Relationships in the cuckoo’s nest

Continuing from where I left it the last time – if you’ve seen the film, just picture the set.

From the start, nurse Ratched’s powerful presence was clear; McMurphy entered the story soon after challenging the status quo of her omnipotence and their conflict appeared inevitable. It becomes evident that, in order to examine the complexity of the characters, one would need to closely examine their developing relationships. In 1912, Freud argued that a central element of therapeutic relationships is an ongoing conflict between free patient expression and the rising resistances. He continued by suggesting that the most effective resistance is conditioned by transference, which could be defined as: ‘The client’s experience of the therapist that is shaped by his/her own psychological structures and past, and involves displacement onto the therapist, of feelings, attitudes and behaviours belonging rightfully in earlier significant relationships’  (Gelso & Hayes, 1995: 11, in Grant and Crawley)

Central characteristics of the relationships between the Big Nurse and the patients, with McMurphy in the foreground, appeared to be repetitive and intensified. The therapist’s reaction to such patient’s expressions could be seen as counter-transference which was suggested by Freud as ‘a result of the patient’s influence on his [the physician’s] unconscious feelings’ (1910: 145).  A basic analogy could be drawn between the expressionless nurse Ratched and the neutral analyst that Freud (1912) proposed as essential for the development of a therapeutic transference neurosis. The Big Nurse appeared as a blank screen lacking human characteristics, a stance that seemed to make it easier for the patients to project and transfer to her.

Furthermore, it appears important to take into account reality-based or ‘real’ reactions by the characters. An interesting difference between McMurphy and the other inmates comes to light: the group retained a fantasy-oriented relation to the Big Nurse with passive attitudes, perpetuating the damaging cycle of domination/submission. McMurphy on the other hand, seemed more connected to his actual experiences in the ward and – with intertwined transferred fury – he challenged authority and appeared to react more realistically, at times, against nurse Ratched’s behaviour. The relationships that developed throughout the story appeared to combine both reality-based and fantasy-oriented reactions.


Greenson (1969: 365) suggested: ‘Transference reactions, whether loving or hateful, from the most infantile to the most mature, eventually lead to idealization, sexualization, or aggressivization and become important sources of resistance in the end’. All three processes are been looked in the light of previously cited theories as well as the following: projection, as suggested by Freud to be the attribution of some features of oneself onto others rather than recognising them as part of oneself (Smith, 1999) and projective identification, which was termed by Klein (1946) as the process of projecting parts of oneself into another with the unconscious intention of taking control over the other.

more on idealization, sexualization, and aggressivization tbc – or in other words:  dreams, sex and anger! …
Freud (1912, 1914) was the first to distinguish between transferred and real contacts. Strachey also (1934: 380) argued that if transference was made conscious: ‘what was left was like any other “real” human relationship.’