The mathematics of mental disorder

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My mother rocked back onto her heels and unzipped the suitcase. Inside lay a haphazard pile of pashmina shawls and worn hoodies, tucked away from last February. Lahore’s summer tends to vanish the way it comes — without warning or welcome. Winter arrives in a sweep of fog that leaves trees emaciated and breaths frosted over. My mother arranged the warm clothes in piles on the floor as I spoke to her with an enthusiasm that only gawky sixth-graders can muster.

“Maryam?”

A shift in tone. My heart dropped.

“Yes?”

Silence. She pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes. Her mouth was tight, but her voice came out casually: “Your sister is schizophrenic.”

***

Acceptance comes easily when you’re 12. I told my friends at recess the next day as we bartered the contents of our lunch boxes.

“So, like, she’s crazy?”

My best friend traded a cookie for some of my sandwich.

“I mean, she mostly just stares into space and smiles.” I handed over apple juice and accepted orange juice in exchange. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

It wasn’t so bad. There was no screaming yet. No paranoia or violence or binge eating, no disordered thoughts or delusions of grandeur, symptoms often used by psychologists to characterize the mental disorder. Not then. Schizophrenia hadn’t yet reduced my sister to an incoherent husk of herself. It wasn’t theatrical in its expression; there was no great struggle or mad descent. Instead, it was quiet, insidious in its totality. My sister was gone — not with a bang, not even with a whimper.

***

Google “movies about schizophrenia” and “A Beautiful Mind” is listed first. At the time of its premiere in 2001, it was lauded by critics and crowds alike, garnering eight Academy Award nominations and securing four wins. Critics were impressed by its execution, gripping plot and considerate representation of a sensitive issue. My family and I watched “A Beautiful Mind” a decade after its celebrated release, and thus stood removed from the glamor of its initial fame.

It didn’t matter — it still had a profound effect on me. It may not have been the movie of the year anymore, but it was the movie of my year.

“A Beautiful Mind” chronicles the life of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a Nobel Prize-winning American mathematician whose work on game theory revolutionized economics in the Cold War era. The audience is let in on the secret early — Nash is unlike his colleagues. His speech is haltingly delivered and peppered with social gaffes, his posture is slouched, and the punchlines of his jokes are bereft of openings to buoy them. The filmmakers intend for audiences to attribute this difference to Nash’s mathematical bent, or to his apparent genius, until the big reveal late in the film provides a better explanation. Nash is schizophrenic, suffering from paranoia and delusions of grandeur.

As I watched the film, my attention skittered between my sister and Nash. My sister, her head haloed with frizzy curls. Nash, his head a sweep of neatly combed hair. My sister, diminutive in stature. Nash, a possessed but commanding presence. My sister, perched on the edge of the sofa, her legs swinging. Nash, strangely still in a restless crowd. One time when I turned away from the screen and looked across the living room, our gazes caught and held. I looked at my sister and she looked through me.

I turned back to Nash and was caught in his equally glassy stare. In this they did not differ.

***

“A Beautiful Mind” was important to me the first time I watched it. It brought my sister’s condition to life, out of the confines of a strict list of symptoms. It was raw and real and moving, a testament to the power of will against all odds. It did not paint people with schizophrenia as unhinged or malicious, as many television shows, books and movies do. It instead presented Nash’s identity as a culmination of many things, including but not limited to his mental disorder. And it gave me a very important message: My sister wasn’t alone. In Nash’s supportive wife, Alicia, I recognized the importance of unconditional support and regard for people with schizophrenia.

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are only recently getting their due representation in mainstream media. For a chronic, severe and misunderstood illness such as schizophrenia to be represented was nothing short of an anomaly.

“A Beautiful Mind” is important to me today, too, seven years after I first watched it. My relationship with it has shifted with time and understanding. The film gives an intoxicating message of consolation — that it gets better. At a time shortly after learning of my sister’s diagnosis, I desperately needed to hear that. Now, I understand how it falls prey to a well-intentioned but harmful trope of the “disability superhero.” The disability superhero is a character whose overwhelming genius stems from “madness.” The superhero is ultimately rid of illness through the sheer might of will. The real-life John Nash whom the film was based on wasn’t this superhero, and his filmic triumph is divorced from the reality of many people with schizophrenia. My sister is powerful in spite of her diagnosis, not because of it.

***

“What did you think of it?” my mother asked my sister as the credits rolled that first time.

“Boring,” she proclaimed. “I’ve never liked math.”

Contact Maryam Khan at [email protected].
“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.

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