Ken Kesey On Misconceptions Of Counterculture

Terry Gross spoke with Ken Kesey in 1989, and asked him what he thought about Wolfe’s book and how accurate it was.

Listen to the interview at the Fresh Air archives

Mr. KEN KESEY (Author): Oh yeah, it’s a good book. Yeah, he’s a—Wolfe’s a genius. He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks. He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent. He just watches very carefully and remembers. But, you know, he’s got his own editorial filter there. And so what he’s coming up with is part of me, but it’s not all of me—any more than Hunter S. Thompson is loaded all the time and shooting machine guns at John Denver. Thats the sort of thing—interesting in the media, but he’s got a lot more life to him than that.

GROSS: What effect did The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test have on you? For instance, did it make the police feel more determined to try to bust you again?

Mr. KESEY: Yeah. But I haven’t been worried about the cops that much. The effect Kool-Aid Acid Test has is, they’ll say that you’re Richard Gere and you’ve got a great big wart on the side of your nose. And they begin to play it up in the cameras and then pretty soon, it becomes the thing that a lot of teenage girls are in love with, and then pretty soon you’re looking at it too, until you’re cross-eyed looking at your own wart.

GROSS: Why do you use the wart as an analogy?

Mr. KESEY: Well, because I was a lot more than the Tom Wolfe depiction. And I think this is a problem for a lot of American writers, and has been for a long time. You know, Hemingway—he really doesn’t get into trouble until he becomes dazzled by his own image. He sees the rest of the United States looking at him. And he moves over and sits there, and he looks at himself, too. And then when he tries to go back and get inside of his own skin, he cant quite fit into it as well as he used to; he’s gained weight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: He cant put his own skin back on. And when you’re writing, it’s not a good idea to be observed too much—unless you want to live in New York and wear white clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: If you really are interested in being a real, straight, old-fashioned writer, it’s better to live down in Mississippi like Faulkner, and work out in the woodshed and not be seen but once every 10 years. I think that being the observed always turns your eye back on yourself, and you become kind of blinded by your own radiance.

GROSS: You started doing LSD through a government experiment—an experimental program in, I think it was in 1959. You were one of the volunteers who, you know, volunteered to take this experimental drug and have it tested on yourself. How did you become a volunteer for these experiments?

Mr. KESEY: One of the guys that was our neighbors, was a—he was a psychologist. And he was supposed to show up one day and just really—he didn’t have the common hair to do it and says, would anybody else like to take my place? And I, at the time, was training for the Olympics. I made it to be an alternate in the 1960 Olympics team and was…

GROSS: As a wrestler?

Mr. KESEY: Yeah, as a wrestler. Id never been drunk on beer, you know, let alone done any drugs. But this is the American government. They said, come in here. We’ve just discovered this new spot of space, and we want somebody to go up there and look it over, and we don’t want to do it. We want to hire you students. And I was one of 140 or so that eventually turned out. It was CIA-sponsored.

I didn’t believe it for a long time. Well, Allen Ginsberg says, you know who was paying for that? It was the CIA. I said aw, no Allen, you’re just paranoid. But he finally got all the darn records, and it did turn out the CIA was doing this. And it wasn’t being done to try to cure insane people, which is what we thought. It was being done to try to make people insane—to weaken people, and to be able to put them under the control of interrogators.

We didn’t find this out for 20 years. And by that time the government had said OK, stop that experiment. All these guinea pigs that we’ve sent up there into outer space, bring them back down and don’t ever let them go back in there again because we don’t like the look in their eyes.

GROSS: Do you remember what your very first trip was like when you were a volunteer in this government program? And what kind of preparation were you given for it? Were you given any?

Mr. KESEY: None at all, except I’d read a little piece in Life magazine about how they’d given it to cats, and cats were afraid of mice once they’d had LSD. But I think that we’d been preparing for a long time. You know, I knew the Bible. I knew the Bhagavad Gita. I knew the Daodejing. I had read Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East, which gave us an underpinning spiritually, so that these phenomena that were happening to us had something that we could relate to. We just happened to come at a time when it was not only a lot of stuff happening chemically, there was a lot of new changes in music and in film. Burroughs was just beginning to do his work in literature, and there was a movement afoot that this was just a part of.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: And it was exciting. It was wonderful.

GROSS: What was the very first trip like, though, under the experimental conditions?

Mr. KESEY: Groovy, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: It was groovy. We suddenly realized that there’s a lot more to this world than we previously thought. I think, you know—because I’m asked this question a lot. It’s been 20 years or so, and people are always coming back and saying well, what do you think? And I’m—one of the things that I think came out of it is this, is that there’s room. We don’t all have to be the same. We don’t have to have Baptists coast to coast. We can throw in some Buddhists and some Christians, and people who are just thinking these totally strange thoughts about the Irish leprechauns—that there is room, spiritually, for everybody in this universe.

GROSS: You were among the first people to take LSD out of the clinical setting and use it in a social setting. How did you first get it out?

Mr. KESEY: Of the hospital?

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: Ooh, well, after I had gone through these drug experiments and was in this little room in the hospital, looking out through the little window at the people out there who were the regular nuts—they weren’t students going through experiments—I’m looking at them through my crazed eyes. I saw that these people have something going, and there’s a truth to it that people are missing. And that’s how I came to write Cuckoo’s Nest. I got a job at the nut house, and worked from midnight to 8 writing that book and taking care of these patients on this one ward and made a lot of good friends—some that I still have. And I found that my key opened a lot of the doors to the doctors’ offices, where these drugs were being kept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: That’s how.

GROSS: Huh. And then you had friends who were able to make it in their own laboratories.

Mr. KESEY: Yeah, but it never was anywhere as good as that good government stuff. That’s the government—the CIA always has the best stuff.

GROSS: Now you brought up Cuckoo’s Nest. And I was wondering, when you were working in the psychiatric ward, which is what Cuckoo’s Nest is based on, and I think you sometimes went in there high on hallucinogenics. Do you think you ended up writing Cuckoo’s Nest, in a way, projecting your experiences as a quote, sane person high on drugs—projecting those experiences on to people who maybe had like, serious problems?

Mr. KESEY: Well, these people had had serious problems. I mean, I saw people hallucinating, and people in bad shape.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: Make no mistake about it—being crazy is painful. And being crazy is hell, whether you get it from taking a drug or whether it happens because you’re just trying to lead the American way of life and it keeps kicking your legs out from under you. One way or another, it’s hell on you. And it’s nothing that’s fun about it, and I am certainly not recommending it. It is a lens through which I looked at stuff, but it’s hard on the eyes. But I think I had a very valid viewpoint, and much closer than a lot of the doctors were having.

At that time, you know, everything was Freudian. If you were messed up, it was because of something that had happened to you when you were in the bathroom as a kid. And with these experiences and I don’t just mean drug experiences; there were a lot of other things that were going on that were emphasizing this.

John Coltrane’s music was saying the same thing. It was saying, something is wrong and it’s making us a little crazy and that is making us crazy enough to hallucinate, whether we were promoting it ourselves or it was being imposed on us—I don’t want to argue that now. But when I would—I felt so good after being on there all night, to know that I was wearing a green uniform and—I mean a white uniform instead of a green uniform, so I could leave in the morning and go home. Otherwise, there wasn’t that much difference between me and those people they were locking up.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: It gave me an empathy that I could never have come up with. A better example is, those first three pages of Cuckoo’s Nest were written on peyote. And I don’t know any Indians; I don’t know where that Indian came from. I’ve always felt humbled by that character. Without the character of that Indian, the book is melodrama. You know, it’s a straight battle between McMurphy and the big nurse. With that Indian’s consciousness to filter that through, that makes it exceptional.

GROSS: Have you given up drugs? Or, I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t be asking this, but do you…

Mr. KESEY: Were into it now, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you still do them at all or…

Mr. KESEY: On religious occasions, yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: I like to walk up on a mountain on Easter and get a sense of rebirth. Some people jog. Some people meditate. You know, there’s certain people who whip themselves on the back, there’s—everybody has their own way of trying to see past the veil. And this is just the one that I happened to come up with. My metaphor is this, is that you don’t need a huge tuning fork. We used to think—we used to have a tuning fork eight-foot long and weighed 2,000 pounds, just to find middle C. But now, all you need is a little, bitty tuning fork once a year, maybe. But no, I don’t know anybody who really goes out and gets ripped anymore.

GROSS: At what point did you decide to give up the kind of Pranksters life? The story that I’ve heard is the other Pranksters went to Woodstock. You didn’t want to go. And when they came back, they came back to a sign hung in your driveway that just said: No.

Mr. KESEY: Well, there were 61 people when they headed out to Woodstock. And after they were gone, I went upstairs—and we live in a barn; we still live in the same barn. We fixed it up, and it’s a pretty nice place. But at that time, there was still hay in the loft of the barn. And I found out—one of these little hippie warrens, where they dug in with their ratty, old sleeping bags and their copy of Zap magazine. And stuck right down in a hay bale was a candle, which had burned right down to the hay before it had gone off. And I thought hey, enlightenment is one thing but being this loose is—I mean, my grandpa wouldn’t have allowed them up there and my great grandpa wouldn’t have, and there’s certain things that take precedent over enlightenment.

GROSS: And that’s when you sent everybody home, basically.

Mr. KESEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Ken Kesey, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KESEY: OK. Take it easy.

Ken Kesey, speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. He died in 2001.
Thanks to Zane Kesey for the interview transcript from his Facebook page.