One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Flowers at Buchenwald?

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Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Flowers at Buchenwald?

by Network Against Psychiatric Assault

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 3, May 1976, p. 36–37

The movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful and moving statement. It accurately communicates how psychiatric institutions are used to control people, how punishment is disguised as “therapy”, and how psychiatry robs people of spontaneity and self-determination. 

The ideological justificaton for psychiatric indoctrination and control rests on the “medical model of mental illness”. Feelings of terror, anger, and despair, which are natural responses to the pain of living in an unjust social system, are treated as “diseases” which can be “cured” with medications and other “treatments”. Psychiatrists today have the power to lock people up and experiment on them, similar to the ways· Nazis conducted experiments on concentration camp inmates, purely on the basis of pseudo-scientific “diagnosis” and “predictions of dangerousness”. Very appropriately, this pretense of objectivity was mocked in the film’s staff conference scene.

But compared with Ken Kesey’s novel on which it is based, or the documentaries Hurry Tomorrow and Titticut Follies, the movie is sugar-coated and joke-infested. Psychiatric institutions are not funny, and psychiatric prisoners are not Amos ‘n Andy. Except for McMurphy (a working class kid) and Chief Broom (a native American), the inmates are portrayed as incompetent clowns. Kesey presents the institution as totally oppressive, but the movie shows it to be liberal, though misguided and at times cruel. Extreme injustice is limited to two sensationalistic scenes- the shock treatment and lobotomy. This distortion leaves the impression that all would be well if we only eliminated these “abuses”. 

The film-makers revealed their liberal bias when they allowed the premiere in many cities to be a benefit for the Mental Health Association -which is a principal lobbyist for the institutions Kesey attacks. They have reinforced the moderate reformist aspect of the movie when they have spoken with the press. For example, Milos Forman, the director, is quoted as saying, “We set the film in 1963 because so many changes have happened in hospital techniques. For instance, when shock treatments are given, patients are filled with drugs so they don’t feel anything, and lobotomies are no longer given at many hospitals.”

In regard to these “improvements”, John Friedberg, M.D. has this to say on shock treatment: “While an electrical storm rages unabated in the brain, these drugs suppress its outward manifestations, sparing witnesses the terrifying spectacle of the body’s violent spasms. These ‘improvements’ are like the flowers planted at Buchenwald … Besides … the muscle paralyzer can cause prolonged failure to breathe and cardiac shock. The muscle paralyzers may also intensify the horror of the patient’s experience … Barbiturates increase the chances of death by choking. Although they do produce sleep, they do not bring a complete loss of feeling … One man reported, ‘All you’re aware of is this jolting pain going through your mind like an electric crowbar'” (from Psychology Today, Aug. 1975).

Even worse, there is not one word in the film about the side-effects of psychiatric drugs and shock. An estimated 200,000 people a year are administered shock in the United States. They are seldom told that shock often causes permanent brain damage, including permanent memory loss. Nor are they told about the confusion, disorientation, severe headaches, nausea, etc. that usually result when 100 to 175 volts of electricity is passed through the brain. The film does show accurately how shock is often forced on people against their will.

The effects of psychiatric drugs can be equally devastating. They have caused widespread permanent brain damage, Tardive Dyskinesia (a Parkinsonian-like disease for which there is no cure), and death. Most people do not want to take the “heavy tranquilizers” because of their effects, but are forcibly injected if they refuse. Once the body becomes adjusted to them, they are as difficult to kick as any other addictive drug. Many of the symptoms which people think are signs of their own or other people’s “mental illness”—dry mouth, swollen tongue, constipation, blurred vision, cloudy thinking, impaired speech, drooling, shuffling, inability to sit still, weight gain, increased depression, etc.—are really effects of these drugs (see). Psychiatric drugs are Big Business. More than 5 billion doses of “tranquilizers” are manufactured each year in the U.S. 

Psychosurgeries—”laundered lobotomies” are still common. Though the name is different, the purpose is the same: destruction of healthy brain tissue to control feelings and change conduct. The victims are turned into mindless zombies in many cases, depending on the extremity of the procedure. And psychiatric drugs are still used in massive doses on over 90% of inmates. 

The movie further weakens the political impact of Kesey’s work by eliminating all mention of “The Combine”, Chief Broom’s vision of the corporate power behind Big Nurse that profits from violence and exploitation. As Kesey commented in a phone conversation, “They squeezed the madness out of it and turned it into a freak show … Cuckoo’s Nest is about the fact that America is haywire, and the Indian is a blotter catching all this poison. But that’s missing from the screenplay.” Not surprising, given the fact that the film was financed by the Trans America Corporation.1

The book itself is not without flaws, however, and these flaws carry over into the movie. Written in the early sixties, the book is both sexist and racist. The most obvious villians are the white, female Big Nurse, and the black, male orderlies, while the shrinks, who in reality have much more power than nurses or orderlies—are weak, sympathetic figures. In fact, women and Third World people are the people who are most oppressed in psychiatric institutions, both as “patients” and as workers. Two-thirds of those locked up in psychiatric institutions are women, and a disproportionate number are Third World. 

Both the film and the book are also incorrect in suggesting that inmates are free to leave at any time. Many inmates who are technically “voluntary” would be detained if they tried to leave. Others are coerced into remaining “voluntary” through threats of worse consequences if they refuse to “co-operate”. Combined with the large numbers of inmates who are, in fact, “involuntary” patients, the vast majority of psychiatric inmates are prisoners.

The atrocities of Cuckoo’s Nest however, were true and are true.

Network Against Psychiatric Assault-N.A.P.A.

For more information about psychiatric oppression, contact N.A.P.A., 2150 Market St., San Francisco, Ca. 94114, 415-626-6111. The N.A.P.A. newspaper Madness Network News, is available for $4.00 a year.

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  1. Transamerica Corporation: the second largest “non-bank” financial corporation, which owns United Artists, American Life Insurance of NY, Budget Rent-a-car, Transinternational Airlines, Occidental Life Insurance, and about 20 other companies.