many, the upper reaches of mathematics are not easy, indeed they
can be maddening.
movie based on the life of a mathematician who descends into madness
but eventually wins a Nobel Prize in 1994 for economics, therefore,
would not seem like a typical Hollywood blockbuster.
is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Forbes
Nash Jr., by Sylvia Nasar, a reporter for The New York Times,
first published by Simon and Schuster in 1998 and then reissued
by Touchstone to coincide with the opening of the movie and featuring
the star of the movie, Russell Crowe, on its cover.
takes a lot of liberties with the book and Nash's life, but it
is, nonetheless, a serious and interesting study of obsessed and
eccentric genius and a very praiseworthy attempt to deal with
difficult subject matter, helped in great part by a very strong
and fascinating performance by Crowe, one far better than his
Oscar-winning performance in "Gladiator" the previous
John Dryden (1631-1700) knew all about it when
he wrote, in Scene 1 of Act II of "The Spanish Friar,"
the line "there is a pleasure sure in being mad which none
but madmen know."
Dyrden was not making light of the agonies
of mental disease. He sympathized with those who undergo the mental
gymnastics required in the creation of great things, because they
suffer the agony and the ecstasy - and extreme behavior - the
world calls "madness." We now know that there are clinical
and hereditary causes for several mental illnesses instead of
generic "madness," although clearly we do not know enough.
Many of the world's most famous writers, poets
and artists battled mental illness throughout their lives: Michelangelo,
Lord Byron, Coleridge, T.S. Elliot and Robert Lowell amongst many
others. Van Gogh, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf committed suicide
because of it. In her book "Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive
Illness and the Artistic Temperament," (Free Press Paperbacks/Simon
and Schuster, New York, 1993) Johns Hopkins Psychiatry professor
Kay Redfield Jamison gives fascinating insight into manic depression
and its hereditary links. Schizophrenia is also linked to hereditary
factors, but unlike manic depression, which can be treated now
with medication, there is at present no cure for schizophrenia.
It remains perhaps one of the most devastating and isolating of
mental illnesses, but current research is encouraging.
Nash may have had schizophrenia in graduate
school, but because the bar for eccentricity is much higher in
the field of math than any other, it went unchecked.
The high math content of the book proved to
be far more fascinating and easy to understand than anticipated,
thanks to the uncomplicated explanations of Ms. Nasar. While his
youth showed no indication of math genius (besides a B- in math
in high school) Nash passed a difficult qualifying exam for a
scholarship to one of a number of prestigious colleges. The chosen
one, Carnegie Technical Institute, (now Carnegie Mellon) was powered
by some of the finest scientific and mathematical minds in the
world, and he was encouraged specifically toward mathematics by
savvy professors. The next step was Princeton, which won out over
other institutions by offering Nash more money. They wanted him
that badly. He was to join a cast of the greatest scientific and
mathematical minds of the 20th century.
Early in his career, Nash showed amazing ambition
and tenacity when his curiosity was peaked. In her book, Ms. Nasar
recounts the following: "During his first fall in Princeton
Nash sometimes took a slight detour down busy Mercer Street to
catch a glimpse of Princeton's most remarkable resident. Most
mornings between nine and ten, Einstein walked the mile or so
from his white clapboard house at 112 Mercer Street to his office
at the Institute. On several occasions Nash managed to brush past
the saintly scientist wearing a baggy sweater, drooping trousers,
sandals without socks, and an impressive expression on the street.
He imagined how he might strike up a conversation."
This was not enough for the young undergraduate:
"It was a measure of Nash's bravura and the power of his
fantasy," Ms. Nasar continued, "that he was not content
merely to see Einstein in his office in Fuld Hall. He told Einstein's
assistant that he had an idea that he wished to discuss with Professor
Einstein." Once inside the large, messy office, Nash was
ushered to a meeting table by Einstein's assistant, "John
Kemeny, who would later invent the computer language BASIC, become
President of Dartmouth College, and head a commission to investigate
Three-Mile-Island." He was at that time a chain-smoking logician
at Princeton. Einstein's handshake, noted Nash, ended in a "twist."
"The late morning light streaming through
the bay window produced a sort of aura around Einstein. Nash,
however, quickly got into the substance of his idea, while Einstein
listened politely, twirled the curls on the back of his head with
his finger, sucked on his tobacco-less pipe, and occasionally
muttered a remark or asked a question. As he spoke Nash became
aware of a mild form of echolalia: deep, deep, interesting, interesting,"
Ms. Nasar wrote. No such exchange takes place in the movie, which
is a real pity. Echolalia is the repetition of phrases, either
immediate or delayed, made by other persons. For the outcome of
their discussion, read the book!
Some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie
are of Nash "strutting his stuff" at Princeton, brilliant
and admired. Ms. Nasar gives further insights: "The young
genius from Bluefield, West Virginia, handsome, arrogant, and
highly eccentric burst onto the mathematical scene in 1948. Over
the next decade, a decade as notable for its supreme faith in
human rationality as for its dark anxieties about mankind's survival,
Nash proved himself, in the words of...Mikhail Gromov, 'the most
remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century. Games
of strategy, economic rivalry, computer architecture, the shape
of the universe, the geometry of imaginary spaces, the mystery
of prime numbers all engaged his wide-ranging imagination. His
ideas were of the deep and wholly unanticipated kind that pushes
scientific thinking in new directions.'"
The movie attempts to capture the awesome abstractions
of higher math and the fierce competitiveness of its practitioners,
but unfortunately it stops short and glosses over much of its
intellectual subject matter, perferring to focus on the human
and emotional side of the story. While it does not trivilize the
subject, it is sufficiently superficial that few viewers will
be able to fully explain Nash's contribution and theories based
only on the movie. Despite such caveats, however, the movie is
very absorbing and the real criticism of it is that it is too
short, especially towards the end. Howard's direction and Crowe's
performance are so riveting that the viewer's interest never lags
and is actually whetted.
The enigmatic face on the cover of the 1998
Simon and Schuster edition of Nasar's book was of John Forbes
Nash Jr., with the caption: "A legend by the age of thirty,
recognized as a mathematical genius even as he slipped into madness,
John Nash emerged after decades of ghostlike existence to win
a Nobel and world acclaim." Being mathematically unsound,
I had reservations about the high math content of the book, but
I could not put it down after the first couple of pages.
It was difficult to imagine that Nash's story
would be willingly embraced by media moguls and spun into celluloid
without some or a great deal of tampering. To put it bluntly,
it is an all-American story, but not the heartwarming kind with
which Ron Howard is usually associated, and definitely not standard
Hollywood fare. It is a great and important story, and Howard,
intuitive as always, is a genius for selecting it. When the "re-vamped"
paperback flooded bookstores with Russell Crowe's face on the
cover with the caption "Now a Major Motion Picture"
it gave some idea that a Hollywood fairytale was about to be unleashed.
Of his 15 films to date, director Ron Howard is best known for
highly successful and wonderful - "family" movies like
the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Splash"
and "Apollo 13." Scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman is best
known for flotsam like "Batman and Robin," "Deep
Blue Sea" and "Lost in Space."
The raw material of "A Beautiful Mind"
probably left both director and scriptwriter with a major headache,
wondering how they could turn schizophrenia, illegitimacy, possible
bi-sexuality, divorce, institutionalization and more schizophrenia
into palatable blockbuster fare for the entire family. Akiva Goldsman
must have been instructed to re-write Nash's life, which he does
extremely well, and it is this version which is the movie of John
Nash's life. It is more than possible that Nash prefers the Howard/Goldsman
version! In reality, however, there is nothing remotely humorous
about a man's struggle with one of the most punitive, and incurable,
Ron Howard has been described by Walter Moseley
in "Writers on Directors," (conceived and photographed
by Susan Gray, Watson-Guptil Publications, New York, 1999, see
The City Review
article), as "one of the most important directorial voices
of our age." Moseley mainted that Howard "speaks to
the heart and to the future of film in America."
If the movie had not been marketed as "based
on a true story" it might have avoided serious critical fire
and controversy. For those who have read the book and are expecting
a faithful re-creation of it at the movies, buy a big bag of popcorn
and be warned! The cast, acting and the movie are superb and Sylvia
Nasar, the author of the biography, "A Beautiful Mind,"
said the movie was great, even if it did not follow the book.
Ms. Nasar is wiser than we are in the ways of Hollywood: however
Tony Scott, movie critic at The New York Times panned the
movie, calling it "entirely counterfeit" even though
both he and Ms. Nasar work for the same paper. It is not clear
if John Nash gave his consent to Ms. Nasar's biography.
John Nash has added his two cents to the controversy
surrounding the film by flatly denying his schizophrenia to film-maker
Benita Raphan. He is entitled to his opinions and maybe he does
not relish the publicity his trials have generated. Raphan, who
is an expert on Nash, showed her short film about John Nash called
"2 + 2" five times at the Sundance Film Festival to
sold-out audiences. After e-mail contact with Nash for the past
14 months, an incredulous Raphan says: "He hasn't seen our
film. He's in denial about his schizophrenia." It would be
interesting to know if John Nash has made any money out of the
book or movie, as the box office and publishers coffers fill up.
For more check http://www.foxnews.com/story/0.2933.43947.00.html.
The movie fast-forwards past Nash's West Virginia
childhood, which was solitary, awkward and academically impressive
enough to get him a scholarship to Carnegie Institute, and then
to Princeton. We come in on a very properly attired Nash Crowe
in bow-tie and tweeds speaking in a soft Southern drawl to a group
of fellow undergraduates. It is not long before Nash lets everyone
know that he is arrogant, opinionated and does not like to lose.
It is also very clear to all the mathematicians concerned that
he is a genius because he follows the triangulations of pigeons
and tries to rationalize their movements into a coherent theory.
Despite a nerdy twitch and awkward mannerisms, Nash is good-looking
and muscular enough to attract females. In a wonderful scene in
the movie he tries to cash in on the advances of a beautiful blond
at a bar, but blows it by alluding to sex immediately - and receives
a hefty slap from the bombshell in front of all his buddies.
The one woman who buys Nash's brand of romancing
is Alicia Larde, a beautiful South American physics student at
MIT, where Nash winds up teaching. What we are not told in the
movie is that Nash had been involved with a nurse for some time
and that she had his illegitimate child while Nash was courting
Alicia. Nash takes time out from his theorems, theories and blackboard,
and window, scrawls to eventually propose to Alicia, wondering
if this will be an "advantageous" decision in his life,
because he is a rational mathematician and not a howling romantic.
Crowe as Nash on his knees proposing inquires how he could be
"certain" (as in "proof") that their love
was of the deep and lasting kind that warrants marriage. Alicia
gives him the universe as an example of knowing something is there
without it ever having been definitively "proven."
Alicia turned out to be the most "advantageous"
person in Nash's life because she was the Rock of Gibraltar. The
nurse, meanwhile, became solely responsible for their illegitimate
child, had to give up her job, go on welfare - and in the end
Nash married Alicia. The movie avoids the abandoned mother and
child. The Nash's marriage was amazing, but far from ideal, and
the movie does not allude to their eventual divorce. They remarried
thirty years later, when Nash's schizophrenia went into remission
and after he received the Nobel.
The "movie" relationship is watered
down, and Alicia is shown as a doting, not particularly bright,
cutely dressed wife when she did have a PhD in Physics in the
50s - when women were not swarming all over college campuses.
In the movie she is the only woman in the classroom. Jennifer
Connelly is wonderful, even though she has been deprived of all
the "true grit" Alicia possessed in real life. She had
a baby at the very time that her brilliant, adored Nash was unraveling
mentally and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Connelly
quietly conveys the agonizing "moment of truth," when
she understands that life will never be the same for them, as
she and Nash's psychiatrist Dr. Rosen, played by Christopher Plummer,
witness from a glass partition the fallen genius receiving electric
shock treatment at McLean (called McArthur in the movie) mental
hospital. She asks him "How many times?" and learns
that her husband has this treatment five times a week.
In a conversation with Sol, a concerned friend,
Alicia rebuts his calling Nash "lucky" for having her
to love him. Her response, however, is that he was "so unlucky"
because of what schizophrenia had done to his life. There is a
reverberating sense of "Why Nash?" "Why the most
brilliant one of the bunch?" Ron Howard is fine at unearthing
the most fundamental and universal questions. In a chilling episode,
Nash, covered in blood, digs away part of his arm with his nails
to pull out an imaginary implant; the despairing psychiatrist
Dr. Rosen sadly observes the tragedy of the situation with his
staff. He is a highly qualified clinician at one of the top institutions
in the world, but he is as helpless as Nash.
Crowe, crouched on the floor of his cell, is
so good in this scene that it is almost unbearable to watch. The
blood looks fluorescent against the wrap-around clinical whiteness.
Howard's direction communicates the barbaric toll mental illness
can exact on the patient. Schizophrenics are more likely to inflict
harm on themselves than on others. While this event was fictionalized,
it really thumps schizophrenia down like a gavel on the consciousness
of the audience.
In the book, Nash gets so out of control that
Alicia had to make one of the toughest calls in life - to have
him committed to a mental institution for proper care. Not a pretty
decision, and not a popular one with anybody at the time, including
Nash. Sylvia Nasar writes: "She wanted the world to know
that Nash was mad. She worried that if she came to harm that he'd
be treated like a common criminal, so she wanted everyone to be
sure that everyone knew that he was insane. Furious controversies
broke out (at Princeton) over whether Nash was truly insane or
merely eccentric, and over whether, insane or not, anyone had
the right to rob a genius like Nash of his freedom."
In the book, Alicia is worried senseless that
her husband would harm her, their child or himself. She did not
know that her husband was acting crazy because he had schizophrenia
until he was diagnosed with it. It was a hideous "bolt from
the blue." The movie does not make any clear statement about
her decision to have him committed, and shows one fictionalized
scene of Nash almost drowning the baby by mistake in the bathtub,
and does not allude to his travels abroad where he was also institutionalized.
When he was virtually homeless, Alicia made a place for him in
her home, but by then they were officially divorced.
Alicia was the backbone of Nash's life, but
her more controversial, and desperate, actions, which come through
so forcefully in the book, have been smoothed over in the movie,
diluting the potency of truth. Such glaring omissions, which are
crucial to the story, might have weakened the fabric of the movie
irrevocably had it not been for the great performances all around.
It is a sobering thought that the real subject matter of Nash's
life - mental illness and its ravaging effects - is considered
by Hollywood to be more threatening to movie audiences than the
seemingly endless stream of sex, drugs and gratuitous violence
in the form of blood - which is par for the course these days.
Again, however, Howard is making a point. It is time for the taboo
and stigma to be lifted on mental illness because a staggering
number of people suffer from it.
Russell Crowe does an amazing job in a complex
and very different role, and the accolades are well earned. Expectations
run high for an actor who has already impressed audiences with
his performances in "L.A. Confidential," "The Insider,"
and "Gladiator." The man has the ability to dissolve
with grace into any character, like Equal in a cup of coffee.
He has made public references to Nash's bi-sexuality, and he acknowledged
his indebtedness to the Nash family and to Sylvia Nasar's book
in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globe ceremony in early
2002. Without him, the movie would not soar.
The rest of the cast is also "prime":
Ed Harris can do no wrong even in the strange role he plays as
a CIA operative/spy, who literally haunts Nash in a very natty
hat; Christopher Plummer is impressive and dead serious as the
shrink who disentangles Nash from his mental briar patch.
Another important omission in the movie is
that Nash's son, John Charles Nash, was diagnosed with schizophrenia
in his teens: quite a different picture to the movie portrayal
of a handsome Harvard undergraduate in black tie and tails at
the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. His son went to Rutgers. One
fact that is known about schizophrenia is that it is hereditary.
Their son Johnny lives with them now and has been medicated with
drugs like Clozaril, Risperadol and Zyprexa, which, according
to Sylvia Nasar, "have enabled him to stay out of hospital
but have not given him a life."
Nash's son is often angry and occasionally
violent and Nasar writes that "Life with Johnny is a tremendous
strain on Nash and Alicia." Nash, Nasar relates, calls it
being "perturbed," "tyrannized," and he is
often preoccupied with "the drift and danger of degradation."
"We are at out wit's end," said Alicia recently, according
to Nasar, adding that "You work so hard and then he's out
of it. The Nobel hasn't helped Johnny at all."
In her biography, Ms. Nasar tracks Nash's reconciliation
with his first-born son: "John Steir took the first step
in ending his twenty-year estrangement from his father, mailing
him a copy (anonymously) of the June 1993 Boston Globe
column that speculated on Nash's chances of winning a Nobel. Two
months after his triumph in Stockholm, Nash boarded a shuttle
bound for Boston to spend a weekend getting reacquainted with
his older son." John Steir was a babe in arms when Nash married
Alicia. Sadly, the movie did not go into the real-life drama of
a very meaningful reconciliation. Nowadays, John Nash is reportedly
spending much more time on friends and family, and is a devoted
father to both his sons. His new role includes family therapy.
In a televised interview with Charlie Rose,
Howard said he originally felt that he needed an actor with "intelligence"
in his eyes, and he was concerned that Russell Crowe had no formal
education. This is a story about a truly brilliant man, and Crowe
applies the same integrity in conveying Nash's phenomenal mind,
his eccentricity and quirkiness and his attractiveness to women
with great success. At the Golden Globe prize ceremony, Crowe
made a point of praising his directing and the atmosphere of trust
and freedom he creates for his actors.
Crowe's intuitive and sensitive personality
(perhaps fostered and nurtured by the absence of formal education)
plays up another very important trait which Nash possessed and
which Sylvia Nasar eloquently describes in the book: "Nash's
genius was of that mysterious variety more often associated with
music and art than with the oldest of all sciences. It was not
merely that his mind worked faster, that his memory was more retentive,
or that his power of concentration was greater. The flashes of
intuition were non-rational. Like other great mathematical intuitionists
- Georg Friedrich Bernhard Reimann, Jules Henri Poincaré,
Srinavasa Ramanujan - Nash saw the vision first, constructing
the laborious proofs afterward."
Russell Crowe also made pointed references
to the Nashes, the book and its author, Sylvia Nasar, in his Golden
Globe acceptance speech, which was appropriate. He expressed his
gratitude to Ms. Nasar for her insights, which included such vivid
descriptions of Nash as this: "No man was more obsessed with
originality, disdainful of authority, or more jealous of his independence.
As a young man he was surrounded by the high-priests of twentieth-century
science - Albert Einstein, Jon von Neuman, and Norbert Weiner
- but he belonged to no school, became no one's disciple. He thumbed
his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established
methods. He almost always worked alone, in his head, usually walking,
often whistling Bach. Eager to astound, he was always on the lookout
for the really big problems. Even as a student his indifference
to others' skepticism, doubt and ridicule, was awesome."
In addition to conveying Nash's genius, Crowe
forces the viewer to "feel" the disease as it begins
to possess Nash, like an invisible strangle-hold, a physical vice,
blocking him from what he loved to do. There is a scene where
he is holding his baby, oblivious to his son's screams, because
he does not hear them. He fights hard but the hallucinations,
delusions and voices remove him from reality, cloud his mind,
and tragically, his mathematical abilities. Crowe transforms into
a spacy, catatonic Nash with awesome precision; his defeat is
expressed in drooping shoulders, slovenly dress and pathetic dejection.
If Nash had been homeless but left with his
mental faculties, Crowe's acting implies that he would have been
OK. It is the void in his mind where his genius once reigned that
means total loss. This is the first role in which Crowe plays
helplessness; even in the "Insider" there was a sense
of fighting back, but the harrowing effects of electric shock
treatment - wipe out masculinity, dignity and individual freedom.
This was back in the 50s and 60s, before researchers concluded
that such treatment was not very effective or constructive for
the schizophrenic. It is deeply disturbing to watch. It is not
used to treat schizophrenia today.
The convulsed, imprisoned Crowe as Nash, at
the mercy of the procedures of a mental institution, bring back
memories of Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest," in which the hero is subjected to ECT in equally harrowing
scenes. Both movies capture the chilling reality (given the medications
and methods available today) that treatment inevitably results
in the dehumanization of the mentally-ill person as part of the
process of getting well, as in "normal."
The directing and acting in these scenes is
inspired because they draw from a life under siege - as it must
feel for anyone in the grip of mental illness. Howard, who gets
to the heart of things, has taken the lid off a pervasive and
growing statistic in our society: a staggering 2.4 million have
schizophrenia in the United States. Millions more suffer with
some form of mental illness in this country and worldwide. In
the West, mental illness is recognized as a clinical condition
and patients are treated accordingly. In a newspaper headline
in 2001 in India, the subject was the death of all the inmates
of a mental "facility" burned to death as fire swept
through the compound at night. They were shackled to their beds
and could not run anywhere. In February, 2001, a front page article
in The New York Times revealed that some political activisits
in China were being treated as mental patients and there is obviously
a degree of concern about wrongful incarcerations where people
are hidden away because they are perceived by some "authorities"
as "mad." The director who has brought us the heroism
of astronauts has put his finger on the pulse of the lonely fighter
of mental disease. The stigma persists even in countries where
there is greater understanding.
One of the most moving scenes in the movie
shows a sloppily dressed Nash relegated to house-husbandry in
a tiny clapboard house by the railway tracks in Princeton Junction
when his schizophrenia is in remission. Like a lost toddler, he
asks his wife, who is washing dishes, "What do people do?"
The man cannot fathom an existence without a mental arena in which
to thrust and parry, a stage on which to play out his problem-solving
genius. The disease has severed him from what he loves most.
As Nash acquiesces to his new life, the hallowed
halls of Princeton and the campus so glowingly and beautifully
portrayed through Howard's lens - where he once dazzled along
with the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th century - now
seem part of a hazy dream. His peers, the keepers of the mathematical
flame, are gone; he is lonely beyond belief because he has lost
the companionship of his mind. The electric shock treatment and
medications have destroyed his concentration and his sharpness.
Well-intentioned friends read his incoherent attempts at work
and are dismayed. Nash is on the other side of an invisible fence
and dialogue does not progress beyond the mundane.
One of the most inspirational things about
this story is the way the academic communities of Princeton and
MIT remained steadfastly loyal to Nash. At Princeton, the scene
of his former glory, Nash was granted access to the campus, the
library and cafeteria and eventually given a class to teach and
a small office. Alicia, unable to bear the sight of her husband
moping around the house all day, suggested he re-connect with
his former colleagues at Princeton, a stone's throw from their
home. He was far from easy to deal with, lurked in passages and
hallways, and talked to imaginary companions constantly. Nash
was affectionately known as the "phantom of Fine Hall."
Despite all of this, the respect and awe for Nash's past achievements
held on campus throughout his 30-year battle with the most unyielding
of mental illnesses, with no guarantee of a positive outcome,
which came after 30 years.
It was in the library at Princeton - so long
a sanctuary for Nash - when the first signs appeared that the
dark cloud of schizophrenia was lifting. He began communicating
coherently with a group of enthusiastic undergraduates gathered
round him. The movie brilliantly captures the effect these young,
vibrant minds and spirits had on a broken man who so desperately
wanted to become mentally vital again. There is more than a hint
in the movie and the book that it was his connectedness to his
family, his academic peers, and the admiration and acceptance
of a new generation of young minds and hearts that helped Nash
overcome schizophrenia, or at least keep it from consuming him.
It is this spirit and support that Ron Howard so effectively played
up in the movie with lasting and deep effect.
After being informed that he has won the Nobel
for his Equilibrium Theory, created 30 years earlier, Nash whimsically
remarks "Ah, suddenly everyone likes that one." A new
generation had jumped on his Equilibrium Theory and run with it
into areas that even Nash said he had never imagined, such as
anti-trust cases, while he was battling schizophrenia.
When mental illness kicks in with Nash, while
working at the Rand Corporation think-tank, his problem-solving
genius is replaced by sinister instructions from a spy, played
by Ed Harris, about encoded messages in newspapers and magazines
and disturbing hallucinations involving his one-time English roommate
at Princeton and his adopted daughter (not in the book). The movie
does not let on to the viewer for a very long time that the spy
is a halluciation and by then one can almost imagine the green,
smirking Grinch skulking round a corner with the admonition "Enough
with the spy already!" The spy halluciation is quite convincing
and Howard's decision to not let on to the viewer that it is unreal
for such a long time is a rather daring bit of movie-making that
does have the effect of letting the viewer see the world through
Nash's paranoid, frightened eyes.
There are certain additions that could have
made the movie even greater, like Nash's much valued association
with Robert Lowell, the brilliant Nobel Laureate, who was his
companion at McLean, the mental institution to which he was committed.
The institution itself had a list of patients that reads like
a "who's who" of the intellectual and creative world,
an important point to remember for those diagnosed with mental
"McLean," Nasar observed, occupied
240 acres of "rolling lawns and winding lanes, a precise
copy of a well-maintained New England college campus of late-nineteenth-century
vintage. Many of the smaller buildings were designed to resemble
the homes of wealthy Boston Brahmins, long the bulk of McLean's
clientele. Upham house, a former resident recalled, had four corner
suites per floor and on one of the floors all four patients turned
out to be members of the Harvard Club. McLean was and still is
connected to Harvard Medical School. So many of the wealthy, intellectual
and famous came here - Sylvia Plath, Ray Charles and Robert Lowell
among them - that many people around Cambridge had come to think
of it less as a mental hospital and more as a kind of sanatorium
where high-strung poets, professors and graduate students wound
up for a special kind of R & R."
The greatest minds frequently tip over the
edge of this thin gray line, like daring pilots ignoring the sound
barrier, because they push the boundaries of intelligence or creativity.
Great intelligence or creativity is a risky business: Van Gogh
slicing off part of his ear and sending it to Gauguin would make
headlines today - and he would have been institutionalized. One
of the most gifted artists of all time spent the better part of
his life voluntarily committing himself to mental institutions
because he could not cope with his manic-depression - it was that
unbearable. Eventually, he committed suicide.
Nash, calling himself "the prince of peace,"
refused to sign the "voluntary papers" commiting himself
to McLean. At that point Alicia was low on money, worried senseless
about Nash's outbursts and about to give birth to their child.
Nash's mother, Virginia, could offer no support because her grief
and pain at the downturn in her brilliant son's circumstances
almost caused a nervous breakdown. Nash was transferred to Bowditch
Hall, a locked facility for men. Two weeks later Robert Lowell
joined him. The poet immortalized Bowditch Hall and his numerous
stays there in his poems "Waking in the Blue" and Lowell
entered McLean five times in less than ten years.
Lowell and Nash - kindred spirits in the realm
of intuitive genius - spent a lot of time together.
Nasar provides the following commentary about
a visitor Nash once had:
"He found fifteen or twenty people crowded
into Nash's narrow shoebox of a bedroom. In what turned out to
be an oft repeated scene, Lowell was sitting on Nash's bed, surrounded
by patients and staff sitting at his feet or standing against
the walls, delivering what amounted to a long monologue in his
unmistakable voice 'weary, nasal, hesitant, whining, mumbling.'
Nash was hunched over beside him,' recalled Mattuck, 'Basically
he was holding forth on one topic after another, and the rest
of us were appreciating this brilliant man. Nash said very little,
like the rest of us.'"
Nash was lucky that he was born a mathematician,
that he has a wife like Alicia, and that the academic community
of Princeton nurtured him through thirty years of struggle with
schizophrenia. Nash was extraordinary: but he was sustained, even
saved, by ordinary, loving and kind people, the kind director
Howard obviously admires.
While the most spectacular scene in the movie
is the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, where Nash receives the recognition
he has longed for all his life, it is the images of Nash's fighting
spirit, in the grip of a merciless illness, which linger. Few
of us will reach the heights or depths of John Forbes Nash, but
we can all relate to the struggle.
The book is a keepsake, a story of love, courage
and a quiet heroism drawn from daily life, and of the vicissitudes
of genius. It is a very American story. Nash is now a loving family
man, devoted to his wife and two sons, and he makes time for his
friends. The arrogance has gone, his work includes matters of
the heart. Perhaps right now all four Nashes are seated around
a table playing a board game invented by Nash while the Nobel
looks on approvingly.
Movies like "The Snake Pit" and "Suddenly
Last Summer" and "Spellbound" and "Freud"
have memorably tackled the agonies of the mind but were from another
era with relatively neat and tidy endings. "A Beautiful Mind"
poignantly recognizes that not all nightmares have been vanguished
yet and despite the movie's flaws Russell Crowe's performance
is likely to make many more people sensitive to other's sensitivities,
imaginings and bold mental leaps.
In a television interview on ABC, Crowe was
asked if he was now ready to "pack it all in" and retire
to his ranch in Australia which he loves. With characteristic
modesty, he replied, "No, because I haven't yet done a performance
I really like."
NMHA (National Mental Health Association)
1021 Prince Street,
Alexandria, VA 22314-2971
Phone: 1-800-969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
NARSAD (National Alliance
for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression)
60 Cutter Mill Road, Suite 404
Great Neck, NY 11021
Phone: (516) 829-0091
NIMH (National Institute
of Mental Health)
Office of Communication and Public Liaison
Information Resources and Inquiries Branch
6001 Executive Boulevard, Rm.8184, MSC 9663
Fax back system: Mental
Health FAX4U at 301-443-5158
Web site address: http://www.nimh.nih.gov
To learn more about the
genetic basis for schizophrenia: