A Beautiful Mind has cornered many of this year's top movie prizes, including a Golden Globe and Academy Award for best film. That's focused new attention on the book that inspired the film. Sylvia Nasar's story of John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician who battled schizophrenia for much of his adult life, won the 1998 National Book Critic's Circle Award for biography. Now a new paperback edition is leading U.S. best seller lists.
In the film version of A Beautiful Mind, the young John Nash is portrayed by Russell Crowe as brash and brilliantly original mathematician who liked to challenge old notions and revered thinkers.
Sylvia Nasar's book differs in many details, and offers a much fuller picture of John Nash. But she says the film captures the essential spirit of her story. She describes it as a story of genius, madness, and a recovery that was aided by the loving support of relatives and friends. Sylvia Nasar first became interested in John Nash in 1993, while she was working for The New York Times.
"I heard a rumor that he might be on the short list for a Nobel. And the idea that someone who had spent 30 years in the kind of illness, poverty, isolation that he did, someone who had just about been forgotten by the world, that someone like that would come back, recover from his illness and get this long overdue recognition, to me this was just the most amazing story I had ever come across as a reporter," she said.
John Nash adopted a neutral attitude toward Sylvia Nasar's book, and granted her no formal interviews. But she did talk with a wide circle of Nash relatives, friends and colleagues, dating back to his childhood years in the coal mining town of Bluefield, West Virginia.
"He was, shall we say, an eccentric little boy, very smart, very precocious, but socially awkward," she explaines. " His peers called him 'bug brains'. When he was 14, he was on the one hand building pipe bombs with some boys across the street and he was also tricking other children with electric shock. But on the other hand he was reproving classical theorems by the greatest mathematicians of all times."
In the late 1940s, his intellectual gifts took John Nash to the renowned graduate program in mathematics at Princeton University. He was 21 years old when he devised what's come to be known as the Nash Equilibriuma theory about how groups of people engage in patterns of conflict and cooperation to arrive at bargaining solutions. John Nash went on to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he met his future wife Alicia, a beautiful young Salvadoran woman who was one of his students. They'd been married only a few years when John Nash began suffering from grandiose delusions and hearing voices. Sylvia Nasar says that left him unable to do mathematics.
"He embraced numerology instead because he believed himself to be a religious figure of great but secret importance. Early in his illness he had a few temporary remissions in response to things like insulin shock therapy and the early drugs that were just then coming on stream," she noted. "He never stayed on medication because he believed himself to be persecuted and not ill, so he always relapsed. So ultimately he aged out of it, not with the help of any new drugs, but because of the passage of time and his own tremendous desire at a certain point to reconnect with reality, and the support of people who always saw the human being who had done these great things in him, even when he was haunting the Princeton campus scribbling numerological messages."
The person who supported him most was Alicia Nash. There's more to the story, however, than the movie version suggests. In the film, their life together is portrayed as one of unbroken solidarity.
"In 1963, about five years into this illness, the Nashes divorced. Alicia was overwhelmed and exhausted," explained the author. "However, she never stopped being supportive of him, and within a few years, after he wrote to her, begging her to shelter him from homelessness and to protect him from future hospitalizations, in 1970, she invited him to come and live with her and their young son, and she did shelter him for the next 25 years. So is it more complicated than the film suggests? You bet. Is it any less romantic? Not in my opinion. It is an incredible love story."
In 1994, John Nash won the Nobel Prize, after a heated debate within the Nobel committee. The Nashes later remarried. Today, at age 73, John Nash is accepting speaking engagements and working on mathematics again. He takes an active role in caring for his grown son, who is also schizophrenic. Sylvia Nasar has watched a transformation that continues to unfold.
"About nine months after the book was published he decided that he wanted to be friends, and we went to the very first Broadway play Nash had ever seen in his life. His life has continued to change. When I first met him right after he had won the Nobel Prize, he was still very much in his shell, and he has so come out since then, and reclaimed bits of his life, and it is just an amazing thing to witness," she said.
A Beautiful Mind has generated new controversies about John Nash. In the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, there were charges that the movie had distorted or omitted important facts about his life, including his anti-semitism. But Sylvia Nasar dismisses the criticisms. She says John Nash made anti-semitic remarks only at the height of his mental illness, when he imagined himself to be the Messiah and other Biblical characters. And she says nothing she wrote about John Nash diminished the affection and respect she's come to feel for him since she began her biography.