Proof: Mental Disorder and Robert

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Mental Illness

In the play “Proof” Catherine and Robert were both mathematical geniuses. They were brilliant, but at the same time, mentally unstable. They were contrasted with Hal and Claire, who lacked the genius of the other two, but were in touch with reality and adjusted to the outside world. I chose to write about the play over the movie because the language seemed more powerful to me in the play; as the movie proved to be more visually stimulating.

On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine, the troubled daughter of Robert, was having a conversation with her father that revealed that Robert suffered from mental illness. According to Wikipedia, mental illness is, “any of the various forms of psychosis or severe neurosis”. The nature of Robert’s mental illness radically distorted his perceptions of the world. Afflicted by this mental illness, Robert was deceived into thinking that his perceptions were completely grounded in reality, when in reality they were not.

Robert was a respected, world renowned, brilliant mathematician. He revolutionized the field of mathematics twice before the age of twenty-two, before he went crazy. He made contributions to three major fields: game theory, algebraic geometry, and nonlinear operator theory. He also discovered the mathematical technique for studying rational behavior. In spite of all his success, his career had been cut short by a debilitating mental illness. The play does not identify the exact nature of the illness. What it does present is Robert experiencing hallucinations and delusions.

To illustrate the point of Robert’s madness, I can say this. He went from ruling the math universe with his proofs, to attempting to decipher the Dewey decimal codes of library books. He did this because he was convinced that aliens were sending him secret messages.

The mental illness that inflicted Robert began when he was about twenty-three, twenty-four years old. It ruled the rest of his life until his mid fifties when he died of heart failure. Robert became so incapacitated that Catherine had to stay home and care for him. She spent her life with him. She listened as he talked to people who weren’t there and as he moved around like a smelly ghost. However, Catherine refused to institutionalize him. She felt that he needed to have familiarity and to be close to the University, as this might spark something in him. Essentially, Catherine withdrew herself from society in order to be his sole caretaker.

In the end of Act II, there was a emotionally distressing scene where Robert makes an appearance in the way of a flashback. About four years before his death, Robert had experienced about seven months of clarity when his illness went into remission. He taught for one more academic year. He felt as if he had regained all of his intellectual brilliance and that no time had passed since he was twenty-one. He felt that he would be able to produce exciting ground-breaking work in the field of mathematics. His recovery had become so significant that Catherine, who had given up search of her own career in mathematics in order to care for him, was able to return to school at Northwestern University as a mathematics major. One day, after being unable to get in touch with her father via telephone (of whom she spoke to once a day), became frantic and feared that something had gone wrong. She drove to the house and discovered her father sitting out in the freezing cold weather working. She asked him why he didn’t answer the phone. He said that it was a distraction and explained the importance of priorities. He said that work takes priority above all things, and that she, of all people knew this. Robert said that his “machinery”, referring to his brain, was once again firing on all cylinders. He was exhilarated to the point of being overheated and had ventured out on this December day in order to cool off. In an effort to...
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