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Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ no longer ‘woke’ enough for production


The modern literary classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest used to be banned from high schools because it was too counter-culture. Too edgy. Too “Ken Kesey psychedelic.”

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Now it’s banned from a Juneau theater company because it’s racist and misogynistic.

Perseverance Theatre in Juneau cancelled the production because the story, written by a white man, features a Native American, a rapist, and negative depictions of those who work in the mental health field.

The novel is about a man who tries to escape a prison sentence by acting insane, gets himself locked up into an Oregon asylum, where he discovers things are much, much worse than prison.

Back in the 1970s, the book was routinely removed from public schools due to how it “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.”

But all of that is acceptable in this era. What is not acceptable is racial insensitivity, sexual assault, and hurting the feelings of those who run psych wards.

Kesey’s book, published in 1962, and the film version that starred Jack Nicholson in the 1970s, had a profound impact on the field of mental health and the wide-but-questionable use of shock therapy, which is featured prominently in the book.

The procedure, described by Nurse Ratched in the book “might be said to do the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair and the torture rack. It’s a clever little procedure, simple, quick, nearly painless it happens so fast, but no one ever wants another one. Ever.”

The book has been credited with ending shock therapy as it was practiced back in the day, and its impact on the mental health field is widely debated throughout the profession.

[Read: Five things you never knew about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest]

Read the letter from the Juneau theater company describing the ban of Ken Kesey’s classic and the reasons for the ban:

A Change to Our 2019/2020 Season

Libraries around the country will be celebrating Banned Book Week on Sept. 22-28. It’s an event sponsored by “Freedom to Read,” an organization that is dedicated to free expression. Sponsors include: American Booksellers Association; American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of University Presses; The Authors Guild; Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Dramatists Legal Defense Fund; Freedom to Read Foundation; Index on Censorship; National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; PEN America; People for the American Way; and Project Censored. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

[Get ready for Banned Book Week, September 22-28]

Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.


  1. The movie was largely filmed at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. The actors lived with the patients and many were used as extras.
    The hospital opened the “Museum of Mental Health” last year. It has exhibits included one on the filming of the movie.
    The book and movie are classics. They could have performed the play and had a discussion group afterwards.
    This kind of thinking gets “Huckleberry Finn “ banned.

    • Exactly Rudy. I wrote a lengthy email to the director of Perseverance when I received my email about the schedule change. After my own dissertation to her on the purpose of the Arts, etc., I also brought up their missed opportunity of a “post-play” discussion group. They have truly gone off the cliff on this one. And, BTW, she did not respond to my email. Her inbox was probably too full.

  2. Before the production is put on hold, could we get an opinion from Byron Mallott as to what he thinks of the plot, and how it pertains to the accurate depiction of some Native Americans?

  3. The Left are as rigid as the Puritans, and they would burn conservatives if they could. Kesey was very much of the liberal persuasion in his time, coming out of the beatnik era and adapting very well to the hippie culture surrounding Eugene, OR. He adapted to the young women around the University of Oregon very well, and he lived the life of a pot-smoking gentleman farmer in Pleasanthill, OR. But there is no denying he understood the human condition and could write of it very well. Unlike the Left today, Kesey told it as he saw it, and he really didn’t care who disagreed.

  4. Yet ANOTHER classic that I will now have to run out and buy on Blu-Ray before the whacky liberals get their collective panties in a wad and get it banned altogether. Hell, it wasn’t even 3 months ago that I bought Blazing Saddles for the same reason!!

    • OMG. Hadn’t thought of that one! Saw that in the old movie theater in SE AK as a kid. Hilarious. Didn’t even get blocked by my folks. I better track down a copy too!

  5. It was the lobotomy not shock therapy… what book were you reading ?

    The Chief had to put Randall P. McMurphy (the protagonist) away after he got one at the end.

    The Book does use “colorful” language. Kinda starts that way if I remember. Still a Ken Kesey master piece !

    • It was both shock therapy and lobotomy, the shock therapy didn’t work and they ended up lobotomizing the character played by Jack Nicholson.

  6. I think it’s McMurphy calling the orderlies the n-word and sexually assaulting Ratched by ripping her shirt open and strangling her that’s more problematic than Chief’s portrayal.

    I’m also curious what those five residents from Ohio were referring to when they said the book contained “descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.” I don’t remember any bestiality or dismemberment.

  7. Ken Kesey may very well be the father of the psychedelic movement in America.
    After the success of his novel (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) he purchased a bus and headed to New York with his band of “Merry Pranksters”.
    “At the centre of the action is Kesey, a former wrestler and amateur puppeteer who had signed up for research into the effects of LSD.”
    Kesey would go on to unite LSD and the Grateful Dead in what would become over 30 years of “counter-culture” concerts across America.
    His friends would later become characters in Jack Kerouac novels and celebrities would flock to Kesey’s bungalow in La Honda, California.

        • Did you happen to catch the three shows Bobby played when he was in Girdwood, Suzanne? #onthebusin87

          PS – All of this Kesey talk reminds me of the time when Ken rolled on-stage of a Grateful Dead show to memorialize the recently deceased legendary promoter and friend Bill Graham. It was as haunting as it gets. Kesey had lost his son recently, as well. His pain is real:

          41:40 starts the Kesey rap.

    • “His friends would later become characters in Jack Kerouac novels” – Some of Kesey’s friends, notably Jack Cassidy, were already characters in Jack Kerouac novels. Kerouac died in 1969 but had long been silent as a writer. He never wrote anything about Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

      • Tom Wolfe wrote about the Merry Pranksters in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I recall. Great book at the time but not the classic that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is. And Kesey was also the co-founder of Nancy’s Yogurt. How’s that for trivial pursuit?

        • AK-49 … His brother Chuck owned a creamery in Springfield. The famous 1972 Veneta, OR Grateful Dead shows (available on YouTube – warning- much nudity) are notably called, “the field trips”. It was a fundraiser for the creamery, and one of many solid shows for that famed year for the band.

          If the thunder don’t get you, the lightning will.

        • “There was Cowboy Neal, at the wheel on the bus to nevereverland!”

          The Other One, Grateful Dead

          Cassady was a hero. There should be a movie on his life alone.

  8. Fact:

    Kesey was an MK-ULTRA (read: CIA experiment) volunteer who stole LSD from the government. He gave it to Owsley Stanley who replicated it. Kesey used the proceeds from the book to fund LSD parties (Pranksters) in La Honda, CA, as well as free distributions at the Acid Tests. The house band performing at these parties were none other than the Grateful Dead.

  9. After reading this fabulous thread of psychedelic history, why on gods green earth wouldn’t the artsy, fartsy, lefty world of Perseverance Theater want to get down and get funky with a Kesey production? The after-action reviews with the cast, crew, and audience would be epic! Enlightening! A real missed opportunity.

  10. Saw the movie. Many times. Didn’t read the book. You know what? Like it or not, racism was in our past. Period. Like it or not it happened. All you people axing things like this because apparently your too fragile to understand that was another time. Not now. If you can’t see that you cannot be helped. The main sign of MATURITY is that you can understand that things were different than say, the 1930’s, 40’s on up. Making a film or anything evil or racist from times gone by is showing the world your unable to deal with it yourself. Embrace our past folks or you will all be doomed to repeat it in time. Tearing down statues, condemning movies are one in the same in my book. Until this current generation sees that things were different back then, nothing will get better. An adult is fully capable of watching an old movie that had maybe racial things in it and still enjoy it. Did not reflect it was their views. Just the way THINGS WERE. Maybe watch it without your agenda glasses on and you will understand better. Just a movie. If this was going to be a play, you certainly can change how it reads.

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