It's a balmy Tuesday night in West Hollywood. And no one's enjoying it more than the mid-size guy who's ambling up Sunset in navy T-shirt and chino pants, hands in pockets, looking like he might be mentally whistling a happy tune. Akiva Goldsman, Oscar-nominated author of the screenplay for "A Beautiful Mind," is about to realize a dream.
As a child in Brooklyn, Goldsman never hankered for Academy Awards. His constant fantasy, his singular goal, his absolute most steadfast ambition since he was 8 years old, was to someday see his name on a book. To be the author of "something good." Now 39, he is that and more. Here at the rambling, cluttered Book Soup--a West Hollywood literary hub--he is about to perform the first book signing of his life. He will autograph copies of a new paperback, the film's screenplay (Newmarket Press, $17.95). No fanfare, no cameras, no tickets sold. He is greeted outside by a store representative. "I'm ready to sign," he says. "First you'll speak for a while," she says. "Who, me? I didn't know I was speaking. OK, I can do that."
About 40 people have waited quietly on little brown folding chairs for almost an hour. One is there because her mother has acute paranoia and schizophrenia, she says. Another says she has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism found in people with normal or high IQs. Some say they are working screenwriters, who want to hear Goldsman "discuss the craft." Others are hopefuls just starting out.
Craig Rimmerman, an author and professor at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., has come because he's filled with admiration and indignation. He found the film "riveting," but wants to know why Goldsman left out the fact that John Nash was bisexual for much of his life. Katharine Kramer, daughter of producer-director Stanley Kramer, is there to see Goldsman because "his is my favorite movie of the year." They are old, young, thin, fat, some highly groomed and buff, others not. There is reverence in the air, as more people filter in and stand silently at the back. Goldsman takes the measure of the crowd, and appears moved. He launches out:
"I am the son of two therapists," he starts. He outlines an early life with parents Tev Goldsman and Mira Rothenberg, pioneering child psychologists who ran one of the earliest group homes for emotionally disturbed kids.
"They were kids with diagnoses that don't even exist any more--infantile autism and childhood schizophrenia," he tells the crowd. "These were children who never knew you were not supposed to dream when you were awake. I lived in a household with five or seven of these kids." They hung him out the windows, used him as a ball, generally made him mad. Worse yet, whatever he needed from his parents, whatever problems he had, paled in comparison to the problems that plagued the other kids. "By the time I was 10 or 12, I realized they had taken my parents away from me. I wanted nothing more to do with that world. I wanted to be a writer. I had a fantasy that someday I'd see my name on a book."
Goldsman graduated from high school at 16--"I still had hair." In the summer of 1983, before starting Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., he visited his mother at the camp where she was clinical director. His first evening there, the staff was celebrating. They'd taught a child who'd been terrified of the water to love it instead, Goldsman recalls. "In the middle of that night, the little boy went to find that which he had learned to love. The water. He was 8. He drowned."
Goldsman says he stayed on at the camp for weeks and ended up beginning what turned out to be a 10-year career working with autistic and schizophrenic youngsters, much of it at his parents' pioneering Blueberry Treatment Centers. (To this day, he always wears the symbol of the Blueberry centers somewhere on his person, he says.) He had an intense connection with one autistic boy named Eric: "I met him when he was 5, and lying on the ground, emitting an extraordinary, deep, agonized wail. I worked with him for the next five years. I toilet trained him. I loved him.... " Goldsman's voice falters, fails, he is near tears.
He has been speaking seamlessly, to a mesmerized audience, for half an hour. They remain soundless as he composes himself and goes on. For a few years, he ran one of the children's mental health facilities, he says. Then he went on to create a training model for others working with such children.