putting nash in the closet

As distraction from my dissertation, I’ve been reading Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind. It’s pretty light; she doesn’t explain much about Nash’s discoveries, and the book is an odd mixture of lurid, isolated observations on the one hand, and overall hero worship on the other.

I wouldn’t have posted on it at all were it not for this paragraph:

The arrest [for indecent exposure] preceded the onset of Nash’s illness by more than four years. Stories of other mathematicians who were caught up in the meanness and bigotry of those times illustrate how disequilibrating being harassed and humiliated can be. J. C. C. McKinsey committed suicide in 1953 within two years of being fired by RAND.35 Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who cracked the Nazi submarine code, was arrested, tried, and convicted under Britain’s anti-homosexual statutes in 1952; he committed suicide in the summer of 1954 by taking a bite of a cyanide-laced apple in his laboratory.36 Others, less well known, less obviously brutalized, had breakdowns that led to their giving up mathematics and living on the margins of society. The biggest shock to Nash may not have been the arrest itself, but the subsequent expulsion from RAND.

Perhaps like you, I first heard of John Nash because of the film starring Russell Crowe. When I learned, from reading reviews of Nasar’s book, that Nash had had affairs with men, I didn’t obsess about this being missing from the film. Perhaps it wasn’t that important in his life.

Well, as you can see, nothing could be further from the truth. The House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations into Communism led to an expanded witch hunt that made homosexuals even more of a focus for law enforcement. Nash was blacklisted from RAND because he was gay, and that shock was one of the primary reasons for his decline into paranoid schizophrenia.

In light of these facts, what the movie did was inexcusable. It portrays Nash as a tragic genius, afflicted with too much vision and pride. The truth is that his genius was his own, but his tragedy is part of a much larger, shameful history of homophobia and hatred in this country. It was persecution, not hubris, that caused irreparable damage to John Nash’s beautiful mind.

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