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Beautiful Mind: Mad in Your Own Time

Updated on February 28, 2012

Today would be fiction, if I had read any worth note recently. But I have been on a non-fiction spree, primarily concerning Africa, but also some American folklore and the odd volume on European history. Therefore, no fiction today, but a look at insanity instead in the pages of Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind.

One of the reasons I am forever catching up with popular culture is my habit of ignoring things while they are hot, while they are viewed as necessary and riding the publicity high, and turning to them only when the atmosphere is calmer, and only if they appeal to me without the hype. So it was with A Beautiful Mind . I did not see the film, and still haven't, and I had not read the book until last month, although it had long been in the house, brought in by virtue of one of my wife's college courses, abnormal psychology, I believe. It might have been a different course, but I am pretty sure it was abnormal psychology judging from the other books that accompanied it the same semester.

A Beautiful Mind is about the career, madness, and eventual rehabilitation, fragile and incomplete, of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician and game theorist born in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1928. Nash is not an attractive personality, and this speaks to more than his schizophrenia, which strangely humanized him and made him more empathetic to the troubles of others, more grateful for positive human contact. Nash is consistently narcissistic, radically self-involved, and lacking in sympathy. He is arrogant and consuming, so needy in his personal relationships that he devours those he befriends and loves, subordinating their every need and quality to his own. If he had not collapsed into madness, he would have been a hated institution in academia, brilliant, and therefore not to be run out, but simultaneously scorned and avoided when contact with him was not absolutely necessary.

What is fascinating in this book to me had little to do with Nash as an individual, but the interplay that existed between his madness and his time. In the middle ages, delusion sometimes took this form: a man believed himself to be turning into, or completely made up of, glass. Charles the Bold, later Charles the Mad, of France had this delusion amongst many others, and Cervantes of Don Quixote fame wrote a short novel on the subject. It is a delusion that does not occur anymore. The cultural frame which supported the delusion has passed away. Other delusions are at work now, supported within the cultural frame which they seem to dissolve. Therefore, I found it most interesting to look at Nash's delusions as they developed in relation to his time, for his delusions seemed sense to him, and he was not a fool. Through the lens of madness, the proof of them lay outside himself, in facts and figures others failed to heed, or could not make the proper use of. His madness broke a code and revealed a world of secrets and meanings to him unavailable to his sane peers and the ignorant masses.

The Vampire of Sacramento believed his blood was being poisoned. This delusion led to murder, and was not found to be sufficient reason for his crimes, but he firmly believed it to be true, and in this belief his mother and his home had provided unwitting confirmation. When he was young, his mother accused his father, whom she later divorced, of attempting to poison her. When his sanity broke, he repeated the poison trope he had learned and provided it with an architecture, fueling it with his obsession. Hospitalized and medicated he appeared to do better, to function and escape his delusions, but his mother called his medicine poison and he stopped taking it. Without medication, his delusions strengthened and became the obsessive center of his life.

Nash did not kill anyone. Most schizophrenics do not. Like most people who for some reason fail to function within social norms, he did more damage to himself than to others. He destroyed his marriage, his relationships with his sons, and his academic career. He lost the ability to behave acceptably, to pursue his goals in academia and in the scientific community. He became isolated within his madness, pursued by well meaning but impotent family and friends, tortured within mental hospitals where therapy was punitive and ineffective, a frightened man with knowledge that could not be shared, and that, when he attempted to share it, scared away his interlocutors.

Schizophrenia is thought of as a young person's disease, but Nash did not have his first episode until the age of 30. In 1959, he believed that aliens were in cryptographic communication with him. However, I believe there are some grounds for doubt as to the suddenness of this breakdown. The delusion appears to have begun its formation before the breakdown, for he alluded to such phenomena long before he openly claimed the communications were occurring. It seems that in 1959 the delusions became insurmountable and formed the center of his thoughts instead of forming merely an accompanying melody. In 1990, Nash resumed 'normal' functioning, again a claim that I would qualify. He believes himself to be cured, but this cure is more the return of an ability to judge his own delusions and reject them as irrational than the disappearance of delusions. The delusions decreased in strength over time, and he is now able to live with them, to recognize them, but I am not sure that this is the same as a 'cure' in the sense that we apply the term to a physical disease.

The Cold War is woven into Nash's delusions, and how could it not be? He was a scientist when science was the business of government, when scientists, especially physicists, mathematicians, and other 'hard science' mavericks, were joining the defenders of the West in designing weapons, scenarios, and escape clauses for the eventual decimation of the planet through nuclear war. The Cold War was a binary universe: there were good (U.S.) allies and evil (Soviet) enemies. There was no room in this schema for doubts, wavering, or weakness. There was no room in the schema for a young, mentally unstable mathematician who spurned authority, plagued by homosexual desires fitfully pursued, suspicious and paranoid within his own competitive academic environment. Nash knew he was a genius, and suspected others knew it too, and his lack of success could only be explained by the existence of hostile forces working against him out of spite, envy, or even more malicious motives.

When Nash was a child, his father "trained" him for war, convinced that the Japanese would come to West Virginia to cripple the industrial might of the United States. Recognizing the importance of his own industry, of trains and coal and logistics, this seemed a reasonable expectation to Nash's father, although it is less so to me. There are many strange, unreasonable convictions walking through people's heads that are not taken to be madness, though they are as irrational and strange as the delusions that earn one medication and extended therapy. Nash's father remained functional, remained capable of fatherhood and employment, and so he was not mad. He was merely mistaken. Nash's delusions would not be so gentle in their effects, and he would be rendered incapable of family life and employment. He would be categorized as insane.

Nash had a firm sense of class, and of his own superiority. He came from two middle-class strivers, who as part of their striving implanted an assurance in their children that they were not typical children, but special ones, both in their capacities and their responsibilities. They were better than those who did not strive, who did not achieve, who lived unambitious lives, or had ambitions but lacked capacity. This sense of class in the America he lived in took into it other elements unrelated to class itself, but having much to do with status: race and religion. In one sense, the openness of his disdain and prejudices is refreshing, especially as our modern tendency to hide the truth from ourselves and others in euphemism and circumlocution can be sickening. I prefer that men who hate wear their robes openly, so that I may identify them and not wonder. Nash was above everyone except those he was vastly below, and so his contempt for the recognized underclass of his day should not be surprising. It was his sense of his own importance, and his disdain for all others, that led him to avoid the military draft. He was too vital, too necessary, to be risked with the mass of young men in war. He was a better man than they, and he must be saved.

Nash was paranoid. I think many, many Americans were in those days, both conservative and liberal. The nation was threatened, or we sincerely believed it to be under threat. Some focused on the external threat--the Soviets, the radicals, the forces of change and disruption. The fears of these fueled McCarthyism and the hunt for Communists, giving to Communists and radicals power and foresight they did not in fact have. Others focused on the internal, on the chasm between democracies' intentions and their realities, on the almost mystical spirit of human progress, stunted and threatened by Cold War ideologies and red-baiting. Their fears turned against authority in principle, against institutions and command. Nash took the fears of both and compiled them into a single entity, a consuming fear that was unable to identify a single safe harbor. Normal society could provide no argument against fear, against paranoia, when it was consumed by it, hunting its own 'deviants' and haunted by the shadows of enemies it had decided must exist, so that failing to find them only proved they were more well hidden and more competent than their hunters.

One passage concerning medical treatments of the mentally ill in the late 1950s and early 1960s struck me with particular anguish. I am a juvenile diabetic, diagnosed at the advanced age of 23. Although I maintain good control of my blood sugar most days, I have had significant episodes of low blood sugar, at least two that almost put me in a coma. Insulin therapy was practiced at one of the hospitals to which Nash was sent, an abusive practice without much medical value, but a practice that was frightening enough to convince all but the most incurable, uncontrollable madmen that they should play nice with the doctors and staff. It was a therapy whose virtue lay in its ability to quash the spirit of the patients. Insulin therapy consisted of sending healthy individuals into insulin comas and then reviving them. During this procedure, the patient was disoriented, completely dependent upon medical staff, and without control over their body or their mind. Patients could, and did, die undergoing the therapy. If they lived, however, they did not want to undergo it again and so they might become more cooperative within the institution. Of course, the therapy did not effect the source of their illness, so its benefits did not last. It was a therapy that could not, and did not, cure. In Nash's case, it made him aware of the power doctors and staff had over him, but also made him aware of the fact that they were his enemies, that they must be deceived, and that his family, especially his wife, who had subjected him to this torment were his enemies, too.

A Beautiful Mind is a very good book that calls into question many received truths about the nature of schizophrenia, and reveals the interplay between the inner world of the madman and the external world of 'normal' society. It offers hope, however qualified and problematic, in Nash's returned sanity and his reconciliation with his wife and his family. It presents that unique individual whom insanity made a better person, not a perfect one. Nash is no saint, martyred by society and the medical profession, nor a superman who conquered schizophrenia and has come out of it whole and strong. He is still a troubled man. He is still arrogant, though not as arrogant as before, for he has learned that he, too, can fall.


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      Brendy 3 years ago

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