Banned Books Awareness: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey


\"\"One Flew Over the Cuckoo\’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, was written in 1959 and published in 1962. The story, set in an Oregon asylum, serves as a study of the institutional process and limits of the human mind.

It follows the experiences of Randle Patrick McMurphy, who faked insanityin order to serve out his prison sentence in the easy, laid-back comforts of a mental hospital- or so he thought.

With little medical oversight, the hospital ward is run by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, her three black day-shift orderlies, and her assistant doctors.

The story comes from Kesey\’s experiences working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California. He not only spoke daily to many of the patients, but witnessed the bureaucratic workings of the institution. He also took psychoactive drugs (Peyote and LSD) as part of Project MKULTRA. As a result he became sympathetic toward the patients lives and daily struggles.

The novel constantly refers to authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods. The novel\’s narrator, the Chief, combines these figureheads in his mind, calling them \”The Combine\” in reference to the mechanistic way in which they manipulate and direct individuals. The authority of The Combine is most often personified in the character of \”Nurse Ratched\” as she controls the inhabitants of the mental ward through a method of rewards and shame. Her actions are more sinister than those of a conventional prison administrator, as this subtlety in her actions prevents her prisoners from seeing that they are being controlled at all.

The analysis of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to a prison argues that invisible forms of discipline oppress us on a societal scale, encouraging us to censor aspects ourselves and our actions.

The novel was adapted into a Broadway play by in 1963, as well as the classic 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson, which won five Academy Awards.

Yet, despite these achievements, it never ceases to amaze me that a teacher can’t even make a classroom assignment without some parent complaining and ruining it for everyone else, even if most other students and parents are okay with it.  Such was the case in a Greenley, Colorado public school district in 1971, when it was challenged as American Culture reading.

The list of challenges and approved removals covered states across the nation between the late-1970’s and the close of the century. Here are just a few of the examples:

In 1974, five residents of Strongsville, Ohio, sued the board of education to get the novel removed from classrooms. Labeling it \”pornographic,\” they charged the novel \”glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.\”

It was removed from public schools in Randolph, New York, and Alton, Oklahoma in 1975; removed from the required reading list in Westport, Maine in 1977; and banned from the St. Anthony, Idaho Freemont High School classrooms in 1978 and the instructor who assigned it was terminated.

Into the 1980’s it was challenged at the Merrimack, New Hampshire High School in 1982 and challenged in an Aberdeen, Washington High School in 1986 for its use in an honors English class because the book promotes \”secular humanism.\” The school board eventually voted to retain the title.

The 21st century saw it challenged at the Placentia-Yorba Linda, California Unified School District in 2000 after complaints by parents stated that teachers \”can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again.\”

Yet, still, these works of art that force us to look at the darker sides of society and civilization are being accused of the most heinous acts upon society; but the real crime is that these subjects need to be written about at all. I guess the truth really does hurt.

Sources:, Yahoo News, American Library Association, Banned Books Resource Guide

© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions