Skip To Content

This devastating memoir will break your heart

In ‘The Best Minds,’ Jonathan Rosen deconstructs a generation through the tragic story of his childhood friend Michael Laudor

The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions
By Jonathan Rosen
Penguin, 560 pages, $32

Jonathan Rosen refused to talk to the enterprising New York Times reporter who tried to interview him about his childhood friend. It was June 1998, and Michael Laudor had just brutally murdered his pregnant fiancée, stabbing her repeatedly and slitting her throat.

“I told myself that silence was a gift I could give Michael, who had suffered from too many words already, trapped in stories he could never live up to, let alone tell,” Rosen writes.

Twenty-five years later, Rosen — author of the novels Eve’s Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning and former culture editor of the Forward — is ready to confront those stories and his own kinship to a brilliant and endearing psychopath. In The Best Minds, Rosen breaks his silence, and the heart of any empathetic reader. It is a wrenching double memoir about converging and violently diverging lives.

“Michael and I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting,” Rosen says of the leafy street in New Rochelle that the two boys’ families shared. It was a tranquil refuge from nearby New York City and the European bloodshed many of its Jews had fled. Both fathers were professors, and their sons communed over books. The friends were inseparable through high school but drew apart when Jonathan was chosen over Michael for editorship of the school newspaper. Both attended Yale, but Michael left Jonathan behind, graduating summa cum laude in only three years. While Jonathan became a husband, father and author, Michael’s life dissolved into a Lucian Freud painting.

Until his psychotic break, Michael was a wunderkind, a multi-talented dynamo whom everyone adored. While Michael put in a polished performance for his bar mitzvah, Jonathan, fleeing the bimah to throw up in the men’s room, never made it through his haftorah. He repeatedly compares the two of them to figures in an Aesop fable: “Michael had always been the hare to my tortoise,” he writes. With his new memoir, Rosen passes the finish line, while his old buddy languishes in the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, a secure facility enclosed by a 15-foot-high fence topped with razor wire.

In The Best Minds, a multi-talented dynamo whom everyone adored suffers a psychotic break and murders his pregnant fiancée. Courtesy of Penguin

It might have been otherwise. While still confined involuntarily to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for threatening his mother, Michael was accepted into Yale Law School. With the support and encouragement of faculty — especially Dean Guido Calabresi — and fellow students, he attended and excelled, openly acknowledging his schizophrenia and even counseling others in distress. Opposing the stigma attached to mental illness, he became an effective advocate for the disabled. “I can be a role model,” he declared.

When a feature article in The New York Times portrayed him as an inspiring example of how psychosis need not prevent sufferers from being functioning, constructive members of society, Michael was offered $600,000 to write a book to be called The Laws of Madness. He signed a contract for a $2.1 million movie deal, with Brad Pitt set to portray him. Everything unraveled when, convinced that she was a dangerous space alien, Michael Laudor murdered Carrie Costello.

Rosen borrows his title from the opening of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” The line certainly applies to Michael, but, more than just a single case study in psychopathology, The Best Minds is cultural history and philosophical meditation.

Born in 1963, Rosen refers to Michael and himself as “cuspers,” arriving at the “tail end” of the Baby Boom generation. He frequently — and a bit glibly — refers to developments in generational terms, as if age determines attitude. Not everyone in “the generation formed in the crucible of World War II” shared the same values. But Rosen’s target is the zeitgeist, and he hits it, not least in his vivid evocation of what it was like for a middle-class Jewish kid to penetrate the Ivy League sanctum of Yale shortly after quotas were relaxed.

“Madness was in the air when Michael and I were growing up,” he contends, using One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rosemary’s Baby, and the Son of Sam as supporting evidence. Psychogenic drugs have been glorified and vilified throughout their lives. Derangement has been exalted as a higher form of perception, but mental illness has also been reviled as a menace to society. Rosen discusses the movement to remove all psychotics from the streets, but he also examines the countermovement to deinstitutionalize madness.

On the final page of The Best Minds, a Yale forensic psychologist exclaims: “We must learn from Michael Laudor!” The most devastating thing about this haunting, anguished book is that it remains unclear just what we can learn.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.