The Soloist – by Steve Lopez

Steve Lopez chronicled his efforts to help Nathaniel Ayers, an incredibly gifted musician, who suffers with schizophrenia. This true story was made into a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. I have not seen the film yet – this post concerns the book by Steve Lopez, a journalist who chronicled Nathaniel’s life on the streets.

Nathaniel Ayers had attended Julliard for a while before his illness took hold and ended his time there. He was considered an extremely talented violinist and cellist, even by Julliard standards. Lopez was mesmerized by Nathaniel’s violin performances on the street and consequently wrote a series of articles on Nathaniel for the Los Angeles Times.

The book is a true insider’s look at what it’s like dealing with a person with mental illness. It’s so easy to judge when you see a homeless person or hear the story of a person with mental illness. Where is the family in all this? Why is no one taking care of that poor soul? Couldn’t they see that he was mentally ill? Why didn’t they *do” something?

I know I am guilty of thoughts like that. You think: I would never let something like that happen to my child. When I first opened the book, I was surprised to see that the author of THE SOLOIST dedicated the book “for Nathaniel’s mother, the late Floria Boone, whose love never wavered.” Though it’s true that some people are abandoned by their parents and that’s why they end up on the streets, it’s not always the case. And it’s not always drug or alcohol abuse, or sheer laziness. (I have never, ever looked at a homeless person and thought they ended up there just because they didn’t feel like working…that simply makes NO sense. That’s like saying someone starved to death because they didn’t feel like cooking.)

Nathaniel had a loving mother. She did everything she could for Nathaniel before she passed away. But when you have a mentally ill person who is so sick that he lashes out – violently sometimes – at any attempt at assistance, what can you really do?

When you see a homeless person, you can’t help but wonder why they don’t just go to a shelter or why we don’t have healthcare officials out on the streets, rounding up people who need help. The law pretty much says that unless you can prove that a person is a danger to himself or others, you cannot force a person to be hospitalized. It was months after Lopez befriended Nathaniel before he could convince him to sleep indoors – if only for one night. Nathaniel preferred to sleep in the tunnels.

Lopez had far more patience than I would have. He stuck it out with Nathaniel for years, trying to convince him to accept help. Nathaniel was adamant about wanting to sleep in the tunnel or on the street. He seemed content there, almost to the point where Lopez began to contemplate if maybe he was better off there. I know when I see a homeless person, I assume that they would be grateful if someone offered them a place to stay for the night. I learned from THE SOLOIST that this is not necessarily so.

There was one incident in the book where Lopez was afraid that Nathaniel was going to hurt him. This was a rare occurrence for Nathaniel, but there is always the threat of danger when you are dealing with an unstable person. I was reminded of the recent tragedy involving Gabrielle Giffords. Even prior to the shooting, there was no doubt that Jared Loughner was out of his mind. There were numerous reports of his bizarre behavior at school. After such a tragedy, we all ask again – Why didn’t anyone do anything? It seems the school really did try. They knew something was seriously wrong with Loughner and it seems they took all the necessary steps that the law allowed. It simply was not enough.

The book is certainly sad at times, but well worth the read. Nathaniel’s music serves as an inspiration even as his illness shows that not every problem truly has a solution.

This was the main lesson that I took away from reading THE SOLOIST. There is so much more going on then simply “he’s mentally ill – get him help.” It just doesn’t work that way.