I went to see Milos Forman’s classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, three days in a row when it came out in 1975. The first time was to see John Joseph “Jack” Nicholson again to hear what he would say this time. I had become a big fan. It started with: “They ain’t scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to them,” (Easy Rider, 1969); continued with: “I want you to hold it between your knees.” (Five Easy Pieces, 1970); picked up steam through: “I am the motherfucking shore patrol,” (The Last Detail, 1973); and was locked in with: “Only when I breathe,” (Chinatown, 1974).
The second night I went back to see if I saw what I thought I saw the first time. Something was eating at me.
The third time was for confirmation that I had gotten it right. The message was personal: I had to fly over my cuckoo’s nest. The place where I worked in the federal government was starting to feel like an asylum. The movie was pointing the way. But I’m ahead of myself.
The movie is based on the 1962 Ken Kesey book with the same title, taken from the nursery rhyme, “Vinery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn”:
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
The book is a story about the mental and physical consequences of freedom in the face of authority that seeks only conformity. America at the time was in a cold war, opposing communism and totalitarian regimes around the world. Kesey wanted to look at totalitarian practices within. By selecting a line from a nursery rhyme, Kesey was saying, any story of government suppression, citizen control and authoritarianism, stripped to its core, is as simple as a nursery rhyme, something even a child can understand. But authorities always complicate things. Simple things don’t need government intervention, so governments complicate matters in order to justify their modus operandi, intervention and control.
(We saw this pattern of government intervention in the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, the War Protests of the 60s and 70s and most recently the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations where the police agitated peaceful crowds to make them unruly in order to subdue them.)
The novel and movie are set in an insane asylum in Oregon where the inmates look like the kind of mix of people one sees on any street: some a little crazy looking, some just odd, others reasonable-looking citizens, none stepping out of the pages of GQ or Men’s Health.
This bunch in the movie acts differently: they are totally controlled by ex-army Nurse Ratched, the nurse from hell. Kesey, no doubt in my mind, put a woman’s face on the man’s world of intimidation and control, as a misdirection. Rached uses subtle humiliation, unpleasant meds and mind-numbing daily routine to keep the patients in check. When Jack arrives on the scene as Randle Patrick McMurphy, a repeat offender in for psychiatric evaluation on a rape charge, he quickly sees that his fellow citizens are more fearful of authority, Nurse Ratched, than they are focused on becoming functional enough to return to the outside world.
McMurphy wants to help the patients, especially the alleged deaf and dumb Chief Bromden, recover their pride and manhood. A battle of wills ensues as McMurphy tries to “democratize” the place. He finally concocts a diversion (a test-run at an escape) to take them all deep-sea fishing, saying “You’re not nuts, you are fishermen”. McMurphy climbs over the hospital fence with the Chief’s help. He hijacks a bus and takes the non-restricted patients for a ride, to the docks where they board a fishing boat. In one of the funny scenes, McMurphy introduces the patients to a suspicious harbormaster, claiming that they are doctors from the mental hospital. They motor out of the harbor, and McMurphy teaches one of them to drive the boat while the other men learn to fish.
When the boat trip is over they are confronted by the authorities at the dock and returned to the hospital. There Nurse Ratched insists that McMurphy be committed for an indefinite period of time. As punishment, she suspends privileges and begins rationing cigarettes, thereby ensuring more confrontations with McMurphy.
This little stirring of inmate self-determination led, by their “savior” McMurphy, is short-lived and quickly forgotten. McMurphy begins to see that he is not just in for an evaluation and he realizes he may be doomed if he does not escape. He gets busy trying to help the others break out with him, but his plans are too elaborate and he waits too long.
The ultimate control for authoritarians has always been a technological one, from guns and bombs, to gases and drones. In this case, electroshock “therapy,” widely used in the 40s and 50s, often ends in lobotomy, rendering the person a permanent ward of the state. This is the ultimate control; Authority sees it as a “win” for the state. Lions 1: Humanity 0.
(I’m surprised, the older I get, to discover how many younger folks have missed some of the classic movies that helped define my generation. In the hope that some might take a look at this one, I have chosen not to disclose the ending.)
My Cuckoo’s Nest Experience I came to Washington, DC, in 1964. Young, fresh out of college, several hundred dollars in my pocket, no job, a little crazy, but ready to save the world, like McMurphy, except I didn’t know it at the time. After several short gigs from answering snail mail for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign to driving mail trucks for the Post Office during the holiday season, I landed a “coveted” mail clerk job with US. Senator Harrison A. Williams, a Democrat from New Jersey. I rose quickly to become a senior legislative assistant where I was a firsthand witness to the passage of much of LBJ’s Great Society legislation. I got my senator to introduce the first legislation for a vast expansion of drug abuse treatment facilities in the country, a pressing national need at the time.
I became a national expert on drug abuse education policy, and soon left The Hill to be the first executive director of The National Coordinating Council on Drug Education, a public education and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. The mission was to change the way the government viewed and treated people who used drugs. Our message was a national call to action: focus more on why people use drugs and not on what drugs they used. Why and where people use drugs is more important in determining the effects of a drug than its pharmacological properties: a controversial position for the law ‘n order crowd that just wanted to lock up kids and drug users (abusers) and throw away the key.
Richard Nixon was a law and order type, but he did more to expand treatment facilities in the country than any president since. He created the first “Drug Czar” and established a Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention in the Executive Office of the President.
I was recruited to replace the first Director of Communications. Like McMurphy, I came in as a “savior” of sorts, the internal voice for the outsiders, a voice for reason about drug use policy. I was an early champion for decriminalization of marijuana. I managed to get the federal government to put a moratorium on popular, but counter-productive, drug education programs until a better way was found to help adolescent kids deal with peer pressure to use drugs and for addicts to find more comprehensive treatment alternatives.
But I was paying a price. I was ostracized in management meetings and on policy retreats. My advocacy for change became rants at times. I was losing patience. When I spoke up I was greeted with “Here he goes again” groans and moans. While some of my tenured colleagues were suggesting I lay low, reminding me that in 20 years one can retire on a good pension with benefits, my colleagues outside the federal government were urging me to hang in there, to continue to be a voice for reason, to champion their cause.
But I knew, sitting there in the dark movie theater the second night in a row, that I was about to see the light. Something was stirring inside me. McMurphy’s plight was getting under my skin. I had chiefs I wanted to rescue. I wanted to get even with my bureaucratic bosses. It was a restless night. The next morning, I called a friend who told me I was crazy. That was not what I needed to hear.
Then the third night in the movie I heard him. It was something Jack said:
Jesus, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are for Christ sake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets.
Epilogue. I was gone in a couple of months. I flew West. Out to California, as far away from the asylum as I could get. Four years later I would create the Just Say No to drugs campaign. It was based on research that showed that 12 to 14 year olds who were simply taught how to say no to drugs, delayed the onset of their experimentation with marijuana and other substances for up to two years over those who were subjected to scare tactics or just given impartial facts. The delay in experimentation, until they were a little more mature, may have saved some kids lives.
I’m not sure I would have left the government if I had not had this rather surreal movie-messaging experience. You have to be a little crazy to let movies tell you what to do. That often results in a lot of destruction from copy-cat shootings and ignoring the general advice of “don’t try this at home.” But in my case, it saved my life. I am often reminded of this experience when I hear the expression, WWJD, what would Jesus do? I always think, what would Jack do?