PAGE 09: Cuckoo’s Nests Are Everywhere

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By Rachna Patni

Parasitic brooding is a phenomenon we observe in nature. Cuckoos and other birds who do not build their own nests lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then disappear. The cuckoo eggs are then cared for by the unsuspecting birds, who now house them in their nests, but we may never know if they simply do this altruistically. Once the cuckoo’s egg hatches, it often throws out the host’s other eggs, and if it does not manage to do this, it is often stronger than the other chicks, so manages to get first dibs on the nutritional supply from the host. 

Many of us see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) as a film about mental health and institutional care. It is a film about those who are defined as ‘mad’ or ‘lunatic’ and have been placed in an asylum in the custody of psychiatric professionals with dubious motives. It is about the absolute struggle between power and control of the inmates of a ward; and Nurse Ratched, who represents all that is evil about medico-psychiatric power. She believes in being dominant over the wills of the inmates and doles out medicines and psychiatric surgical interventions based on her own need of power rather than based on the needs of the individuals in her care. 

Once a human being has been labelled mad, seen to be a madman or madwoman, our society deprives them of human and humane treatment. Their control and sullenness are more desirable than their passionate and out-of-control attempt at living their life. Their expressions become dangerous to human societies, as they begin to challenge everything that we take for granted about how human beings live and experience and interact in life. Societies find a way to sanitise our lives from the existence and experience of those who do not fit our realm, and the understanding of what it means to live as a human being. 

This film highlights that those who get to control the process of labelling people as ‘mad’, but those who wield power in psychiatric wards may have their own forms of mental illness that deprive them of empathy. However, even if empathy may be seen as another essential quality required to be considered fully human, we do not take away the rights of people who feel no empathy for others; we continue to give them the power to continue as they are. It is a difficult context and does not make for easy watching. The film is deeply disturbing in many ways and allows us to see the insanity of power and the sanity of those considered deranged.

However, I have been struck by the choice of the narrator as a Native American, and to me, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is also about the desertion, disaffection, and distancing that comes through confinement, when humans engage in parasitic brooding of their own kind. When dominant groups of power-hungry human beings have gone to capture lands that belong to people who are of a different mythico-imaginative orientation and have brazenly taken over resources to confine and alienate the original inhabitants; when the power-hungry human beings have further gone on to categorise the other as socially inept and incapable, as deficient, try to take over control of how they interact and encounter the world; to dominate through representing them as primitive, immature, unscientific and placing them in a binary of qualities that makes them appear not good enough to be fully human and fully in-charge of their own destiny; when powerful human beings have done this to groups of other human beings, feeling no care, concern or empathy for them. 

This confinement happens not only in mental health institutions but in all institutions that fit the metaphor of the cuckoo’s nest. Resisting this kind of confinement requires the capacities that Chief Bromden, also referred to as Chief Broom in the film, amply demonstrates. The first way in which the Chief resists is by choosing to withdraw his senses and claiming to be deaf and mute. This way of retreating into the inner world and not engaging with the outside is a clear strategy to keep one’s sanity, however powerless it may seem at first reading. It is a strategy that only those with firm control over their own faculties and capacities can make, and it shows the power of non-violent subversion. 

We constantly recreate the cuckoo’s nest when we play with the virtues of freedom through the strategy of power, and control of the human mind. Over time, this parasitic brooding creates mysterious pockets of grief and loss in those that have harmed and those that are harmed. For, we are connected in our wellbeing, however slow our realization of this may be. May it not be too slow!


Dr. Rachana Patni is a Panjim-based leadership consultant who works globally. She is the founder of The Centre of ME and writes on emotional wellbeing and mental health.

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