The Books: A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash, by Sylvia Nasar

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 still get angry when I think about that movie. And I was angry before I went out and read the book on which the movie was based, which then just catapulted me into a state of rage. Obviously decisions were made to make A Beautiful Mind into a love story, above all else. The great love of Nash and his wife Alicia, and how they beat schizophrenia through … the power of their love. Okay. So I’m already pissed off about that. It took a very cute vision of serious mental illness. Then, when I read the book, and I 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 that so she took pity on him and let him live in her house, etc. It was not some sweeping love story. In fact, it is far more interesting. 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, 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 don’t lecture me about 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. It was a total snow job. Manipulative and despicable, its intent was to FOOL.

John Nash was clearly either gay, or seriously 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 I find it despicable. Despicable. Homophobic. Similar to not-so-despicable Night and Day, where Cary Grant plays Cole Porter, and his wife is upset that he 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 gayness 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 at all. I disliked the manifestation of his psychosis in the role of Charles (Paul Bettany), another 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 utter 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. You ache for some of the decisions they were forced to make. 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 an act of will. His delusions were wholly political in nature, and 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 the Princeton library 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

Nash was soon transferred to Bowditch Hall, a low white frame building at the edge of the McLean campus. Bowditch was a locked facility for men. Within a couple of weeks, Robert Lowell, the poet, joined him there. Lowell was already famous, a dozen years older than Nash, and a manic depressive who was now enduring his fifth hospitalization in less than ten years. For Lowell, it was “a mad month” spent “rewriting everything in my three books,” translating Heine and Baudelaire, reworking Milton’s “Lycidas,” which he believed he had himself written, feeling “I had hit the skies, that all cohered.”

“Thrown together like a bundle of kindling, [unable] to escape,” as Lowell’s widow, Elizabeth Hardwick, later put it, Lowell and Nash spent a good deal of time together. When Arthur Mattuck came to visit Nash, he found fifteen or twenty people crowded in 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 on the floor 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. Mattuck recalled in 1997: “I don’t remember anything of the conversation except that it was general. In other words, only one person spoke at a time and that was most of the time Lowell. 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.”

Once a women’s residence where no man had “apparently entered since perhaps 1860″, Bowditch was, in Lowell’s words, now designated for “ex-paranoid boys” – the ones who thought there was nothing wrong with them and couldn’t be trusted not to bolt. As such, it was oddly genteel. At Bowditch, Nash and his fellow inmates were treated “to a maze of tender fussy attentions suitable to old ladies”. The crew-cut Roman Catholic nurses, many of them Boston University students, brought him chocolate milk at bedtime, inquired about his interests, hobbies, and friends, and called him Professor. “Hearty New England breakfast[s]” were followed by ample lunches and homey dinners; everybody got fat. Nash had a private room “with a door that shut,” a “hooded night light,” and a view. There were no screams, no violent episodes, no straitjackets. His fellow patients, “thoroughbred mental cases,” were polite, full of concern, eager to make his acquaintance, lend him their books, and clue him in to “the routine”. They were young Harvard “Cock[s] of the walk” slowed down by massive injections of Thorazine, yet “so much more intelligent and interesting than the doctors,” as Nash confided to Emma Duchane when she came to visit. There were also old Harvard types “dripping crumbs in front of the TV screen, idly pushing the buttons.” (Nearly half of McLean’s patients were geriatric, like Lowell’s “Bobbie/Porcellian ’29″, who strutted around Bowditch late at night “in his birthday suit”.)

Yet, there Nash was, stripped to his underwear, his belt and shoes taken away, standing before a shaving mirror that was not glass, but metal. As for his view the next morning, in Lowell’s words, “Azure day / makes my agonized blue window bleaker.” The days must have seemed very long: “[H]ours and hours go by.” Above all, there was the terrible awareness when visitors came that they were free to go back through the locked doors through which they had come while he could not. It was in no way horrible; he was merely, as another inmate of a mental hospital once put it, “considered beyond reasoning with … and treated like a child; not brutally, but efficiently, firmly, patronizingly.” He had merely relinquished his rights as an adult human being. Like Lowell, he must have asked himself, “What good is my sense of humor?”

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”.

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7 Responses to The Books: A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash, by Sylvia Nasar

  1. Sharon Ferguson says:

    WOW – sounds a bit like my reaction to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood – once I got mad at one aspect, I was ready to take down the rest of it. To be honest, I havent been happy with anything that Russell has chosen to do since Master & Commander. 3:10 Yuma was probably the best since then, but the director had to change things around for that and I was thoroughly unsatisfied with the whole thing, even when Russell thoroughly inhabited the part like I knew he would (I dont want to know where he had to go as an actor to get that look in his eye, but I can tell you I dont WANT to know. Ive seen that look before, given directly to me, and it wasnt sexy!) I think that’s what it is as far as my RC fandom is concerned: I can no longer watch him and feel satisfied in his performance. I’m not sure what has changed – maybe family life had changed his priorities, but I dont get the same sense of satisfaction from his performance.

    I’ve only seen ABM once – seems to be one of those movies that means different things to different people. It was interesting to some degree, but I wasnt as enchanted by it as so many others were. And in reading some things about the real life story of Dr. Nash, I found myself indifferent to the movie. Ron Howard did basically the same thing to the story of Jim Braddock (Cinderella Man) don’t you think? In general a ‘soaring story’ about rising above difficulties, but in true essence, not all that truthful.

  2. sheila says:

    Normally, I am quite tolerant of changes made to real-life stories for film and don’t get as up in arms about them as many others do. I understand the realities of filmmaking, blah blah. But this seemed blatantly dishonest not to mention openly homophobic, and so the entire thing reeks of bullshit as far as I’m concerned.

    Also, I just think in this particular case – what really happened was FAR more interesting than the story they chose to tell.

    You can’t just leave out that the man was gay. This ain’t 1946. If you don’t want John Nash to be gay, then fictionalize the entire story and leave John Nash out of it. I know it’s inconvenient that Nash was sleeping with men throughout his marriage, but fuck you, Ron Howard, that’s how it happened. Don’t tell THAT story then.

    Grr. It still makes me mad to think of it. Homophobic.

  3. sheila says:

    Sharon – I have a couple of theories about why Russell Crowe’s work has dropped in quality. I think the fame got to him. He seemed disturbed by it, more so than other actors do – and so instead of continuing to take chances, he started to try to play heroes. But from very early on, that was never his thing and so it doesn’t suit him at all. When he went the Ron Howard route, and started playing Symbols of the American Dream, he started to lose his way. Russell Crowe without angsty darkness is not Russell Crowe. To me, he is the classic case of an actor where fame has made him cautious.

    Whereas the more famous Johnny Depp gets, the more chances he takes. And now he just doesn’t seem to give a damn (and that is one of his best qualities). It is attractive and keeps him loose enough to keep submitting to the process, taking chances, being unafraid to look stupid, to get bad reviews. Brad Pitt, same story. The older he gets, the MORE interesting he gets. Moneyball and Tree of Life in the same year? Brad Pitt is phenomenal.

    Crowe has not handled fame well at all. It has made him cranky, morose, and cautious. It shows in his work. He needs to bust loose, do a Quentin Tarantino movie or something. He needs to stop playing Uplifting Symbols. He needs to stop worrying about being likeable. He bores me to tears now. And his touchy defensiveness in press conferences does not help. His anger at the Robin Hood press conference in regards to his accent. Nobody wants to hear a millionaire actor bitching at a reporter who asks a simple question about what accent he was using. Crowe doesn’t seem to enjoy fame at all. Whereas Depp and Pitt – who both manage their fame very well – seem to be having a ball. Depp and Pitt have somehow created vast zones of privacy around them even in the midst of their huge fame – so that the chatter/negativity/attention hasn’t gotten to them – the way it has gotten to Crowe.

  4. sheila says:

    George Clooney, too. I just saw an advanced screening of THE DESCENDANTS (opening next month) and he is just getting better and better with every movie. Biggest movie star in the world, he’s still taking chances – never seen him play a part like this one before – a kind of worried father of teenage daughters – and he’s terrific, just terrific. Clooney has managed fame very very well. He should give seminars.

  5. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Re: John Nash’s sexuality – true that, everything you say. It was gutless to leave that part of Nash’s nature out, especially if you were claiming to give a true life account.

    At the risk of giving Howard the benefit of the doubt, do you think perhaps Howard was afraid that if he were not true enough to Nash’s homosexuality, he would have come under fire and excoriating criticism for it? I know I cringe constantly whenever Hollywood/media broaches the subject of adoption…I am acutely aware of what being an adoptee is like, since I am one, and any attempt at explaining it or portraying it in a movie/television show comes under intense scrutiny and I am extremely sensitive to what is said and done. There’s always the feeling that even tiny nods to a particular viewpoint aren’t enough to convey a perspective, especially when I want so much to have adoptee-hood understood.

    Re: Russell – yup, thats the basic summation of what I’ve seen so far. I love your comments about Depp and Pitt! So sad that he seems to have lost his joy and is unwilling to take risks. Some of his most beloved characters in the fandom are from movies that were ultimately duds in the box office (Proof of Life, to name one.) Some would even say all the fall out from the ‘backstage’ scandal that came out of that movie was what turned RC morose and contemptuous of his fame.

    When he announced that he was going to focus more on doing AUSTRALIAN movies, there was an eager response to it – we all would have loved to see him in his home environment. He gave everyone the impression that he missed it dearly and I thought that at least going Home would bring about the grounding he needed, but it hasn’t come about, at least not as far as I can see. If there have been any movies he’s done for Australian audiences, I havent heard about them.

    I would blame the failure of Robin Hood as much on Scott’s attempt to marry three stories together as on Russell’s fatigue. A friend of mine said it reminded her of a mashup between Lion in Winter and Elizabeth, with a little Nottingham thrown in for good measure. I just couldn’t decide who to root against. I was fully expecting to cheer for RH, but there were so many things working against it that I left the theatre frustrated. And Cate Blanchette’s Eowyn moment totally ruined it for me. I know that probably makes me sound like an anti-feminist throwback, but all I could think about is how DUMB and reckless she was to show up where she did with little wild children in tow, especially when those little children could have really been more effective against the enemy back on their home front.

    OOOO Russell in a Quentin Tarantino movie – I might forget my disappointment if he were to do that…and I’m not normally a fan of QT (just by default, not any particular professional reason. I’m rather mushy and sentimental – crime fiction doesn’t draw my attention the way rom-com, drama, or adventure does. I’m simple like that.)

    Dr. Nash’s theory has apparently attracted the attention of anthropologists, which was a pleasant surprise. His Game Theory seems to have applications in cultural studies. Wish I were smart enough to understand it! LOL

  6. sheila says:

    Sharon – No, I don’t think Howard’s concerns were what you surmise here, although your comments on how adoption is handled in Hollywood films is fascinating! I agree: one film cannot “fit all”, and it is so hard to “get things right” and please everyone. But in terms of Beautiful Mind: I think it was a very practical decision on Howard’s part and the part of the screenwriter: he wanted to make a feel-good triumph-over-odds love story and a gay man didn’t fit into that.

    So the decision itself STINKS. Obviously, if you portrayed John Nash’s sexuality then the whole movie would have been solely about THAT – but that’s why I say they shouldn’t have done his story in the first place if they weren’t prepared to tackle that. Or just call it fiction and leave the real John Nash out of it!!!

    Love love your thoughts on Robin Hood. Yes, I think the whole project was a bit muddy and misguided and RC got lost in the shuffle. He is now in “armor up” mode, he distrusts the press, he knows he is not liked, so that surliness is starting to show up in his work (even when it’s not appropriate. Thank goodness he was a bit surly in LA Confidential! Yum!!)

    And haha, about Quentin. Or some other unexpected hot director – PT Anderson, or hell, Woody Allen. Something where his ego isn’t the biggest one on the set. He needs to submit to the process again, be part of an ensemble – I think he misses it. I think that’s part of why he is so surly. (I follow him on Twitter and he’s adorable on Twitter, circumcision-comment notwithstanding. Ha!)

    He’s still a young man. He could turn it around still!

  7. sheila says:

    And no matter what happens, he will still go down in my history books as giving one of the most moving Oscar acceptance speeches of all time. I still get goosebumps when I think of it. THAT is how you make a speech. Wow.

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