Today, I think, was a well-spent day. It should feel more satisfying, but alas, it feels strangely disappointing in a way that many days feel, and what can I do about that? Human emotions are strange things. Oh, are they ever. We sacks of meat, bone, and nerve tissue go around having feelings, and these feelings mean so much to us. They determine how we view the world – if we’re sad, the world becomes sad, and if we’re happy, well, the world laughs with us. No one is objective; no one really has an unbiased view of their environment. Hell, even though lobotomies do severe damage to higher brain functions, they still don’t take away all emotions, or anything that people will little leucotomical knowledge would tell you. I recently watched a documentary with my family about Walter Freeman, the innovator of the lobotomy, who spent years touring the U.S. giving icepick lobotomies, where he’d just stick it up someone’s tear ducts, hammer away, and BANG, problem solved. With new ones created. Psychosurgery? It has a bad rap these days, and for a reason. The documentary, based on Jack El-Hai’s book of the same name, was called The Lobotomist and is available for viewing here. I highly recommend it as examining a piece of America’s medical and social history. I should watch more documentaries. They provide easy access to a variety of subjects. In time, it’ll happen.
Lobotomies have always intrigued me. Look at the word itself: lobotomy. (And if you’re like me, you automatically hear the Ramones chanting it.) Basically, it comes from the Greek (I believe; take my every nugget of wisdom with a grain of salt): lobe, as in frontal lobe, plus -otomy, which means “cutting.” Like the atom? That means “uncuttable.” Which is ironic in retrospect, but dammit, they didn’t know that then! Lobotomy, taking out a part-o’-me… one of the interesting nuances I learned back when I obsessively studied Greek word origins around age 13 was the difference between “otomy” and “ectomy.” Appendectomy, hysterectomy? An -ectomy is a removal; an -otomy is a cutting. However, I don’t know the medical details well enough to say if the lobe is entirely removed or just has its link to the rest of the brain severed. In any event, the rise (and fall) of the lobotomy is an interesting case of interactions between general public attitudes and changing medical technology. If there’s anything advertising can tell you, it’s that people crave a quick fix. Years of therapy, coupled with medication? Fuck that. Let’s go in through his eyes, hack out part of his brain, and make him safe to take home again. Psychiatric trends affect us all, dammit. Whether or not they’re willing to admit it, everyone has a mental health, just as everyone has a physical health. Worth noting: I’m fairly certain that “insanity” is a meaningless word, both medically and legally. Is someone “crazy”? Are they “insane” or “nuts”? Some people suffer from clinical depression; others are schizophrenic (although what does that mean? Another source of immense controversy which was brought to my attention by Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s My Mom Was a Schizophrenic; I definitely recommend reading it). Psychiatry is still, more or less, in its infancy. Maybe its teen years? My point is that the study of mental health, as we know it, pretty much took off only around the turn of the 20th century. There’s a lot humanity as a whole still has to figure out about how the brain works. Dear reader, take a moment to consider what a bizarre, high-tech piece of equiment you have stashed between your ears. It’s so well-designed it’s even capable of contemplating its own mechanical workings. Unfortunately, there are still some bugs to work out, so occasionally the wiring short-circuits, and sometimes we can get it fired up again, but other cases are not so lucky. Whole lotta trial and error involved, as with every human pursuit. Happiness does not come easy without the sacrifice of many, many painful and difficult lives obstructed by bad chemicals fucking up the brain, as Kurt Vonnegut would probably put it. I think he had some mental illness in his family – his mother, I believe, committed suicide like Celia Hoover in Breakfast of Champions, the novel to which I’m referring with the “bad chemicals,” and Vonnegut himself went through crippling depression at a number of points in his life. I used to have a book containing testimonies from a number of people who’d gone through Minnesota’s mental health care system. I wonder where that is now. One very scary point it reinforces is this: it can and likely even will happen to you. Your mind, so often a faithful friend who aided you in all pursuits, suddenly deciding to take a nosedive into darkness and agony – it’s a possibility built into the electrochemical framework by which you, like everyone else, function. It’s horrifying and it’s a fact.
Thinking about lobotomies also reminded me of two things I love: Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Loosely inspired by an acid trip Kesey had while working as a janitor in a mental hospital in Washington State California, the stories are about Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the convict who gets transferred into the tyrannical Nurse Ratched’s ward because he’s convinced the prison staff that he’s crazy, though he’s just faking it, and he’s really sane… right? I am a fan of Nicholson. I can’t deny it; in fact, sometimes I randomly burst into periods where I won’t! Fuckin’! Stop! Talkin’ like Jack Nicholson! And Cuckoo’s Nest was, I think, a project that was perfect for him – McMurphy is, of course, a quintessential rebel, which fits perfectly with the image Nicholson crafted starting with his renegade lawyer in Easy Rider, his renegade pianist in Five Easy Pieces, his renegade naval officer in The Last Detail… need I go on? (Granted, in Tommy, he’s not much of a renegade, but his part in it is about 5 minutes long. As Jack says, “All hope lies with him and none with me.”)
I love the film’s environment, its supporting cast – Vincent Schiavelli, Danny DeVito being endearingly demented, Christopher Lloyd being argumentative and violent, and Brad Dourif as the sadistically-named Billy Bibbit, stutteringly sucking up to the off-beat father figure that McMurphy provides. Then there’s the Chief. Since the novel is from his (very skewed) point of view, it’s a radically different experience, but I think Forman does a great job of maybe not translating, but reconstructing important elements of the novel on screen. And McMurphy survives wholly intact. And then Louis Fletcher… she may have had other roles before and after, but she will likely be remembered solely for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Nurse Ratched, and it’s no wonder. I’d have to reread the book to verify this but I have the feeling that Fletcher is a little softer and not so overtly domineering than Kesey’s version of Ratched. But nonetheless she’s a frightening presence and is simultaneously a figurehead of executive authority and a monster of institutional malice. Cuckoo’s Nest may have swept the Academy Awards, but I still see it as a very effectively rebellious, anti-authoritarian film. Although the novel may be more in synch with the Chief’s existence as an outsider on every level, I think the film isn’t too watered-down or overly Hollywoodized. Still got that downer ending, after all, that brought me from lobotomy to Cuckoo’s Nest in the first place. Still got that pool of blood surrounding a certain beloved character’s body. My opinion on this may change in the future. But one possible explanation if this is the case? It was 1975. Recent headlines had seen the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, and the Watergate revelations. An ideal national mindset for a movie like this – and while, say, All the President’s Men may have taken the topical bull by the horns, I can at least say with certainty that I prefer Cuckoo’s Nest every time. The catch? As others have pointed out, cuckoos don’t have nests. They lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Keep that in mind while watching the movie.