A Beautiful Mind

The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate

John Nash

Sylvia Nasar

Reviewed by Mira de Vries

This book, which inspired a motion picture, is arguably most important for things that have nothing to do with MeTZelf, like mathematics, mathematicians, and universities. It is a very thick book, apparently well-researched, yet written to read like a novel, occasionally to the point of stretching credibility. How would the author know what the weather was like on a particular day, or how somebody felt?

Nash’s purported schizophrenia has attracted enormous media attention, certainly more than his work, which few people understand anyway, or his colleagues, who are little-known outside of their field. Yet to me the most interesting part is not his “schizophrenia,” but what Nash was like before it started.

Now I have a dilemma. Firstly, I don’t want to “diagnose” somebody, anybody, let alone someone I don’t even know personally, though after 450 pages I do feel like I know Nash personally. Secondly, I myself am most wary of pseudo-medical labels, which seem to legitimize professions for which I have no use. But the author’s description of Nash is so thorough and consistent, I can’t help noticing that it perfectly fits what nowadays is called Asperger.

Not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or the DSM convince me of this, but the zillions of contacts I have (had) with parents and spouses of (usually) boys and men with strikingly similar personalities. The words Asperger or autism appear nowhere in the book. Either Nash really does fit this pattern and the author in her excellence unwittingly described it, or she patterned the Nash character after someone else who is Asperger. Read it and tell me if you don’t agree.

The author reports that at one time Nash told friends that he was thinking of experimenting with (recreational) drugs, but nobody knows whether he actually did. She does not draw a connection between this and the onset of Nash’s behaviors attributed to “schizophrenia.” It fits neatly into my theory that most cases of this type of bizarre behavior are triggered by narcotics, whether taken illegally or by prescription (all psychiatric drugs are narcotics). Once knocked off balance, the delicate neurotransmission may take many years and even decades to settle down again. Psychiatric (mis)treatments could have further exasperated the disarray of Nash’s nervous system and delayed its return to normal. If he ever confirms that he used the (illegal) drugs, my theory will be supported. I haven’t asked him, because if I were he, I wouldn’t answer such a question.

Never mind the lies in the movie. The book states clearly that Nash took no more neuroleptics once released from the “hospital.” He spent most of three decades wandering about undrugged. Lo and behold, eventually something happened that never happens to people who stay psychiatrized. Nash’s behavior stabilized enough for him to return to a somewhat normal life, and give a coherent speech during a Nobel prize ceremony.

Although the author acknowledges that neuroleptics cause tardive dyskinesia, she overlooks them as the explanation of why the vast majority of other people considered schizophrenic never recover. Quoting research, she concludes that Nash’s experience is rare but not unique. She fails to mention whether the (few) others who do recover, like Nash, are the ones who manage to stay out of psychiatry and away from its extremely destructive (mis)treatments.

Nash’s good fortune is that he was offered board and care by his ex-wife, Alicia, and tolerated by his university. This enabled him to stay out of psychiatry. It must be excruciatingly painful to Alicia that she was unable to do the same for their son, who, like Albert Einstein’s youngest son and millions of people of less well-known parentage, became stuck in psychiatry forever. The author is evasive about it, perhaps because the book is not about the son, or perhaps because only someone who has experienced it can know the formidable task Alicia took upon herself, and the pressures which compelled her to give up on another John Nash.

A Beautiful Mind is a beautiful book.

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