"A Beautiful Heart, A Diseased Mind"



"A Beautiful Mind" is a beautiful movie. Growing up with an older sister who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and manic depression, I saw echoes of my family's own experience in the onscreen hardships of mathematical genius and schizophrenic John Forbes Nash Jr. and his ever-patient wife Alicia.

Whenever Hollywood attempts to translate real-life human suffering into widescreen format, it runs the risk of either romanticizing - and thereby dehumanizing - or degrading the actual person behind the screenplay.

"A Beautiful Mind" skillfully avoids these sweeping overgeneralizations, and instead weaves a story of a man whose mind is capable of both extraordinary genius and devastating delusions.

The film has been criticized for its selective omission and careful editing of less-than-appealing aspects of the Nobel laureate's life. Regardless of the biographical inaccuracies, "A Beautiful Mind," as a work of art, expresses a truth about mental illness that typically eludes the Hallmark specials and Hollywood blockbusters that periodically attempt to address a subject which until recently was untouchable.

Newsweek columnist George Will's recently applauded director Ron Howard's visualization of the invisible, skillfully blurring delusions with reality and drawing unsuspecting viewers into the uncharted chasms of the schizophrenic mind. By experiencing Nash's paranoia along with him, the audience has no choice but to empathize with the struggles of this great man - a not-so-modest feat considering the stark line society has drawn between the sane and the insane, the competent and the incompetent, the normal and the abnormal.

For me, one of the most authentic and moving aspects of the film was its portrayal of the suffering of Nash's wife. Her rage, her tears and her isolation demonstrate the toll mental illness takes on those closest to the affected person.

Living with someone with a mental illness is like living with a time bomb, each day, each hour, each minute awaiting its detonation. Thankfully, the waves are usually minor, but sometimes they shake the very foundation of one's home. In the case of my sister Sarah, her problems quickly become my family's problems, and when she is down, we are all dragged down with her.

The title of the movie aptly expresses the deepest hope of all individuals who confront mental illness on a daily basis. Mental illness is not beautiful. It is painful, frightening, heartbreaking, rage-producing, exasperating and sometimes tragic for everyone touched by it.

Yet despite this fact, we all want to believe there is something beautiful lingering beneath the ugliness which so often rears its head.

Just as Alicia Nash strived to believe in her husband despite all the evidence to the contrary, I always searched for the hero in Sarah. Maybe it's because she is my older sister, and as a young child I desperately wanted to look up to her. Or perhaps it is because the only way I could deal with all of Sarah's faults and failings was to recognize her as an inherently admirable person - a person who struggles and suffers but ultimately triumphs over the odds.

But, as time wore on, it became increasingly difficult to extract any heroism from my sister. The illnesses that plagued Sarah's brain threatened to engulf her and drive the rest of my family into despair or insanity ourselves. Instead of seeing a hero, I saw a girl who caused frustration and heartache; a girl whose constant needs strangled all else, and who monopolized the attention and energy of everyone around her.

The all-consuming obsessions, the unexpected outbursts, the explosive anger that seems always to be teeming beneath my sister's frown at times became unbearable. When living at home, I attempted to blot her out of my consciousness, later becoming consumed with guilt for denying her the love and support I knew she needed most.

The scene of Alicia Nash in the bathroom shattering glass and shouting in anger recalls many a moment when I wanted to scream all the frustration out of me - when I wanted to destroy everything around me as revenge for the unfairness of it all.

At one point in the movie, one of Nash's colleagues asks Alicia how she manages to cope with what seems an unbearable marital situation. Alicia responds that at times she can remember the man she fell in love with - the man trapped within the delusions of his mind's own creation.

And that is how we all learn to deal with the imprisonment of those we love within the walls of mental illness. On bad days, it's difficult to remember what there is to love about Sarah. She can be extremely hurtful, insulting the people closest to her, and unbearably demanding, requiring every ounce of my energy not to lash out at her verbally, even physically. On those days I curse her existence in the secret dialogues of my mind, only to berate myself later for my selfish lack of patience.

But on a good day, when a genuine smile breaks through the darkness typically clouding her countenance or her infectious laughter bellows throughout the house, I am reminded of all there is to cherish about my sister.

I remember her as a typical carefree child, swinging on our swing-set, amusing dinner guests with her comic impressions and sharing laughs over Marx Brothers movies or reruns of "I Love Lucy." I remember the countless performances we orchestrated for my parents, our enthusiastic rendition of Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, with my sister playing the straight man, and the impromptu duets my father often captured on audio cassettes.

I also remember Sarah's triumphs: her graduation from Shaker High School and the Young Adult Program, her first job, her development of lasting friendships and her preparations for moving out of my family's house this spring - all obstacles which at one point seemed insurmountable for my sister.

Nash's triumph over his illness is nothing short of miraculous - a true "success story." In my sister's life, a happy ending is far from a guarantee, but in the little triumphs that emerge from the heartache, I think I can find cause for admiration.