Daily Book Excerpt: Biography
Next biography on the biography shelf is A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar
“I certainly knew right away that it was a thesis. I didn’t know it was a Nobel.”
— David Gale, classmate of John Nash’s, on his reaction to Nash’s initial ideas on game theory
Let me get some crotchety opinions out of the way. Very few movies actually make me angry on some kind of moral/ethical level but Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind did. I was angry before I went to see it. Obviously decisions were made to make A Beautiful Mind into a love story. The great love of Nash and his wife Alicia, and how they beat schizophrenia through … the power of their love. Okay. Fine. It’s a viewpoint. Won’t work for everyone, but go for it. But when I read the book, and realized what that relationship was really like – and how she loved him but basically took him on as his caretaker after a LONG separation (not covered in the movie), how he was virtually homeless, and she couldn’t bear to see that so she took him in and let him live in her house, etc. The relationship described in the book is not some sweeping love story. In fact, it is far more interesting than that. People do all kinds of extraordinary things out of empathy, pity, and compassion. I am not saying she didn’t love him: on the contrary: her love allowed her to put aside her own needs, her own feelings as a wife, and give this man who had been her husband a shelter, so that he didn’t have to worry about things like where he would eat/sleep, having a job, paying rent, etc. So the “spin” Ron Howard took in the film seemed deeply disrespectful and simplistic, at least in terms of what actually happened. And please no lectures on how films mess with real-life situations all the time. I am actually aware of that. But this wasn’t combining two characters into one, or collapsing a timeline, or leaving out events due to time constraints. A Beautiful Mind was sneaky about it.
John Nash was clearly gay/bisexual. This was not a secret. He was open about it. He had long relationships with men. Not a whisper of that is in the film, and that is what I find despicable. Homophobic. Similar to not-so-despicable Night and Day, where Cary Grant plays Cole Porter whose wife suffers because her husband is … a workaholic. Uh-huh. But Night and Day came out in 1946. A Beautiful Mind was in 2001. Did they honestly think we wouldn’t go out and research the man for ourselves and find out the truth? It’s all in Sylvia Nasar’s book. To leave John Nash’s fluid sexuality out, to leave it out entirely, was reprehensible.
And once I get mad, I get mad about everything. I thought Russell Crowe’s American accent was horrible in the film and couldn’t understand why he got a pass on that. I’m a Russell Crowe fan, but I did not like this performance. I disliked the manifestation of his psychosis in the role of Charles (Paul Bettany), a cute “twee” way of portraying a serious mental illness, and also a “Gotcha” for the audience. Yeah, let’s make schizophrenia a “Gotcha” moment. Ugh. The one scene I liked was when John Nash imagined all of the men going after one beautiful woman, and that was how he came up with his original Game Theory. That was very good. Jennifer Connelly’s acting was fine, I guess, although the real Alicia Nash was from El Salvador and a far more interesting person than the movie portrayed, but the entire thing exists under a cloud of dishonesty that still pisses me off.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, Sylvia Nasar’s book is terrific. I knew nothing about John Nash. I know nothing about higher mathematics, and even less about Game Theory. And even though she explained it very well in the book (as in: I vaguely understood it), I couldn’t recount it clearly here. But I certainly understood it as I read it. Her book is not only a vastly informative biography about the man, John Nash (who is, after all, still alive) – but a great picture of Cold War America, and what it was like on the college campus of MIT at that time. Fascinating! Mathematicians on the forefront of the battle between America and the Soviet Union. Nash’s delusions often sprang from that atmosphere. He was on the frontlines of the battle, he was super-important, he was grandiose. It’s also a deeply compassionate and detailed look at the treatment of schizophrenia at that time, its well-meaning brutality, and the results it got for the many patients who went through it. Insulin therapy, Thorazine, electric shock … The great concern when Nash was first hospitalized was that the treatment would do something to his brain power. Alicia Nash, his friends, everyone loved him, even with his erratic behavior, and they were helpless in the face of such a mental illness. Whatever was done to help him get healthy … the cure was often worse than the illness. Nash, of course, was impacted by the treatment. In many ways, he got better. In many ways, he got worse. It is difficult to quantify.
And it is true that he decided to “reject” his delusions. It was (according to him) an act of will. His delusions were wholly political in nature, and they had him in their grip for many years. He was in and out of hospitals. He eventually turned his back on his own mental illness. At least that’s how he describes it. One of the ways he was able to do this was through the kindness of Alicia Nash, who took him in, gave him a place to stay, fed him, made sure he was okay, and he would walk to Princeton every day and work on mathematics all by himself in the library. That would not have been possible if he had been forced to get a job, or have to pay the rent, all of which could have exacerbated his illness. She provided a quiet space for him in which to operate. And he slowly began, without medication, to turn his back on schizophrenia. It is one of the ways in which his story is unique. (It also calls into question the diagnosis of schizophrenia. His illness sounds far more manic-depressive to me, but I’m not an expert.)
Overall, the book is a marvelous examination of a really interesting guy, someone a reader enjoys spending time with. Not just a beautiful mind, but a lively inquiring mind, a sponge, soaking up all of the philosophical and mathematical theories burgeoning at the time, and taking it in his own independent way. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. His Nobel autobiography can be read here.
Here is an excerpt, having to do with his illness. Nash was admitted to the famous McLean Hospital, where Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and many others had recovered from suicide attempts and psychotic breaks. When Nash was admitted to McLean (a private hospital – he later was sent to a public hospital, after the money ran out, and the treatment was much more brutal there), Robert Lowell was also a patient. Here’s the excerpt.
Excerpt from A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar
Alicia urged everyone they knew to visit Nash. Fagi Levinson organized a visitor’s schedule. The feeling was that with the support of friends, Nash would soon be on his feet again. “Everyone at MIT felt responsible for trying to make Nash better,” recalled Fagi in 1996. “At McLean, all felt the more companionship and support he had, the quicker he would recover.”
One afternoon, Al Vasquez ran into Paul Cohen, who was extremely upset. He had been out to McLean to visit Nash. And he’d been turned away. What had happened, he told Vasquez, was that McLean had some sort of list of verboten visitors. “He was on the list,” Vasquez recalled. “And I was on it too. I was really shocked. Vasquez – along with most of the students in the department – hadn’t even known that Nash was in the hospital.
It was a list of some sort of committee. I remember Cohen being very upset. That was the first time I was aware that Nash had been hospitalized. I have a memory of about twenty people [on the list], almost all of whom were in the math department. Cohen must have told me some of the names. It was the hospital that wouldn’t let people on the list see Nash. I called it “The Committee to Rule the World.”
At first, Nash, who found it strange shuffling around without his shoes, was furious. “My wife, my own wife …,” he said to Adriano Garsia, one of the first to visit. He threatened to sue Alicia for divorce, to “take away her power”. Jurgen and Gertrude Moser recall a similar conversation. “He was very resentful,” Moser remembered, “[but] otherwise not very different. Gertrude was initially very sympathetic and somewhat outraged at the way Nash was being treated. ‘He doesn’t seem crazy,’ she said.” Emma Duchane, who also visited Nash in Bowditch, recalled that Nash was nicer to her than he had ever been. “He was saying such reasonable things,” she said. When Gian-Carlo Rota and George Mackey, a Harvard professor, came, Nash joked about the oddness of locked doors, remarked how strange it was to be held there, and told them, in the most rational tone, that he was aware that he had been having delusions. When Donald Newman came to visit him, Nash asked him half-jokingly, “What if they don’t let me out until I’m NORMAL?” To Felix Browder, Nash complained that staying in the hospital was too expensive (the daily rate that spring was thirty-eight dollars).
Some of his visitors wondered what he was doing there. Donald Newman was the most vehement that Nash was sane. “There’s no discontinuity!” he kept repeating. Garsia recalled in 1995: “I was totally appalled by the fact that his wife had done this. I couldn’t believe my idol was under the thumb of some stupid nurse who had total power over him.”
The medication – initially, an injection of Thorazine immediately upon admission – calmed Nash down, made him drowsy and slow of speech – but did nothing to dispel “the deep underlying unreality”.
Nash told John McCarthy, who also came out, despite his horror of hospitals and illness, “These ideas keep coming into my head and I can’t prevent it.” He told Arthur Mattuck that he believed that there was a conspiracy among the military leaders to take over the world, that he was in charge of the takeover. Mattuck recalled, “He was very hostile. When I arrived, he said, ‘Have you come to spring me?’ He told me with a guilty smile on his face that he secretly felt that he was the left foot of God and that God was walking on the earth. He was obsessed with secret numbers. ‘Do you know the secret number?’ he asked. He wanted to know if I was one of the initiated.
For the first two or three weeks – during which time McLean had applied to a judge for an extension of the observation period for another forty days – Nash was watched, studied, and analyzed. A biography was written. A young psychiatrist was assigned to construct Nash’s life story, a complete catalog of his personality covering no fewer than 205 separate topics. All that led up to this disaster was included: family, childhood, education, work, past illnesses, and so forth. When it was done, the history was presented to a case conference attended by McLean’s senior psychiatrists, and a more definitive diagnosis was arrived at.
From the start, there was a consensus among the psychiatrists that Nash was obviously psychotic when he came to McLean. The diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia was arrived at very quickly. “If he was talking about cabals,” said Kahne, “it would have been almost inevitable.” Reports of Nash’s earlier eccentricity would have made such a conclusion even more likely. There was some discussion, of course, about the aptness of the diagnosis. Nash’s age, his accomplishments, his genius would have made the doctors question whether he might not be suffering from Lowell’s disease, manic depression. “One always fudged it. One couldn’t be sure,” said Joseph Brenner, who became junior administrator on the admissions ward shortly after Nash’s hospitalization. But the bizarre and elaborate character of Nash’s beliefs, which were simultaneously grandiose and persecutory, his tense, suspicious, guarded behavior, the relative coherence of his speech, the blankness of his facial expressions, and the extreme detachment of his voice, the reserve which bordered at times on muteness – all pointed towards schizophrenia.
Everyone was talking about which events the psychiatrist believed had produced Nash’s breakdown. Fagi recalled that Alicia’s pregnancy was thought to be the culprit: “It was the height of the Freudian period – all these things were explained by fetus envy.” Cohen said: “His psychoanalysts theorized that his illness was brought on by latent homosexuality.” These rumored opinions may well have been held by Nash’s doctors. Freud’s now-discredited theory linking schizophrenia to repressed homosexuality had such currency at McLean that for many years any male with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who arrived at the hospital in an agitated state was said to be suffering from “homosexual panic”.