Proof's Social Commentary

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2003

Proof, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Auburn, was staged at Theatre and Company this fall. And thanks to CKCO and Bell, one of the evening performances with approximately 200 people in attendance was in support of St. John’s Kitchen, raising $2,000 in ticket sales. Whether by coincidence or design, Proof was a highly appropriate choice: the script of this insightful story reflected a synchronicity with St. John’s Kitchen.

Proof was inspired by the real-life story of John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), a brilliant mathematician suffering from schizophrenia. Nash’s Game Theory which won him the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994, has had numerous applications in politics, economics, life sciences and psychology.

It is a monumental story for many obvious reasons but mostly because of love. At St. John’s Kitchen I regularly visit with many people who struggle with a variety of psychological difficulties ranging from stress, grief, and the distress of financial privation, of homelessness (or the constant risk of homelessness) to depression, bi-polar mood disorder and schizophrenia. As did John Nash, the people at St. John’s Kitchen have many skills and gifts, which are made manifest through one-on-one contact which allows for the discovery of those gifts often masked by other struggles. But unlike Nash and Robert, his alter ego in Proof, the people I know at St. John’s Kitchen typically do not have the job, the money, the house, the family or the community support. And this, I believe, is the message we should glean from this incredible story. It is not surprising that someone should be both brilliant and mentally ill. What is surprising is that he should find himself supported and loved, living a dignified life; having the respect of the academic community and now the world community. But their respect and support for Nash says more about them than it does about him. They are confounded by their own discovery and appreciation for a man who is more than his schizophrenia. People with psychological difficulties tend to be viewed one-dimensionally. Clearly mathematical genius is not a routine find, but there is a wealth of talent to be tapped in people who are often dismissed. What this story should indicate to us is not how extraordinary it is to be a person with skills and gifts who also happens to struggle with schizophrenia, but how common it may be.

In Proof, the question left hanging, is whether Robert’s daughter, Catherine who appears to have inherited his genius has also inherited his mental instability. Catherine’s behaviour, as judged by her sister Claire—not getting out of bed for days, a lack of interest in housekeeping, and no motivation—are seen as deviant when in fact they are normal responses to a difficult situation, namely the loss of her father, and her five year care-taker role. Her behaviour is questioned by her older sister Claire, whose condescending, managerial approach to the situation mirrors the uncaring or stigmatizing community that people with psychological difficulties often face. Critics of the play questioned the lack of apparent signs of mental instability in Catherine and to a certain extent in Robert. In fact, people who suffer psychological difficulties often do not exhibit disturbed behaviours with the same frequency across all situations. And I would ask who among us has not at some point been depressed, stressed, or experienced some degree of psychological difficulty? In a caring environment, people are given the chance to confront and wade through the challenges. But without loving support and respect, problems multiply and people slip further into a dark place. Many people I have met at St. John’s Kitchen over four years have never displayed any disturbed behaviour even though I’m aware they do struggle with some mental distress. The only obvious symptom of psychological distress I witness daily is the abject poverty that is inevitable—mental distress and poverty go hand in hand. And that is what makes the life of John Nash and his alter ego Robert so remarkable. One primary symptom of mental illness—poverty, in all of its conceivable forms—was missing from his life because he was loved and respected.

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, said, “Love consists of this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” What makes this quote so appealing is the way it encompasses filial love, romantic love, and universal love, the love of all human beings.

Even the most disturbed individual shares this same desire we all hope for: to be treated as a human being, to interact with others. And normal interaction is often all it takes for deviant behaviours to slip away. It is the isolation and alienation people feel that perpetrates unwanted behaviours.

The Cold War years and its conspiratorial dimensions were the backdrop for Nash’s mathematical genius and his schizophrenia to flourish. We are today’s backdrop: a community at best ambivalent, at worst intolerant of those challenged with psychological difficulties. The quality of life for any community would be enhanced by a recognition that the guy with his palm open to you is begging for a change in your thinking.

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