Book Review: The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions

The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions, by Jonathan Rosen, is the harrowing account of a brilliant young man, full of promise, who developed schizophrenia in his mid-twenties and overcame the disease enough to attend Yale Law School—but then collapsed into psychosis and murdered his fiancé, Carrie Costello.

I have to confess that I have the flimsiest of reasons for reviewing this remarkable memoir in Journal of Cyber Policy. The book discusses public policy for mental health care, and some comparable “tragedy of good intentions” occurs in the development of cybersecurity policy. Reading this book might give you a better idea of how the “best minds” in the US Air Force devised security controls so weak that a 21-year-old enlisted man could walk off with some of nation’s most sensitive secrets. Plus, Rosen doesn’t need a review from me. He’s already gotten a great deal of well-earned praise for the book from outlets a lot bigger than this one.

My main reason is that I know Jonathan Rosen. He’s one of my brother’s closest friends. They were in the same class at Yale, along with Michael Laudor, the subject of this book, so I have more than a passing interest in the story. And, having read Rosen’s earlier works, the novels Eve’s Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning, I can see the Michael Laudor tragedy haunting Rosen’s characters in the background, under different aliases. Laudor’s killing of Carrie Costello also makes an appearance in the book, And Then Something Happened: Essays on Fiction Writing, by the writer Debra Spark, another Yale classmate and friend of mine.

Michael Laudor was Jonathan Rosen’s best friend growing up in New Rochelle, New York. They were both hyper-intelligent Jewish kids who attended Yale together. The book takes the time to establish the feel of the era in all its tacky glory, as exemplified by the powder blue Pierre Cardin suit Rosen wore to his disastrous Bar Mitzvah. Rosen is not doing this just for the sake of nostalgia or laughs, though he has a great sense of humor and there are many knowing chuckles to be had for someone like me, who is two years younger than Rosen and grew up two miles away from him. He’s setting up the book’s intellectual fulcrum. The seventies were a period of reckoning for the idealism of the sixties.

Rosen blends memoir with deep analysis of the political, psychological, legal, and academic movements that influenced official thinking about mental health treatment and the nature of mental illness itself in the sixties. From French intellectuals and American deconstructionists who naively viewed psychosis as “liberating,” to well-intentioned Kennedy era policy makers who championed the idea of “community mental health,” these people who thought they knew best proceeded to make some truly terrible decisions.

Their pressure led to the closure of most of the country’s mental health hospitals. Those places were horrible, but what came next, the mind-numbing destruction of human beings that occurred in deinstitutionalization, was no improvement. Rosen offers an account of a schizophrenic woman who froze to death while her family was suing to get her committed to a psychiatric hospital. According to the attorney’s Rosen interviewed, the woman’s rights were more important than her avoiding freezing to death. We are still living out this nightmare, with rampant homelessness and mass shootings. This book is an indictment of their arrogance.

So it is that Michael Laudor, who went from paranoid thinking to a full-on psychotic break in the early 1990s, fell into a mental health system that was beyond broken. He was comparatively fortunate, though. He spent eight months in a locked ward at Columbia Presbyterian, followed by a year in a dingy halfway house, but he was alive and getting better. Visiting his old friend, Rosen shares his realization that mental illness is not a “discourse,” as Foucault might say, or a metaphor. It’s a steel door in a locked ward that keeps his friend from escaping. It’s real, and it’s devastating for Laudor and everyone who cares about him.

Rosen does point out that the system can work, up to a point. On his medication, Laudor is stabilized and able to function well enough to attend Yale Law School. After the New York Times covers Laudor’s incredible journey from schizophrenia to Yale, Laudor receives a lucrative book deal and a substantial payment for his life story rights from Ron Howard, the film director. The money and attention, along with the pressure to write a book, are possible reasons Laudor stopped taking his medication, which caused him to spiral out of control.

Rosen is constantly telling us that Michael was incomprehensibly smart, with a mind that moved faster than anyone else’s. He was, as Rosen put it, the hare to his tortoise. If you consider that the author of this utter tour de force of writing is the “tortoise,” then you can understand that Michael had a superior, prodigious intellect. That said, even though Rosen loves his friend, Laudor comes off, at least to me, as overly competitive and not particularly nice.

The Best Minds is an engrossing read, a compelling story of a deep friendship and the blistering damage it undergoes as Laudor falls apart. Its main intellectual thrust deals with the unwise laws and policies we now have in the US, where people who desperately need psychiatric care either cannot access it or cannot be made to get it.

This is an important book that seems to be getting the attention it deserves. I highly recommend it.