The Soloist – A Hollywood Movie That Raises Our Consciousness About Schizophrenia?

I watched the 2009 movie The Soloist with my friends Lisa and Frank on their boat the other week. The movie, based on the book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, stars Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a cello prodigy who drops out of the Juilliard School of music and becomes homeless in the streets of Los Angeles because of a schizophrenic breakdown.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, the sensitive reporter who, always on the lookout for an interesting story, befriends Ayers after hearing him play the violin on the streets. The Soloist reminds me of the movie A Beautiful Mind, where brilliant mathematician and economist John Forbes Nash also suffers a similar mental breakdown. (I wonder what he would think of our country’s economic situation now.)

While I enjoyed The Soloist’s music and cinematography, I do not think we can conclude from this movie what made Nathaniel suffer a break in his consciousness and drop out of school. While it was shown that Nathaniel heard voices in his head, the voices were random, senseless, poltergeist-like ramblings that seemed to have little to do with his reality. I am not a psychologist, but from what I know, this film does not seem to portray schizophrenia accurately. If this is indeed so, the film does a disservice to schizophrenics and those who are trying to help them.

Although I do not work in the field of psychology, I studied consciousness enough to offer another way of viewing schizophrenia: a condition where a marked disconnect exists between what one instinctively knows to be true, what is touted as the truth in the outer world, and the inability of the personality to deal with the disconnect.

This idea seems to concur with a dictionary definition of schizophrenia: “A psychotic disorder characterized by loss of contact with the environment and by disintegration of personality expressed as disorder of feeling, thought, and conduct.”

After the movie I was reminded of the eye-opening story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who lived from 1818 to 1865. Semmelweis practiced medicine in two clinics in Vienna and came to be known as the “savior of mothers” when he discovered how to drastically cut mortality rates of women giving birth. Perhaps Semmelweis’s story can help illuminate at least some cases of schizophrenia.

Before his discovery, Semmelweis was (quite understandably) severely troubled that the incidence of puerperal fever and the high subsequent mortality rates of women in his two clinics (10-15% in the First Clinic, and 4% in the Second Clinic) were significantly higher than the mortality rates of women giving birth in the streets of Vienna. This fact was known outside the hospitals, causing women to beg to be admitted to the Second Clinic (where midwives worked) rather than the more prestigious First Clinic (where medical students examined cadavers in between births). Some women even preferred to give birth in the streets.

After much study and contemplation, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be reduced ten-fold (from 18% in April 1847 down to 1.2% in July 1847 in the First Clinic) by the practice of hand-washing. But Semmelweis’s hypothesis about the importance of cleanliness was considered by the experts at that time to be extreme, so it was largely ignored and ridiculed. In fact, Semmelweis was dismissed by the hospital and harassed by the medical community.

Though Semmelweis was outraged by the ignorance and outright arrogance of the medical community and wrote open letters to prominent European obstetricians, his colleagues (and even his wife) suspected that Semmelweis was losing his mind. In 1865, he was admitted to a mental asylum where he died only fourteen days later.

I suspect that while Semmelweis was “losing his mind” the voices in his head were not random, poltergeist-like mutterings but the accusations and indictments of his colleagues, including his own unsettled thoughts and feelings of failure, betrayal, and inadequacy in protecting women from whom he termed “irresponsible murderers.” But… years later… voila! Semmelweis became known as a pioneer of antiseptic procedures!

I feel the Semmelweis story can be used as a classic case study. If Semmelweis did not die so suddenly, would he have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and given “medicine” claiming to control it? At which point in an individual’s life challenges does the personality begin to “break down?” What makes one individual cope with extreme challenges when another breaks?

These are interesting questions to ponder and explore–especially in these interesting times when so much on this planet is breaking down. However, this Hollywood movie prefers to attend to silly stereotypes instead.

By the way, my friend Lisa did not care for The Soloist either because it did not give a realistic portrayal of the homeless. But that’s another issue.