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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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The Soloist: Bravo!    

Okay, folks. Read the book, because it's also going to be a major motion picture—and may have a powerful impact on public perceptions of homeless persons and mental illness. The book also spotlights NAMI StigmaBusters.

The Soloist: Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music is the true story of musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers, who developed schizophrenia while on full scholarship at the prestigious Julliard School of Music—where he had world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma as a classmate. He became a homeless person, living on the streets of Los Angeles, playing Beethoven on street corners on a battered two-string violin.

Ayers caught the eye of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who befriended him and began to write a series of columns about him. The series led to a housing initiative for Skid Row, and funding for other programs. In 2006, Lopez won a special NAMI national award for advocacy for the series, which led to both a book and movie deal.

The Soloist will appear in book stores in April and can be preordered now. Dreamworks has already begun filming the movie, but no release date has yet been announced. Jamie Foxx , who won an Academy Award for his performance in Ray, will play the role of Ayers and Robert Downey, Jr. will play Lopez. The director is Joe Wright, who previously has directed Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, which this year was nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards.

Over time, Lopez encourages Ayers to move indoors, reconnect with family, and renew his musical horizons. At the same time, Ayers teaches Lopez important lessons about himself.   "I was trying to help Nathaniel. But I learned it's a two-way relationship. Although you give a lot, you get a great deal in return. Something as simple as the recognition when he looks at me or his daily morning phone call. I don't have friends who call me every morning and ask how my sons and my daughter are doing. He's excited about life and sharing time together. I hope people can be inspired by that—the power of a human connection and finding something you can be passionate about."

Ayers started as a musician when he was 12 years old.   Forty years later, it remained a force in his life. "Outside my family connection, I've never loved anything as much as he's loved music," Lopez said. That passion sustained him and it has transformed me." At the same time, the film will not "sugarcoat" mental illness or homelessness. "It can't end with Nathaniel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic or playing first cello," Lopez told the movie's producers.

"If this was to be public education, I was behind it. If this was to be anything else, or if it was going to create problems for Nathaniel, I didn't want any part of it. I wanted to avoid oversimplification or romanticizing."

Nonetheless, Ayers does attend the symphony. He meets Yo-Yo Ma again. He goes to a baseball game. Musical instruments are delivered for him c/o the Los Angeles Times newsroom, gifts from readers of Lopez's columns. The book is different from the columns, filling in spaces, putting the story more fully together, with greater detail on Ayers' past and family.

For his part, Ayers did not like reading the columns.

"It's more interesting to be out in the world than to see it reflected in the mirror," he says.  On his 55th birthday, Ayers wakes up in his own apartment, for the first time in decades and observes: "I was worried I wouldn't be able to hear any of the street noises I like. But I heard planes and sirens and the faucet dripped all night. It was great."

In the book, NAMI StigmaBuster coordinator Stella March plays a pivotal role in helping to educate Lopez   (see pages 74-78). He calls her "the one person in Los Angeles" who can best take on actor Tom Cruise's "absurd comments" about mental illness, psychiatrists and medication.

"I would support any psychiatrist who will support me," Ayers says. But he won't take medication.

Lopez hopes he eventually will, but "it's not that simple," he acknowledges. "Thousands of persons get better, but then go off their meds, and sink back again into the grips of incurable disease." He learns to accept Ayers as he is—and to expect constant backsliding.

"I have never had a friend who lives in so spiritual a realm," Lopez writes.

"I want to play," Ayers says. "I don't know if I ever could get back to the way it was, but I want to play…I don't want the concert to ever end."

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