Who was Ken Kesey? Nurse Ratched creator, writer and Merry Prankster

Samantha McGarry September 24, 2020
Who was Ken Kesey? Nurse Ratched creator, writer and Merry Prankster
Photo by Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

Who was Ken Kesey? The writer is back in the spotlight thanks to Netflix’s Ratched, inspired by Kesey’s most celebrated book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But few people know the about Kesey’s involvement with the Merry Pranksters, 1960s counterculture and the birth of the psychedelic movement.

Who Was Ken Kesey?

The eccentric author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest marched to the tune of his own drum. As part of his adventures with the Merry Pranksters, Kesey embarked a non-conformist journey across the US on a Day Glo-painted school bus, shot a 48-hour long movie about it and popularised psychedelic culture in the early 1960s.

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Caution: Weird Load

Disillusioned after the assassination of JF Kennedy, Kesey and his friends decided to take a road trip from Palo Alto, California, to New York in 1964. The Merry Pranksters were born. Among the troupe was Neal Cassady, who was immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as Dean Moriarty.

Their vehicle was a 1939 school bus daubed with psychedelic paint and a sign on the back declaring ‘Caution: Weird Load’. LSD was a feature of the ride as the Pranksters laced Kool-Aid with the hallucinogen amid myriad attempts to upend societal norms and challenge the mores of the era.

The Merry Pranksters held their own version of early-day raves, featuring strobe lighting and music led by Jerry Garcia, head honcho of psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead.

At the time, Kesey said: “We can count how many seeds are in the apple, but not how many apples are in the seed.”

In 1965, Kesey invited motorbike gang the Hell’s Angels to his home, a peculiar set-up for the peace-loving, laid-back Pranksters. 

Kesey seemed keen, however, to rub shoulders with the unconventional, no doubt hoping to win them over, and it appears the gathering remained relaxed.

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How did Kesey get his inspiration for Nurse Ratched?

Kesey’s mind was forever questioning things. In his youth, he was a star wrestler and football player at school and wrote an early, unpublished novel End Of Autumn, exploring his doubts on the value of the sport.

Hints at his capacity for the unorthodox became more apparent during his time at Stanford University. While most of his contemporaries were working in bars or bookshops to support themselves, in 1960 Kesey volunteered to be a paid experimental subject in a study of mind-altering drugs carried out by the US Army.

He apparently learned a lot from his time in the drug trials, as soon after that the Merry Pranksters were born. On a tangentially related note, the US psychedelic movement got going around the same time, sounding the start whistle to the Sixties.

Photo by Ralph Ackerman/Getty Images

Kesey’s inspiration – or additional inspiration – for Nurse Ratched and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest came that same year when he worked as a night attendant at a hospital’s psychiatric ward.

Kesey felt great empathy for the patients and saw them not as insane but as people who didn’t fit in with society’s preconceptions of how people should behave.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest novel became an iconic study of the use and misuse of power. Kesey’s writing provided both him and his readers with a way to make sense of an often senseless world.

The novel, and 1975 film adaptation, were highly acclaimed, although Kesey was said to have thought Jack Nicholson was “too shrewd” for the part of McMurphy. Many disagreed and Nicholson won his first Oscar for the part. Netflix’s series, Ratched, speculates on the authoritarian nurse’s back story.

‘He who walks out of step hears another drum’

Ken Kesey

Kesey strongly believed in questioning and challenging society’s assumptions about conformity and freedom. His writing was a key outlet for expressing those ideas.

Photo by Ralph Ackerman/Getty Images

In indulging his pursuit of the unconventional, Kesey is described as having written under the influence of LSD. His next novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, is also widely considered to be a great work. In 1971, it was made into a film directed by and starring Paul Newman.

Kesey later published six excerpts of his unfinished novel, Seven Prayers By Grandma Whittier, an account of his grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Eventually, his pushing of legal boundaries resulted in him being sentenced to jail for possession of marijuana in 1965. In response, he temporarily fled to Mexico. Missing the US, he returned and served six months in custody.

Kesey lived out the rest of his life on his father’s farm in Oregon with his wife and four children. He coached wrestling at schools and continued writing novels with his quirky and unconventional takes on life, including children’s book Little Tricker The Squirrel Meets Big Double Bear. 

Despite that, Big Nurse and RP McMurphy undoubtedly remain the characters he will be most remembered for.

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