The Horrendous "Shock Shop"

June 13, 2012
A few days ago, in physics class, our teacher decided to have us do an experiment with electricity and van digraphs. The whole class circled around the perimeter of the room and held hands while two people on the end touched the van digraph. Now, as long as everyone is holding hands and the two people are touching the electricity, nothing will happen. But, if someone lets go, everyone feels the shock. So, of course, someone lets go and the whole class, including myself, feels that absurd shock. This shock was probably nowhere near the voltage that is given to patients in shock treatments, yet, it was extremely painful and discomforting, and I would not want to experience it again. Sometimes, in life, there are some things that are extremely not necessary. Electric Shock Therapy is one of the things that people should not have to endure. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the author, Ken Kesey, is opposed to Electric Shock Therapy, as openly portrayed through McMurphy’s opposition of them and also through the other characters. He spends many instances focusing on the shock treatments given to the patients at the mental hospital however, he almost accurately describes them and does not exaggerate, nor strand from the truth of them. In comparison with the medical statements of Arthur P. Noyes and Lawrence C. Kolbe, Ken Kesey is accurate in his description of the horrifying and dangerous treatments that were given by the doctor, attendant, or ordered by the nurse, when often times, they weren’t even necessary or effective.
Electro Shock Therapy also referred to as Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), was invented in the late 1930’s by Italian neurologist, Ugo Cerletti and his assistant, Lucio Bini. Ugo Cerletti was observing the savage act of slaughterhouse pigs being electrocuted into unconsciousness to make it less difficult for workers to slit their throats and thought that this same principle could be applied to the treatment of mental illnesses in human beings; this makes people such as Ken Kesey question the behavior of humanity. Together, they developed ECT. Electroshock therapy, or ECT is defined as “medical procedure in which a brief electrical stimulus is used to induce a cerebral seizure under controlled conditions”(The Canadian Psychiatric Association). Soon after this development, studies showed that EST was more effective for treating mood disorders such as depression than for treating schizophrenia (Hollander). In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the extensive use of shock therapy in frequent and high doses for long periods of time produced harmful effects in patients. Also, during these years, EST was used as behavior control of patients in mental institutions. During these first years using this treatment, nearly 40% of patients suffered from various complications and the overall mortality rate was 1 in 1,000 (Hollander). Despite significant improvements in the treatment, the popularity of ECT in the 1960s and 1970s diminished. ECT is brutal, and Kesey shows the reader this through the characters and their incidents.

Various times throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the author suggests that electroshock therapy is given in the mental hospital as a form of punishment and abuse; and if not given carefully or given in excess, can cause permanent brain damage. In the book, we first learn about ETS when Harding explains to McMurphy what will happen if he doesn’t obey the nurse’s orders.
“The Shock Shop, Mr. McMurphy, is jargon for the EST machine, the Electro Shock Therapy. A device that 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” (Kesey 66).
McMurphy starts slowly learning what the Shock Shop is, why the ward uses it, and how it is misused and abused. Harding goes on to explain further what exactly happens in the Shock Shop and how it has already affected other characters on ward.

“You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns. You are touched on each side of the head with wires. Zap! Five cents’ worth of electricity through the brain and you are jointly administered therapy and a punishment for your hostile go-to-hell behavior, on top of being put out of everyone’s way for six hours to three days, depending on the individual. Even when you do regain consciousness you are in a state of disorientation for days. You are unable to think coherently. You can’t recall things” (Kesey 67). This description further shows the torture-like procedure.
Kevin Kesey was actually given a sample of electroshock therapy and his recounts of it are almost exact. In comparison to the medical accounts of Arthur P. Noyes and Lawrence C. Kolb, his description is almost verbatim to theirs. The account is divided into different sections and each section covers a different aspect of electroshock therapy, such as, its complications and results. Kesey and Lawrence & Noyes both agree on how electroshock therapy is given. They also agree on the fact that “The patient becomes unconscious immediately after the current is applied, even if no seizure follows. He will have no memory of a shock” (Noyes and Kolb). In the book, Kesey implies his opinion that shock therapies at the ward are not properly justified and can cause much damage to the patient.
Because of Kesey’s experience in the mental hospital, he observed patients there and did not believe they were actually insane. His characters are based off of the observations of the actual patients that he interacted with while at the hospital. He did not believe these patients were insane, ill, or had severe problems, but that they had been sent to the hospital because their behavior was not that of the uniformed society. When Kesey presents the characters of Ruckly and Ellis early in the story, it is to suggest what could possibly happen to McMurphy.
Ruckly came in as an acute, but got an operation on his head that made him a “problem” throughout the ward and therefore he was ordered to be taken away by the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, to be “fixed”. Two weeks later after having received many, many, shock treatments he returned almost brain dead. The excerpt from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells Ruckly’s conditions once he was brought back from the Shock Shop.
“And they brought him back to the ward two weeks later, bald and the front of his face an oily purple bruise and two little button-sized plugs stitched one above each eye. You can see his eyes how they burned him out over there; his eyes are all smoked up and gray and deserted inside like blown fuses” (Kesey 15).
The fact that Ruckly had become a nuisance in the ward does not mean that he should have been fried with excessive shock treatments; this is an example of why Kesey believes that shock treatments can be abused. Kesey is not wrong when he asserts that the head nurse uses this as punishment. An article from the New York Times titled Abuse of Electroshock found in Turkish Mental Hospitals talks about doctors and physicians uses EST as punishment. A human rights group conducted an investigation and found that unmodified shock treatment was used on nearly a third of patients undergoing psychiatric crises at the government-run hospitals in Turkey. The investigators also found that the doctors were using the treatment as punishment. The report describes patients being dragged to electroshock therapy in straitjackets and forcibly held down during the procedure. The news article quotes the director of the electroconvulsive therapy as saying, “If we use anesthesia, the ECT won’t be as effective, because they won’t feel punished.” Now, there are two things to take into account when analyzing Kesey’s beliefs, that it was used as a form of punishment, and how it is used as a form of punishment presently. In the 1960’s, when wards administered electroshock therapies, they did not have anesthesia or other drugs to sedate the patient prior to the treatment, so the procedure in and of itself was already a torturous and inhumane method. In the article, the abuse that took place inside Turkish hospitals, not more than 10 years ago, was considered abuse because anesthesia was denied to the patient, making he or she suffer through the shock therapy, in hopes of inflicting a punishment upon the patient.
Another character that Kesey introduces early in the story is Ellis. Ellis is another chronic, who came in as an acute, but after so many visits to the “Shock Shop”, he is “left nailed against the wall in the same condition they lifted him off of the table for the last time, in the same shape, arms out, palms cupped, with the same horror on his face” (Kesey 14). Both Ellis and Ruckly are examples of patients who came in as acutes, meaning with a condition that could still be fixed, but after so many electric treatments, they are both the youngest chronics whose lives were ruined by the extraneous imposition of the shock treatments. The suffering and outcome of these characters is relative to what is said in the medical account. The account states that there may be fractures of the femur, of the acetabulum, and of the humerus, as well as dislocation of the jaw and other various fractions and dislocations caused by irregular muscular contraction. In addition to all of these, shock therapies also cause an impairment of memory (Noyes and Kolb). These complications were also present in Kesey’s novel.

Another character that is included in the story Maxwell Taber. Taber was a patient in the ward who, one day, questioned the medication he was being given. Due to this, he was given electroshock treatment, which left him unable to think and in unassertive state. Taber shows the madness of the institution itself; a man asks a simple question and is handicapped to the point where his brain is functioning at a low state. This situation can be compared to the book, Catch-22. Catch-22 is a book as well as a “common idiomatic usage meaning “a no-win situation” or a “double bind of any type” (Wikipedia). In the book, Catch-22 is a reason used throughout the novel to justify various types of administrational actions. The actions of Taber and McMurphy can be classified as a Catch-22 because only someone in a rational state of mind would question an irrational system, but the questioning will lead to his rationality eventually being taken; just like Taber and McMurphy. In addition to the characters in the novel, Sylvia Plath was a person who personally endured many shock treatments.
Patients in the 1950’s sometimes received more than 100 shock treatments in their lifetime and during that time period, there were no muscle relaxants, anesthetics, and the amount of electricity used was greater. These shock treatments could not have possibly, in any way, have been beneficial to the patient. An example of a woman who endured ECT and the effects it had on her is Sylvia Path, an American writer. During her lifetime, she was diagnosed with depression and was treated with ECT. After her therapy, she attempted suicide but was unsuccessful; clearly the treatments did not work. She spent the consecutive months in a psychiatric care, where she received a multiplicity of electric and insulin shock treatments. To describe her experience with electroshock therapy, she wrote a famous poem titled, “The Hanging Man”.
By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.
The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard's eyelid;
A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket.
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree.
If he were I, he would do what I did.

The poem describes Sylvia’s experience with shock therapy, and the atrociousness of it. She mentions the sizzling in blue volts, this can be interpreted as the shocks she was receiving. She also mentions that she was being pinned to a tree, and when a person is receiving therapy prior to the 80’s and 90’s, they would have to hold the patient down on the shock table. Naturally, results from ECT are somewhat harmful to the brain. An article from the 1977 American Journal of Psychiatry stated, “The damaging effects of ECT on the brain are thoroughly documented. There has not been a single detailed report of a normal human brain after shock”, meaning that no matter the reason for the ECT, it will affect the patient’s brain negatively, and Kesey believed this is why doctors and nurses would use this as punishment. Also, according to the American Psychological Association, 58 patients diagnosed with severe depression were watched over a one- year time period after they were given ECT and within a year, half of them had a relapse, proving ECT to be unsuccessful.

To conclude, Kesey uses various characters throughout the story to show his opposition to shock treatments. Kesey does not only question the people who give the treatment, but he also questions some people’s sense of humanity in general, such as when Taber gets punished for merely asking a question. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he constantly questions the humanity of Nurse Ratched, referring to her as machine, not a being. In comparison to the accounts of Kolb and Noyes, Kesey’s idealistic views agree with them. He does not overstate the case that nurses and doctors have sometimes abused shock therapy because he has had personal experience in the ward, and it has also been proven earlier. How Kesey describes the electroshock treatments is almost exactly how they are described in the account of the doctors. ECT are not as common as it was in the 50’s and 60’s and have been substituted with other, less painful, measures, such as different types of drugs to treat depression, rather than doing hundreds of shock therapies. Kesey is correct when he says that shock therapies are more harmful then they are beneficial and can be used as punishment when not necessary, and the accounts of Noyes, Kolb, and various other sources, prove that.





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