June 3, 2015

“Too Deep for Tears” — The Long Journey of John and Alicia Nash

book rev

Responding to the deaths of John and Alicia Nash in a May 23 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, Jennifer Connelly, the actress who won an Oscar playing Alicia in the Academy-Award-winning film version of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster 1998), calls the couple “an inspiration” and refers to “all that they accomplished in their lives.” Russell Crowe, who played John Nash in the film, refers to their “amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.” Both statements go straight to the spirit of the extraordinary six-decades-long relationship with a force lacking in obituaries that focused on the trials and triumphs of the husband. Having lived the roles, Connelly and Crowe were able to do justice to the couple by stressing words like inspiration, partnership, minds, and hearts.

A Hothouse Orchid

According to Nasar, the couple’s story began at MIT where the mathematics faculty included Nash, who had earned his doctorate at Princeton in 1950 with a 27-page thesis on game theory that would lead to a Nobel Prize in 1994. Alicia was a physics major hoping to become a nuclear scientist at a time when coeds at MIT “wore cocktail dresses and high heels while dissecting rats in the lab.” In that environment Alicia “glowed like a hothouse orchid …. Delicate and feminine, with pale skin and dark eyes, she exuded both innocence and glamour, a fetching shyness as well as a definite sense of self-possession, polish, and elegance” She carried herself like “an El Salvadoran princess with a sense of noblesse oblige.” It would seem that Nash never had a chance. Nor did she, as she admitted in the PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness (2002): “At the time, he was a little bit like the fair-haired boy of the math department …. And he was very nice looking.”

Princeton Junction

They were married in 1957 in Washington, D.C. By the time a son was born in 1959, Nash was undergoing the first of a series of involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals that would include Carrier and Trenton State, where he was hospitalized after the couple moved to Princeton in 1960. The strain of dealing with Nash’s psychosis eventually led Alicia to divorce him in 1963. Seven years later when she was living “literally across the road from the railroad station” in Princeton Junction, she offered to let Nash live with her, “moved by pity, loyalty, and the realization that no one else on earth would take him in.” Quoted by Nasar in a chapter epigraph, Nash admitted as much, “I have been sheltered here and thus avoided homelessness.” Besides contributing what he could to expenses, Nash helped his 12-year-old son Johnny with his homework, played chess, and rode the Dinky into Princeton, where he became known as “the phantom of Fine Hall” and “the mad genius of Firestone.”

Bartleby at Firestone

The man I saw day and night at the Firestone Library in the late 1970s seemed to be everywhere I looked. It would be hard to imagine a more unprepossessing person, always wearing the same yellow-brown plaid shirt, always with an almost surreal air of passive obstinacy, like a library-born version of Herman Melville’s live-in Wall Street clerk Bartleby whose answer to everything is “I would prefer not to.” Whether haunting the reference room or the card catalogue or the third floor stacks, he was somehow eternally in residence.

I had no idea who he was until I saw the photographs of Nash in A Beautiful Mind. There was the same plaid shirt, the same air of having wandered to the far side of reality, as if he were an inanimate object waiting to be moved to a position of conclusive significance on the cosmic chess board. In the womb-like recesses of Firestone’s third-floor, those cramped quarters teeming with “quaint and curious volumes,” it’s not easy to ignore the other inhabitants, and while I never exchanged greetings with the man in the plaid shirt, there were nods and looks of vague acknowledgment. The office where I worked during the day and had all to myself at night was located next to that of historian Charles Gillespie, who is quoted in Beautiful Mind to the effect that Nash “almost always headed for the third floor stacks, in a section of the library devoted to religion and philosophy,” where Gillespie “always said good morning” and “Nash was always silent.”

Last Words

In A Brilliant Madness, when Nash faces the camera, up close, he appears to have moved well away from the spookily intransigent Bartleby; he’s older, greyer, sadder and wiser, less guarded, more willing to appear vulnerable, and though he might “prefer not to,” he offers brief comments about the lost years and the years to come, admitting, that “in madness,” he saw himself “as some sort of messenger, or having a special function. Like the Muslim concept with Muhammad, the messenger of Allah.” Referring to his protracted remission, he says “I don’t really remember the chronology very well, exactly when I moved from one type of thinking to another. I began arguing with the concept of the voices. And ultimately I began rejecting them and deciding not to listen.” In other words, he preferred not to.

I can still hear an echo of Bartleby’s mantra at the end of A Brilliant Madness when Nash seems to startle himself with his thoughts about the future. “I don’t know what the future holds exactly,” he says; then, with a scarily revealing gesture, somewhere between a grimace, a shudder, and a graveyard laugh, he adds, “even if it’s not such a long future — for me.” As he goes on, putting some distance between himself and the subtle convulsion of the moment when he acknowledged in spite of himself that his might not be “a long future,” his words seem to trail off into a void, “Of course, the future in general is presumably long — unless things really go bad — or unless some miracle happens.”

Shortly before that last halting, one-on-one moment with Nash, A Brilliant Madness offers an alternate farewell in a video of the Nobel Prize ceremony when, after the presentation of the medal, he bows three times, to the front, the left and the right, holding the prize, a gesture at once formally precise and gently graceful, after which we hear the voice of fellow mathematician Princeton professor Erhan Çinlar on the soundtrack: “He shined very brightly as a young man. Then he had his illness. And he is now a very pleasant, accomplished gentleman. It feels right somehow.”

Together

They began as teacher and student, became husband and wife, then housemates, and in 2001 husband and wife again. In her last chapter, Nasar celebrates a marriage, “the most mysterious of human relationships,” summing it up (circa the late 1990s): Alicia is “strong-minded, pragmatic, and independent,” yet her “girlish infatuation has survived the disillusionments, hardships, and disappointments.” She takes her husband shopping for clothes, “frets when he travels,” spends four hours in the ER with him “when his ankle swells from a sprain.” Meanwhile he “sets his clock by her. Stubborn, reserved, self-centered, and jealous of his time (and money) as he is, Nash does nothing without consulting Alicia first, defers to her wishes, and tries to help her, whether it is by washing the dishes, straightening out a problem at the bank, or going with her to family therapy.”

At the time Nasar was writing and apparently right up to May 23, 2015, the Nashes found themselves sharing a familiar burden in the plight of their mathematically gifted schizophrenic son John Charles “Johnny” Nash, now 56, who would grow up to be treated with “the newest generation of drugs” that enabled him, “for the most part, to stay out of the hospital,” but “have not given him a life.” For his parents, it was “a constant disruption,” the way he both “drew them together and tore them apart,” generating “deep conflicts” that caused them to blame each other for his misbehavior — “when he destroys things in the house, attacks them, acts inappropriately in public.” There is the inevitable good cop/bad cop syndrome, but “they rely on each other. They agree every day on what one or the other should do. They also agree when it is time to hospitalize him,” and when it’s time to go to a pharmacy for his meds, they go together.

A House on Aiken

Watching the DVD of Ron Howard’s film version of A Beautiful Mind, I recognized the house the production staff used for the exterior of the home occupied by the Nashes when they moved to Princeton. Located on Aiken Street next to Harrison Street Park, it’s the same house my wife and I once considered renting. We’d been living around the corner on Patton Avenue with our infant son who spent many happy hours playing in the sandbox and on the swings at the park. You can see the park gate in the film and the sidewalk my son would run along, never in a straight line, always zigging and zagging, and of course now and then tripping and falling on the uneven pavement no matter how alert we were to his giddy, happy, random movements. There was no containing him, really. He was determined to pick things up, eat every berry in sight, smell every flower, pet every dog. All very normal, though looking back it’s easy to imagine that his fearless heedless way of going at the world might suggest early signs of the illness that makes us familiar with phrases like “drew them together and tore them apart,” and “good cop bad cop.”

In the end, no matter how watchful a parent or person you are, no matter how many hazards you anticipate, no matter how often you’re tempted to think the world makes sense, there’s not much you can do when things spin out of control, whether it’s a child’s mind or a taxi on the turnpike. Though she was writing some 20 years ago, Sylvia Nasar found a fitting epigraph for the Nashes and the rest of us in the lines from Wordworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” which accompanies her dedication of A Beautiful Mind to Alicia Nash: “Another race hath been, and other palms are won./Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”