ideals, sex and aggression – part 1

Continuing on the one who flew over cuckoos’ nest … the classic film from a psychoanalytical vintage point.


One of the relational parameters of the story seemed to take place in the form of the patients’ idealising attitudes towards the ‘head and breast’ of their world, the Big Nurse. It appeared as a convenient repetitive pattern for some of them, to experience powerlessness in relation to a controlling woman. The idealisation of nurse Ratched by the in-patients played an essential part in her ability to retain control, therefore appeared egoistically nurtured by her. McMurphy showed his true colours from the start and was unwilling to blindly follow what could be described as a collective transference and idealisation, occurring in the ward.

The stronger elements of idealisation appeared with in-patients whom with the nurse had a more interactive contact, patients who had experienced and internalised the presence of a dominating and manipulative woman in their past, inmates who remained masochistically in the hospital by their own will. One of them, Billy, was a 30 years old man-child who was raised by an over-controlling mother. His mother appeared to have contributed to his suffocating super-ego, which generated deadly senses of shame and guilt. Mr Harding is another patient who felt disrespected and ‘used’ by his wife’s sexually explicit behaviour with other men while presenting herself to him as self-assured and arrogant. Billy needed the Big Nurse/Mother to survive, to be told what to do and how to be, while his idealisation of her created the image of the omnipotent nurturer with the ultimate power to give life and death. Billy was experiencing unconditional fear and awe. He had found his substitute in nurse Ratched (who was a friend of his real mother) while being in a more tolerable environment in the hospital, compared to his family home: there was more ‘space’ between him and her in the ward and he was not the only ‘child’. Mr Harding, on the other hand, needed people to respect and recognize his intelligence, without being reminded of his own sexual frustrations, his impotence and his possible latent homosexuality. The nurse seemed to be his ideal ‘wife’, praising his dry rationalisations, giving him the respect he needed and keeping the taboo topic of sex well away.

Convenient arrangements such as the above served both sides and in order for the Big Nurse to maintain a safe repetition, individual differences and personal growths had to be suppressed and controlled. McMurphy reacted aggressively to fixed role-playing, such as parent/child, doctor/patient patterns; he needed and desired his autonomy and individuality. Nurse Ratched had to retain control and the required power and superiority was presented to her by knowing the patient’s weaknesses and using it against them, especially in ways of triggering intense experiences of guilt, shame and destructiveness.

Furthermore, what also supported idealisation was their apparent self-identification as patients who needed treatment, being part of the medical system. There seemed to be an underlying expectation and wish by the patients to be ‘cured’ by the Big Nurse, as part of a mutually seductive dependence, contributing to a collective idealisation of her authority figure. Another characteristic example of her ‘omnipotent capabilities’ is shown by her control over time. Chief Bromden had the impression that she can slow down time in the ward.Her power acquired mythological gist, above life and death. Patients did not seem to associate these sensations to their administrated psychotropic drugs: they saw the Big Nurse tranquilising them out of time and existence. It appears that these experiences relate to dominating parts of themselves which were being projected onto nurse Ratched, taking also into account the voluntary admission of the majority of the patients.

What could be also seen as a joint idealization was directed towards the other powerful figure in the hospital ward, McMurphy, who took the form of a leader and a liberator, a hero and, ultimately, a ‘Jesus Christ’.  The in-patients’ awakened yearnings for faith in their symbolised and projected alter-ego, appeared to be felt as increasingly meaningful by McMurphy, who became more of a humanist throughout the story and less of an individualist. His love for his fellow man seemed to play a central role in his dramatic sacrifice at the end.