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A beautiful mind betrayed


When I saw the film “A Beautiful Mind,” my first reaction was appreciation. I was grateful that on screen I saw a glimpse of what my brother Ed, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, must have gone through before he silenced his voices on June 8, 1987. That is the date I give for the day I became a priest. I was ordained five years earlier, but I don’t believe I started to become a priest until Ed put a gun in his mouth and painted the basement walls of my parents’ home with his beautiful mind.

Some aspects of the film leave me uneasy about its depiction of mental illness. First, it is too neat in wrapping up the loose ends of a life that unraveled under mental duress and tying it with a bow (the Nobel Prize). And second, it leaves us with the impression that the cultural conceit captured by the cliché made famous by the Beatles (“All you need is love”) can conquer even the most debilitating disorder.

The movie is too tidy. I’m not opposed to happy endings. I wish my brother Ed could have had a happier ending. Maybe I’m envious. Or maybe the suicide of a loved one has a way of affecting all one’s endings and beginnings for the rest of one’s life.

There are more than a few glimpses of the terror that raged inside the mind of John Forbes Nash in the film. For anyone who has a loved one afflicted with this disease, these scenes make for a familiar horror film. For example, when Nash stops taking his medication because of the side effects, the film accurately portrays how the visions and voices that plagued Nash return.

I remember when Ed would start feeling better and stop taking his medication. He would talk of finding a job and settling back into the routine he knew before the illness had forced him to move back with my parents where he spent many of his days shuffling around the house in his bathrobe, an ever-present cigarette perched precariously on his lip. At a family gathering the day before he took his life, Ed talked of going back to work. But his demons, freed from the containment imposed by the prescription drugs Ed had stopped taking, had other plans in mind.

What seems too easy in the film is how this man with the brilliant, beautiful mind whose theories won him recognition in his old age regains his equilibrium by stopping his medication. As if by the sheer force of will, Nash could control his demons. What this suggests to me is that if only my brother, a genius in his own right, as skilled a mechanic as Nash is a mathematician, had more willpower, he would be alive today.

While I don’t believe this, my concern is that those who see the film and who have not experienced someone they love with mental illness will also come to this conclusion.

The film is impressive in the way it reflects Nash’s incarceration in the prison paranoid schizophrenia imposes. Memories of visiting Ed on psychiatric wards came rushing back to me. I am grateful that director Ron Howard who, forgive me, I’ll always associate with the old Andy Griffith show as Opie, gave me a sense of the demons in my brother’s mind that teased and tortured him until ultimately they killed him. “Opie’s Opus” depicts the symptoms in a very clever way and shows the most terrifying aspect of the disease that afflicted my brother: not knowing what is real and what is not. There were many times when I was home visiting when Ed would come into the family room and accuse us of talking about him. But the voices he heard were not coming from the family room but from inside his head.

When I was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Sedalia, Mo., I received a call one day from Ed, who was staying at his place at the Lake of the Ozarks. This was the sanctuary he sought out the day I was ordained because he couldn’t stand crowds, the place he went whenever the voices became too loud. Ed rarely called me or asked for my help, but this day he was desperate. His voice raced as he paced back and forth. He told me how he was going to hell and how God could never forgive the things he had done. I tried to reassure him that God forgives all. But this wasn’t the bad, old-fashioned Catholic guilt that keeps those long-playing morality tapes from fading from some of our minds. The demons were tormenting him again.

Which brings me to the second uneasiness I have about “A Beautiful Mind.” We Americans have faith in willpower, the ancient American myth of “bootstrap psychology.” If he or she only works hard enough and has an indomitable spirit he or she can conquer anything. But this will only get the person so far in overcoming this disease. The film also seems to suggest that if a person has enough love from family and friends, then, coupled with an individual’s determination, victory over the demons is possible.

The depiction in the film of Alicia, Nash’s loving wife, is inspiring. But the suggestion that love can bring a person back to health felt like a slap at my mom and dad, my sisters and brother, and a few of Ed’s friends who were with him to the very end.

I have never seen such love and devotion as I saw in my mom especially and in my two sisters during Ed’s ordeal. My sister Sharon was born only 11 months after Ed. They grew up together and were the best of friends. In the early years of Ed’s illness when none of us knew what was happening, she defended him against those who accused him of being strung out on drugs. Her brother, whom she knew better than any person on earth, was becoming someone else, a person none of us knew. She longed for the “old Eddie” to return but he never did.

When I received the message to call home, Sharon answered the phone. “How is he?” I asked. And when Sharon said, “He’s gone, Joe. He’s gone,” I could hear her heart breaking and through the tears and the grief in her voice knew that this is what love sounds like.

I am grateful for as honest a depiction of paranoid schizophrenia that I’ve seen. But most of all I am grateful because it has given me the opportunity to reflect again on the mystery of my brother’s mental illness. That illness took his life 15 years ago this summer. That illness and death has shaped my life ever since, as I strive to find meaning even in the mess, truth no matter how untidy it might be, and love even in the losing.

Fr. Joseph Nassal is a Missionary of the Most Precious Blood who is involved in retreat ministry. His most recent book is Moments of Truth: A Spirituality of Time, Grace & Sacred Space.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002