Schizophrenia: A Beautiful Fight
As recent trends in popular culture have demonstrated, we are deeply intrigued by stories of psychological trauma, especially those of schizophrenia. When we hear of struggles involving vivid hallucinations, blurred realities, and imagined voices, we cannot seem to take our eyes off the big screen, nor keep from turning page after page. Such is the case with David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), as well as the literature from which they were adapted, Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club and Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr. With the emergence of such stories in these mediums, schizophrenia has at long last been thrust into the public spotlight. However, this exposure has not come without inherent limitations, in addition to reinforced misconceptions about what is a largely misunderstood disorder. In this paper, we take a closer look at the deeper processes at work in popular representations of a serious condition like schizophrenia, and begin to trace both the successes and shortfalls of these stories. In doing so, it becomes clear that the journey to find the true story of schizophrenia is a long, yet promising battle—a beautiful fight.
With the inception of the motion picture just over a century ago, movie makers have been on a relentless quest to depict a captivating story, in hopes of attracting the eager hearts, minds, and wallets of viewers and audiences around the globe. Yet in the context of history and historiography, film is only a relatively recent development through which stories are told and knowledge is transmitted. The once dominant forms of oral tradition, written record, and literature are slowly being replaced by the quicker, more instantaneous gratification offered by emergent forms such as film. However, along with this dynamism and transience comes great risk, as the same stories are inevitably presented differently across the broad landscape of storytelling media. With such rapid change we might fail to recognize the ways in which these stories can alter, enhance, and even distort our perceptions of the world around us.
Therefore, in order to tangibly compare and contrast how similar stories are being told across different media, this paper will take a closer look at one story in particular: the story of schizophrenia. In recent years, this devastating psychological disorder has been the centerpiece for a number of Hollywood productions, most notably David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001). Interestingly, both of these films were adapted from literature: Fight Club from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 fictional work, and A Beautiful Mind from Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 biography of the life of John Nash. A closer look at each of these works demonstrates that, on the one hand, literature and film both possess effective techniques for portraying the story of a person with schizophrenia. However, it is also clear that the accuracy and commentary of these works varies greatly, as more often than not schizophrenia’s nature as a mental disorder can be distorted as works negotiate the line between entertainment and reality.
The True Story of Schizophrenia: What it is, and What it isn’t
On the whole, schizophrenia is an enormously misunderstood disorder. Since the vast majority of the American public is not intimately familiar with psychology or psychiatry, most of what we know about schizophrenia comes primarily from what we have seen onscreen or read in a book. Yet as we have already begun to discuss, both of these media are limited in different ways in terms of their ability to portray the disorder accurately. And while much is still largely unknown, from the disorder’s causality to the variability of experience, here is a short crash course in what we do know about schizophrenia:
20/20 ABC News Special on Schizophrenia, Part 1: Inside a Tortured Mind
As this video illustrates, schizophrenia is a disorder which blurs the line between what is real and what is unreal. Though the lived experiences of persons with schizophrenia do tend to vary greatly, learning to live everyday life with the juxtaposition of terrifying images, sounds, and malicious voices is an unfortunate and harsh reality for almost all who suffer from the disorder. As is most vividly described by Sylvia Nasar, the major difficulty schizophrenics face is in distinguishing between reality and delusions, “false beliefs…that constitute a dramatic rejection of consensual reality. Often, they involve misinterpretations of perceptions or experiences. They are thought nowadays to arise primarily because of the gross distortions in sensory data and the way thought and emotion are processed” (Nasar 324). However, to its victims, these false delusions and compromised realities do in fact seem very real, which is precisely what makes schizophrenia such a scary, yet intriguing disease–and perhaps helps to explain our prolonged fascination with its representations in popular culture.
Besides recognizing this potentially hazy line between delusion and reality, it is also critical to understand that the experiences of schizophrenics are by no means uniform. There are actually four different types of schizophrenia, a distinction which often gets lost under the umbrella that the term “schizophrenia” provides. The first type is “paranoid” schizophrenia, which is characterized by prominent hallucinations and delusions involving grand schemes of persecution. These individuals are highly suspicious and fearful of others but do not experience blunted affect, disorganized behaviors or thoughts. The second is “disorganized” schizophrenia, which describes cases in which individuals are verbally incoherent and have disorganized thought patterns. Additionally, these individual can experience blunted affect, mood swings, and emotional responses that are not situationally appropriate. Interestingly, disorganized schizophrenia does not include hallucinations or delusions. The third type, “catatonic” schizophrenia, is characterized by withdrawn, negative, and isolated symptoms. This type of schizophrenia is marked by psychomotor disturbances and, in some cases, individuals are immobile. And the fourth, “undifferentiated” schizophrenia, refers to those who experience symptoms meeting the diagnostic criteria for the disorder but not fitting into the first three types or demonstrating symptoms of more than one kind. However, the one common thread tying each of these types together is the fact that schizophrenia’s symptoms can all be traced to chemical imbalances deep within the brain, illustrated in the following brainscans of identical twins, one with schizophrenia and one without:
Another important point to make is that schizophrenia is much more common than one might expect. The lifetime prevalence of the disorder is approximately 1%, meaning schizophrenia is twice as prevalent as Alzheimer’s (even though Alzheimer’s is more widely known and understood), and just as prevalent as autism. It also ranks as one of the top 10 causes of disability in developed countries worldwide. Yet what really separates schizophrenia from other mental disorders is that “rather than the cloudiness, confusion, and meaninglessness” of other debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenics experience “hyper-awareness, over-acuity, and an uncanny wakefulness” (Nasar 324). Furthermore, for reasons yet to be determined, the onset of the disorder is slightly earlier in males (ages 20-26) than it is females (ages 26-32). However, a paradox lies in the fact that schizophrenia affects both males and females equally as profoundly, and occurs worldwide across all countries, cultures, and cross-sections of society. Moreover, schizophrenia has no known cause and no known cure, although its symptoms are considered manageable with proper treatment and pharmaceutical therapy. But as we examine popular representations of schizophrenia more closely, we will continue to see that the “manageability” of this disorder is certainly up for debate.
Successful Portrayals of Schizophrenia: When the Form Becomes the Content
Now that we have established a baseline for what we do know about schizophrenia, let us now move into how the disorder is depicted in our four texts. And as we will demonstrate, while the story of schizophrenia has in some ways been distorted by the popular mediums of literature and film, there are also many successful, accurate and thought-provoking techniques which writers and directors use to describe schizophrenia. The most prominent of these are ways in which filmmakers and authors are able to first conceal the disorder, and then subtly place the audience inside the tortured minds of their characters. Just as Michel Chion describes so well in his “The Voice in Cinema,” often times, what makes film so effective is the fact that the form actually becomes the content, or in other words, the techniques, such as camera shots, cinematic tricks, visual and auditory effects, create meaning in the ways similar to acting or dialogue. Chion’s primary illustration is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where he claims that Hitchcock uses specific cinematic elements like high camera angles and acousmetre–where voices are mysteriously heard but not seen–in order to deceive the audience as to Norman Bates’ condition, which is a classic case of multiple personality disorder. Along similar lines, we propose that where films and novels are at their best in portraying psychological disorders, in our case schizophrenia, is precisely when the form becomes the content.
One way in which the form becomes the content for Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club is his use of a stream of consciousness writing style throughout the novel. This provides for a very different, but somewhat enlightening understanding of the disorder. This stream of consciousness writing gives the reader a more involved and intimate experience the main character’s thoughts. As readers, we witness actual dialogue between the main character and his hallucination (Tyler Durden); so, just like the schizophrenic narrator, we the reader must decipher between what is real and what is not. Similarly, Palahniuk creates this same effect even more tangibly with the frequent switching of time and place. The narrator’s thoughts repeatedly switch back and forth between his hallucination’s job and his job. In almost alternating paragraphs, the narrator tells of his experience flying on airplanes all over the United States for his job and of Tyler’s experiences working as a projectionist. One entire chapter just rotates between the narrator and Tyler suggesting that while on the airplane, he is envisioning his hallucination at work. Because he is consistently changing from one perspective to another, Palahniuk reinforces the chaotic nature of the narrator’s thinking pattern by placing the reader directly inside his confusing distorted thoughts.
This same sort of effect can be seen in the film, A Beautiful Mind, as John Nash’s schizophrenia is subtly foreshadowed and reflected through Ron Howard’s clever camerawork and selection of score. Before Nash’s schizophrenia is revealed, the camera is constantly moving, even in scenes where no movement is called for. The camera often circles around Nash, and around the scene, taking on his perspective–just as his mind is always moving. It is almost as if Nash cannot sit still, cannot stop thinking, and neither can the camera: Nash’s moving thoughts are nicely paralleled by the substitution of transient, moving shots in place of the traditional still-frames. The same is true of the music; it is always moving, up and down. It is beautiful music, just like his mind is beautiful, but there is no rhyme or reason, no method to its movements. In fact, even the very first scene of the film is a fantastic example of both how the elements of the camera and the music recreate a schizophrenic effect. Examine the first minute or so of the opening scene below:
In this particular scene, the camera does not stop moving for the first 1:02. The first shot establishes itself from the perspective of someone sitting in the back of the room, but immediately the camera starts moving, slowly circling forward, closer to the speaker. At the 0:12 mark, the camera then cuts to another moving shot, this time focused on and circling back toward John Nash, the man sitting in the back of the room. Not only does this indicate to the viewer the perspective from which we just came, it instantly identifies Nash as the central character. Five seconds later, 0:17 into the clip, the camera then cuts back to the original shot of the speaker from Nash’s circling perspective, continuing to move closer to the speaker. At 0:23, we are given our first close-up of Nash, as the camera begins less than ten feet from him, and continues to inch its way closer. From 0:31 to 0:55, the camera continues to move about the scene, alternating between shots from Nash’s perspective, weaving through the crowd, zooming in and out, and closing in on Nash until only his face remains in the frame. Similarly, the music also parallels the constant motion of the camera. It starts off slowly, moving up and down, back and forth, with primarily stronger-sounding instruments (trombone, trumpet, violin, cello, etc). Yet, at the 0:19 mark, a soft, melismatic piano line is interjected, which is quite beautiful yet almost seems to come out of nowhere. This melody fades out again by 0:24, but picks back up again twice more, at 0:47 with a beautiful flute line and at 0:54 back with the piano. This continual movement in the music almost perfectly reflects the peripatetic camera, and again serves as a distinct parallel for Nash’s beautiful, yet tortured mind.
Another different, yet equally successful example, of form becoming the content can be found in David Fincher’s Fight Club. Just as Tyler would splice pornographic images into films during his job at the theater, Fincher uses the same technique of image-splicing but with Tyler’s image, to imply that he is actually only a hallucination of the narrator’s. The flashing images are almost subliminal, and make viewers question what it was they actually saw. In clip 2, an image of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) flashes at 0:16. See if you can catch it…
Did you see it? When the image flashes, the camera has taken on the perspective of the narrator standing at the copier, staring out blankly across the office. As with A Beautiful Mind, not only does the form become the content, but the form becomes the content from the perspective of the character with schizophrenia. Cinematically we are placed in the same position as the schizophrenic, as we the viewer are meant to see what he sees, or at least call its reality into question. Because of the placement of the camera, we too are standing at the copier staring blankly across the office. And then the image flashes–in fact, it flashes so quickly it certainly does make us question whether or not we actually saw it, especially the first few times. By prompting us to question whether or not we see hallucinations, Fincher, like Howard and Palahniuk, is able to place his audience in the volatile, skeptical, and chaotic thoughts of the schizophrenic narrator.
On a very different and much less subliminal level, this effect is constantly and successfully achieved throughout Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind. In this instance, it is actually not the case that the form becomes the content. Here, the content is actually the content, as the book itself is a systematic and vivid look at Nash’s life, which describes his condition through intimate detail and more traditional methods of representation. However, the biography remains a valuable text in that it describes schizophrenia quite accurately, as it traces the biography of John Nash from childhood to his education to the various jobs he holds during young adulthood to his personal relationships with others, all the while chronicling his disease and his miraculous reawakening. Nasar approaches her subject, Nash, and his life from a factual point of view. She tries to paint an accurate picture of what Nash’s life looked like, and she includes what was then current knowledge about schizophrenia at the time and the methods available for treatment. She challenges the idea that people fit into neat little boxes that can be categorized, and instead provides a full, broad picture of the life of John Nash. In this way, Nasar allows her readers to gather a much fuller interpretations of schizophrenia and the extent to which it affected and ultimately defined Nash’s life.
To illustrate the accuracy of Nasar’s work, and just how vivid a picture of Nash’s schizophrenia it paints, take this summarized example from the middle of Nash’s life:
After two years of dealing with the disease, Nash would often go into restaurants without shoes on and would walk around the Princeton campus talking to squirrels and writing everything in a notebook that said Absolute Zero. He referred to himself in the third person as Johann von Nassau and continued to write letters and make strange phone calls. Alicia, Nash’s mother, and sister all agreed to have Nash involuntarily committed once again, this time to a state run facility. Nash was treated with insulin coma therapy five days a week for six weeks. The theory behind the therapy was that if the brain were deprived of sugar, which is what keeps it going, the cells that were functioning marginally would die. It would be like radiation treatments for cancer. (Nasar 293)
Clearly, each medium, in different ways, effectively illustrates some part of the story of schizophrenia. Through formal elements such as stream of consciousness writing, perspective camera work, specific audio and visual effects, and biographical elements such as vivid detail and research, these works best portray schizophrenia when the form becomes the content, or when the content is biographical.
Misconceptions and the Fine Line between Entertainment and Reality
On the other hand, literature and films also run the risk of reinforcing multiple misconceptions about the disorder and distorting the reality of schizophrenia. According to scholars, “schizophrenic characters frequently are depicted as dangerous to others, unpredictable, and grossly disorganized in behavior, speech, and affect,” presenting a picture of schizophrenia which is largely “inaccurate and negatively stereotypical” (qtd in Owen 60). In Fight Club, for instance, the main character’s alter ego, Tyler Durden, starts several underground fight clubs, and then progresses to committing acts of vandalism as part of an anti-capitalist, anti-materialist agenda. The fact that the main character has another personality that he is not aware of suggests that he suffers more from split personality than schizophrenia. The violent nature of the film could also leave viewers with a skewed perception of how people with mental disorders act. But in order to understand why films and books can be misleading in how they represent the popularized disorder, one must also consider the limitations of these mediums. Most of the symptoms of schizophrenia are internalized, so cinematographers and writers must find ways to visually and verbally represent events that are happening only in a character’s mind. Often, the best way to do this is to use characters who interact with the actor who is portraying the schizophrenic; these characters represent the voices that in reality would just be heard in someone’s head.
Another common misconception can be seen in A Beautiful Mind, as Charles, John Nash’s imagined college roommate, is envisioned by Nash as a real person. Nash interacts with Charles and considers him one of his best friends. In actuality, though, John Nash’s psychosis did not include such vivid renderings of his internal delusions. While visual hallucinations do affect about 25% of schizophrenic people, that leaves three fourths of people with schizophrenia who do not experience any visual hallucinations at all; as scholars point out, “hallucinations, if present, are most commonly auditory” (qtd in Owen 60). The idea that schizophrenia is automatically associated with visual hallucinations has been almost entirely promoted by cinematic attempts to capture the disease in visual form. Furthermore, patients who struggle with schizophrenia report no such physical hallucinations: “‘I’ve never met anyone with schizophrenia who experienced hallucinations of people of such exact detail,” however, “just because the voices are invisible doesn’t mean they aren’t as real as real people. You relate to them as if they are real'” (Smith 1). Thus, the need to translate a personality disorder into a vehicle for entertainment necessarily creates inaccuracies.
Beyond these two examples, let’s proceed on to the three biggest misconceptions that films and literature create because of their inherent limitations and varying social agendas.
Misconception # 1 — Schizophrenia is the Same as Dissociative Identity Disorder
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
And so am I.
— Quotations Book
One vastly widespread misconception about schizophrenia is that it is the same disorder as split or multiple personality disorder, also known as dissociative identity disorder. While split personality on its face does seem quite similar to schizophrenia, it is also quite different–yet in popular culture that distinction can easily be blurred, even lost. So, before going any deeper, let us first establish two key facts: one, dissociative identity disorder is NOT the same as schizophrenia, and two, most popular representations of dissociative identity disorder are inaccurate. In reality, dissociative identity disorder means the victim has one or more alter egos with distinctly different personalities, and those alter egos can take over at any point in time. However, while an alter ego is present, the true self has no memory of where they have been or what has occurred. Thus, someone who suffers from true dissociative identity disorder would never be able to interact with their alternate personae–they would not even know that the other(s) existed. As far as the origins of schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia is more likely caused by a combination of genetics and environment, while dissociative identity disorder is most often caused by a traumatic childhood experience or extreme stress. Furthermore, dissociative identity has none of the core symptoms of schizophrenia but many confuse visual hallucinations of people with alter egos. As explained in the book Schizophrenia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, “[w]hile the root of the term schizophrenia does mean ‘split mind,’ the split refers to a breakup of the personality components (thinking, feeling, and relating) rather than a split into two or more separate, coherent personalities…the schizophrenic is ‘split from reality'” (Bernheim 8-9).
On the one hand, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind and Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash do not present schizophrenia in a way that can be confused with dissociative identity disorder. In the film, John Nash believes that he is seeing Charles (his imagined college roommate), Charles’ niece Marcee, as well as members of an elite government codebreaking department; however, these characters are not parts of an alter, or hidden, ego. They are simply very realistic, tangible figments of Nash’s schizophrenic mind. Thus, Charles, Marcee, and Federal Agent Parcher are all merely visual hallucinations which the viewer initially perceives, like Nash, to be real. Yet Nash’s personality itself is never confused with any of these 3 characters, and thus, never confused with being dissociative identity disorder.
On another note, this is not at all the case in both versions of Fight Club. In fact, Palahniuk and Fincher’s portrayals have only facilitated the spread of misinformation about schizophrenia–while the narrator’s condition is presented as a classic case of schizophrenia, it does not align with any actual psychological disorders. Thus, the example that Fight Club presents is a much more complicated one, as the narrator’s hallucination of Tyler Durden is presented as both a hallucination and an alter ego. Yet in reality, this could never be symptomatic of a known disorder. From what was established above, we know that in no way can Durden actually be an alter personality, primarily because of the fact that there is not a switch from host personality (true identity) to an alter involving amnesia. For a person to have dissociative identity disorder, the host must not be cognizant of what happened while being taken over by the alter ego. This also means the host is unaware of the alter and thus cannot converse or interact with him on any level, which is certainly not the case in Fight Club; in fact, the contrary is true, as the premise of both the novel and the film centers around the narrator’s relationship with Tyler and their combined formation of Fight Club. And although we cannot be sure of this in the book, in the film version Tyler Durden does not present himself as in the same body as the narrator A shared body is a chief component of dissociative identity disorder, But Tyler Durden is clearly seen in the picture below as a physical identity apart from the narrator, acting and interacting on his own:
In creating a disorder so complex, both the book and the film manage to misconstrue the nature of schizophrenia and complicate cultural notions of what we know about psychological disorders. Without knowing much about schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder, one might assume Tyler Durden was an alternate personality as opposed to a hallucination, based on the text. As noted above, Palahniuk writes in a stream of consciousness style so the reader experiences that narrator’s innermost thoughts. One very misleading and repetitive thought which comes out of this style is the phrase “I know this because Tyler knows this.” To make things even more confusing, the narrator says that “Sometimes, Tyler speaks for me.” Both sentences suggest a switch to the Tyler alter ego. Although the narrator says these things, in reality, Tyler is his hallucination, one of his countless delusions. In another example from Palahniuk’s text, the narrator says “I had to know what Tyler was doing while I was asleep. If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?”
This is extremely confusing to those trying to understand what specifically the narrator is experiencing. It implies that when he sleeps, he switches to his alter, Tyler, and therefore he does not know what Tyler does. Yet this is merely another delusion he has about Tyler, though the text makes things more confusing for readers by having Tyler tell the narrator that this is true. Tyler states “We’re not two separate men. Long story short, when you’re awake, you have the control, and you can call yourself anything you want, but the second you fall asleep, I take over, and you become Tyler Durden.” It is not clear whether Palahnuik straddles the line between schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder on purpose or not, but whatever the case, he makes understanding the disorder difficult by having the hallucination closely resemble an alter ego. Finally, Palahniuk addresses both disorders as possibilities when the narrator and Tyler argue about the realities of their situation.
“Oh, this is bullshit. This is a dream. Tyler is a projection. He’s a dissociative personality disorder. A psychogenic fugue state. Tyler Durden is my hallucination. ‘Fuck that shit,’ Tyler says. ‘Maybe you’re my schizophrenic hallucination.’I was here first. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, well let’s just see who’s here last.'” (Palahniuk 183)
Because Palahnuik also has the narrator contemplating whether or not he is an alter ego or a hallucination, the reader is left unaware of the realities of both schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Rather than offering a more accurate illustration of schizophrenia, stories like Fight Club lead many to lump the two disorders into one category, which can lead to negative assumptions and stereotypes. And sadly, stories like Fight Club have gone quite a long way in making this misconception quite pervasive and enduring–as today that inaccuracy is perpetuated in almost all corners of society, even in the cartoon depicted below:
Misconception # 2 — Being a Schizophrenic Means Being “Crazy”
Words with negative connotations such as “crazy,” “insane,” or “deranged” are especially misleading and have too often been used to describe people exhibiting characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia. It is true that schizophrenia has some bizarre and mentally compromising symptoms, but it is a gross stereotype to lump all people with schizophrenia into the category of “crazy.” Because of the erratic behavior caused by delusions and hallucinations, paranoid schizophrenia is the most popular type of the disorder portrayed in book and film. The peculiar behavior displayed by paranoid schizophrenics is fascinating to watch but could easily mislead audiences into thinking these individuals are simply “crazy.” Unfortunately, both Fight Club the book and movie perpetuate this common misconception. While Palahniuk successfully puts us in the disorganized mind of the tortured narrator, he not only suggests a possibility of dissociative identity disorder, but also greatly exaggerates and generalizes schizophrenic symptoms and those of other psychological disorders. In essence, Palahniuk goes overboard and turns the narrator into a laundry list of symptoms and ailments–insomnia, narcolepsy, depression, and more.
Palahniuk creates a narrator with every symptom from both paranoid type and disorganized type schizophrenia. Although schizophrenics do not always fit nicely into the designated types, Palahniuk clearly created each symptom in order to make for a more compelling story. Not only does the main character have delusions, he has delusions of grandeur. In addition to paranoid type symptoms, the narrator exhibits all the extreme symptoms of disorganized type as well. It is obvious the narrator’s thought pattern is disrupted to the point that it limits functioning, as he repeats various phrases multiple times, counts down and up, repeats information he hears and sees, creates haikus in the middle of thoughts and lists certain things. To exaggerate things even more, in the film version, the narrator ultimately resorts to shooting himself through the mouth as a solution to end his hallucinations of Tyler. In the last scene of the film, he threatens Tyler by putting the gun inside his mouth, and eventually pulls the trigger. The bullet then exits through his left cheek near his ear, and Tyler falls dead next to him the floor with a bullet wound to the back of the head–hardly a method of treatment to be condoned in reality.
Again, on the contrary, Fincher’s A Beautiful Mind and Sylvia Nasar’s biography refute this misconception, as they tell the story of the brilliant John Nash, a Nobel Prize winning mathematician and economist who came up with the Nash Equilibrium among other influential works that extended into multiple areas of economics and mathematics. The very fact that Nash is a genius, and for the most part remains so later in life, shows that Nash is never “crazy.” In the book A Beautiful Mind, Nash is seen as up to date on current events because, “however literal, tangential, or self-contradictory, thought is not random but adheres to obscure and hard-to-understand rules. And the ability accurately to apprehend certain aspects of everyday reality remains curiously intact” (Nasar 324). In fact, this misconception could almost be viewed as the very motivation behind telling Nash’s story. He was a brilliant man who was anything but crazy, yet he struggled with this debilitating disorder. He fought to not let it define him, and eventually he returned to teaching at Princeton. While he was never the same after the onset of the disease, by no means could Nash ever be considered crazy. His story emphasizes the fact that this disorder can strike anyone, and his fight demonstrates that regardless of the extent to which someone is perceived to be crazy, there is a person within, and no disease or disorder can ever change that.
Misconception # 3 — Schizophrenia is Associated with Violence
Schizophrenia’s association with violence is also deeply misunderstood. Voices inside the heads of schizophrenics urging them to hurt themselves are the most common ways violence and aggression are manifested in the disorder. However, even this simple fact has been greatly distorted in popular media. Extreme examples like Fight Club only reinforce the wrong but very common misconception that schizophrenics are dangerous to others. In the film, the main character starts an underground organization where men come together and release their inner aggressions by fighting one another. Although this first act of violence begins as a way to release inner frustrations, violence quickly morphs into a lifestyle for the narrator. His thoughts and feelings become aggressive toward himself. The narrator begins to change his method for coping and even states, “Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer.” After this, he takes his self-destruction literally and gives himself a chemical burn to hurt himself more than he’s ever been hurt and experience the “greatest moment of his life.” As time progresses, the aggression and violence become more characteristic of the way he treats others as well as himself. This is evident in an incident where the narrator’s boss suggests to the narrator that a sheet of paper outlining the rules of Fight Club is his. The narrator responds: “Maybe, I say, this totally diseased fuck would use an Eagle Apache carbine because an Apache takes a thirty-shot mag and only weighs nine pounds. The Armalite only takes a five-round magazine. With thirty shots, our totally fucked hero could go the length of mahogany row and take out every vice-president with a cartridge left over for each director. Tyler’s words are coming out of my mouth. I used to be such a nice person.”
This is a slippery slope and Palahniuk not only makes his character violent, he makes him dangerous on a grand scale. As the story progresses, the main character and his followers start vandalizing the city and form a plot to blow up the banks. At this point his violent and aggressive nature has full control over his actions and he becomes a threat to all those around him. The narrator reaches an extreme point when he holds a gun to a random person’s head and threatens to shoot him unless he promises to live up to his full potential. In other instances, the main character acts violently towards himself; he beats himself up while he is at work, and once he discovers that Tyler Durden is really his hallucination, he shoots himself in the face in an attempt to rid himself of Tyler. These acts of extreme violence and desperation are not the everyday experiences of schizophrenics, who are more likely to experience feelings of apathy and flattening as a result of their illness (Owen 60). For more concrete examples of how ordinary people suffering from schizophrenia might behave, check out this episode of MTV’s True Life:
MTV, True Life–I have Schizophrenia (Full Episode)
In this episode, one of the subjects maintains that his schizophrenia started when he began to hear a voice in his head telling him to hurt himself, but he ultimately did not act against himself or others. As stated by one scholar, “Schizophrenic aggressiveness tends to be motivated by fear that one is being threatened in some way, rather than a desire to hurt another person…while schizophrenics may, at times, behave aggressively, they are, as a group, less aggressive than the general population” (Bernheim 10). Voices instructing individuals to hurt themselves are the most common way violence and aggression are manifested in the disorder, but over time popular culture has distorted, even twisted this misconception in favor of sheer entertainment.
A Beautiful Mind does a more accurate job when it comes to the portrayal of violence and schizophrenia. In the film, John Nash does not show any outward aggression other than his efforts to resist being committed to a mental institution, and his attempt to remove a microchip that he believes has been inserted into his arm by the government (the result of his paranoid schizophrenia). In one of the scenes in the film he almost causes harm to his infant son when he leaves him in the bathtub with the water running, but this is not an act of harm committed with violent intent. Nash does not get angry with his son or experience a sudden mood swing, but rather he breaks with what he is doing and succumbs to his delusions, quietly leaving the bathroom, and his wife later rushes in to rescue her son from drowning. In the book, A Beautiful Mind there is no single consensus on whether or not Nash is violent. His wife, Alicia, does feel slightly threatened by Nash early on before his first commitment and Alicia’s mother is very protective of the baby, but several others claim that Nash was not capable of hurting a fly.
In trying to understand what brings all of this together, we must try to reconcile the contributions of David Fincher, Ron Howard, Chuck Palahniuk, and Sylvia Nasar with the misconceptions that they inevitably reinforce. On the one hand, we have seen that films and novels are for the most part at their very best when the formal aspects mirror the content. In the spirit of Michel Chion’s “A Voice in Cinema,” which claims that certain cinematic effects, such as camerawork, audio, and visual effects can actually become the meaningful content in a film, the same is the case in the compelling stories of schizophrenia portrayed in Fincher’s Fight Club and Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. This is even true of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, where intentional stream of consciousness writing allows readers to step directly into the mind and lives of a schizophrenic. Sylvia Nasar’s biography does not quite fit this mold, yet it remains an accurate, real life picture of the disorder nonetheless.
Thankfully, each of these mediums have recently brought schizophrenia into the limelight in society, despite some of the inconsistencies and misconceptions that they reinforce. Schizophrenia is still a largely misunderstood disorder, not only in the eyes of the public but even in the academic realm. But the more exposure disorders like schizophrenia receive in literature, film, and other forms of media, the better. As one reviewer from puts it,
The 2002 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind, brought schizophrenia into the public eye, depicting the true story of the progression of the illness in a brilliant Nobel prize winner. As the film illustrated, schizophrenia makes it difficult for a person to distinguish between what is real and unreal, to think clearly, and to behave in socially acceptable ways. These obstacles can have a severe impact on one’s work, relationships, and day-to-day functioning. But as A Beautiful Mind also showed, with treatment and support, a person with schizophrenia can still lead a productive life. (Segal 1)
Yet at the same time, we must also take into account the inherent limitations of each of these genres, and understand how they affect and shape our understanding of schizophrenia through the stories that they tell. There are many misconceptions which these mediums can unintentionally establish or reinforce, three of which we have discussed above. Since artistic impulses will always compete with the commercial impulse to sell as many copies and tickets as possible, literature and films inevitably walk the line between entertainment and reality. As long as we can recognize this tension, and understand what these mediums do well and where they fall short, we can finally start to understand a great deal about how today’s and yesterday’s stories are being told in an ever-changing culture. And we can work ever closer to having a clearer picture of disorders like schizophrenia. Until then, we remain caught up in a beautiful fight.
A Beautiful Mind. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. 2001. DVD.
Bernheim, Kayla, and Richard Lewine. Schizophrenia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments. New York: Norton & Norton Company, 1979. Print.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. 1999. DVD.
Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads.” Adaptation 1.1 (2008): 63-77. Print.
Nasar, Sylvia. A Beautiful Mind : A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 1994. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.
Owen, Patricia. “Dispelling Myths about Schizophrenia Using Film.” Journal of Applied Social Pyschology 37.1 (2007): 60-75. Print.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club : A Novel. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997. Print.
Segal, Jeanne, PhD. “Understanding Schizophrenia: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Effects.” Helpguide.org. Helpguide, n.d. Web. <“>http://www.helpguide.org/mental/schizophrenia_symptom.htm>.
Smith, Alison, and Stephen J. Cooper. “Hollywood Schizophrenia.” Student BMJ.com. Student BMJ, Sept, 2006. Web. <http://archive.student.bmj.com/issues/06/09/life/346.php>.