I've talked before about the moral codings and judgements used with respect to madness and mental illness but I feel like it is a subject that is worth expanding on. In order to give a grounding both in terms of how it happens and what it means for our cultural discourse and for the lives of those affected it is worth looking at in detail. I want, therefore, to look at in overview the ways in which we encode the mad in cultural objects and, specifically the way we encode the realm of the mad: the asylum.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has a lot to answer for when it comes to popular understanding of the asylum as an institution, and to mental illness as enacted within its walls. Ken Kesey's novel is profoundly political, and surprisingly conservative, in a way that is surprising to a new reader who may only know of it through the force of cultural osmosis. Jack Nicholson's is the face of the confined man who needs freedom and Louise Fletcher's that of the oppressive system that denies it, but the novel underlines these characters with a weight of significance that is present if underexplored in the film.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a misogynist text. It is also filled with essentialist racism, although this is more of-it's-time and passive than the misogyny, which is an active thread. That may not seem at first to have a direct bearing on how it relates to and presents the asylum inmate, but it runs through the representations within. Its misogyny is a key tenet of the counter-culture movement that it espouses and to a certain extent the mad are, within the text, objectified and turned into expositional arguments rather than people - a common experience for any mentally ill person in fiction.
Kesey's argument is derived from Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, as well as Goffman's work on institutions. This in and of itself might not be a problem - the two combined tend towards a view that says asylum inmates are structured in society to be asylum inmates by the very fact that they are in an asylum. That moving from the outside to the inside recasts one's life so that it is seen in terms that justify that movement. McMurphy is the avatar of that idea - it becomes immaterial whether or not he is mad before he enters, and his actions, which in other contexts would be seen as sane are considered mad because of and to justify his current location.
But there is more to it than this. Kesey is, very openly, more interested in story than in truth. The narrator states it outright, and the novel continually distorts the lives of its protagonists into a way that fits the martyr narrative even when it doesn't fit their established characterisation. The final act in particular is damning of mental health professionals in a very callous way (by someone who worked in the profession and seems to have to a certain extent projected his own apathy and disgust for the patients onto the rest of the characters), which has an affect on how people view those workers in the real world.
This is where the misogyny comes in as well. Almost every main character is in the asylum due to the actions of a woman. Specifically, it is due to the actions of a woman who is allowed to have power over a man. Kesey's main statement is that mental illness doesn't exist, but that it is a function of a man's relinquishing of power to a woman. Ratched is specifically shown to be the way she is because she isn't married (another, sympathetic female nurse, who is married, makes the observation). Women are objects either of oppression, or of sex, and the good woman, as in the counter-cultural ideology Kesey was espousing, is one who offers sex freely and without contract to the liberated man - allowing him to be himself fully.
So, the asylum becomes sexualised and the madman (and it is a man here) becomes enthralled by rather than a master of sex.
One of the real shames of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that, where the story allows the inmates to breathe and to be themselves it becomes liberating and incredibly humane. The depersonalisation of institutions is a real and a terrible thing and, for example, the fishing trip is an absolutely exhilarating read as you feel the power of treating objectified individuals as people once again. It's just a shame that Kesey immediately objectifies them once again as they return to the asylum and he forces them into position for the final part of McMurphy's narrative. The truth, as Kesey sees it, even if it didn't happen. The film version, which is the most well-known, smuggles these ideas into the consciousness of the viewers, keeping the structures that were informed by this set of intentions without showing the working.
The asylum, as befits a home for the mad, has always, like the mad, had a life that is not always its own. It is a political and theoretical battleground, an object with which to score points as much as a machine for housing dysfunction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is like a case study and an exemplar for this tendency. It is not about the mad and their lives, it is about how a place of madness distorts the landscape (politically, mythologically, theoretically, geographically etc.) and allows for vested interests to make for themselves a place of power.
This distortion is in line with representations of asylums across the spectrum. They become places where 'the veil is thin', so to speak, often allowing for demons, or generally malign psychic phenomena, to break through and make a home for themselves. (Demonic power and female power are so closely linked in religious patriarchy as it is.) Sometimes it is the passions of the mad; the explosion of constrained female sexual energy that manifests as poltergeist, the gravetic horror of male sexual depredation drawing interlopers to the cusp of that abyss. Sometimes it is the experimentation of the wardens; making playthings of madness until it becomes an affliction that can be used to punish, rather than an illness that should be cared for.
The asylum often defaults to a place of horror in the popular imagination, even the images from One Flew Over are wrapped into horror tropes when recycled into other media. The very real horrors of institutionalisation, and of the personal experiences that lead to it being an option that makes even any sort of sense for a person, are compounded by media representations. Images and concepts of horror become normalised in the rhetoric of madness so that a complicated, layered image such as this one, which shows a disused hospital room that has been re-purposed into a b-movie set, can be shared as and believed uncritically to represent 'an abandoned mental hospital', despite the truth being more fascinating. A common misconception of what it is to be mad, of what it means to be the kind of person who would belong in an asylum, is that concepts of fiction and reality blend into one another and become indistinguishable. And yet, our concept of the asylum itself is one that has become indistinguishable from the fiction that surrounds it.
The asylum itself becomes, then, a magical space: transforming both those inside and those outside of it; distorting the light that shines through it. The modern psych ward contains within it the Victorian insane asylum. The image is the thing itself; a superimposition illusion, both ladies and vase, duck and rabbit, Bedlam and Broadmoor. The asylum is a place that fascinates us but to which we wish we will never go, which is how it can be all these things at once.
This magical nature is in line with Kesey's use as well, in that the asylum is both itself and a political tool. It is a place where truth can be re-written into Truth, which is to say the fictional concept of what should be rather than the mundane concept of what is. In part two of this essay I will look into that concept further. Into the idea of asylums as magical spaces and the way that they mirror some other types of magical space such as the hotel and the private sanatorium.
This post has been funded by Patreon.