Tag Archives: mental illness

“A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind

388 pages plus epilogue, notes, bibliography and index. Published 1998

This book is subtitled “The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash”

One of the reviews quoted on this book’s cover says “Reads like a fine novel”. No way. I disagree. No novelist would come up with so much detail, and provide such extensive historical context. This is an exceptionally fine biography. It deserves the awards it won.

Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that brings on delusions (often voices) and erratic, antisocial behavior. The old-fashioned term “madness” seems appropriate. Despite advances in psychiatry, it is still (in 2019) hard to diagnose, hard to treat and almost impossible to cure. One of Nash’s two sons also suffered from schizophrenia.

Nash was born in 1928 and diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1959. He was hospitalized several times, and it’s hard to tell if his treatment, which included insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy, saved his life or made him worse. Because Nasar delves into Nash’s mental state in great detail, this book is a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to understand and destigmatize mental illness, as well as being a sad reminder of how much about the human mind remains frighteningly mysterious.

Another valuable aspect of this book is its discussion of America in the 1950s, a time of political paranoia, technological hubris and rapid changes in American social patterns. The “Red Scare” and nuclear arms race impacted Nash along with other academics.

What else? Nash was a mathematical genius, but received the Nobel Prize (1994) in Economic Sciences, for his work on game theory. Is economics a science? (And what is game theory, anyway?) The Nobel Prize in economics (a late addition to the categories of the Swedish Academy) was never looked upon with favor by the Nobel Foundation and most of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nasar provides a detailed look at the controversy over giving the Prize to a man whose work had been done decades earlier, and who was presumed dead by many who admired his publications.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of this book, the role of Princeton University. What happened to John Nash after his academic life fell apart? The University, his wife Alicia and the Princeton community of mathematicians “supported’ him. His illness was so severe and his behavior so extreme that he might well have been institutionalized or ended up on the street. Alicia divorced him, then kept him in her house as a “boarder”. Princeton University allowed him to wander freely. He roamed the mathematics department, mostly at night, avoiding human contact and frightening staff members occasionally. Students referred to him as “the phantom”. He left strange long messages on blackboards. The University and the town of Princeton tolerated and protected him.

Then John Nash received the Nobel Prize and made as astonishing comeback. In mental health terms, it was either remission or cure. He was able to travel for the ceremonial acceptance of the Nobel Prize. Having learned some computer programming during the long hiatus in his career, he was able to resume work, though not as a creative mathematician. John and Alicia Nash remarried, and Nash made heroic effort to reconnect and reconcile with family and friends who had been driven away by his prior craziness and insensitivity.

Tragically, John and Alicia Nash died in car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2015.

Much of this book is based on interviews. Nasar talked to more than 100 people, including Nash himself and family members. It’s a documentary tour de force. Nasar dedicated the book to Alicia Nash, showing her profound respect and admiration.

I was curious about Sylvia Nasar. She published one other book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011). Born in 1947, she earned a BA in Literature from Antioch College and an MA in Economics from NYU. On her web page, she says

“…economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.”

This is more positive than anything else I’ve read about economics! I want to learn more.

“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history” by Hampton Sides

I read this because there is presently a fugitive at large in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains where I spent a happy weekend last summer. On September 12, not a month after my idyllic vacation, two Pennsylvania state police officers were shot in the town of Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died. Police tentatively identified Eric Frein as the shooter, and they have been seeking him since then. As many as 1000 officers have participated in the chase, but Frein has not been caught. (Update – according to Wikipedia, Frein was captured on the night of October 30, 2014 at an abandoned airport.)

Are there similarities between this situation and the hunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968? Hampton Sides delved into the Ray manhunt for highly personal reasons – he grew up in Memphis, where King died when Sides was six years old. His respect for King and his sorrow over the assassination resonate throughout the book.

First, the differences. Ray shot King in a city, then followed a relatively sophisticated plan that got him to Canada in about a week. It would appear that Frein expected to “hole up” in the relative wilderness of Pennsylvania, and he seems to have the skills to do so. Ray had minimal education and a serious criminal record. Ray shot a man of international reputation who had repeatedly been offered police protection, but Frein’s targets were unknown police officers who weren’t expecting trouble.

Similarities? Each was supported or encouraged by a social movement. Racism and segregationism fueled Ray’s hatred of King. Frein is identified as a “survivalist” and a hater of police authority. Sides raises questions about presidential candidate George Wallace’s hateful, ranting rhetoric. Was Wallace responsible for inciting Ray to violence? I wonder if there is an individual behind Frein’s hostility to police. Or is it based on personal experience?

Further comparisons aren’t worthwhile, since so little is known about Frein.

Even after studying of mountains of documentation, Sides is at a loss to “explain” James Earl Ray. A prison doctor labeled him mentally ill. (The system offered no treatment. His reliance on amphetamines may have been “self medication”.) He was uneducated but canny, generally “streetwise” and able to make and follow a plan. He was a fugitive at the time he shot King, having escaped from a high security prison which had few jailbreaks. (He was not the object of an interstate pursuit.)

Ironically, at the time of this death, King was shifting his emphasis from racial issues to what we would now refer to as “economic justice”. His planned “Poor People’s March” on Washington was intended to include ALL the suffering poor. James Earl Ray was one of these – uneducated, unhealthy, and unlikely ever to scramble into the middle class.

The other irony is that the hunt for Ray was the responsibility of J Edgar Hoover, long term director of the FBI. He detested King and engaged in “dirty tricks” designed to sabotage him as a leader and in his personal life. But when King died on his watch, he poured on the full resources of the FBI, including many sophisticated technologies he had introduced into police work. He also received extensive support from police in Canada and Great Britain. Ray came very, very close to eluding the intense manhunt and escaping to Rhodesia or South Africa, where he hoped to join a mercenary army and be protected from extradition back to the US.

Sides writes very well and I recommend this book. The racial problems that erupted in the sixties have not (so many decades later) been resolved, and it is worthwhile to look back over the assassination that marked a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

“Where is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury” by Cathy Crimmens (2001) and “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (A Memoir of Going Home)” (2010) by Rhoda Janzen

These two books were written by women who suffered personal calamities and wrote about them before they were really “digested”. In each case, I wonder if they hurried the work into print due to financial pressure.

Where is the Mango Princess? Is about the saddest book I ever read. Alan Crimmens was terribly injured in a freak motorboat accident. The man who emerged from that devastating brain injury was very different from his former self, and no longer capable of carrying adult responsibilities. His wife Cathy Crimmens tells their story with insight and considerable humor, but to me it seemed that she was desperate to write something that would sell.

My perspective on this may be slanted. A member of my family suffered a severe brain injury in an auto accident. I’ve walked the same path as Cathy Crimmens – emergency response, intensive care, rehabilitation, and the awful fear that perhaps medical science has saved the body but not the soul or personality. Our outcome was better than that of the Crimmens family. I’m sorry for what they suffered, and there’s just no way I can laugh at any part of it.

I didn’t share the misfortunes of Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Leaving her Mennonite community to follow her literary and academic aspirations, she married a charming, brilliant man who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. After the marriage ended and she was injured in a serious auto accident, she went home, to stay with her aging Mennonite parents and heal.

My perspective on this book may be slanted by my age – I am closer to her parents’ age! I find this book often slides over the line from affectionate humor into rudeness, even malice. Snarky – I think that’s the word. Unkind.

The best aspect of this book is its account of life with a partner who refuses to consistently medicate for a treatable (and complicated) mental illness. As a culture and as individuals, we are now working hard to understand mental health, remove stigma and optimize treatment. A tall order, and honest, intelligent accounts like this one are worth a great deal.

Each of these books offers an authentic, highly intelligent female voice. I wish the authors well, and hope to learn, in the future, that each has found the good fortune she deserves.