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

By – April 17, 2023

Jonathan Rosen’s new book tells the sto­ry of the author’s rela­tion­ship with Michael Lau­dor, a child­hood friend whose life became defined by his men­tal ill­ness. Grow­ing up togeth­er in New Rochelle, New York’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, the two forged a friend­ship that saw many twists and turns. 

Lau­dor might be a famil­iar name to read­ers: he gar­nered some fame in the 1990s after a New York Times arti­cle pro­filed his expe­ri­ences as a Yale Law School grad­u­ate who suf­fered from schiz­o­phre­nia, which led to book deals and a con­tract for a biopic with Ron Howard. As Rosen doc­u­ments, how­ev­er, what was sup­posed to be a nar­ra­tive of men­tal ill­ness and men­tal health care reform came crash­ing down when Lau­dor mur­dered his preg­nant fiancée, Car­rie Costel­lo, dur­ing a para­noid delu­sion, cat­a­pult­ing him from fame to infamy. 

The Best Minds fol­lows Laudor’s sto­ry but extends beyond just one man’s tragedy. Rosen pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing overview of mad­ness” in the broad­est pos­si­ble sense. Art, lit­er­a­ture, pop cul­ture, med­ical sci­ence, and the jus­tice sys­tem gave Rosen’s gen­er­a­tion con­flict­ing (and often unhealthy) under­stand­ings of insan­i­ty. For exam­ple, the­o­rists like Michel Fou­cault and Franz Fanon — along with artists of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion — described mad­ness as a social con­struct that could actu­al­ly lib­er­ate indi­vid­u­als from the oppres­sive con­for­mi­ty of nor­mal­i­ty. On the oth­er hand, Rosen chron­i­cles the his­to­ry of psy­chi­atric lock­up, lobot­o­mies, and the advent of psy­chi­a­try as a med­ical prac­tice, which stig­ma­tized (and in some cas­es crim­i­nal­ized) severe men­tal illness. 

Read­ers might find some of the anec­dotes and chap­ter themes cir­cuitous. But by the book’s end, it becomes clear how the socio­his­tor­i­cal back­ground and bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion fit togeth­er, pro­vid­ing read­ers with a nuanced dis­cus­sion of men­tal ill­ness in Amer­i­can soci­ety. Though the memoir’s Jew­ish themes some­times take a back­seat to the dis­cus­sion of men­tal ill­ness, Rosen — the son of Holo­caust sur­vivors — sug­gests con­nec­tions between these pub­lic-fac­ing nar­ra­tives and the gen­er­a­tional trau­ma of being Jew­ish in a post-Holo­caust world.

With all the fas­ci­nat­ing con­text that The Best Minds deploys to tell Michael’s trag­ic sto­ry, it is unfor­tu­nate that so few of the book’s five hun­dred-plus pages are devot­ed to Car­rie Costel­lo, the part­ner Michael stabbed to death. Toward the end of the book, Rosen him­self acknowl­edges this:, I kept think­ing that Michael him­self had been mur­dered, and when I caught myself in the mis­take, I felt con­fused and guilty. I won­dered if killing was in itself a kind of death. But behind that spec­u­la­tion was the preg­nant woman he had actu­al­ly killed, strange­ly eclipsed by the per­son­al hor­ror her death aroused in me.” Michael was failed by many insti­tu­tions, but Car­rie and her unborn child deserve to be remem­bered, too. 

Discussion Questions

In this stag­ger­ing work of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion, Jonathan Rosen shares the per­son­al sto­ry of his charis­mat­ic and bril­liant child­hood best friend (and fre­quent com­peti­tor), Michael Loud­er, who slow­ly descends into a life over­come by men­tal ill­ness. Rosen and Loud­er grew up as neigh­bors in post­war New Rochelle, New York, and they were excep­tion­al­ly tal­ent­ed young Jew­ish men. The Holo­caust and its after­math loom large in this book: Rosen’s father escaped Vien­na as a teenag­er, and his own par­ents didn’t sur­vive. Both chil­dren of col­lege pro­fes­sors, Rosen and Loud­er decid­ed ear­ly on to become writ­ers. One suc­ceed­ed, while the oth­er expe­ri­enced the high­est highs and the low­est lows due to his increas­ing delu­sions and para­noia. Some have attempt­ed to co-opt Michael’s sto­ry over the years — even Hol­ly­wood came call­ing — but Rosen tells the sto­ry like only a writer/​best friend could. His gifts for lan­guage and sto­ry­telling make this an extreme­ly engag­ing, if trag­ic, read.