The author recounts a friend’s descent into madness and the failure of society to save him

Jonathan Rosen’s childhood best friend Michael Laudor was always brilliant. He read incredibly fast and had a photographic memory. He effortlessly achieved top grades in middle and high school and passed Yale undergraduate school in just three years. Even after displaying paranoia, suffering a psychotic break, and being diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties, he graduated from Yale Law School.

This story of triumph against all odds was picked up by the New York Times, and literary agents offered Laudor book deals. Hollywood director Ron Howard optioned the film rights and Brad Pitt was cast as the lead.

Then, in June 1998, in a headline-grabbing event, Laudor, 35, brutally murdered his pregnant girlfriend Caroline Costello during a psychotic episode.

It was a horrific act that was extremely difficult for Rosen to process, and it took many years before he felt ready to delve into the story.

In his expertly written new book, “The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions,” Rosen combines memoir with extensive journalism research and reporting to piece together the circumstances under which Laudor is gone from golden boy to inmate in secure forensic psychiatric center to date.

It meant going back to his childhood when he and his friend dreamed of becoming writers. Both were talented and intelligent and were competitive, with Rosen (hindered by learning disabilities and anxiety) always feeling that he was tortoiseshell to his friend’s hare.

Jonathan Rosen (left) and his friend Michael Laudor growing up in New Rochelle, NY. (Courtesy of Jonathan Rosen)

“We used to think of our minds as our ‘inner rockets’ that would take us anywhere we wanted in life,” Rosen told The Times of Israel.

“But then Michael lost his mind and did this terrible thing,” Rosen said.

In a recent conversation from his home in New York, Rosen, author of four other books and former editor of The Forward and Nextbook, said there was no way for him to approach the story other than to bring readers back to Mereland Road in New York. Rochelle, New York.

“The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions” by Jonathan Rosen (Penguin Press)

That’s where he and Laudor grew up as neighbors, both Jews with professor fathers (Rosen’s was a Holocaust survivor). Rosen’s mother was a writer and she was best friends with acclaimed author Cynthia Ozick, who also lived in the city.

When Rosen was ready and figured out how to write the story, he realized it needed to be very different from how it had already been told, particularly through the tabloid press. Part of his job would be to counter those sensationalist reports.

As he began writing, the backbone of Rosen’s storytelling took shape, and it was from his point of view and not from his mentally ill killer friend.

“I decided to go back in time, before any of these things happened, but to load the book with an awareness of how it unfolds so that it takes place against the dark background of what is to come, but preserves the spontaneity of life that unfolds,” Rosen said.

“I wanted to let people experience with me what it was like to just be there,” she said.

Rosen shared that his editor was very helpful in encouraging him to write “The Best Minds” the way one might write a novel “not by making things up, but by imagining your own way, almost feelingly in every situation.”

Jonathan Rosen (left) and Michael Laudor on a school trip to the Catskills, c. 1975. (Courtesy of Jonathan Rosen)

The author shows that what happened to his childhood best friend was a product of how changing philosophical, cultural, economic, social, and legal approaches to mental illness conspired against him.

In the second half of the 20th century, the mentally ill were being deinstitutionalized and transferred to community-based care. This did not necessarily mean that it was the best option for all sick people or that sufficient infrastructure and resources were available. Laudor was lucky in that he had a family and community safety net that prevented him from ending up homeless on the street like so many others.

Some individuals with schizophrenia interviewed by Rosen have led good, normal lives. However, community-based care has not proved enough for Laudor. Though he got through law school with accommodations made by professors and administrators with the best moral intentions, he couldn’t work as a lawyer or professor after him. The pressures of writing a memoir (which he never got around to) were too much for him. He stopped taking his meds, but there was nothing anyone could do, including the woman he loved and who was devoted to him.

Laudor had the support of a group of psychiatrists and psychologists who, as Rosen said, “were the products and creators of [the mental healthcare] world at that time”.

Jonathan Rosen (top row, second from left) and friend Michael Laudor (top row, second from right) at summer camp, 1977. (Courtesy of Jonathan Rosen)

In retrospect, their approach let him down. He didn’t need his schizophrenia to be perceived as a cultural metaphor for the problems and imbalances of power in capitalist society, as the philosopher Michel Foucault argued. Nor was his mental illness a myth or a high spiritual state, as some have suggested.

He didn’t benefit from being seen as the person he was before he fell ill, the young man who could do anything he set his mind to. His mind was no longer the same, and therefore he could no longer be the same as before. Only a professional in his circle of caretakers was willing to admit it fully, but his voice was drowned out by others.

“Going into this, I was so ignorant about mental illness not just as a medical reality but as a compelling metaphor woven into the background of our childhoods, what the 1960s and 1970s had produced… The idea that a state of mind culture had been translated into policies, and policies become law, and law further influenced culture which led to other laws. These were vast systems that I had never thought about,” Rosen said.

“It was hard enough having to think about neuroscience, but I had no idea about the interplay between culture and law and politics and psychiatry and how they all fit together at some point,” she said.

Front page of New York Post with photo of Michael Laudor after the murder of pregnant girlfriend Caroline Costello in 1998 during an episode of psychosis. (Courtesy of Jonathan Rosen)

Rosen noted that the story felt like a murder mystery at times as he tried to sort out exactly who or what was to blame for what happened to Laudor and his girlfriend Carrie. There were so many elements that contributed to teasing and understanding and weighing.

“But at some point, the guilt stopped and the anger stopped being a driving force. I had all those emotions, but enough time had passed,” she said.

However, his readers are left to contemplate the catastrophe that resulted from not only Laudor’s, but Carrie’s betrayal of the system.

“People thought they were honoring her autonomy, but they were betraying her and leaving him to his illness and sacrificing her,” Rosen said.

Rosen writes that he visited Laudor in the locked forensic psychiatric facility (he was found mentally unfit to stand trial). However, the author never interviewed his childhood friend, who still hasn’t internalized the fact that he killed his love.

“Because it would have been a false assent or permission. I told him I was writing about our lives, but he didn’t acknowledge that he killed Carrie, or even that she was dead, so in a way, she was more for my sake,” she said.

“I never thought he had an explanation for me or anything like that. And, so when I visited, it was just to be there,” she added.

‘The Best Minds’ author Jonathan Rosen on the street where he grew up in New Rochelle, New York. (Courtesy of Jonathan Rosen)

One walks out of “The Best Minds” feeling that ultimately it is Rosen’s attempt to come to terms with the fact that he dodged a bullet that hit Laudor and that his inner struggles and competitiveness left him blind. to what was happening to his friend.

“Instead of just accepting myself enough to notice what was really going on around me, I allowed myself to always feel like the tortoise and turned it into the hare no matter what,” Rosen said.

“The hare had run off a cliff and I was still trying to catch him.”

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