Reminiscent of Ken Kesey’s cult classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Australian author Peter Kocan’s novel The Treatment and The Cure is destined to enter the annals of asylum and prison literature. Originally published as two separate novellas, The Cure won the 1983 NSW Premier Literary Award for Fiction. Europa Books recently released both titles in one volume.
In 1966 at age 19, Peter Kocan made the headlines when he attempted to assassinate politician Arthur Calwell, federal opposition leader with a sawn-off shotgun. Injuring Calwell, Kocan was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted for attempted murder. With a sentence of life imprisonment, Kocan first went to Long Bay and then Morisset Psychiatric Hospital.
Based on Kocan’s experiences, The Treatment and The Cure recreates the cockeyed world inside of an asylum, and Len Tarbutt, a lonely, damaged and confused nineteen-year-old tells the story. Although the story is told through Len’s eyes, he describes what he sees and what he does in the second person “you.” This creates an interesting, depersonalized sense of numbing distance between the narrator and his experiences. Although many of the incidents described here are harrowing, this is not some whining pity-me diatribe, but a witty, clever, unsentimental and sublimely clear depiction of a system in which those who are supposedly "normal" manage those judged insane. The inmates are a motley assortment: murderers, depressives, and a peeping Tom. Some of the inmates—drooling zombies--are drugged out of their minds; others are subjected to shock treatment at the behest of the absent-minded Dr. “Electric Ned.”
When Len first arrives, the asylum is a total change of pace from the prison he just left—almost too good to be true, but in the maximum-security wing, he soon discovers that medications and shock treatment are to be avoided at all costs. With sadistic, resentful and possibly bored prison employees ready and eager to trigger a trip to Electric Ned, Len realizes that the path to avoiding shock treatment is fraught with traps and rules he doesn’t yet understand:
“You go down into the garden with the others and start digging. You work steadily, not daring to take a breather much. You want to show what a good inmate, a model inmate, you are. Dedicated. Eager to please. Then you get afraid you might be giving a wrong impression. You might be overdoing it. Showing “Obsessional Tendencies.” Digging too much might be like cleaning windows too much.”
I always admire writers who manage to include humor in novels that would otherwise be dire and depressing, and in The Treatment and The Cure, Kocan manages to inject a lively off-kilter sense of humor on almost every page. For example, in one episode, Len’s mother comes to visit. A nice woman, she’s completely out of her depth when it comes to dealing with a mental asylum. She meets a Polish inmate named Zurka, and finding him pleasant and charming, she nonchalantly discusses her train journey. Zurka is a brutal ax murderer who went berserk on a train one day, and Len watches Zurka chatting to his mother noting:
“His manner is calm and easy, but you feel a faint worry when the talk is about the train trip. Zurka chopped those people up on a train and you’re afraid the subject of trains might be risky. You’re also feeling a vague sense of satisfaction to think that you can introduce your visitor to someone who’s chopped people up.”
Some inmates "improve" with the goal of leaving maximum security and securing a transfer to Refract, and in some of the cases of the more violent inmates, Len notes the "cure" with an edge of skepticism:
“If it was up to you, you’d let Zurka go to the open section. Yet when he’s talking about the psychiatrists who took all his money for pills and fees, or about his Polish countrymen who wouldn’t help him, you get a faint cold feeling of worry. There’s an edge to his voice that makes you think he’s spent years here remembering the wrong they did him. It’s probably nothing. You’d still let him go to the open section if the decision was up to you. Yet you’re glad, somehow, that it’s someone else’s decision.”
The move from maximum security is, in theory, one step closer of leaving the asylum. In reality, however, Refract is fraught with even more dangers than maximum security. There’s more to lose, new rules to learn, the humiliations of group therapy, and a sadistic nurse nicknamed “Blue.” Blue craftily picks on particular patients, and “adds a nice touch” of involving other patients in her punishments. This is a system that attracts sadists to its staff, and encourages the cruelest psychological games between the nurses, the screws and the already damaged patients.
Len faces his greatest challenges when he moves out of maximum security. Drawn to poetry and the suffering of long-dead WWI poets, Len navigates through loneliness, despair and depression with a few lifelines thrown by those rare individuals who step in and offer kindness. While some inmates are crushed and destroyed by their experiences in the mental asylum, Len emerges from his deeply troubled cocoon as a mature, thoughtful and triumphant human being with the profound realization that "mad" is a “word that doesn’t mean anything.”