Sylvia Nasar lay awake many nights in the mid-1990s worrying whether any anxiety caused by the biography she was writing about the Princeton mathematician John Nash would make him lapse back into the schizophrenic episodes that ravaged so many years of his life. But the 1998 publication of the book, "A Beautiful Mind," and the Oscar-winning movie of the same name instead became part of the long-running story of Nash's miraculous turnaround. In this "third act," as Nasar calls it, Nash overcame mental illness, rebuilt his life, and ultimately became an international celebrity known not just for Russell Crowe's portrayal of him in the 2001 movie but for his outsized contributions to mathematics and economics, which had won him the 1994 Nobel Prize. Not featured in the film, and lesser known to the outside world, was how he experienced day-to-day life, relishing the little things while caring for his son, Johnny, who also suffers from schizophrenia.
Nash and his wife, Alicia, died Saturday in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. On Monday afternoon, I talked with Nasar about their unexpected death, but also Nash's life, his role in the still evolving history of economics, mental illness and the strong reactions to the book and movie. "Nash’s story is one for the ages and I think it had these extreme lows and extreme highs. It was a very romantic and dramatic story with a lot of tragedy," she told me. "It shouldn’t have ended the way it did, but it’s not the end that’s going to be remembered." What will be remembered, she said, "is the fact that he made all these great contributions and survived this terrible illness to have a third act in life."
We began our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed, by discussing Nash's turnaround.
Zach Goldfarb: In the most recent edition of your book, you discuss how Nash's story has the qualities of a Greek myth and a Shakespearean tragedy. His death with his wife this weekend seems, if anything, to underscore that. How do you see this in the arc of their lives?
Sylvia Nasar: The ending was senseless because it was completely random. But very few lives have a third act, and it was the third act to me that made this story so unique. Most biographies of geniuses are of a meteoric rise and then the gradual or sudden fall, but Nash’s third act starting with aging out of schizophrenia and the Nobel was 20 years long.
ZG: How did he spend the last 21 years, since he won the Nobel?
SN: The first time I saw him was a few months after he won the Nobel, and he was going to a game theory conference in Israel. He was surrounded by other mathematicians, and he looked like someone who had been mentally ill. His clothes were mismatched. His front teeth were rotted down to the gums. He didn’t make eye contact. But, over time, he got his teeth fixed. He started wearing nice clothes that Alicia could afford to buy him. He got used to being around people.
He and Alicia spent a lot of their time taking care of their son, Johnny, and doing the things that are so ordinary that the rest of us don’t think about them. Once I asked him what difference the Nobel Prize money made, and he literally said, “Well, now I can go into Starbucks and buy a $2 cup of coffee. I couldn’t do that when I was poor.” He got a driver's license. He had lunch most days with other mathematicians, reintegrating into the one community that mattered to him most.
The last time I was with him was about a year ago when Alicia organized a really lovely dinner with us and two other couples. John was talking about all the invitations they’ve gotten and all the places they’ve planned to travel. Johnny was there. He was still very sick. They took him to a lot of the places they went and always tried to include him. Their life was a mix of glamour and celebrity – and the day-to-day which revolved around Johnny, who by then was in his 50s and was as sick as his father ever was and entirely dependent on them.
ZG: Most people may be aware of John Nash’s mental illness, but may not know his and Alicia's son also suffered from schizophrenia.
SN: Johnny was very, very bright, but at 15, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He never graduated from high school, never graduated from college, but he was talented mathematically, not a genius like his father but very very good. He managed to get a PhD, and this was 10 years into his illness, but he was never able to work, and he really never has responded to any of the available drugs, which of course are better than what was available than when his father got sick.
The first thought that I had when I got the news was, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen to Johnny now?” There was a very close family friend who really has been very helpful, Alicia has cousins who have been very helpful, but they were really his main human connection.
ZG: We’ll talk about John Nash the man more, but let’s talk a little about John Nash the mathematician. Why were his findings quite so revelatory?
SN: Game theory was invented by John von Neumann in the 1930s as a way of thinking about strategic behavior, but Von Neumann's theory concerned zero-sum games, where either the participants had absolutely no common interests or their interests were totally congruent. In real life, especially in economics, neither of those situations are really found often in nature, not even between countries who are at war. What Nash did with was to show that in a situation where there are multiple players -- even if they were not collaborating explicitly -- there was a equilibrium: Players were able to do the best they could do, given what the others were doing. It was the first tool for thinking systematically about what happens in markets when participants engage in strategic behavior -- that is, take into account what other players are doing.
ZG: What has been the most concrete application of his ideas?
SN: I think the biggest and most concrete impact has been in Federal Reserve policy, which now really revolves around managing expectations of both companies and consumers and other central banks. It’s become strategic, rather than we’re going to turn the dial here and there, and that’s it.
Another one would be the way all kinds of government-owned goods are sold. For example, oil leases and radio bands used to be given out on the basis of political considerations. Now they’re auctioned off in a way that is vastly more efficient and basically corruption-free and that is really directly related to the application of game theory.
It's also certainly extremely relevant to environmental issues. I think that’s where a lot of game theorists have gravitated. I expect there’s going to be more breakthroughs in that particular area
The applications may not be everyday life in the sense the same way the think about going to the grocery store but they’re important to the economy.
ZG: Moving back to the movie and its portrayal, what was your reaction to the way the film discussed schizophrenia and mental illness?
SN: What was the genius of the movie, and this was a completely different narrative arc of the biography, was to let you see the world through Nash’s eyes in the first half of the movie and then pull the rug out from under the audience in the second half. Putting the audience in the shoes of someone who couldn’t distinguish reality -- and in a way that sparked empathy and sympathy and understanding, rather than revulsion -- was extraordinary.
I think that is why movie translated so well to so many disparate countries and cultures. It was as big a hit in India and China as in Argentina and Mexico because severe mental illnesses are a problem everywhere and finding a way to talk about them is very difficult. These families often suffer in silence because there’s no easy way to do talk about it.
ZG: Some have suggested that Nash’s mental illness somehow helped him come up with such original insights into mathematics and economics. Is that a theory you agree with?
SN: I think it’s a theory people have debated for a long time, but I don’t know exactly where that gets you. It’s clear that John Nash was an eccentric young man before he got sick. I don’t know if he was more eccentric before he got sick than a lot of extremely healthy mathematicians that have no experience of mental illness. How someone makes particular connections must be the product of so many things in their experience.
ZG: What's your view of the notion that Nash willed himself out of schizophrenia?
SN: Those remarks by Nash have been somewhat misinterpreted or taken out of context. He got sick at 30. He was never in treatment after age 40. That is 1970. No medication, nothing. He didn’t will his way to recovery. What he called it was aging out of it. He thought the hormonal changes had something to do with this recovery. This is almost certainly true. When he talked about managing the delusions, that is what cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy are all about. He’s not talking about willing away the illness. He would never do that because he was dealing with his son.
Many people with long-term illnesses like that commit suicide and many of them never come back. He was one of the 8 or 10 percent with chronic schizophrenia who have spontaneous recoveries. One thing he doesn’t talk about much, but he certainly acknowledged it, was the role Alicia played in the recovery. He had a stable home and family to come back to. And the Nobel completed the cure in the sense that he also had a community that maybe stopped interacting with him for many years but to whom he meant something and which certainly meant a lot to him.
ZG: Some critics raised questions about the film because it simplified aspects of Nash’s life, like the fact that he and Alicia actually divorced before getting remarried.
SN: I have never understood that objection because any one who’s a writer knows the biography is always going to be there if people wanted to the details. I think Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter, and Ron Howard, the director, focused on what was so unique about the story. And the unique thing was the love story.
I thought that was a real misunderstanding after the film. In fact, I read some things online that appalled me. They harkened back to the Oscar campaign, when a few people took out of context anti-Semitic remarks Nash made when he was completely delusional and then criticized the movie for not including them. I thought that was ridiculous and it was almost the kind of denial of the reality of mental illness, that this was a real disease that caused not just John Nash, but a lot of people to think they’re Jesus Christ, to make some really offensive remarks and beliefs. That really had nothing to do with the John Nash when he wasn’t sick.
ZG: How did John Nash respond to the movie?
SN: I talked to him after Ron Howard screened the movie. He said three things. First of all, he said it wasn’t boring. Secondly he said he thought it was funny. It was so consonant with his personality because he’s very witty. And the third thing he said is Russell Crowe looked like him a little bit. I think it gave him real pleasure.
ZG: Finally, to bring your other book on the modern history of economics, "Grand Pursuit," into this discussion for a moment, people describe Nash as one of the great mathematicians and economists of the 20th century, along with the likes of Einstein and Keynes. Do you see great mathematicians and economists being forged today? Are there modern day John Nashes?
SN: I think so. I think that someone’s stature is usually only clear in the rear-view mirror. It takes time for the significance of ideas to sink in. Even if you think about someone like Keynes or Irving Fisher who were writing during the Great Depression, who were writing about what to do about the biggest economic crisis in U.S. and world history, their ideas about to deal with Depression weren't accepted then, they weren't accepted until after World War II. Some people thought that Keynes and Fisher were geniuses, but a lot of people thought that a lot of people were charlatans.
So I'm sure there are people who are going to make very important contributions. Economics is a living science and it continues to attract terrific talent. There are huge problems that current economic theory is not terribly good at getting to the bottom of yet. For example, financial crises that produce collapses in the banking system. Exactly why they happen. Can they be prevented? How do you ameliorate them? These are still open questions.
It’s like people saying nobody’s going to invent anything of great significance anymore. People have said that many times before. Economics is a bigger church church now. It’s much more specialized. So it’s hard to know what people are doing and to evaluate the significance. But I don’t see any reason there aren’t more John Nashes out there.