Trouble in Mind

The film version of 'A Beautiful Mind' neglects to tell the whole story of John Forbes Nash.

I was in the bookstore and I picked up A Beautiful Mind, the biography of John Forbes Nash by Sylvia Nasar. Couple of reasons. One, I love Russell Crowe, who's on the cover. And second, it's about a paranoid schizophrenic. I used to live across the street from a woman similarly afflicted, and although she almost never spoke to me, when she did I came to understand there was a kind of internal logic to the things she had to say. For example, sometimes my dog would get out and run into her yard and she'd come tell me, "Don't let your dog come into my yard. There are death rays emanating from the electrical wires, and I wouldn't want him to get hurt." This, I eventually figured out, was paranoid schizophrenic for "Keep your goddamned dog out of my yard." It's an interesting world view.

Nasar's book is a thorough, almost painfully balanced story. Nash is one of the lucky 3 percent of people suffering from the devastations of this illness who went into remission 30 years after its onset. In his late 60s he gracefully accepted the Nobel Prize for economics. He's still alive, lives in New Jersey with his wife and adult son, and the thing that struck me most about his story was that the man is virtually impossible to like. When I finished I thought, "How is even Russell Crowe gonna pull off making this guy sympathetic?"

The answer is, he doesn't. The guy on the movie screen is not the guy in the book.

I sat with my mouth open, amazed throughout the film that what I was watching and what I had just read claimed to be about the same person. The movie John Nash is a smart, distracted, poorly socialized but ultimately lovable mathematician, a typically Hollywood, cuddly mentally ill person. The man in the book is insufferably arrogant, competitive, superior and with a mind so completely divided from his heart that the overwhelming sense is that some kind of breakdown is inevitable. The only question is what form will it take?

Because the real John Forbes Nash was an outcast as a child, and as a young man suffered an obsessive need for originality, viewing it as the singular validation for his (and anyone else's) existence. He was so preoccupied with the imperative of his own greatness that when he fathered a child he not only abandoned its mother, but failed to provide monetarily for his family in any way. This resulted in a heartbroken, destitute woman and a son raised in a series of foster homes. The real John Forbes Nash was bisexual, perhaps homosexual, but too image-conscious and ashamed to confront it. The real John Forbes Nash was obsessed with solving a virtually unsolvable mathematical problem called Reimann Hypothesis (which some believe is the very thing that drove him nuts; this is a simplistic view of schizophrenia, but the idea has some merit), and very embittered about never winning a Fields Medal (the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics). When the real John Forbes Nash did marry, he was an emotionally abusive and mostly absent husband. In short, the man in Nasar's biography is not a nice fellow.

He is, however, a brilliant mathematician. He made a breakthrough in the area of game theory that had enormous effects in the field of economics--the full implications of which wouldn't become clear for decades--thereby making a name for himself at Princeton University. Much of the book concerns itself with the nuances of game theory and other mathematical problems, to the extent that, not being mathematical, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. But I came to understand that the very essence of Nash's greatness was mathematical. He understood his value as a human being as wholly a function of his intellectual horsepower, and so did his colleagues at Princeton. This is the reason he was tolerated on campus long after he was capable of being academically productive and allowed to wander the campus scribbling schizophrenic nonsense on random blackboards for 15 years.

It's also why when he did come back from Loony Tunes Land, he was provided with such a soft landing. The people around him just kind of went, "Oh, he's making sense again. Very good, let's give him an office now." Sort of the way you might act if the electric can opener suddenly started working again. In fact, you get the feeling that the entire lofty culture in which Nash dwells is so full of individuals skating dangerously close to the line he has already crossed, that nobody is much surprised by anything he does. In short, it is impossible to disconnect the mathematician John Nash from the man John Nash. It makes absolutely no sense to try.

Yet that's exactly what Ron Howard's movie tries to do. Howard doesn't understand the mathematics or the intense cutthroat atmosphere of the high-level academic politics in which Nash found himself as a fledgling academic--an atmosphere that may very well have precipitated the onset of his schizophrenia--and so airbrushes it over. This is bad, but what seems to me unforgivable is that he ignores the central insight of the man's life, which is that genius and insanity are often inextricably linked.

When John Nash is asked by Harvard professor George Mackey, "How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof ... how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?" Nash tells him, "Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did." When I put Nasar's book down, I was convinced that John Forbes Nash is a genius. I was also convinced that the price he paid for it was exceedingly high.

But Howard wants to play the story as one of schizophrenia, not brilliance. And the John Nash-like character he depicts could be any paranoid schizophrenic, could be my neighbor with the electrical emanations, for that matter. He misses the point entirely that the brilliance and the insanity came from the same place, and convinced me that the hard truth is, Hollywood is more delusional than Nash ever was and can no longer tell the difference between artistic license and outright lying.

And the tragedy here is a person who doesn't even warrant mention in Howard's movie: John Nash's first-born son, John Stier. Nash never married his mother, saddling him with not just the stigma of being a bastard--no trivial thing in the 60s--but the enormous psychological baggage that comes of being an unwanted child.

Nasar's account of John Nash's life had me marveling at her willingness to bend over backwards to be fair with this extremely difficult person, and I came to understand that Nash was allowed to get away with transgressions and dodge dilemmas the rest of us cannot escape because brilliance is something we value highly in this culture. If it were not for that brilliance, he would have wound up just another homeless person wandering the streets talking to himself.

I pity the man and his wife. His second son, also afflicted, is unmanageable, occasionally violent, and you get the feeling that in their dotage the Nashes are once again sorely besieged by the devastation that is schizophrenia. But the man portrayed in Ron Howard's movie is simply not John Nash. A writer for the New York Times called him John Nash prime. I wouldn't even go that far. I'd just call him John Nash contrived.

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