Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Helen on "The Treatment and The Cure," by Peter Kocan

Australian writer Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” is a compelling two-part window into the world of those who have been adjudicated as criminally insane.

Kocan knows what he’s talking about: he gained his insights after being convicted of the attempted assassination of Arthur Calwell, leader of Australia’s Labor Party, in 1966. Still a teenager, he was sentenced to life in prison. After ten years, most of which he spent in a psychiatric hospital, he was released. Since then, he has written a number of books, including fiction, poetry, and drama, won many Australian literary awards, and obtained not only a college degree but a doctorate.

Published in 1983, “The Treatment and The Cure” is an unusual second-person narration depicting a sensitive and quite sane-appearing young man terrified of the prison asylum to which he's consigned, in which both guards and medical personnel are by turns either professional and compassionate or arrogant and vindictive. The administration of medication and electroshock therapy is particularly frightening, since, from the narrator’s point of view, they’re often ordered for reasons that at best make no medical sense and at worst are purely punitive.

Some of Kocan’s best writing describes the charged and chilling atmosphere inside the hospital, where the narrator must analyze at an extraordinarily high level the most subtle nuances of others’ behavior and his own options for responding in order to navigate his confinement successfully. Simply asking for a clean spoon at lunchtime results in the narrator’s reassignment from the best table, with other inmates who actually pass the salt when requested and engage in civil conversation, to the worst one, with patients who throw food and can’t even talk or understand. Much later, on hearing that the narrator likes to sit and think, a staff doctor reacts “Zat is not so healthy, eh?” A couple of pages later, the narrator explains why, no matter what, the same doctor will scrutinize and interpret any reaction or answer at all from inmates to support diagnoses of mental illness.

Indeed, the narrator appears far saner and more rational, not to mention more intelligent, than any of the staff at this prison hospital. The only thing I could have wished for would have been some additional insight into how the disturbed youth who was plotting a murder in the flashback in chapter 2 transformed into the seemingly sane, reliable narrator who not only is in touch with his own and others' psyches but also loves and writes fine poetry. But that's not even a quibble: Kocan's story drew me in from the first page and didn't let me go until I'd finished the book.

If Kocan’s other works approach this early example, he deserves far wider recognition, including, dare I say it, Man Booker consideration. This book, which won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, would make fine reading for judges and lawyers as well as doctors who deal with the mentally ill, and is a nice addition to Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the canon of literature that deals with mental illness. I'm looking forward to reading Kocan's "Fresh Fields," in which he tells the story of a disturbed youth who's similar to the narrator in "The Treatment and The Cure" before he committed the act that landed him in prison and hospital.