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24 October 2011

'A Beautiful Mind' by Sylvia Nasar

To bring to life, in writing, a man and his life, as in this excellent biography, is difficult.  To also bring to life his passion and genius for mathematics is art.  The book puts into context the society, academic status and madness of John Nash Jr.  As I read this book and reflected on the paranoid, homophobic, academically conservative world he walked in, I wondered why there were not more insane men from the McCarthy era.

Freedom feels like a real myth; something that probably did not exist, except as an ideal.  When I read about the paranoia and prejudices of the 1950s and I look at our world today with in addition its loss of freedom in exchange for security, nothing much seems to have changed.

John Nash Jr. craved freedom in every way.  His story highlights how his lovers (male and female), partners and colleagues also wanted freedom to love, to work, to succeed and to be proud.  A fundamental difference, of course, is that his illness exaggerated some of these traits and desires.  There is nothing insane about wanting freedom.  It was a repressive environment and political influence that branded such desires from men and women as insanity.  Schizophrenia makes one hypersensitive.  Nash's friends and relations constantly reminded themselves and John of his sanity, for were not them all also a little insane? They reminded him of his accomplishments, his friendships, his loves and his magnificent, creative intellect.

Princeton university as well as Dr. Nash's friends and admirers in the mathematics community showed him kindness and faith.  They gave him as many opportunities as he needed to overcome his illness and help himself get better.  The women in his life, though, are even more extraordinary.  Alicia and Meredith deserve biographies of their own.  They showed resilience and strength.  These educated women, an engineer and a nurse respectively, suffered the stigma of being single mothers and the stigma of being women who wanted to work.  It was heartrending and humiliating to read at times.  Alicia helped Nash come out of his illness; she provided protection and support even after their divorce.  Meredith, alone and unmarried, raised a lovely child.

Beautiful book, beautiful story... No wonder it was made into a movie.  Could the ending be any more 'Hollywood'?  A work of fiction could not have sustained such an ending.  Thank God life is still stranger than fiction.

ISBN: 9780571212927

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