Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Rigged Game

The following is dialog from the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) starring Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. For anyone who has never seen the film, I would highly recommend it, though not for the sake of "enjoyment" per se. Word to the wise, it's a difficult film to watch due to the intense subject matter, and I think it might be even more difficult for ACoNs. The following dialog is a conversation that takes place between McMurphy and the head doctor of the mental institution:

Dr. Spivey: Do you like it here?
McMurphy: Well...that fucking nurse man...
Dr. Spivey: What do you mean, sir?
McMurphy: She uh, she ain't honest.
Dr. Spivey: Now look, Miss Ratched's one of the finest nurses we've got in this institution.
McMurphy: Laughs. Well I don't wanna break up the meeting or nothing, but she's something of a cunt, aint she doc?
Dr. Spivey: How do you mean that?
McMurphy: She likes a rigged game, if you know what I mean.

Some background information on Nurse Ratched, for those who have not seen the movie or read the book (according to SparkNotes - I found their analysis of her character to be accurate):

Nurse Ratched - The head of the hospital ward. Nurse Ratched, the novel’s antagonist, is a middle-aged former army nurse. She rules her ward with an iron hand and masks her humanity and femininity behind a stiff, patronizing facade. She selects her staff for their submissiveness, and she weakens her patients through a psychologically manipulative program designed to destroy their self-esteem. Ratched’s emasculating, mechanical ways slowly drain all traces of humanity from her patients...She enters the novel, and the ward, “with a gust of cold.” Ratched has complete control over every aspect of the ward, as well as almost complete control over her own emotions. In the first few pages we see her show her “hideous self” to Bromden and the aides, only to regain her doll-like composure before any of the patients catch a glimpse. Her ability to present a false self suggests that the mechanistic and oppressive forces in society gain ascendance through the dishonesty of the powerful. Without being aware of the oppression, the quiet and docile slowly become weakened and gradually are subsumed...She is able to act like “an angel of mercy” while at the same time shaming the patients into submission; she knows their weak spots and exactly where to peck. The patients try to please her during the Group Meetings by airing their dirtiest, darkest secrets, and then they feel deeply ashamed for how she made them act, even though they have done nothing. She maintains her power by the strategic use of shame and guilt, as well as by a determination to “divide and conquer” her patients...McMurphy manages to ruffle Ratched...he is not taken in by her thin facade of compassion or her falsely therapeutic tactics.

Whether or not you have seen the movie or read the book, I believe that Nurse Ratched is the perfect representation of a Narcissistic mother, right down to her use of manipulation and shame/guilt tactics to control her "children." One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest also illustrates what ACoNs are up against when dealing with their attempts to prove that they have been abused. The abuses Nurse Ratched inflicts on her "children" are often so subtle, and her ability to deceive even the most intelligent of doctors she works with, is evidence of precisely what ACoN's and my fellow-Jonsies of the world find themselves up against. After watching the film recently (the last time I had seen it was several years ago) I was really struck by the precise poignancy of the short dialog I just shared with you. R.P. McMurphy gets it - he Sees exactly what Nurse Ratched is, even though she's got so many people fooled by her elaborate facade. And doesn't he sum it up well? "She's something of a cunt." And "She ain't honest." And "She likes a rigged game."

My advice? Keep fighting the good fight. There ain't gonna be no fucking lobotomies here.


  1. My counselor assigned me to watch this movie. This was six years ago. I hadn't seen it before, or read the book. He assigned me to watch it, with my cousin, who was helping my NM after a joint replacement. Before this, my cousin only knew the wonderful facade. Then she became the caretaker, and learned what I knew down to my soul. My cousin had also chosen not to read the book, because she knew how it would end after the first page. She agreed to watch it with me. Afterward, she expressed her frustration and disgust, "Why didn't the other patients warn him?!" I looked at her and asked, "If I told anyone what NM is like, would they believe me?" She stared, and was horrified to see the truth. No. No one would believe me. No one did.

  2. Judy - Exactly. There is a dynamic you can see going on in the movie where you just know that the other patients are terrified of Ratched - they are too afraid to speak the truth about her because of the power she has over them. And you can just see it all - the subtle power plays, the manipulation, the guilt-tactics she uses. McMurphy is the first one to really stand up to her and he's in for one hell of a fight. And the doctors and the rest of the staff are all so fooled by her (unlike her victims/targets who all know what's going on but most are too afraid to do anything about it) that there is no use in explaining anything to them. "She's one of our best nurses!" Says the doctor to McMurphy. A little while later, in a scene when all the doctors are talking amongst themselves concerning what to do about McMurphy, he says, "She's the closest person to McMurphy right now." That's uber scary - that woman couldn't be emotionally "close" to anyone!

  3. I had watched the movie also for the same reason as Judy, to help me grasp what our mother was and still is today. It is kind of creepy when you see your own mother portrayed as the villain in a movie. For some people, the movie is loaded with emotional triggers. May want to watch it with a supportive companion.

  4. Ruth - I told DH, who had never seen the movie before, that if he ever heard anyone being referred to as a "Nurse Ratched," it was a really, really bad thing. After the movie, we of course made all kinds of comparisons between good old Nurse R and NMIL. It is a VERY creepy feeling. But then again, NMIL is creepy.

    A agree - many people may need to watch with a supportive friend or loved one who can give emotional support.

  5. When that movie came out I was in my 20's and it was the first time I had seen my Nmother "in action" as demonstrated in popular culture (nurse R.) I loved it! It illustrated so perfectly the tactics/experiences I had struggled to articulate for years to my friends who just didn't get it (which left me feeling even more alone in this world.) Sure, all teen-agers/young women have "problems" with their mothers at some point, but trying to explain the dynamics/behavior to my contemporaries was futile at best. No wonder-they had NORMAL mothers! And yes, Nurse R took the exquisite pain of her patients and used it against her "inmates" in such a cruel, shaming manner, undermining any sense of dignity her "charges" may have possessed by twisting her "knowledge" of their vulnerabilities. Debasement and power and control as tactics not only of their physical selves but their hearts, minds, humanity are experiences we ACoNs know WELL. I felt I had lived in that "looney bin" my entire life. Nurse R's "masks" are one of the most consistent hallmarks IMO of narcparents: They are targeted, intentional and very clearly manipulative intended to undermine any hope a child/Adult Child has in securing support from others. We-or rather I-felt entirely isolated, alone with my pain, my lack of anything vaguely related to self-esteem/self-respect. Any burgeoning attempts to differentiate were met with immediate and forceful 'retaliation.' The physical abuse has had far less impact in the long term than the psychological/emotional abuse.

    Great post Jonsi and thanks for this!

  6. Anon - Great analysis. As always, I am so sorry to hear the sheer number of people out there who had Nurse Ratched for a mother.

    I can attest, however, that it takes quite the strong person to break the chains, to break free, to escape her terrible wrath. I am in awe of the children and adult children of Ns out there who are able to do it, no matter how or when that happens.

  7. Jonsi, I have just come to realize how important you are to all of us ACONs. You see things with such an interesting perspective. You didn't have an NM yourself, so you know what "normal" is. But you have a NMIL, so you also know the devastation, hurt, and horror of what that is. You are like our "friend on the outside". Throwing us bread over the barbed wire. That person who sees the horror, but is once-removed from it.

    Back to the point, I look forward to watching this again from a different (more aware) perspective. I am interested to have DH watch this again. I wonder what we will talk about at the end.

    And I agree with anon above. It's something you and I have been talking about. "The physical abuse has had far less impact in the long term than the psychological/emotional abuse." That intangible abuse that no one believes is so more harmful that the physical. A slap you can point out. A broken arm you can report. How the hell do you explain years of poison darts thrown at you?