 than we did during the preceding eras we’ve studied. Needless to say, with a deeper understanding comes a deeper vulnerability–a sharpened faculty for optimally targeting and attacking others based on their personal psychologies. In the past facilities, the handling of patients seemed largely suppressive; they perpetuated a medical philosophy of repression being the route to healing. Ratched, on the other hand, knows how to get at her patient’s vulnerabilities; she can use her in-depth understanding of their individual illnesses against them. This method hides behind the more contemporary philosophy of talking leading to healing. In her mind, she is not trying to publicly open her patient’s wounds; she likely sees herself as helping them talk through their issues with her and their fellow patients. While Randle, on the other hand, sees it as a “pecking party.”

  3. Gordon Lewis

    It seems as if the treatment of mental illness has experienced a waxing and waning, or periods of peaks and troughs, over time. A trough in the form of the awful conditions of patients in places like Bedlam, to the peak of more humane approaches to mental care seen in state run asylums like those in New York that produced “The Opal”, and plummeting back down again in the post-war period. Rather than a place you’d feel comfortable sending a loved one to in order to receive care for their mental illness, the ward in “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a factory of conformity to the white middle class hegemonic values of the post-WWII era that crushes the spirits of everyone involved, be they patients, orderlies, or nurses.

    One of the most interesting methods of repression to me was the encouragement of tattling and spying from patient to patient by Big Nurse. When first reading this section, I immediately thought of the program of mass surveillance used by the Stasi in East Germany, where neighbors spied on neighbors, family members on other family members, all in the unofficial employ of the state and for personal benefit. Rather than act as McMurphy does and challenge the combine’s influence, the ward has successfully turned the patients on each other. When you are constantly stabbing those around you in the back for a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning, how could you possibly think about rebelling as a collective against your oppressors?

    All in all, the ward in “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a microcosm of the country as a whole during a turbulent time period where a great psychological shift was occurring. Rather than a place of healing and rehabilitation, the ward serves as a machine that sterilizes individuality and produces patients that are “well-adjusted” for life in post-war Levittowns, conforming to the conservative, white, middle-class dominated society around them.

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