By Joan Amenn
Hollywood loves an underdog. The story of the comeback over adversity, even better if that second chance is inspired by love, is known in certain neighborhoods of New York as “schmaltz,”- meaning, sentimentality. Mental illness is commonly reduced to the simplistic terms of sentimentality in the movies, but there are stories which manage to rise above. Extraordinary people can inspire but sometimes their loved ones who do not get the star treatment deserve it as much, if not more.
John Nash was so visionary in his mathematical ability his doctorate dissertation at Princeton was awarded a Nobel Prize forty-five years later. It took the rest of the world that long to catch up with what Nash was saying about “game theory” and how it could impact economics, among other applications. His brilliance was such that there is an apocryphal story that one of his high school teachers wrote one sentence in his recommendation to Princeton on his behalf, “He is a mathematical genius.” However, Nash had a secret that would surface soon after arriving at the university. He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
“The film shows the support of his colleagues but omits the remarkable generosity of his then ex-wife in providing the stability he needed to continue his struggle to overcome his disability.”
Alicia de Larde was one of only sixteen women admitted to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in 1951. She was a physics major and met Nash when he was teaching calculus there. Russell Crowe is admittedly astonishing as John Nash, but Jennifer Connelly is just as riveting as Alicia, so much so that it is a shame that she isn’t given more to do. The film itself makes the case that John Nash would be nothing without his wife, but we don’t see enough of her to get a full understanding of who she was. And she was extraordinary in her own right.
Alicia graduated from MIT at time when women were not expected to work, certainly not expected to become scientists and was then hired by the very prestigious Brookhaven National Laboratory. The film says nothing about this and only makes reference to her as a “painter.” This is an infuriating oversight since it was Alicia who supported John financially as he became more and more disabled from his paranoia. She then had to put her dreams of pursuing physics aside to support herself and her newborn son when her husband was hospitalized and became a software developer for New Jersey Transit.
Again, the film does not even touch on how she held her family together. Connelly is excellent in conveying the steely determination of a fiercely intelligent woman who is not afraid to confront her husband’s erratic behavior. At the same time, her devotion and heartbreak at how debilitating it leaves him is profoundly moving.
“[it was] Alicia who supported John financially as he became more and more disabled from his paranoia. She then had to put her dreams of pursuing physics aside to support herself and her newborn son.”
The film glosses over a lot of the struggle that would have shown just how crucial Alicia was to Nash’s survival, not just in his career but as an autonomous human being. He was in and out of institutions for years. They were only married for six years before the toll of his illness caused them to divorce in1963. While Crowe does give some idea of how Nash grew increasingly detached from reality, the truth was even more harrowing.
Through all this, he still was able to see mathematical patterns and devise theorems that were amazing to his colleagues at Princeton. To their credit, the university employed Nash whenever he was able to work at a time when those who suffered from mental illness were shunned and locked away in hospitals. It was precisely this isolation that Alicia feared would eventually render Nash unreachable, so she did an astonishingly noble thing. Even though they were divorced, she permitted him to live in the same home as she and their son as a boarder.
The film shows the support of his colleagues but omits the remarkable generosity of his then ex-wife in providing the stability he needed to continue his struggle to overcome his disability. Alicia and John Nash remarried in 2001 at which point he had weaned himself off the medication he always objected to and learned to control his disability purely through self-control. He made a point of saying in many interviews that he believed his ability to create mathematically was connected to his disability and medication tended to block his capacity to work. Sadly, his son with Alicia was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and was not able to overcome his illness as well as his father eventually did. Alicia became an advocate for the mentally ill and built a support system of therapists and caretakers around her son at a time when such systems either didn’t exist or were in their infancy.
The story of John Nash is really the story of John and Alicia Nash which is alluded to in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Economics. Their lives were inextricably intertwined, but there was so much more to them than the film told. Alicia Nash was nothing short of a hero but her emotional strength remains hidden in the shadow of her famous husband.