Superachiever, Schizophrenic, Killer: Tracing a Friend’s Decline

THE BEST MINDS: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions, by Jonathan Rosen

“Memoirs have a way of ruining things,” Jonathan Rosen writes in his remarkable new one, “The Best Minds.”

He’s recalling a Berkeley auditorium in the late 1980s, where he was hoping to hear Allen Ginsberg recite his epic poem “Howl,” from which this book takes its title. (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. …”) Years later, Rosen would read that Ginsberg’s longtime lover Peter Orlovsky, who was there accompanying the poetry on finger cymbals, had once tried to attack Ginsberg’s assistant in the crotch with a pair of scissors.

Behind most performances, in other words — most lives — lies some measure of mess and violence, and exposing this can be uncomfortable. But Rosen’s own memoir is the opposite of ruinous. It’s an inch-by-inch, pin-you-to-the-sofa reconstruction of his long friendship with Michael Laudor, who made headlines a decade after the Ginsberg reading: first in The New York Times, as a Yale Law School graduate destigmatizing schizophrenia; then pretty much everywhere, after stabbing his pregnant girlfriend, Caroline Costello, to death with a kitchen knife, confusing her with a windup doll.

“From Poster Child to Wanted Poster,” Psychiatric Times blared. The New York Post, as only The New York Post can, branded Laudor a “PSYCHO” in typeface more jumbo than the one it had used for the Son of Sam. Now Rosen gives us the exquisitely fine print, drawing from clips, court and police records, legal and medical studies, interviews, diaries and some of Laudor’s own feverish compositions, as he examines the porous line between brilliance and insanity and the complicated policy questions posed by deinstitutionalization.

“I grew up surrounded by people who wrote things down,” he notes with understatement, “and wrote things down myself.”

The two men were raised Jewish and bookish in the suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y., advertised on train platforms as “Forty-five minutes from Broadway.” It was an incubator to a surprising number of cultural big shots, including E.L. Doctorow, Norman Rockwell, Don McLean and Cynthia Ozick, the author’s mother’s best friend.

“The same expectation shaping his life was shaping mine,” Rosen writes of Laudor. “The belief that your brain is your rocket ship and that simply as a matter of course you are going to climb inside and blast off.”

They both aspired to be writers, but Jonathan was always a little in the shadow of Michael, who was only slightly taller but far more confident and popular: reading megafast, “‘inhaling’ a page the way he inhaled a pizza,” unafraid of drugs, girls or swimming the entire length of a lake.

Born at the end of the baby boom — “we missed the feast, but got there in time to split the bill” — Rosen, who has also written fiction and meditations on birding and the Talmud, evokes a highly specific, analog American adolescence: the powder-blue Pierre Cardin suit he was wearing when he threw up from nerves in the middle of his bar mitzvah; getting beaten up on a walk; the guitar Michael took up, “that skeleton key that opens all teenage doors”; the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, which “did not seem like the culmination of the ’60s but its unjust termination, as if they’ve been throttled by the jealous new decade.” Around them were omens, foreboding, rising crime. More than one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

Rosen envied the “jilted, defiant aura” of children affected by divorce and watched as a friend’s father, a psychiatrist who played bass in a band called the Nocturnal Emissions, temporarily abandoned his family to seek spiritual awakening in India.

Overseen by anxious adult intellectuals for whom the Holocaust was a fresh and personal memory, the two youths competed for the editorship of their public school newspaper, attended a “nerd camp” on scholarship and propelled themselves to Yale for college.

Then their paths forked.

Dryly hilarious on the pretensions of the French deconstructionists then in vogue, Rosen steadied himself studying with Harold Bloom and proceeded to Berkeley in a 1968 Volvo to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature. Laudor started a job at Bain & Company, the high-pressure management consultancy, to stockpile a cash cushion before beginning his writing career. There, the intensity and imagination he’d always displayed boiled over into paranoia and delusions. A secretary seemed to grow claws and flash bloody teeth; he worried that the phones were tapped and grew convinced his parents had been murdered and replaced by surgically altered Nazis.

“The break,” as Rosen writes, “was not orthopedic.”

Laudor still aced his LSATs. After hospitalization, his pride hurt by a doctor’s suggestion that he try cashiering at Macy’s, he enrolled at Yale’s law school and, in the Times, revealed himself as a “flaming schizophrenic,” quickly lauded as an advocate of mental-health accommodations.

Almost overnight, he had a million-dollar deal with Ron Howard and Imagine Entertainment for a movie based on a book he planned to write for Scribner. If “Ordinary People” normalized psychiatric treatment within the context of a traumatized family, this would be, Rosen writes, “Extraordinary People.”

Laudor’s 80-page book proposal (which Rosen mines, along with another writer’s unfilmed screenplay) was for the power agent Tina Bennett and contained elements of bildungsroman, philosophical treatise, science fiction and spy thriller. But his life, and that of Costello, a gentle supporter and computer whiz who worked in education, would soon tip into bloody horror. Found unfit to stand trial, he was sent to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital.

Rosen cannot release Laudor, but he has rehabilitated and rehumanized him on the page while honoring his victim. “The Best Minds” is too a thoughtfully built, deeply sourced indictment of a society that prioritizes profit, quick fixes and happy endings over the long slog of care. “It turned out that going to the moon was easier than curing, preventing or even providing adequate treatment for illnesses that doctors, not so long before, had referred to as lunacy,” he writes, in rueful continuation of the rocket-ship metaphor.

Effectively taking over his friend’s unfinished project, braiding it with his own story of clinical anxiety as well as skeins of history, medicine, religion and true crime, the author has transcended childhood rivalry by twinning their stories, an act of tremendous compassion and a literary triumph.

“Every review felt like a public colonoscopy,” Rosen writes of his first novel’s reception. In this brave and nuanced book, I could not find so much as a polyp.

THE BEST MINDS: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions | By Jonathan Rosen | 576 pp. | Penguin Press | $32

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