Excerpt from A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Beautiful Mind

The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash

by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind
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  • First Published:
    Jun 1998, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2001, 464 pages

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Nash proved a tragic exception. Underneath the brilliant surface of his life, all was chaos and contradiction his involvements with other men; a secret mistress and a neglected illegitimate son; a deep ambivalence toward the wife who adored him, the university that nurtured him, even his country; and, increasingly, a haunting fear of failure. And the chaos eventually welled up, spilled over, and swept away the fragile edifice of his carefully constructed life.


The first visible signs of Nash's slide from eccentricity into madness appeared when he was thirty and was about to be made a full professor at MIT. The episodes were so cryptic and fleeting that some of Nash's younger colleagues at that institution thought that he was indulging a private joke at their expense. He walked into the common room one winter morning in 1959 carrying The New York Times and remarked, to no one in particular, that the story in the upper left hand corner of the front page contained an encrypted message from inhabitants of another galaxy that only he could decipher. Even months later, after he had stopped teaching, had angrily resigned his professorship, and was incarcerated at a private psychiatric hospital in suburban Boston, one of the nation's leading forensic psychiatrists, an expert who testified in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, insisted that Nash was perfectly sane. Only a few of those who witnessed the uncanny metamorphosis, Norbert Wiener among them, grasped its true significance.

At thirty years of age, Nash suffered the first shattering episode of paranoid schizophrenia, the most catastrophic, protean, and mysterious of mental illnesses. For the next three decades, Nash suffered from severe delusions, hallucinations, disordered thought and feeling, and broken will. In the grip of this "cancer of the mind," as the universally dreaded condition is sometimes called, Nash abandoned mathematics, embraced numerology and religious prophecy, and believed himself to be a "messianic figure of great but secret importance." He fled to Europe several times, was hospitalized involuntarily half a dozen times for periods up to a year and a half, was subjected to all sorts of drug and shock treatments, experienced brief remissions and episodes of hope that lasted only a few months, and finally became a sad phantom who haunted the Princeton University campus where he had once been a brilliant graduate student, oddly dressed, muttering to himself, writing mysterious messages on blackboards, year after year.

The origins of schizophrenia are mysterious. The condition was first described in 1806, but no one is certain whether the illness -- or, more likely, group of illnesses -- existed long before then but had escaped definition or, on the other hand, appeared as an AIDS-like scourge at the start of the industrial age. Roughly 1 percent of the population in all countries succumbs to it. Why it strikes one individual and not another is not known, although the suspicion is that it results from a tangle of inherited vulnerability and life stresses. No element of environment -- war, imprisonment, drags, or upbringing -- has ever been proved to cause, by itself, a single instance of the illness. There is now a consensus that schizophrenia has a tendency to run in families, but heredity alone apparently cannot explain why a specific individual develops the full-blown illness.

Eugen Bleuler, who coined the term schizophrenia in 1908, describes a "specific type of alteration of thinking, feeling and relation to the external world." The term refers to a splitting of psychic functions, "a peculiar destruction of the inner cohesiveness of the psychic personality." To the person experiencing early symptoms, there is a dislocation of every faculty, of time, space, and body. None of its symptoms -- hearing voices, bizarre delusions, extreme apathy or agitation, coldness toward others -- is, taken singly, unique to the illness. And symptoms vary so much between individuals and over time for the same individual that the notion of a "typical case" is virtually nonexistent. Even the degree of disability -- far more severe, on average, for men -- varies wildly. The symptoms can be "slightly, moderately, severely, or absolutely disabling," according to Irving Gottesman, a leading contemporary researcher. Though Nash succumbed at age thirty, the illness can appear at any time from adolescence to advanced middle age. The first episode can last a few weeks or months or several years. The life history of someone with the disease can include only one or two episodes. Isaac Newton, always an eccentric and solitary soul, apparently suffered a psychotic breakdown with paranoid delusions at age fifty-one. The episode, which may have been precipitated by an unhappy attachment to a younger man and the failure of his alchemy experiments, marked the end of Newton's academic career. But, after a year or so, Newton recovered and went on to hold a series of high public positions and to receive many honors. More often, as happened in Nash's ease, people with the disease suffer many, progressively more severe episodes that occur at ever shorter intervals. Recovery, almost never complete, runs the gamut from a level tolerable to society to one that may not require permanent hospitalization but in fact does not allow even the semblance of a normal life.

Copyright © 1998 by Sylvia Nasar.

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