Secret Science in the Cuckoo’s Nest
November 27, 2010 by Jen
As the nights got longer we left our summer themes of hedonism, escape and the wonders of the universe behind, choosing instead to delve into the history of psychiatry and our states of mind with the folk at Secret Cinema.
Getting acquainted with the psychosurgical side of mid-20th century psychiatric practices was eye-opening and downright disturbing. We interviewed practicing psychiatrists who had personal experience of actually administering ECT from the 1970s to now about their experiences. Responses ranged from “it’s horrible to administer” to “we only use it as a last resort,” but ultimately “we can’t deny that in some cases it is life-saving.”
In the context of the film, ECT was used as punishment – no anaesthetic, no muscle relaxant, no consent. These humane touches were developed in later on. Mark informed us that seizures induced by electricity applied to the brain could sometimes result in a broken spine as back muscles (the most powerful in the body) contracted so hard they fractured vertebrae…
The connotations between this use of electricity for punishment (as seen in the film) make ECT seem very dark indeed. As to exactly how ECT works, a range of theories exist, but no one is really sure. Our investigations into lobotomy practices of the period to inform our lobotomy training session were even more worrying…
Representing psychiatry today within this space posed a bit of a problem. How could we remain historically faithful to practices of the time whilst ensuring that audience members didn’t go away with an image of psychiatrists as ‘barbaric torturers’? We eventually introduced real psychiatrists as visitors from Europe for Dr Bacchus. This forward-thinking character was considering how ECT use could be made more effective and represented the move towards modern psychiatry within the Experimental Ward. Outside of the Experimental Ward, clinical psychologist Jane Hutton introduced Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Mindfulness techniques to the audience within the more progressive ward run by Nurse Dorothy.
Our 13-night residence in the Experimental Ward combined ECT treatment, lobotomy training accompanied by dissection of a freshly extracted jelly brain, and one-to one psychiatric assessments as part of the immersive, interactive and theatrical world of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest.
I’m happy to report that everyone has come out of their sojourn at the Oregon State Hospital smiling and sane, encouraged in no small part by gallons of whisky and popcorn.