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Nash biographer covers mental ills

OGDEN — Sylvia Nasar's arrival Wednesday for her first visit to Utah coincided with the finding of Elizabeth Smart, "a story with a wonderful ending."

Her own biography of John Nash, a math genius who won the Nobel Prize but whose life was dogged by mental illness, awaits an ending, she told an audience at Weber State University Thursday. But Nash's story, chronicled in the movie "A Beautiful Mind," taken from her own book, has taught her "never try to write the last chapter of your own story. It's not over until it's over."

Nasar became interested in the story of Nash, whose meteoric rise in the world of mathematics was followed by a catastrophic fall as mental illness rendered him unable to function, when she was an economics reporter for the New York Times. She wrote a piece on him in relationship to the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics and became so intrigued that she expanded the biography into a book.

Although it tells a story of a genius wounded by schizophrenia, the book really is "a love story," she said. Nash's wife, Alicia, ultimately divorced him when his condition made life unbearable, but she continued to care for him and nourish him through years of repeated commitments (which she had to authorize each time). They remarried after 30 years when for some reason he went into what seems to be a permanent remission. The support of his wife and a few others who "never gave up" contributed to his eventual return to a functional state, she said.

Alicia had been a student in one of Nash's classes and "set out to marry a math star," said Nasar. When she found her dreams shattered, she displayed tremendous compassion. Although at times he saw her as his worst enemy, she persisted. "She never let him go.

"Alicia is the heroine of the story. She sheltered him, kept him off the streets and the back wards of hospitals. She saved his life."

Even the Nobel prize that honored Nash's stunning mathematical achievements almost didn't happen because of his history of schizophrenia, Nasar said. The Nobel committee was divided as late as one hour before the prizes were to be announced, some fearing that Nash would do something that would embarrass the prestigious international recognition program. But some insisted his mental illness was not germane to the prize and that it should be considered in the same light a physical illness would be. The prize was awarded.

The research, publication of her book and the movie have set Nasar off on a crusade to promote better understanding of mental illness, she said, including the need for insurance coverage so patients can get treatment. "The movie brought schizophrenia out of the closet and put a human face on it," she said.