‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ Hospital is now a museum

From The New York Times: Once a ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Now a Museum

March 31, 2013
Once a ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Now a Museum

SALEM, Ore. — Nurse Ratched slept here.

The punctiliously cruel psychiatric ward tyrant in the book and movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was brought to cinematic life by the actress Louise Fletcher during filming here at the Oregon State Hospital in the 1970s.

But the melding of real life and art went far beyond the film set. Take the character of John Spivey, a doctor who ministers to Jack Nicholson’s doomed insurrectionist character, Randle McMurphy. Dr. Spivey was played by Dr. Dean Brooks, the real hospital’s superintendent at the time.

Dr. Brooks read for the role, he said, and threw the script to the floor, calling it unrealistic — a tirade that apparently impressed the director, Milos Forman. Mr. Forman ultimately offered him the part, Dr. Brooks said, and told the doctor-turned-actor to rewrite his lines to make them medically correct. Other hospital staff members and patients had walk-on roles.

Now jump cut to the present: the office and treatment rooms of the hospital, which opened in 1883, have been turned into a Museum of Mental Health — one of only a few around the world that are part of a still-functioning hospital, which sprawls behind the old brick structure.

In the museum, a steel examination table sits near a photograph of the Oregon State Insane Asylum baseball team, which once played against local challengers in and around Salem, Oregon’s capital. A straitjacket and a spilled bag of handcuffs fill another display, with a notation from the night watch book recorded at 2 a.m. on Feb. 25, 1913. “Mrs. Bernard would not remain in bed,” an attendant wrote. “Restrained her with jacket and belt.”

The juxtaposition of real and celluloid, truth and fiction, that emerged on the “Cuckoo’s Nest” set continues. A photograph of Ms. Fletcher’s character, steely smile and nurse’s cap in place, adorns a wall near a television that blares the movie itself on a continuous loop showing the movie’s patients watching that very television, which was retrieved from a hospital trash bin and saved after the filming ended.

The result — physical evidence of the hospital’s past alongside the Hollywood portrait — creates questions that McMurphy and his cohorts might have asked. What is real and what merely seems real? Was the hospital, which had a large number of voluntary admissions in its early years, a place of sanctuary, an old definition of the word “asylum,” or of confinement? Darkness and dread, or escape?

Dr. Brooks, now 96, and living near the hospital in a retirement home, minces no words when he says that mental health treatment in years past had its flaws. But anyone looking back, he said in an interview, should also look hard at the present. Institutions like the Oregon State Hospital, which he supervised for nearly 30 years — from the mid-1950s to the early ’80s — might not have been perfect, he said, but they were at least out there and trying to help. Today, he said, prisons have taken over the job, with barely a pretense of treatment. “Three-fourths of all mentally ill people are in jails or penitentiaries,” he said.

But the new museum raises questions about what the hospitals themselves were created to do, and how many patients were actually mentally ill by modern definitions.

In its early days, the museum’s records suggest, there was no pattern to admissions at all. Alcoholics, dementia patients, syphilis sufferers and others given the catchall diagnosis of “mania” were all taken in. And for part of its history, in the early 20th century, a majority of patients were women, at least a few of whom would occasionally leave for visits with their families. That suggests, museum volunteers said, that domestic trouble or abuse, in a time before easy divorce and when officers spent little time on marital violence cases, may have created a sense of safety for women behind the hospital walls that has since been forgotten in the wave of harsh imagery in films and books like “Cuckoo’s Nest,” which was written by Ken Kesey and published in 1962.

The old model of an “insane asylum” coincided with an era that revered the value of work. Patients were expected to sew or cook or grow the food they ate — not just to make the place self-sufficient, which it mostly was, but because work itself was considered elevating and therapeutic. Patients even made their own leather restraints, said Kathryn Dysart, a museum volunteer.

In the new hospital, music and art therapy areas line a corridor that includes rooms where patients can practice skills they will need when they are released, like handling money. One was created to look like a bank and allows patients to withdraw funds that their families have deposited — money that can then be used to buy clothes at a room made to look like a store.

“As real as possible,” said Rebeka Gipson-King, a spokeswoman for the Oregon State Hospital, in describing the mimicry, which she said was aimed at making the outside world less alien after a patient’s discharge.

Other preconceptions about the outside world do not hold up so well. Ms. Fletcher, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched — the film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1976 — came to the Mental Health Museum’s opening last fall, and turned out to be, in reality, very nice.

“Charming lady,” said Hazel Patton, the president of the museum’s board of directors.

Mary and Max

Mary and Max

Mary, who experiences alienation in every aspect of her life, starts out with parents who are poor, weird, and unsympathetic (her father is into taxidermy, her mother is an alcoholic who seems to do nothing but yell at her) and eventually end up dead. The visible evidence that she is neglected at home makes her a pariah at school in spite of the fact that it is the other children who are overtly engaging in bad behavior (at one point, she comes to school with a coat fastened with clothespins because her pet chicken pecked off the buttons and nobody sewed them back on, and other children harrass her in the schoolyard, with one boy going so far as to pee on her sandwich in plain sight). In an attempt to remedy her loneliness, she picks Max’s name at random out of a phone book, and is lucky enough to get a reply back from someone who is obviously sympathetic and intelligent.  Max’s letters ring true to Asperger’s style: full of plain speaking, factual details, and jumping from one topic to another, but in the eyes of society and her mother, potentially dangerous and unsuitable for children. Maybe it was Max’s mention of having been a mental patient, or the frank but inappropriate discussion of his sex life (or rather, the lack thereof) that sets the mother off when she finds the first letter and throws it away, believing she is protecting her child. In spite of how this looks to her mother (and most average people), correspondence with someone who has been in her shoes as a social outcast is exactly what Mary needs. Contrary to a lot of recent portrayals, it is possible for people with Asperger’s to have friends, but in view of the fact that some of the things they do and say go against society’s notion of what is considered appropriate, this perhaps can lead to a bonding with people on the margins of society.

(Speaking of inappropriate things and portrayals of sexuality, Australia’s movie and video industry must have somewhat different standards of what is considered appropriate to show in a picture purportedly for children than prevail in the USA. Let’s just say this was the first time I’ve seen claymation genitals.)

Luckily for Mary’s emotional equilibrium, she is in a position to send another letter in which she describes the situation to Max, and comes up with a solution: he will henceforth send his letters to the address of an elderly neighbor whom she helps out.

The premise of the possibility of pen pals who can have a years-long and very intense relationship without engaging in physical contact of any sort is a theme of this and a handful of other films such as My Japanese Wife (perhaps it is increasing in popularity as global communications of every sort are becoming more widespread?)

Admittedly, some of the reactions they have to one another’s letters seem exaggerated for effect, such as the fact that Max’s objection to being used as a case study for the sake of her career in psychology sends her into a spiral of suicidality and some of Mary’s letters sent Max into “meltdown” mode and in one case, effected his return to the mental health system (where he would be told he had Asperger’s Syndrome, in spite of the fact that it was way too early in the timeline for such a thing to be possible in real life, as Asperger’s was only recognized by the American Psychological Association in 1994. And yes, someone who really does have Asperger’s really would have a problem with a purportedly serious and sensitive movie set in a specific temporal period getting a widely-known piece of factual information so glaringly wrong!)

In spite of the claymation medium, which is usually reserved for less-than-serious examples of the cinematic oeuvre, I found myself liking the overall gestalt of this picture in spite of having some problems with particular parts of it.

Movie Review by Laura Brose