Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind

I've watched this movie only twice. Both times I've cried, stricken by the conflict and emotions portrayed by the actors playing John Nash and his wife, Alicia.

I'm writing this article less as a review or recommendation and more as a personal, cathartic exercise. What about this film hurts me? Why do I cry? Why does it affect me so?

John F. Nash, Jr. was a mathematician, brilliant even during high school. His genius, however, came at a cost to his relationships with friends, family and colleagues, ultimately climaxing with a spiraling fall into mental illness. Only one person was willing, and able, to support, protect, and eventually, bring him back to reality: his wife, Alicia Larde. During and after the cycles of schizophrenia, hospitalization, treatment and recovery, Nash contributed many original discoveries in the field of mathematics, culminating with the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Science. (http://www-history.mcs)

The movie is extremely well done. Russell Crowe is entirely convincing as a brilliant but socially disabled mathematician. Jennifer Connelly first appears in the film playing a young university student attracted to her doltish math professor. Her character grows steadily, first as a pert, flirty girl, and then becoming a strong, heart-torn wife and mother, and finally, a gray-haired, mature woman celebrating a lifetime with an eccentric, desperately dependent husband awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

But many films are well-done. Many stories describe emotional conflict. Why does this story rip my heart?

John F. Nash, Jr., at about age 30, began to experience hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. His mental illness was apparent to his students, his colleagues, and finally, his wife. He denied any illness and fought all attempts to counsel him or hospitalize him. His wife was forced to commit him to a treatment facility and he underwent excruciating sessions of chemical-induced shock therapy and drugs.

Nash left the hospital seemingly recovered, at least enough to live at home, with a daily regimin of controlling medications. But the drugs dulled his mind and emotions, preventing him from continuing his mathematical research and teaching job. He was unable to respond to his wife's physical and emotional needs for love and support. His life seemed empty and worthless.

I watched the film to this point without crying. I was drawn to the man and his illness, but I did not personally identify myself with him. I was interested in how the problem would resolve, but I was not emotionally invested in his life nor that of his wife.

The climax of the story came when Nash neglected to continue his medications and the delusions returned. He assaulted his wife, unintentionally, but it frightened her and she clutched their infant son and attempted to drive away, hoping to get to her mother's house for shelter. Nash experienced a dizzying flashback of all his hallucinations and delusions, finding himself focusing on one specific hallucination: a young girl, about eight years old, who had often appeared to him. He realized the girl never all the years he had seen her and spoken with her and embraced her, the eight-year old girl never aged. The difference between reality and dream was suddenly made clear to him, at least in this one instance.

Nash was able to express this to his wife, and she saw that medication and shock therapy were no help to her husband. She knew that she alone could help him sort through his delusions and learn what was real and what was not. She loved him and set herself to remake their relationship.

At this point I began to lose control of my emotions. My heart throbbed with sadness and poignancy and desperation and relief and humility. I identified myself with Nash.

It wasn't his paranoia or hallucinations or least not directly. It was more the idea that Nash had deep confusion and despair and fear that not a single person on earth could understand or sympathize with or patiently listen to...except his wife. She alone, of all the billions of people on earth, and the scores of people they knew, had the strength to hear him voice his despair and not turn away. She alone was willing to take his hand, place it over her heart, and tell him what was real. She alone could restore sanity and contentment to an internal world of despair and fear.

I've felt this. I'll not describe it in detail, but let it suffice to know that I've felt the emotions portrayed by Russell Crowe in this film. And more importantly, I've felt the emotional and spiritual rescue by another person, intervening with reality and prayer and patience and compassion and strength.

The resolution of the story grips my heart also. The film ends with Nash recovered sufficiently to return to Princeton as a researcher and professor. But he is not cured. He still hallucinates. He still sees imagined people. He still feels echoes of paranoia and delusion.

But he copes. He sees the visions, but he ignores them. He jokes with students about his delusions. He appears weak and fragile. He is extremely uncomfortable around people. But he copes. He regards his condition as being on a "mental diet", consciously choosing what stimuli are real, ignoring the fantasy.

This, too, reverberates with me. It seems to be a picture of the conflicting doubts, lusts, and fears that pass through and around my mind daily, hourly, moment by moment. I, too, must consciously decide what thoughts to hold as real, and what thoughts to dismiss as dangerous imaginings.

I identify with his aloneness, or rather, the small number of those with whom he can confide and trust. He may joke with his students and colleagues about his mental illness, but his most intimate disclosures and need for support are with one person: his wife.

This film makes clear to me my susceptibility to loneliness. Hell for me would be a condition in which not a single person, human or God or demon, was willing and able to understand me, offering sympathy and empathy...offering companionship.

Experiencing this film forces me to admit reality...spiritual, emotional and physical reality...about myself. I'm forced to admit weakness and want. I'm forced to look outside myself for help.

I, I am sure, that most people have similar thoughts and fears and weaknesses. Most people can control them, or compensate for them, without visible effort, earning them a place with the "socially acceptable", the "mentally and emotionally normal".

But it doesn't take much for our thin facade of control and competence to evaporate. An injury, a sickness, a loss, a betrayal. And then we turn to anything at hand to dull or distract or delude. Only a few get past these shallow, inadequate coping strategies and seek that which is eternal and effective.

I first watched "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001, the year it was shown in theaters. The emotional impact I felt then has kept me from rewatching it until this year, 2010...nine years. I've often considered watching it again, but I've shied away from the emotional pain I expected to feel.

I watched it for the second time this week, the first week of January, 2010. I cried, but not as hard, not as heartrendingly. I feel stronger now than nine years ago, less susceptible to fear and confusion. But it's not due to any strength or wisdom or psychology created by me.

Thank my wife.
Thank my family.
Thank my friends.

Thank God.

References for further information:

Official movie site

Movie review and cast notes

At Princeton University, John Nash struggles to make a worthwhile contribution to serve as his legacy to the world of mathematics. He finally makes a revolutionary breakthrough that will eventually earn him the Nobel Prize. After graduate school he turns to teaching, becoming romantically involved with his student Alicia. Meanwhile the government asks his help with breaking Soviet codes, which soon gets him involved in a terrifying conspiracy plot. Nash grows more and more paranoid until a discovery that turns his entire world upside down. Now it is only with Alicia's help that he will be able to recover his mental strength and regain his status as the great mathematician we know him as today. (

NPR inteviews Ron Howard, director of "A Beautiful Mind"

Brief autobiography

John F. Nash Jr.
Born June 13, 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia.
Father, John F. Nash, an electrical engineer, veteran of WW1, originally from Texas, B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical.
Mother, Margaret Virginia Martin, teacher, suffered from hearing loss resulting from scarlet fever.
A sister, Martha, born November 16, 1930.
Voracious reader, excelling in mathematics in high school. Full scholarship to Carnegie, studying chemical engineering. "Reacted negatively to the regimentation of courses such as mechanical drawing" and changed focus to chemistry.
Chemistry classes, however, emphasized laboratory skills of using pipettes and titrating compounds. He soon changed his major a third time, this time to mathematics. He graduated with a bachelor and a master's degree in math. (From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1994, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1995,, visited January 8, 2010)

Continued Influence

Nash laid the groundwork that helped economists and other social scientists think fruitfully about and model strategic aspects of social engagement. In fact, some of the most important and pathbreaking work in economics undertaken in the latter half of the twentieth century simply could not have taken place without the benefit of Nash’s insights.
There are a huge number of social phenomena that can best be thought of as noncooperative games. For example,
  • Firms competing for customers
  • National tariff wars
  • Union and firm bargaining over a contract.
There is virtually no area in economics or the social sciences that has not benefited from Nash’s “beautiful theory.” (

Game Theory Simply Explained

Schizophrenia Simply Explained

A Beautiful Mind: The Book