Friday, April 25, 2008

The Soloist

Nathaniel Ayers is a classically trained musician. He's also schizophrenic and was living on the street, playing a two-string violin, when LA Times columnist Steve Lopez met and began writing about him three years ago. The resulting friendship changed both Ayers' and Lopez' lives.

Lopez' book about Ayers, "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music," was released this month, and is being made into a movie staring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Lopez recently spoke about Nathaniel on NPR's Fresh Air, and the podcast is, to put it mildly, devastating.

Our culture treats the mentally ill as though they were a lower caste, invisible and unimportant. As Lopez asks, would we treat someone with cancer the same way? The answer, of course, is no - and Ayers' story, his illness and his music, his passion and his ability to inspire others, is heartbreaking evidence that American society's overall relationship to the mentally ill is sick and wrong, and discriminating, hurtful and limiting in so many ways. Not just for the ill, who suffer greatly, but for the more fortunate of us who not only have the choice of paying attention, helping, and learning from the mentally ill, but also the choice to not pay attention at all, and suffer and wither and let beautiful people pass away into ignorance, pain, and finally, death. We must, as a culture, do better. We must, as individuals, follow our passions. Nathaniel Ayers follows his every day through the fog and fear of schizophrenia, and by doing so enriches himself and others around him. That's what we expect from "normal" people in our society. Ayers and others like him deserve better. We all deserve better.

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