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The Soloist by Steve Lopez


The Soloist

Steve Lopez

New York: Berkley Books


The paperback edition of The Soloist, which I read, has pictures of Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. on the cover and proclaims, “Now a major motion picture.” Although I live just South of Los Angeles, I don’t read the LA Times and had only heard of Steve Lopez’ famous column and never read it, much less read the columns devoted to Nathaniel Ayers, the musician with schizophrenia. I expected a made-for-Hollywood story, perhaps like Shine, the story of David Helfgott, the pianist with schizophrenia who now tours the world giving concerts, married to his benefactor.

The Soloist is not a feel-good story –or at least that’s not the point of the story. It is a story of recovery, as many of us in the mental health field now define it. Nathaniel Ayers is no less afflicted with schizophrenia at the conclusion of the book than he was at the beginning. And, so far as I know, he remains the same today. He never accepted psychiatric treatment or medication and has not given up his shopping cart, or his street life. However, Nathaniel lives, at least some of the time, in a safer apartment instead of sleeping on the street and he has a studio in which to play his music, instruments on which to play, and is not only welcome at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but has met many of the LA Philharmonic musicians, taken cello lessons from one of them, and met one of his idols, Yo-Yo Ma. He may reach his goals of playing in a community orchestra and giving music lessons. He has also re-connected with his sister. Central to his recovery, and that is what this list of accomplishments represents, is his friendship with the LA Times columnist, Steve Lopez. The Soloist is about that friendship.

Nathaniel Ayers is a Black man in his mid-fifties who, as a lower-middle class youth, discovered his love of music and his talent and obtained a scholarship to Julliard. After a few years at the prestigious music academy, he developed a severe psychosis and was hospitalized and dropped out of the school. Years later, he was “discovered” by Steve Lopez, playing a violin with missing strings at the entrance to one of the tunnels in L.A., still wrestling with his psychosis and living out of his shopping cart. Lopez traced Nathaniel’s history and made a personal connection with the musician as well as writing about him in his LA Times column. The response to the column was to shower Lopez, with offers of musical instruments, help from the mental health community and an outstretched hand from the LA Philharmonic.

Nathaniel welcomed the free musical instruments and the offers to attend concerts of the Philharmonic, but was suspicious of any other offers of help, particularly those that included him accepting psychiatric treatment of any sort or giving up his street life. Nathaniel was, in addition to being psychotic, or perhaps as part of it, bigoted against white people, smokers, drug users and was often angry and belligerent. Lopez stuck with him and it is their personal relationship, told from Lopez’ point of view, which appears to be the external influence that was instrumental in promoting Nathaniel’s recovery.

Recovery is an odd word, as it is currently used within the mental health community. It probably has as many meanings as it has users of the word. For most of us recovery probably connotes getting over something bad (recovering from the flu, recovering from the recession, etc.), although the Webster dictionary uses a more dynamic definition as “the process of combating a disorder or real or perceived problem.” From a client-centered point of view, recovery, within the mental health field, means something like gaining or regaining those elements of a quality life that are missing because of the direct or indirect influence of a mental disease. The indirect influences can include stigma, a coercive or repressive public mental health system and living in dangerous circumstances because of poverty.

For Nathaniel Ayers, recovery appears to have revolved around regaining access to a world of music and musicians, which meant more to him than anything else and which he was trying to reach both when he was not ill and when he was sick with mental illness. His story exemplifies how the likelihood of his achieving what was important to him was tied to his experience with mental health treatment, to other people’s reaction to his illness, to his poverty, to his skin color, as well as to those parts of himself that were most affected by his illness, such as his suspiciousness, his ability to follow a coherent train of thought, and his relationships with others.

What The Soloist demonstrates, more than most lectures on mental illness I have attended, or books that I have read, is that an individual’s recovery is intimately tied to his or her own aspirations and dreams, just as much as to his or her illness, and to the human relationships that the person is able to maintain, just as much, if not more, than to the specific psychiatric treatment that he or she receives. Nathaniel Ayers is not an easy man to get along with, at least as he is portrayed in Lopez’ book. But having someone stick with him and help him realize what was important to him, made a major positive change in his life. Steve Lopez is not a mental health professional, but he reached out to a fellow human being and it made a difference. That’s something nearly anyone can do.

Casey Dorman

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