Ken Kesey and the Rush to Deinstitutionalization
Whatever the literary strengths of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the book has done much to harm both the mentally ill and their communities
Ken Kesey (1935–2001) was a great admirer of manliness, a quality that would inform his countercultural indictment of America’s attitude toward mental illness, and of postwar America more generally. The darkly comic 1962 novel for which he is known, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, likened US society to an asylum in which men (in particular) are stripped of freedom and psychologically castrated. Inspired by interactions with patients at a San Francisco-area Veterans’ Hospital—which sometimes coincided with his own participation in clinical studies on the use of mescaline, LSD, and other hallucinogenic drugs—Kesey came to believe that these institutions only made people sicker, notwithstanding the grand scientific pretensions under which they operated.
Cuckoo’s political message was aimed at both emptying America’s asylums and extinguishing the climate of social oppression that, as the author saw it, lay behind them. On both fronts, Kesey’s programmatic recommendation was to provide everyone, including those who seem troubled or dysfunctional, with more autonomy. It’s a viewpoint that’s gained enormous influence in the 60 years since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published. Unfortunately, whatever the literary strengths of Kesey’s signature novel, the movement it helped inspire has done much to harm both the mentally ill and the communities in which they live.
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
This piece originally appeared in Quillette