A review of The Best Minds by Jonathan Rosen

Reviewed by Tucker Coombe

The Best Minds
A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions
by Jonathan Rosen
Penguin Press
April 2023, Hardcover, 576 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1594206573

The outlines of Michael Lauder’s story are dramatic. He whizzed through Yale, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Betta Kappa after three years. A mental “break,” hospitalization, and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia followed shortly after. Even so, he enrolled at Yale Law School, where professors and students embraced his quirky brilliance. Lauder was profiled in The New York Times and heralded as something of a schizophrenic Wunderkind. Movie producers and book publishers competed for the rights to his life story. But too few people took note when he began to spiral downward. At age thirty-five, in a psychotic rage, Lauder killed his pregnant fiancée with a kitchen knife.

Jonathan Rosen became best friends with Michael Lauder at age ten. His outstanding new book, The Best Minds, offers an assiduously researched and compelling portrait of the man. It also raises questions about the responsibilities of friendship, and the human capacity for denial. Twenty-five years have elapsed since Lauder’s criminal unravelling, a span that has given Rosen space and time not only to research the people and ideas of this story, but to sift through his own complex feelings about Lauder and the path his life took. 

Rosen met Lauder shortly after his family moved onto Mereland Avenue, in the tightly knit, Jewish neighborhood of Wykagyl in New Rochelle, New York. Immediately, Rosen sensed something extraordinary, and extraordinarily appealing, about his new neighbor. “Michael’s geniality and supreme self-confidence were his own. Even then, he seemed like the ambassador of his own country.” Later in the narrative, a reader can’t help but recall some of the author’s eerily prescient observations. 

For the better part of a decade the two boys were inseparable, and Rosen’s descriptions of their early years together provide some of the book’s most memorable scenes. Here’s a snapshot from elementary school: “Michael kept stacks of paperbacks on his desk, working his way through fresh piles every day. He didn’t just read the books, he read them all at the same time, like Bobby Fischer playing chess with multiple opponents.” Some of the traits Rosen notes in his childhood friend –– arrogance, for example, and self-absorption –– would re-appear, in a less innocent guise, in adulthood. 

Rosen writes that, “Michael and I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting,” and indeed, both boys were raised by devoted, if sometimes eccentric, parents. Here’s a depiction of their fathers: “The maroon Chevy Malibu rusting in front of my house rhymed with the ancient Plymouth Valiant rusting in front of Michael’s. The Lauders also had a battered Ford station wagon lurking in the driveway like a wood-paneled hearse. Chuck [Lauder] drove it like a Ferrari… always trying to shave a few seconds off his personal best no matter how local the driving. When my father drove us[,]… Michael liked to draw his long legs up, circling his knees with his arms in mock preparation for impact. My father was, in fact, perfectly capable of forgetting he’d put the car in reverse before pulling out of a spot…” The comfortable tone established early in the book in no way prepares the reader for what lies ahead. 

A handful of jarring events, which Rosen relates briefly, hint at a darker future. While the boys were together at “hippie” summer camp,” the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death while playing the organ at church. The murderer, Rosen writes, was “a model student at Ohio State [who] began exhibiting … strange beliefs and behavior …”.. He mentions the stabbing death of his first-grade teacher. And he tells of the Son of Sam, a serial killer who claimed to have murdered people on the orders of a six-thousand-year-old demon inhabiting the body of a black Labrador.

He also shows how intense competition between the two boys morphed into quiet distrust and mutual estrangement. In high school, each spent months applying to a selective summer program –– “an all-expenses-paid nerd camp,” as Rosen calls it –– without letting the other know. As it turned out, the two would float in and out of the other’s orbit for decades: “We carried the world of each other’s childhood like a kryptonite pebble, a fragment of the home planet.” Even after Lauder, in his mid-twenties, wound up in the locked ward of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Rosen writes, “I couldn’t help feeling, or fearing, that Michael and I were spookily attached.” Despite increasingly ambivalent feelings toward his old friend, Rosen describes a connection that seemed unbreakable.

Woven through this intensely personal story is an examination of the historic shifts in thinking surrounding mental illness and its treatment. Rosen pays particular attention to the national push for de-institutionalization, and the failed promise of community mental health care that followed. Because he focuses on the people at the center of the debate, what might otherwise be a dry discussion about Medicaid reimbursements, state hospitals and board-and-care homes becomes compelling reading. He tells of Rebecca Smith, a college valedictorian with schizophrenia who, after spending ten years in a mental institution, ran away to New York City and lived in a cardboard box. She froze to death only hours before the court order arrived for her hospitalization. 

For all the book’s attention to the failed mental health system, one could argue that the system itself wasn’t such a central player in Lauder’s story: to an unusual degree, the young man was enveloped in love and support. Rosen writes with compassion about Lauder’s parents: a mother who was devoted to her son but terrified on those occasions when he roamed the house with a knife, deluded in thinking that his parents were in fact Nazis; and a father –– “the booster of all boosters” –– who, when Lauder was in law school, called his son on the phone each morning to coax him through the recurring hallucination that his dorm room was on fire.

Rosen makes much of a loosely affiliated group of family friends, psychiatrists, and social workers –– “The Network,” as they called themselves –– who watched over, advised, and on occasion even housed Lauder. Why, Rosen asks, did none of them intervene when Lauder showed symptoms of decline? Perhaps, he suggests, they were so invested in keeping Lauder out of an institution that “they’d hidden (his disorder) away even from themselves, like the spinning wheel in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.” Perhaps, as well, they were too wrapped up in Lauder’s remarkable successes –– a reflection, of sorts, of their own efforts –– to take note when his symptoms worsened. 

At Yale Law School, Rosen writes, where Lauder arrived “staggered by schizophrenia [and] veiled by medication,” he was revered and cared for by other students: “Classmates who knew nothing of Michael’s illness accounted for his aura of otherness in symbolic ways, ascribing it to some danger he had passed, a mystical temperament or intelligence itself settling palpably around him, like genius visible.” The legal scholar and Judge Guido Calabresi, then-dean of the Yale Law School, “had a genuine belief in Michael’s brilliance, and therefore in Michael himself.” Calabresi went to extraordinary lengths to ensure Lauder felt welcomed and supported –– personally delivering the bed, for example, to Lauder’s dorm room. Following graduation, the school even awarded Lauder a two-year, first-of-its-kind, postdoctoral appointment. 

A few years down the road, it was movie producers and book publishers who gathered round Lauder, excited to tell the story of a man who’d prevailed in his battle with schizophrenia: “When the president of Scribner asked Michael if he still hallucinated, Michael told her, ‘I’m hallucinating right now.’ She asked what he saw, and the room grew quiet as Michael described a burning waterfall emptying into a lake of fire… Bidding (on his life story) began at $200,000 and rose quickly.”  Scenes like this raise the question of whether Lauder was viewed, by some, as something of a curiosity. 

Rosen asks how much Lauder’s admirers, even as they showered him with adulation, turned a blind eye to the dangers of his illness. And he takes himself to task for his own denial of Lauder’s deteriorating condition. Here’s a conversation between the two men a few years after college:  “[W]hen I asked, after a particularly long silence, how he’d been spending his time, [Lauder] said, ‘Oh, thinking of ways to kill myself. Taking larger doses of medication. Lying on my bed in a fetal position.’ What kept me from rushing over on the spot?” Only in hindsight does Rosen realize how he’d refused to see what was right in front of him. 

The book is haunted by the question of how Lauder could slip, unchecked, into a psychotic rage. Certainly, it speaks to the treacherous nature of schizophrenia.  Lauder was wholly devoted to his fiancée, Carrie Costello. After he’d killed her –– using two knives to stab her repeatedly from behind and to cut her throat –– he was unsure whether he’d killed his fiancée, or a windup doll. He travelled 170 miles before flagging down a policewoman to offer a barely coherent confession. 

But Rosen also questions the often-overblown value placed on intellect. Even as a boy, Rosen sensed that “[the] same expectation shaping [Lauder’s] life was shaping mine; the belief that your brain is your rocket ship … we would think our way into stratospheric success.”  Rosen writes with an intuitive understanding of Lauder; others, it appears, may have simply been drawn to Lauder’s dazzling intelligence. Commenting on the The New York Times profile, Rosen notes that “[b]rilliance was the fulcrum of the story, the point at which Michael was lifted above the stereotypes of schizophrenia…”

Perhaps, Rosen suggests, the shine of brilliance blinds us to other problems: “Nobody told us that being smart would make us sane, successful, and maybe immortal; it went without saying. Just as it went without saying that Michael, plucking the strings of his intelligence, would keep The Angel of Madness from carrying him away.”

As boys, both Rosen and Lauder aspired to be writers. Rosen is the author of two novels and two previous works of nonfiction. Lauder, for all his brilliance, was denied admission to a prestigious writing workshop. The walls of his bedroom were papered over in rejection letters from literary magazines where he’d submitted his short stories. And although he’d received a $600,000 advance for his book, he never managed to produce the manuscript. Michael Lauder has spent the past twenty-five years in the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, fifty-five miles outside of New York City. Adding to a litany of tragedies, Rosen suggests, is the fact that he was never able to tell his own story.  

About the reviewer: Tucker Coombe writes about memoir and nature from Cincinnati, Ohio and Chatham, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Brevity, The Rumpus, and Los Angeles Review of Books. In her spare time she trains dogs, keeps bees, and gardens with a focus on native plants and wildlife.