The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions
Most of us remember the almost unbearable intensity we felt for our first childhood best friend. Sixty-year-old Jonathan Rosen’s first buddy was Michael Laudor, who was also always in some ways his rival. Both of these 10-year-old smart Jewish boys were expected to accomplish great things. They met in 1973 when Rosen and his parents and sister moved to New Rochelle; it was the beginning of an incredible friendship.
Laudor was in most ways leap years ahead of Rosen. He was funnier, lively, smarter, more charismatic and daring, and had a photographic memory that impressed his teachers. Laudor found it easier to schmooze with the girls as the two young men navigated high school. Laudor’s household was more chaotic than Rosen’s, but there was performance pressure in both homes.
In Rosen’s, a particular kind of Jewish sadness lingered. Rosen’s paternal grandparents were murdered by the Nazis and his father survived by being placed on the Kindertransport. Rosen doesn’t address the gloom of the Holocaust directly, but it’s clear it’s related to the immense weight he always bore on his shoulders.
Rosen admits he was an anxious child and faltered during his bar mitzvah with severe anxiety that mortified his parents and relatives who had come to celebrate him. In his incredibly moving and panoramic work, The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions, Rosen attempts to make sense of his early life with Michael Laudor, who became notorious when he developed schizophrenia in his twenties, and repeatedly stabbed and killed his fiancé Carrie, who was pregnant with his child. Laudor claims he didn’t believe it was Carrie he was stabbing; he thought she was a robot who had replaced her.
Rosen brings to life the ten-year-old Laudor before he became ravaged by illness. He allows us to see the two of them playing games; and Michael always beating him. He describes how “Even standing still he had a habit of rocking forward and rising up on the balls of his feet, trying to meet his growth-spurt halfway. He stood behind me on Mereland Road in that unsteady but assured pose, rising and falling like a wave. He was socially effective the same way he was good at basketball-through uncowed persistence . . . I often heard in later years that people found him intimidating, but for me it was the opposite. Despite my shyness—or because of it—Michael’s self-confidence put me at ease.” Rosen admired his friend’s nervy confidence; the way he took to calling Rosen’s parents Norma and Bob, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Yet Rosen sensed his father was uncomfortable with Laudor’s dad. When they would accidentally meet, Rosen’s father would find a way to escape quickly. Laudor’s father taught college economics, and Rosen’s dad taught German literature. Both were convinced their sons would accomplish marvelous things now that doors were opening up everywhere for smart Jewish boys like theirs. Rosen explains he was named for his murdered grandfather, and his sister for his murdered grandmother, and these names seem to have come freighted with excess responsibility to give meaning to the Jewish lives mercilessly destroyed.
These were heady times. Although the horror of Vietnam lingered, there were all sorts of revolutions taking place throughout American society. New questions were being asked about gender and class and individual freedoms.
Rosen doesn’t allow his nostalgia to overwhelm remembrances that are darker—particularly with Laudor. He recalls several betrayals whose sting still lingers. There was the time Rosen got beat up by a bunch of boys and Laudor fled. Later on, in high school, when Rosen was awarded editorship of the school paper, Laudor resigned in protest thinking himself more qualified for the job. Rosen remembers how at the time, he ‘wasn’t feeling sorry for Michael, I was feeling sorry for myself. I’d spent so long assuming we would run the Herald together that it was hard to give up the dream, even if I was no longer sure how much the dream grew out of friendship and how much out of my dependency.” There were other episodes that didn’t add up. Laudor could be mercilessly cruel and narcissistic. Rosen recalls his friend ignoring him at times for reasons he couldn’t fathom.
Rosen has spent most of his life struggling with anxiety. His attempts at psychotherapy appear to have been futile, and he recalls receiving some help with his panic attacks when he began taking Prozac, which he did for a while. He is a gentle and forgiving writer; whose tendency is to look for the good and benevolent in all around him. This made it difficult for Rosen when Laudor was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties, a decade before the gruesome murder. He didn’t understand the nature of his friend’s severe illness; only that it seemed to have taken away his life force and left him a shell of the young man Rosen had always looked up to. The mostly new anti-psychotic drugs he was given helped at times, but often left him feeling as if a dense fog surrounded him. He would go off the medicine trying to feel better, and his hallucinations would worsen. When Laudor murdered his fiancé, he hadn’t been taking his medications for weeks.
Rosen spends several chapters of his book explaining the strange evolution of how mental illness has been perceived and how it has been treated in America—and the serious problems that persist. When Laudor became ill during the early 1980s, there was a mass movement toward closing most of the horrid huge state hospitals where patients rotted away, and replacing them with smaller community-based halfway houses that would help integrate the mentally ill into the community.
This sounded good in theory, but without constant surveillance, patients often stopped taking their medications, or disappeared, or returned to their family homes where they wreaked havoc. But still, many intellectuals in various fields were convinced that the mentally ill could be treated in a way that allowed them the dignity and promise of some sort of better life. This turned out to be another hippie pipe dream for many of them, who needed constant care, but it was still a prevalent belief among those who were making decisions about such things at the time.
Even Yale Law School embraced Michael Laudor, knowing he was schizophrenic and had been hospitalized for a time. They made extreme accommodations to help Laudor navigate the program. The professors and administrators believed Laudor’s brilliance was still shining and needn’t be ruined by the ravages of schizophrenia that often clouded his thinking. Laudor was able to convince them he could control his hallucinations.
For a time, it seemed he could handle things. Laudor’s life came to the attention of Ron Howard, the producer, who paid him millions for his story which he intended to make into a major motion picture that would give hope to the mentally ill. Nor would the book be written by Laudor about his own life which was part of the production deal. The movie would never be made. Howard felt it wouldn’t be a profitable endeavor due to Laudor’s savage act of murder that would keep a mass audience from attending.
Soon enough, it became clear that Michael would never be a lawyer. Nor would he be able to work in academia. But this didn’t stop Yale’s enthusiasm in embracing Laudor, who graduated from their law school and was given a post-graduate position that allowed him to stay cocooned within their midst. Rosen tries to explain the inexplicable saying that during this time “There was much talk about deconstruction which told us that ‘knowing’ anything was impossible and that all we thought and believed was based on linguistic constructs. Language erased the line between reality and illusion.”
Rosen talks about many who swore that meaning was just a metaphor and that no clear line could be drawn between “truth and falsehood, madness and sanity, and ultimately between right and wrong.” There was a disturbing glamorization regarding mental illness that prevented the mentally ill from genuinely receiving the care they needed. It would take time before this foolish talk dissipated and psychiatrists embraced the biological dimension of schizophrenia.
Rosen’s writing can break your heart. You hurt for him; and for what he has endured. He recalls how before both young men went to Yale undergraduate school, Laudor told him he wouldn’t be hanging out with him at Yale because Rosen was just too slow. You can feel the harshness of the slight still reverberating through Rosen all these decades later.
Rosen reveals that he lost touch with Laudor after high school for the most part, but they would still run into one another on visits home. Rosen had married and would soon have two children. He had published his first book which received great acclaim. His father would soon be diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and Rosen was thrust into juggling the competing roles of husband, father, and part-time caretaker for his dad. His wife, a rabbi who worked as a chaplain in hospitals, encouraged him to visit his old friend in an attempt perhaps to make peace with what had transpired. Rosen follows his wife’s advice and when sitting across from Laudor, now committed to a forensic hospital, he feels a strange mixture of sympathy, love, and heartache, for this man that everyone was certain would one day have everything. Laudor seemed a shell of himself. Their conversation was forced and some of the things Laudor said still seemed intended to somehow slight him, though he couldn’t say exactly how. The ancient feelings of childhood were still active between them despite the fog of illness and time.
Rosen finds himself lost in memory, recalling the “smell of the Laudor house, laundry detergent and burned American cheese, how it looked and felt, papers on the staircase, the Indian print, scattered books in all the wrong places. His warfare with his clever, shouting brothers; his booming take no-prisoners father . . .”
A worthy and incisive read.