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Review 141: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As all dedicated readers out there know, there is a rule when it comes to books that are made into movies: the book is always better. [1] With a book, you have more time to really savor the story, to think and consider the plot and the characters and the motivations. You can go back and re-read, stop and give the story some thought and, most importantly, let the characters come to life in your own mind. This is key, and part of what makes reading so much fun. The author gives you a basic outline of who each character is, but the details of that character will vary from reader to reader, and I guarantee – my Randle Patrick McMurphy is different from your Randle Patrick McMurphy.

And my Randle Patrick McMurphy is most certainly not Jack Nicholson. I know there’s a lot of love out there for Jack, but let’s face it – Jack Nicholson was the non-comedy equivalent of Jim Carrey in his day. The same way Carrey is the default choice for “Wacky” these days, I’m pretty sure producers back in the 70s and 80s said, “We need someone who can play nuts – get Nicholson!” And he’d come out and give That Nicholson Look which made you think that he was liable to tear your throat out at any second and that’s it. I’m not saying he’s bad at what he does – he plays one note, but he plays it well.

This is a face you can trust.

The problem is that McMurphy isn’t actually nuts. He’s brash, temperamental, insolent, contrary, but not crazy. And, to borrow from the perspective of the narrator, Chief Bromden, I don’t think that Nicholson was big enough to be McMurphy. I’m not sure if I know who would have been.

So after all this about who McMurphy isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.

There is a mental institution up in Oregon, which caters to all kinds of mentally ill patients. They care for them as best they can, keeping a close eye on the men in their care and making sure they stay in a rehabilitative state. Through the use of regular counseling sessions and the occasional narcotic therapy, they are trying to make these men back into functioning members of society, if that is at all possible. Not all of the patients can be helped – some suffer so badly that they will live out their remaining years in the institution. But there are others who have a chance, some self-admitted, even, who are looking to move towards the path to wellness. The hospital, and especially the Head Nurse of the ward, Nurse Ratched, are devoted to their tasks and do whatever they can. This being the middle of the twentieth century, their methods are, by our standards, barbaric at times – the liberal use of electroshock, for example, or even occasionally resorting to lobotomies. But mostly Nurse Ratched uses her own innate ability to cajole, nudge, scare and shame these men into line so that her ward operates as a smoothly-running machine.

No, THIS is a face you can trust...

Until the appearance of McMurphy, a man who is not ill but is rather facing madness to get out of working on a prison farm. As soon as he appears on the ward, he becomes a threat to the Big Nurse’s clockwork kingdom. He has no patience for her rules, and indeed sees her as a challenge – how soon can he get that perfect, porcelain facade to crack and show what’s really underneath? He’s sure he can, and he’s willing to sacrifice his own freedom to do it. In doing so, he shows the other patients on the ward that they don’t have to be afraid – of her or of the world.

The book is a cracking good read, and well worth your time, just as a story of a perfectly ordered world tipped upside-down. As an allegory, of course (and a very clear one, at that) it’s even better. This is a story about order and chaos, about freedom and security. Nurse Ratched has a very well-ordered world over which she exerts perfect control. The men in her ward are taken care of, if not exactly helped, by her and her crew. There is no freedom for them, but no danger either, and for many of the men, that’s a life they can live with, if not enjoy.

McMurphy, then, is chaos. He’s the sand in the gears, the hair that won’t go where you want it to go no matter what kind of salon goop you put in it. He’s the rebel who will break the rules just because they’re rules and who prizes freedom above all else. This isn’t to say that he’s a saint – McMurphy spreads his own brand of freedom mainly by manipulating the other patients. In that way, he’s very much like Nurse Ratched, though I think he’d strangle anyone who said that to his face. But whereas the Big Nurse gets her pleasure from watching men get cut down and made docile, McMurphy gets pleasure from men finding their strength. And if he manages to make some money or have some fun of his own while he’s doing it, then all the better.

Or "freedom"

It’s a novel of freedom, naturally. It’s about people choosing their own destinies (even if the people in this book are mostly men – with the exception of Nurse Ratched, women don’t come off so well in this book.) It’s also about freedom as a society. The Nurse and her minions represent a culture that insists on conformity, that finds comfort in rules, regulations and regularity. Called “The Combine” by the book’s narrator, it would rather cut people down to size, because that’s the only way it can exert control. McMurphy shows us that we are the ones who should be in control of our lives. It’s hard, it requires risk, but the rewards are far, far greater than blind, sheeplike obedience.

The book is narrated to us by one of the more far-gone patients, a half-Native American man named Chief Bromden. He has been in the hospital for many years, and as far as the others are concerned, he’s a deaf-mute. McMurphy catches on that he’s faking pretty quickly, though, and manages to make Bromden feel like the big man he used to be. But as a narrator, it must be remembered that Bromden is unreliable – he occasionally drifts off into hallucinatory visions, and his interpretation of events is filtered through the strange, paranoid reality he’s constructed where the world is run by an Illuminati-esque “Combine” that replaces people with machines. In fact there’s a line in the very first chapter that made me wonder about the whole story: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Two guys playing chess under an oddly-shaped chandelier. What?

So how much of the story is real? We have no idea. The Chief tells us everything he can in the best detail he can, and is an excellent relater of the tale. But knowing that he’s rather biased, we have to wonder if the heroism of McMurphy and the wickedness of Ratched are as bad as they’re made out to be, or if Bromden’s mind has changed them, made them into the avatars of freedom and control that he feels represent the way the world works. We can never know, and if you assume that he is reliable, the story is excellent.

A small confession, though: I feel kind of sorry for Nurse Ratched. I know, I know, it’s like saying, “Yeah, Hitler was bad, but I see where he was coming from.” She is undoubtedly one of the best villains in modern American fiction – frankly, between her and Darth Vader, I think she’d have him sobbing like a little baby within ten minutes (“Mister Skywalker, do you really think that this habit of choking people is beneficial to you? Would it not be more mature to discuss your feelings of disappointment? What would your mother say if she could see you like this?”) But I am a fan of order in general. I know how it feels to have a well-ordered routine get screwed up, and I think it sucks. So, putting myself in her shoes, I can see how she’d view McMurphy as a threat, and try to beat him in the only manner she knew how.

And she does beat him. But she has to cheat to do it, so I can’t really say that she wins.

“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
– R. P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

[1] The exceptions are Lord of the Rings, where I like the movies better, and Watership Down and The Princess Bride, both of which I hold equal to the books.

Ken Kesey on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Amazon.com

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Filed under fiction, humor, Ken Kesey, made into movies, psychology, therapy

Review 56: Tales of a Wounded Healer

Tales of a Wounded Healer by Mariah Fenton Gladis

It’s not often I get to review a book written by someone I actually know. The last time was back in aught-six, when I reviewed my uncle Ron’s book, Faster, Smarter Digital Photography, which he co-wrote with M. David Stone (and which all you photo buffs should run out and buy right now). This book is by his wife, my aunt Mariah and is, needless to say, a little different.

The book wasn’t what I thought it would be. What I thought it would be was an account of Mariah’s life, especially her struggles with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. You see, nearly thirty years ago, she was given two years to live. Even now, most of those with ALS only survive three to five years, so to come this far is an extraordinary feat. Indeed, she does go into detail about how she discovered that she had the disease, and what course it put her life on. (As a note, there’s one passage where she describes my uncle Ron’s reaction to hearing the diagnosis – “Pack your bags, we’re leaving. You’re not dying and we have a life to live.” My overriding thought at that point – “Damn, my family rocks.”)

But this book isn’t about my aunt, or her own personal struggles. In fact, once she gets through giving us her CV of Trauma, as it were, we don’t really hear that much more about it unless it’s germane to the topic she’s addressing. Which, as you read on, makes a lot of sense.

Mariah is a therapist, specializing in Gestalt Therapy – a kind of active, experiential therapy method that postulates that the mind and the body are inextricably interconnected. Healing cannot take place simply by talking about it – there must be thought and feeling and emotion and movement involved. As near as I can tell, which is why I put the Wiki link down there, in case I screwed it up. This woman, who has been dealt a hand that, let’s face it, has the potential to be utterly crushing, has spent her life making sure that other people are able to be healed. In learning to face the Bad Shit in her life, she’s been able to help others face the Bad Shit in theirs through what she calls “Exact Moments of Healing.”

“Bad Shit,” by the way, is my term. It saves space.

Before I go on, let me come clean on this much: I have never been to therapy, counseling, or anything of that nature. So anything I think I know about what goes on there is purely speculation.

One of the biggest views of people going into therapy is that there is something Wrong with them. Something that must be, somehow, fixed. In this book, Mariah takes the opposite position – the people who come to her are not people who have problems that must be eliminated. They are people who are trying to be better, but can’t. Because, and this is a kicker, your problems can’t be eliminated. Not ever.

We’re all, in some way, broken. We’ve all been hurt, blocked, abused, kicked, pushed and shoved to one degree or another. Some of us more, some of us less, and usually not in ways that we entirely understand. And as much as these life experiences suck ass, they’re part of who we are. They’ve made us who we are, for good or for ill. The problem comes when we cannot fully understand these traumas for what they were. We don’t know how to deal with them, so they block us up and mess with our heads.

What I got from reading this book is that the way to become free of these psychological millstones is to confront them, understand them and accept them. Fold them into your life, give them their due, and then – and this is important – don’t let them keep you from being who you want to be.

Now, this is really, really, really hard. Gods know it’s hard. Most of us never get that chance to look our demons right in the eye and say, “I know you. And I accept you. Now sit down and shut up.” The idea of Perfect Moments of Healing is that, through counseling, these opportunities can be created. In her workshops, Mariah has re-created the people and situations that generated the traumas that held her subjects down. She goes into great detail about a variety of different cases, and they’re all powerful. With the help of her groups and her students, she’s allowed people to confront the horrors of war, abusive adults, indifferent parents and crumbling marriages, and given them a chance to unburden themselves of the shadowy terrors that had been keeping them from enjoying their lives.

An interesting facet of her therapy is the focus on self-love. No, not that kind, you gutter-brains. The other kind. The really, really hard kind, where you look at yourself, bumps, love handles and all, and say, “I love who you are.”

Damn, I got finger cramps just typing that.

But it’s important to her therapeutic method that her subjects understand that they are indeed worthy of being loved by others, as that is probably one of the most basic needs a human being has. People who’ve been abused or traumatized or just plain on the pokey end of the Stick of Life have a hard time understanding that, so she reinforces the idea again and again through the book. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, it’ll sink in. I still have some work to do….

For those of us who aren’t so fortunate as to be able to have Mariah figure out how to stitch us back together, she does offer good news – a Perfect Moment of Healing is available to you outside of the therapist’s office. By remaining aware of how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking and what you want to become, you can find moments in life to come face-to-face with your personal traumas and accept them for what they were – something bad that happened to you a long time ago. Something that does not need to define who you are now.

These moments aren’t easy to come by, I reckon, and if you have some real hard-core Issues in your past, a professional is still the best way to go. But there are always chances out there. I’ve taken a few myself, from time to time.

One time, inside Chris’ brain….
“Okay, here’s the situation. Now what do we want to do?”
“Run like hell.”
“And we’re not going to do it because…?”
“Right. Now let’s get in there.”
“But I-”
“Shut up, trust me. Get in there.” 

So to speak.

Anyway, enough of my babbling. I’m probably mangling what is a very interesting, insightful and thought-provoking book. And I’m not just saying that because the author is Family. I’m saying it because it did make me think, and it’ll continue to do so. I saw myself in there a couple of times, and I reckon you will too….

“You get to travel through this lifetime once. Although the way can unfold, and the terrain can change dramatically, by chance or by choice, to me what matters most is that the road you choose be one where your heart and soul feel a belonging, and the freedom to reach and breathe.”
– Mariah Fenton-Gladis, Tales of a Wounded Healer

Tales of a Wounded Healer on Amazon.com
The Pennsylvania Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training
ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Gestalt therapy

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Filed under Gestalt therapy, Mariah Fenton-Gladis, psychology, therapy