In 2001, Director Ron Howard made a movie about the perilous career of John Nash, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics. Nash’s life, as portrayed by the movie, is pretty dark and I have heard that his actual life was even darker. I have heard that his marriage to Alicia was not as stirringly redemptive as the story is told in the movie. It is also entirely possible that the actual John Nash was not as photogenic as Russell Crowe, who played him in the movie, and that Alicia Nash was not as photogenic as Jennifer Connelly.
I don’t care.
I want to think today about their relationship as it is portrayed in the movie, which is all I actually know about it. I want to begin with a few lines that Nash included in his acceptance speech in Stockholm. He said, speaking to Alicia as though she were the only person in the audience, “I am only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am.”
I’d like to puzzle a little today about how that was true. To my mind, John and Alicia Nash are heroes. Each of them made the very very hard choice about what to do. It isn’t hard, is it, to imagine what it costs to do the hard thing; to take the redemptive action when only your decision to do so is supporting you? Look around your own life. Such occasions are not hard to find. However different—however less daunting—the circumstances are from those the Nashes faced, the choice to do the hard thing, which often enough is the right thing, is the choice that faces us all.
One day, their friend Sol asked Alicia Nash how she was doing, given John’s illness. She began by telling him about John’s symptoms. “No,” said Sol, “How are you?” Here’s what she said.
I think often what I feel is obligation…or guilt over wanting to leave. Rage…against John, against God…and… But then I look at him and I force myself to see the man I married. And he becomes that man. He is transformed into someone that I love and I am transformed into someone who loves him. It’s not all the time, but it’s enough.
A few scenes later, Thomas King, on behalf of the Nobel Committee, tells John that he is being considered for a Nobel prize. He has been sent to make an assessment of Nash, to see whether, if the prize were granted him, he would embarrass the Committee in his acceptance of it. Here’s what he said.
Would I embarrass you? Yes, it is possible. You see, I am crazy. I take the newer medications, but I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them. Like a diet of the mind, I choose not to indulge certain appetites, like my appetite for patterns; perhaps my appetite to imagine and to dream.
Nash was a paranoid schizophrenic. He saw patterns which were, in the delusional world he entered from time to time, the basis of his heroic service to the U. S. intelligence community. Spymaster Ed Harris is shown here in the middle of one of Nash’s fantasies. Nash’s ability to see patterns no one else could see were at the heart of who he was and very probably contributed in a major way to his recognized work as a mathematician and economic theoretician. “Not indulging” that appetite involved renouncing his core strength. And he didn’t have to do it just once. He had to do it every day. He chose, every day, to refuse to acknowledge a substantial part of the life he saw around him. And these people whose reality he now denied but whom he nevertheless saw around him every day, represented the highest and most heroic deeds he had ever done, the best friend he had ever had, and an enchanting little girl who loved him dearly. And one of the great strengths of the movie is that when he sees them, we see them. We, too, have to choose to know they are not there.
How did Nash do that? It isn’t so hard to see why he would have wanted to. It was his only way to have a life outside a mental institution. What is hard is to see how he was able to. As I see it, Alicia is how he was able to. He made the contribution he made because she made the contribution she made.
What Alicia did seems to me every bit as hard as what John did. The man she was married to at the time she gave that account to Sol, was a bumbler and entirely untrustworthy to boot. He took his antipsychotic meds sometimes and sometimes not. When he did not take them, he succumbed to the fantasies that had seduced him since his years as an undergraduate. He couldn’t be trusted to look after their baby, even briefly. She knew that she herself was not safe from harm when he was in the grip of these fantasies. And she had no way to know it would ever get any better.
Keep that in mind as you are thinking of these two things Alicia said to Sol. The first is “I am transformed into someone who loves him.” And before that, “…He is transformed into someone that I love.” Remarkable! It is not hard to want those transformations to happen, but wanting did not make them happen. For that, we need to go further back. “But then I look at him and I force myself to see the man I married. And he becomes that man.” That’s how it happens.
The second is, “It’s not all the time, but it’s enough.” These wonderful and sustaining “transformations” don’t happen all the time. The judgment that the times they do happen are “enough” is a separate and distinct act of heroism, as I see it. As I wrote that, I wondered how Alicia’s mother felt about the choice Alicia was making—whether Alicia’s mother or any of her friends thought that these hit and miss “transformations” ought to be “enough.”
The story of the Nashes, as Ron Howard tells it, is completely clear about what causes what. John Nash said nothing more than the truth when, in his acceptance speech, he said to Alicia, “You are the reason I am here.” It was Alicia’s “I force myself to see the man I married” which undergirded John’s “I choose not to indulge certain appetites” and it was his refusal to indulge those appetites that took him to Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize.