'A Beautiful Mind' challenges childhood ignorance

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 23, 2002

I took in a film last week that masterfully challenged my childhood misunderstandings about mental illness. I was pleased, therefore, when Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind was honoured Sunday night with four Golden Globe awards, including best dramatic motion picture.

In the late-1940s while in the primary grades, I lived across the street from the state mental hospital in Buffalo, New York. Its spired old red brick buildings stretched for a dozen blocks along the sidewalk I took every day to school.

Many of the buildings had large, caged verandas on which, when the weather was pleasant, patients would sit imprisoned and rock hour after hour, mumbling, screaming, or in morbid silence – and, for all I knew, hopeless and not too bright.

Some grownups warned us neighborhood kids that those "crazies" were dangerous and to be feared like wild dogs.

We got the message. Sometimes we would sneak inside the high, wrought iron fence surrounding the hospital grounds and play among the maple and chestnut trees. But when the siren sounded from the main building, we ran home as quickly as our legs would take us. One of those "dangerous crazies" had escaped.

About that same time at Princeton University in New Jersey, a young mathematical genius was making breakthroughs that, nearly a half century later, would earn him the Nobel Prize.

But before John Forbes Nash Jr. would mount that platform in Stockholm, Sweden, to receive his prize, he would descend into the tragic, delusional world of schizophrenia, to emerge after many years of compassion and treatment as proof that there is hope for the mentally ill.

His story is a refreshing corrective to my childhood ignorance.

Producer/director Ron Howard has captured Nash's remarkable life in his currently-showing film, A Beautiful Mind, starring Golden Globe best actor award winner Russell Crowe as Nash, and best supporting actress award winner Jennifer Connelly as Nash's wife, Alicia.

An adaptation of journalist Sylvia Nasar's insightful 1998 biography, A Beautiful Mind, the film script won Akiva Goldsman the Golden Globe award for best motion picture screenplay.

Goldsman's script differs greatly in detail, but not in spirit, from Nasar's book. He takes his audience inside Nash's mind and enables us to experience graphically the confusion between reality and fantasy.

It is this perhaps more than anything else that convinced me of the importance of the film. I watched it twice. The first time, like Nash, I was not able to discern what was fantasy – at least, not till very late in the film, and not entirely even then.

When I viewed the film again two days later, I caught myself not always being able to discern what was reality.

After the film's release, Nash spoke at a Princeton University gathering of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. According to NAMI spokesperson Myrna Bearse, Nash praised Goldsman's skill in presenting madness.

"Voices and delusions do not show in pictures, [Nash] said, so the screenwriter translated into pictures the voices that are so typical of schizophrenia."

Xavier Amador, Director of NAMI's Center on Education, Research & Practice, puts it this way:

"The experience of having schizophrenia is nearly impossible for the average person to grasp. Understanding what it is like to believe that something is happening to you, when in fact it is not, is nearly impossible unless you personally know someone with this brain disorder.

"But not any more," Amador says. "This film takes you inside the mind of someone battling to separate reality from delusion. This is no small feat."

In the film, Nash, who early in his academic career, showed almost total disdain for lesser mortals, became in the end a changed man, thanks to the care he received over the years from his wife and his closest colleagues.

Accepting the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics, the gentle genius announced to the world the most important discovery of his life:

"It is only in the mysterious equation of love that any logic or reason can be found."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page