A Complicated Life

Movies can only portray so much. They have limited time to tell the whole story, and most people want to experience a satisfying ending – a resolution, of sorts. This is what the movie A Beautiful Mind does for the life of John Forbes Nash Jr. It presents us with a romanticized, watered down version of the life of this troubled mathematician. Sure he struggles with schizophrenia, but in the end we’re left with the sense that he’s overcome his disability mainly through strength of mind, wins a Nobel Prize in economics and is living happily ever after. In the movie, Russell Crowe, who plays Nash, is shown recognizing his wife, Alicia (played by Jennifer Connelly) during his Nobel acceptance speech for her support and love during his troubled times.

In reality, the Nobel committee was afraid to even have the mathematician present for fear that he might do something inappropriate. The book presents this far more complicated view of things.

Written by economist, and current Professor of Journalism at Colombia University, Sylvia Nasar, this 390 page book shows us how much more convoluted Nash’s life is, but not just for Nash. A lot of people were subjected to the wake of its tumult.

Through vivid recounting of events from friends, lovers, care-givers, and former colleagues we’re presented with a myriad of complex traits, which form the basis of John Nash’s personality, and which may or may not play a role in his battle with a debilitating disease.

Nash is, without question, a brilliant mathematician. He is equally, without question, not a brilliant human being. Prior to being stricken with paranoid schizophrenia he is shown to be an arrogant, self-centered, unabashedly egotistical, emotionally abusive man with an overall immature approach to most relationships, and an unyielding desire for recognition.

To complicate things even more, his sexuality very definitely operated on a sliding scale. Unfortunately, during the 50s this made things especially difficult for a mathematician seeking tenure or working in a field that could have governmental/cold war implications. (McCarthyism generally regarded everything as being a subversive threat, and homosexuals were thought to be especially susceptible to pinko influences.) Indeed, at one point in his career, Nash was fired from a high profile job with RAND for a suspected dalliance of George Michaelesque proportions.

It is suggested that after losing his job, Nash determined that heterosexuality would be the best way to go. He subsequently fathered two children, both boys, with two different women. His eldest, John David Stier, was born out of wedlock and only got to know his father after he grew up. John David’s mother’s name is Eleanor Stier, hence the different last name.

Nash married Alicia López-Harrison de Lardé in 1957 with their son, John Charles Martin Nash born two years later. The birth of John junior coincided with his father’s incipient struggles with schizophrenia. As a matter of fact, John junior was born while his father was first admitted to a mental facility at Alicia’s request. As a result of his institutionalization, John junior went a year before being named because Alicia didn’t think it was fair to name the baby without his father having any say.

John and Alicia’s relationship followed a wild trajectory for the intervening three or so decades. They divorced in 1963, got back together in 1970, living as non-romantic roommates, but eventually remarried in 2001 after renewing their relationship in 1994.

After he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1959, Nash was admitted to hospital for a brief stay. Immediately upon his release he left the U.S. for Europe, at one point trying to renounce his U.S. citizenship and seeking asylum in France and Germany. He was eventually deported back to the States by French officials, and spent the subsequent decade or so in and out of institutions.

As this cursory overview of just a few things covered in the book should indicate, the movie misses a lot, but we expect this. What wasn’t expected is how the book shows that the complications, and troubles, of this one individual, and his fight were not his alone.

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One Response to “A Complicated Life”

  1. Chachi Gonzales Says:

    this is actually a very helpful article….. but i would have liked for it to have a little bit more information on his wife, alicia :)

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