Um, Nurse Ratched From 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Ratched' Is Based on a Real Person

Ratched, now on Netflix courtesy of American Horror Story‘s own Ryan Murphy, might be a little confusing to those of us who never did the reading in our high school American English classes. The show tells the origin story of Nurse Ratched, who is, spoiler, the villain from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. While the 1975 film and original 1962 novel are fictional, there are some truths that inspired the character. Before you delve into the Netflix prequel/origin story/whatever it’s supposed to be, let’s unpack the source material.

Okay, what’s the inspiration for the story overall?

The original author, Ken Kesey, worked in a psychiatric hospital as a nurse’s aide in the ’60s, where he participated in mind-altering drug trials. Those experiences influenced the story he eventually wrote of R. P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, about a patient in a mental institution who overthrows the nurse who’s been ruling over the patients with an iron fist. Nurse Ratched was inspired by his boss, the head nurse at the time. No one asked me, but it’s low-key iconic to get revenge on a former boss by turning them into one of the scariest literary characters of all time. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is problematic and dated in many ways, but that’s a move we have to stan.

Tell me more about this nurse!

So, it’s actually kind of unclear how “evil” the woman who inspired the character was. The book obviously paints her to be a terrible person, but she could have just served as a jumping off point for Kesey. It’s pretty unclear.

But “Nurse Ratched,” (her real name is unknown) knew when she read the book that she was the inspiration for the character. In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, the author said he ran into his former boss at an aquarium, and she walked right up to him asking, “Do you remember me? ‘Nurse Ratched?’” The shade! At least she had a sense of humor about it, and we simply must stan that, too. ”She was much smaller than I remembered and a whole lot more human,” Kesey told the NYT. “I didn’t know what to say, whether to apologize or what.” So it seems like whoever she was, he either misremembered her or he embellished a lot for the book. Maybe both.

So what is the Nurse Ratched character supposed to represent?

Let me put on my English major cardigan, push my oversized glasses up my nose, take a long sip from my cappuccino and remind you: Nurse Ratched actually serves as a symbol of society in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She represents the oppressive, puritanical status quo that McMurphy challenges over the course of the story. Or, rather, the institutionalized corruption that can ruin people like her. That’s all.

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