Nicole Hill

Professor Vander Zee

English 299

28 March 2016

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen”: The eradication of stigmas

in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

            The mentally ill patient’s of Nurse Ratchet’s asylum are changed irrevocably by the loud, boisterous, hero Randle McMurphy; his commitment to the ward leads to events that shed light on the horrendous treatment these men face daily. The novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a “chronic” who tells of what life was like in the ward and shares the rise and fall of the hero McMurphy. From the beginning McMurphy is clearly shown as different from the other patients, but rather than keep it that way McMurphy becomes the catalyst for change for the others who join forces with him and admire his tenacity and ways of thinking. Through McMurphy the other patients of the asylum find their voices and become more like humans rather than numbers on their hospital wristbands.

Historically psychiatric wards have relied on small medical staffs that condoned inhumane therapeutic treatments and only considered the patients in a behavioral mindset. Anyone considered deviant from the norm were thrown into institutions like the one described in the book and treated terribly. Electro-shock therapy, lobotomy, and over-medication was common in these types of places, and the novel highlights how draining these types of treatments are on patients and how much they truly do not help mental illness. This leads to the question, then, of what would help? We know now that humanistic psychology principles, cognitive-based therapies, and treating patients as more than just a set of observable behaviors helped change wards, like the one described in the novel, into a better, healthier and actually therapeutic area for the mentally ill. I think the novel also raises a question that, despite the positive changes in psychiatric wards, is still prevalent: can we start treating those people we consider “abnormal” or “insane” as more than just a label?

As the title suggests, even if the story that Chief tells of the ward “didn’t happen” it is still the truth because it does happen, to other people who are mentally ill and forced into these wards. This essay explores Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in the context of these affects institutionalization and behavioral psychology has on the mentally ill. Though critics have noted the benefits that humane methods, and the costs of strict behavioristic methods, have on patients, I would like to further explore how this shift helps eradicate stigmas and “normalizes” the mentally ill. Some critics have argued against the act of deinstitutionalization, stating that it hurts patients who can not function in normal society, while those for the movement state it helps with actual treatment of the mentally ill and closes the boundaries between those who are considered deviant and not. Thus, closer attention to Bromden’s narration and his character development and interaction with McMurphy reveal that the author actually suggests that those considered “abnormal” are more than just a label and deserve to be seen as such; rather than just critiquing behavioral psychology in asylums the novel actually goes a step further to offer a realistic and healing portrait of the mentally ill. McMurphy, then, is a figure that is used to illuminate the wrongs that society has done to those considered mentally ill. This novel urges readers to look at the way this society functions, and by turn the real world we live in, and hope for a change in these institutions that are supposed to heal.

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