By Tara Ison.
I had my first experience with electroshock therapy when I was eleven.
It was 1975, the year I started seventh grade, and boys my age were strutting their Crazy Jack Nicholson imitations from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest all over school. I know I saw the R-rated Cuckoo’s Nest it when it opened in a theatre, and I know some adult must have accompanied me – my parents, or an indifferent babysitter, although why would anyone take an eleven-year-old girl to see such a movie? – because I was too timid and well-behaved to sneak into verboten theatres on my own. I didn’t break rules; I was scared Something Bad would happen, that vague threat if you somehow sullied your permanent record by misbehaving, by acting out.
In Cuckoo’s Nest, Randall P. McMurphy, aka Crazy Jack, is a charismatic petty criminal who tries to evade prison by feigning craziness, which he thinks will earn him some easy time in a mental ward. Doesn’t work out to his benefit, in the end. The film was shot in the real Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, and looks it – some of the zombie-like extras with deformed craniums seem too creepily real. Lots of metal doors clanging, chains clanking, images of leather restraints installed on cots, and stooped men with shaking hands. At eleven, I feel haunted and creeped even as I watch from the safe distance of my theater seat, even as I tell myself it’s only a movie; when the dazed and confused patients line up to get their little Dixie cups of pills and water, I can almost smell that thin wet-paper smell as they swallow.
Bad-behaving McMurphy comes up against Nurse Ratched, the white-stocking’d, sexually repressed, modulated-voice, emasculating image of the Bitch in Charge; when McMurphy boasts to an orderly that he’ll be getting the hell out soon, and the orderly grinningly tells him “You’re going to stay with us until we let you go,” McMurphy, for the first time, realizes he’s trapped – that Nurse Ratched is truly in control of his destiny, his body, his mind.
What haunts me the hardest, then and now, is the scene where McMurphy, after inciting a near-riot, is given electroshock therapy. He isn’t wheeled into the small white procedure room, strapped to a gurney – no, he strolls in, with that cocky Nicholson bounce and grin teenage boys love to emulate, oblivious to what’s in store. When he’s asked to lie down on a table, he cheerfully complies. My heart starts racing around here – I know what is coming, I believe, but I don’t know how I know, I just know in my belly it is the punishment coming, the Something Bad. I am too old to look away, to seek the comforting glance or hand of an indifferent adult. McMurphy’s shoes are removed; conductive gel is smeared on his temples, and I feel the pasty chill of that on my own face. He obligingly takes into his mouth a rubber guard that looks exactly like the dental plate my orthodontist uses to take impressions of my teeth for braces. Attendants place padded white tongs on either side of his head and grip him under his chin, a flip is switched, and there’s a brief, brief buzz that isn’t the worst of it – it’s the seizing up and sudden clench of McMurphy’s body, the whine from the back of his throat, the convulsive shaking and straining he does for long moments after the shock itself has ceased, the way everyone has to struggle to hold him down. I watch that with my pulse racing, my fingers gripping the armrests hard, my own body in some kind of mimicky, rigid seize.