A Memoir About Friendship and Mental Illness
A Q&A with Jonathan Rosen, whose new book, The Best Minds, delves into a fraught friendship and the societal response to schizophrenia
When Michael Laudor killed his pregnant girlfriend, Caroline Costello, in 1998, it was the kind of story the tabloids eat up: a fall from great heights. Laudor had appeared previously in the press, but as a success, celebrated for having graduated from Yale Law School despite a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A movie of his life was even in the works, to be directed by Ron Howard and star Brad Pitt. But after the killing, the New York Post ran a picture of Laudor on its cover with the headline Psycho. Some saw him as the victim of a disease; others refused to accept that his disorder had anything to do with the horror he had wrought.
For the writer Jonathan Rosen, the murder was a nightmare come true. Laudor had been his best friend since the two were 10 years old. They had grown up together, and Rosen always felt like he was in the shadow of the book-devouring, fast-talking boy who managed to finish college in three years. Laudor’s illness had confounded Rosen. It seemed to live alongside his brilliance. And society didn’t know what to do with the fact of it: institutionalize him or integrate him.
Rosen’s new memoir, The Best Minds, is his attempt to understand the complexity of his relationship with Laudor, as well as the ways that mental illness has been treated and understood in America over the past half century. Published earlier this week and adapted for an essay in the May issue of The Atlantic, the book delves into a fraught friendship that even at its brightest moments was tinged with competitiveness, and it also offers—nearly a quarter century after Laudor pleaded insanity and was committed to a psychiatric institution—a deep look at the policies and attitudes that have shaped societal responses to schizophrenia.
I have known Rosen for many years, and over the decade it took him to write The Best Minds, he often shared with me that he was struggling to tell the story. I spoke with him recently about his process, and what he hopes the book might accomplish. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Gal Beckerman: You’ve written novels and nonfiction, and you’ve had a long career as an editor. I’m wondering if this story, the story of you and Michael, was always thrumming in the back of your mind as a part of your life you were eventually going to have to contend with through writing.
Jonathan Rosen: It was always, probably, the encounter I was waiting to have, but I didn’t know what it would be an encounter with. So I didn’t actually know what form it would take. And I didn’t know, when I started writing 10 years ago, how large it would become. And what was strange about it is that the more personal and particular I allowed it to be, the more it seemed to overlap with all of these pieces of psychiatry and law that I hadn’t thought about at all when I thought about the story. It doesn’t mean it turned out that my personal life was somehow emblematic, but it does mean that it was more bound up with these larger forces than I ever recognized.
Beckerman: I imagine it was precisely the very personal side of this that felt the scariest to confront.
Rosen: It’s always a little embarrassing when I explain to people that I came to terms with the fact that this was a story about madness and about someone getting killed, but it was the fact that I had to write about my bar mitzvah or my childhood that really terrified me—just reinhabiting who I was and reinhabiting my relationship to Michael, someone I measured myself against, somebody I competed with. I was competitive with him long after; in retrospect, he was still the hare to my tortoise, but had gone off a cliff long before. And I just kept thinking, I’m going to catch him! And so there were so many levels of confusion or shame, discovering what it means to be smart and why I wanted to be smart and what we thought it would mean. At the same time, when I went back, what was amazing to me was how I wasn’t thinking about any of those things when I was friends with him.
Beckerman: Was it hard to sort of scrape away the retrospect of knowing what later happened to Michael? I imagine the temptation to see him only through the lens of his schizophrenia, to ask if there were hints of what would happen to him even as you’re trying to write authentically about being boyhood friends.
Rosen: That’s a perfect framing of the paradox, to be honest. The most wonderful and generous advice I got from my editor was that I should allow myself to write it novelistically. That doesn’t mean make it a novel, but it allowed me to inhabit the 10 year-old boy I was. The quality that mattered most to me was that what happened was not yet. No one could call it a tragic inevitability. It was still a future that was ahead of us. So even if the atmosphere of the book knows what’s to come, there is still an aspect of the book that doesn’t. And in the end, if you’re trying honestly to embody it, you can’t rely on the theory, ideology, history. It’s just, here I am. And there he was.
Beckerman: This also seems to be a book about how we understand mental illness, how we frame it, how we pathologize it or romanticize it.
Rosen: I had to un-tell a lot of stories because, in a weird way, this was also a story about stories. People were always filling in the missing pieces of Michael’s story, or they allowed him to narrate his own illness. And psychiatry itself had been taken over, after Freud, by stories. It was applied mythology: You talk yourself into wellness. I think it seemed to people like my parents, who were shaped by that world, and to Michael’s mentors, who were shaped by that world, as if there were a kind of a literary triumph in everyone finally living by the rules of literature. But actually, it’s a disaster if science—which is not a story, but something very different—is governed by the rules, let’s say, of fiction.
Beckerman: It does seem like you come to the conclusion that we make a mistake when we approach the mentally ill not as people who are sick, but rather as a narrative problem, as people whose stories we just need to find a way to integrate.
Rosen: The idea that a story bestows wholeness on you is false. I was raised to be a writer and to believe that the world exists to be put into a book, as I think Stéphane Mallarmé said. I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t discovered that I no longer believed that. There’s another paradox for you. The world does not exist to be put into a book. Writing does not make you special or better. And you can tell your own story and still be consumed by it.
Beckerman: That paradox only makes me see how high the bar was for you with this book. If the problem is that we’ve given too much power to storytelling, how much harder it must be to sit down and try to write a book. What kind of mechanisms do you have to put in place to both write authoritatively, but also to check yourself that you’re not becoming intoxicated with that power?
Rosen: And with the conventions of the story. Michael was the first person to tell me about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. And the enormous appeal of that story is that the hero starts out, the hero gets lost, the hero gets wounded, the hero gets helped by mysterious forces, the hero emerges stronger than before with gifts to bestow on the world. Well, Campbell actually talked about the schizophrenic journey in a lecture collected in a book called Myths to Live By. He described psychosis as a mythic encounter with mystical benefits. So the expectation—and you see it when The New York Times profiled Michael three years before he killed Carrie; people spoke on his behalf about how he had conquered his illness—was the hero’s journey. Not everything is a story that works that way.
Beckerman: You’re now entering yourself into the public accounting of Michael Laudor. And I wonder how you think about the effect you are going to have.
Rosen: It feels very, very strange. But what I would say is that I could never have even thought about writing this story if it hadn’t been an extraordinarily public story—if Michael hadn’t been written about heroically in The New York Times and literally appeared on the cover of the New York Post under the word Psycho. So in a sense, the most lurid thing had already been told. And yet neither of those versions came close to approximating my own experience, and I couldn’t have written the book if I wasn’t telling a personal story. There’s also the case that Carrie’s story wasn’t told at all. One of the epigraphs in the book is from The Washington Post; it says, “About the victim less was immediately known.” I was determined not to allow Carrie, who I never met, to disappear. I talked to my old friends and Michael’s old friends and I talked to Carrie’s old friends who poured out such moving, vivid recollections. I would never delude myself into believing that this was somehow my reconstituting her. I’m aware that it could only compound the tragedy if you felt her presence more and understand what it really meant. But it seemed important to me that if I was to tell the story, she would also be present.
Beckerman: Do you still visit Michael?
Beckerman: I guess my curiosity would be how he would respond to this book. If he is in a place mentally where he could digest it.
Rosen: Of course. When I visited him, he didn’t acknowledge that he had killed anyone, so I never pretended that he was participating. And I didn’t interview him, for that reason. In other words, he was still inside of a somewhat delusional understanding of what had happened. I imagine that if he is in the place that he needs to be in order to be released, which is to come to terms with both his illness and the fact that he killed someone, this would be the least of it in a way. But I don’t know if that’s true. I simply don’t.
Beckerman: Your book also manages to present just how complex it is to deal with the problem of mental illness and the ways we are stuck in this pendulum swing of intervention and a kind of hands-off approach. Do you feel like your immersion in the subject has given you any kind of policy prescription?
Rosen: I don’t feel all that confident about policy recommendations. And policies in the aftermath of great devastation, when so many systems were destroyed, are even harder. But if I had to say one thing? Don’t lie. Don’t lie to yourself or to other people about outcomes that you have no way of knowing in advance. Don’t think you’re honoring the autonomy of someone who doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t, by defending that person as if you were that person and as if they were making a conscious choice. And don’t tell yourself that it is a conscious choice—if they’re ill and can’t care for themselves—to live on the street. Especially because living on the street may well mean living in prison or dying. So at least tell yourself what it is you are defending.
Beckerman: And that goes also, I imagine, for drawing a clear distinction about what mental illness is and what its consequences can be?
Rosen: To redefine mental illness in such a way that it encompasses half the population, to make it a grand fungible state that half of America suffers from, is not to universalize a helpful impulse, but to betray the very people in whose name these policies were originally undertaken. We live in an age of redefinition such that it doesn’t even have to be intentionally Orwellian. But it does, however, make it very hard to help anyone. If everyone is sick, nobody is. There are people too sick to help themselves or even know they’re sick. And that doesn’t consign those who have those illnesses and function wonderfully and have the support or are receptive to it to a hopeless state. But to pretend it doesn’t afflict some in that way is a lie with fatal consequences. It was devastating to see the ease with which experts felt they could expand their area of authority to turn a program for a small percentage of people into a kind of public-health program where everyone can be treated and helped. Everyone deserves help and treatment. But again, you turn the world into a hospital, then what becomes of actual hospitals? They get closed.
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