Banned Book Club: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Published: 1962

Author: Ken Kesey (1935-2001)

Challenge status: #28 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #15 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.


  • Challenges of this book have been for a variety of creative reasons, including complaints that the book was “pornographic,” and “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination” (Strongsville, OH), that the book promotes “secular humanism” (Aberdeen, WA) and also Placentia-Yorba Linda, CA parents explained that teachers “can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again.”
  • Banned from the an Idaho high school and the instructor fired. The teacher sued, but the final decision in the case was not published.

First line: “They’re out there.”


Everyone has asked me if I watched the movie before reading the book – and the answer is no. I plan to, though, because as I read the book I can imagine Jack Nicholoson inhabiting the role of McMurphy quite well, it seems like a role that was made for him. I kept hearing his voice and seeing that jaw clenched smile in the character as the book progressed.

Nominally, this is a book about patients in a mental health facility, the roles they have come to play out in their closed loop neighborhood. But it is really about power, freedom, and fear. Power struggles within social structures, freedom versus compliance, fear versus accountability. The residents are clearly hiding out from the world more than they are getting useful therapeutic treatment. In psychiatry in the 60’s, EST (electro-shock therapy) and lobotomies were somewhat falling out of favor, and newly in vogue were more experimental pharmacological options, including hallucinogenic drugs. In any case it is unclear whether or not any of the patients are getting better – or if they even want to, or if the staff thinks such change is even possible.

Chief narrates McMurphy’s story, and I couldn’t help but think of the Stanford Prison Experiment; McMurphy is ostensibly opting into treatment to avoid a prison sentence, not “insane” as some of his committed compatriots. Despite his supposed sanity, he is simply a patient to the staff, doctors, and to Nurse Ratched, the primary authority figure. Quickly McMurphy and Ratched engage in an escalating battle of wits, as the nurse seeks to keep firm control over the patients’ behavior, and McMurphy resists falling in line. Just like the guards in the SPE, Ratched is able to justify her final monstrous decision based on her role — and McMurphy’s status as “ill”. Perhaps as telling a point: midway through the book we discover that most of the patients have also opted into the hospital, only a sparse handful were committed. But they have all become prisoners.

…I had figured that anything was better’n being lost for good, even the Shock Shop. Now, I don’t know. Being lost isn’t so bad. – Chief (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey)

The author (Ken Kesey) worked as an aide at Menlo Park’s Veteran’s Hospital; part of his role was participating (directly, as a consumer) of pyschoactive drugs. He was also an enthusiastic proponent of LSD, which he used recreationally and socially. Kesey partied with the Grateful Dead, Hunter S Thompson, Allen Ginsburg – some of these parties/exploits documented in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He grew up in Oregon (childhood in Springfield, college in Eugene), and spent quite a while in the Bay Area – I drive by the VA hospital in Menlo Park often (it’s about a from where I live, and 3 blocks from Facebook HQ if you’re ever in the neighborhood). He lived in La Honda (naturally, up in the woods) and was briefly jailed in Redwood City (on drug-related charges, naturally).

Anyone reading this post who grew up in Central New York: you might be interested to know that he (along with his buddies, the Merry Pranksters) performed with the band Phish at Darien Lake in 1997.

What do you think?

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