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Why Netflix's 'Ratched' Is Actually a Story About the Cycle of Trauma

I’d like to begin this piece by saying there are multiple angles I could have taken with this piece, but the one I’m electing to pursue today is one that I believe many trauma survivors can identify with.

This material is sensitive so if you have experienced sexual trauma, physical trauma and/or narcissistic abuse, know that some aspects of this series analyzed in the review below may be triggering.  

Writing this review has proved itself to be a bigger challenge than I anticipated. Simply put, there are so many magnificent elements that beg to be unpacked within this show that there is not enough time to fully examine each one.

While I expected to address how psychology and therapy methods for those with mental illnesses were once so brutal in mental institutions throughout the United States, I walked away with an entirely different message that I believe trumps nearly every element explored within the series.

“Ratched” unapologetically lifts the Hollywood-stifled lid to give us a brand new take on a character who has been villainized throughout film history. This newly stylized version of Mildred Ratched allows us to witness her trauma-based responses to life and how those responses nearly caused her to manipulate herself out of the happy ending she deserved.

It’s based on “One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a 70’s film which film portrayed Ratched as a manipulative man hater who was hell-bent on dehumanizing and emasculating her patients.

In this new, very loose rendition on the character, Mildred Ratched is humanized. She is shown to be something more than a villain to be hated and rather proves herself to be a force of nature who refuses to accept love because she does not think she’s worthy of it.

Overall, I didn’t anticipate Ryan Murphy’s capacity to weave such a multi-layered, feminist story that highlights what it was like to be a lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality in a post-World War 2 world– how women bond in some of the most unlikely situations and how sometimes a person’s story is not what it may first seem to be.

At the start of the show Mildred Ratched is a seemingly cold and distant human bent on gaining a position at the Lucia State Hospital, a mental institution that prides itself on prioritizing the humanity of its patients. At the helm of leadership, Dr. Hanover finds himself manipulated by Ratched into offering her a job after she explains how passionate she is about the field of nursing despite her experiences of working in war zones.

“…But I was not deterred, Doctor. In fact, I was invigorated, because I was a member of the most unsung profession that we have in this country. Save one life you’re a hero. Save one hundred lives, well, then you’re a nurse,” Ratched says, her voice breaking.

Ratched seems to have found a place where she belongs and where she is wanted, something we learn later that she’s never had before.

However, her journey to self-discovery has only just begun.

We watch Mildred Ratched spin herself an elaborate web of lies and manipulation, all while somehow extricating herself from any kind of incrimination. We learn that all this steamrolling of others is done in an attempt to protect her former foster brother Edmund Tolleson who’s been interred at the mental hospital.

The only trouble is that her brother is a mass murderer who killed three priests in cold blood, claiming that one of them raped his mother.

Regardless of what Edmund has done, it seems as though Mildred will stop at nothing to protect herself and her brother Edmund. She even goes so far as to execute a homemade lobotomy on the only priest who survived the mass murder in the pilot episode, making him the only witness to her loved one’s crimes.

She tells the him, “You see, Father, Edmund Tolleson is my brother. He wasn’t born a monster. Somebody turned him into one.”

It’s at this point in the series that one has to wonder, why all of this effort? Doesn’t Edmund deserve to be locked away or receive the death sentence?

To Mildred, the act of constantly protecting her brother is the only use her life has and that she owes him a debt from childhood. Having been shifted from foster home to foster home, the siblings found themselves adopted into a sexually abusive family.

Edmund murdered the foster parents when the two tried to escape, but in an effort to protect Mildred, he told her to run and leave him behind. She did and has spent her life attempting to find him and repay the debt of him saving her life by protecting him at all costs, even after discovering that he murdered again. Edmund cares nothing for Mildred’s protection and instead manipulates her to suit his own whims, even going so far as to shoot her lover and hunt her down.

Individuals who have found themselves in toxic, abusive environments often tie their sense of self-worth to their abusers, believing that without them they have no value. This is the only way of life that they’ve known so they feel that if they do not play their abuser’s game, they will lose their life’s purpose.

While this explanation does not excuse Ratched’s lies and manipulations of others, it does humanize her and help us understand her better. She seems willing to go to any length to ensure that she’s never traumatized again, all while pushing her own desires for happiness down.

Oftentimes, people who have experienced abuse find themselves overwhelmed with the shame and guilt of feeling as though they are not good enough for any relationship. In their own mind’s eye, they seem themselves as damaged or wrong.

Because Mildred refuses to allow herself happiness, she intentionally stifles the need to confront her queerness — an experience shared by many LGBTQ+ individuals who have gone through trauma. We see her desires reflected in PTSD-stylized flashbacks, where she envisions kissing and loving a woman even while she is having sex with a man in her hotel room.

When confronted with the opportunity to enter a “women’s bar” by a potential lady suitor, a secretary named Gwendolyn Briggs, Ratched takes immediate offense.

She is finally confronted with the opportunity to discover the happiness she deeply longs for after years of running.

Ratched: “Why did you bring me here?”
Briggs: “Because I thought you were one of us.”
Ratched: “One of you? I don’t even know what that means.”
Briggs: “I think you do.”
Ratched: “And what would have given you that impression? Aren’t you married?”
Briggs: “Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I made an assumption. It seemed quite clear to me what was going on between us, but I understand if that’s not something you’re ready to face yet.”
Ratched: “I don’t like what you’re insinuating, Miss Briggs, and I don’t like your tone.”

Soon after this verbal spar, two women patients at the hospital are found having intercourse and are prescribed hydrotherapy, a kind of aggressive water bath where the patient is nearly submerged in boiling hot water and then transferred to icy cold water in order to shock the nervous system.

One of the women before the treatment confides in Mildred, “All my life I have been fighting this thing inside of me. I couldn’t tell anyone, not even my doctors. Until finally, it drove me mad. I have pushed the true Ingrid so far down but all the time I could feel her, digging her claws into my skin, begging to be let out. The way that Mrs. Cartwright devoured me leaves no room. She feels the same. You just don’t know what it’s like to be constantly running from who you really are.”

This is finally the tipping point for our heroine.

At last, she starts prioritizing her needs, even going so far as to break the two lesbian patients out of the hospital and telling them, “You said I didn’t understand. But I do.”

Again, there are many angles one could view this version of the life of Mildred Ratched, but when I see her, I find a woman who, even by the end of the series, is trapped between her compulsion to protect her abuser and her desire to come who she truly is.

We’re never shown if Mildred finally lets go of the past in order to embrace the present — in fact, it’s blatantly suggested that she doesn’t — but her trauma, like many of ours, is complicated and compacted every day by the consequences for her actions, the same actions she makes based off of her past trauma.

In many ways, Ratched shows the trauma cycle by the Inanna Sanctuary LLC in real time and the detrimental affects it can have if it’s not stopped by appropriate counseling, treatment and an organized support system.

Each of us has a piece of Mildred Ratched within them, and it’s up to us to stop that cycle before it spirals out of control and harms everyone else in our paths, including ourselves.

Image from Netflix’s Ratched Instagram