A perfect childhood, an elite education, and the horror of schizophrenia

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Writer Jonathan Rosen chronicles his childhood friend’s struggle with schizophrenia and what it means to do the right thing when treating those who are severely mentally ill. Photo by Shutterstock.

Jonathan Rosen, writer and author of “The Best Minds: The Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions,” tells the story of his childhood best friend Michael Laudor and his demonic battle with schizophrenia. The story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when good intentions lead to the worst possible outcome. Rosen describes how Michael’s life spiraled out of control, the challenges of dealing with mental illness, and addresses some of the ongoing failures to help the mentally ill.

Growing up outside of New York City in the 1970s, Michael and Jonathan became best friends. They had a lot in common. Both were tall and skinny kids born into loving Jewish families, their father’s were college professors and both wanted to be writers.  But it was Michael who stood out — like an older brother he was the confident one; charming and academically way ahead of the other kids. 

“​​We shared an expectation that our brains were somehow going to be our salvation, or ‘rocketship,’ as I put it,” Rosen says.

Despite stellar academic achievements and a high paying job, by his early 20s Michael’s story takes a tragic turn when a psychotic episode lands him in a private New York hospital for eight months. For Jonathan, it was the first he learned about Michael’s schizophrenia — and the first time he encountered the visceral nature of his illness and the enormity of his delusions. 

“It took about three seconds of talking to Michael to recognize that he was not suffering from a socially constructed disorder,” Rosen says. “How he himself spoke about both the illness and what had happened to him and how little people could help him…he described himself as a television set that people just kept whacking on the side.”

The break with a daily job, medication and therapy seemed to work in his favor, and Michael’s exceptional mind gained him acceptance into Yale Law School. 

“Yale Law School offered him, for a few years, what the old asylums were meant to offer,” Rosen says. “The world was walled out, it has a beautiful interior, you're given a kind of time, and he had remarkable mentors.” 

The reprieve also gave him a little notoriety; the New York Times wrote about his ability to straddle both worlds, “triumphing” over his schizophrenia; Yale Law professors argued that it was possible to “accommodate” those whose brains functioned differently, and Hollywood even wanted to make Michael the subject of a movie starring Brad Pitt.  

It was a narrative Michael himself bought into — one in which he with the help of friends, family, and medication could conquer his demons and overcome his delusions. But as Rosen explains, the story takes a brutal turn when Michael went off his medications. No one could compel him to go back on them or to check him into the hospital, even as his psychotic delusions got worse. His family sought to get him the help he needed, but when his pregnant fiance tried to convince him to take his medication, he brutally murdered her. 

Jonathan Rosen chronicles Michael’s story in his latest book, “The Best Minds.” From their shared childhood through college, Rosen explores what happens to Michael and how a dysfunctional mental health system has and is failing so many like him. Institutions and state hospitals for the severely mentally ill have been dismantled, laws and policies have made forcing or compelling someone to take medication almost impossible and our jails have now taken the place of those old 19th century psychiatric asylums. 

“Part of the tragedy was also this enormous impulse to simply say, ‘we're going to start something new.’ The problem is by the time we ‘started something new,’ mental health as a term was totally broadened,” says Rosen. “So instead of the three or four percent of the population, who are severely ill, in ways that keeps them often from knowing they're ill, it became half of the population and half of the population probably needs care but it's a different kind.”

Rosen, pictured here, shares his thoughts on his childhood friend Michael Laudor “It's not as if anyone told him he wasn't ill but it was easy to forget and maybe it even seemed like a kind of kindness,” Rosen explains, “the psychiatrists caring for him, who were wonderful people had grown out of the 1960s world of community psychiatry, which they had contributed to and for them, saving someone, like Michael from the system was their real goal, which meant that his illness was almost secondary to that goal.” Photo by Tali Rosen.

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Andrea Brody