The Best Minds is the true story of the lifelong friendship between the author, Jonathan Rosen, and Michael Laudor.  To an extent, as children and young adults, Rosen lives in his brilliant friend’s shadow.  While both attend Yale, it is Laudor who graduates summa cum laude in three years.  Laudor applies and is admitted to all the top law schools, and, at twenty-four, seems to be destined for great things.  Then, a switch flips. His parents have been replaced by Nazis, or so he claims.  He roams the house with a kitchen knife.  His mother locks herself in the bathroom and calls the police.  Rosen gets a call.  His friend is in a psychiatric hospital. He has been diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia.  

After being stabilized on antipsychotics, Laudor is discharged to a halfway house and begins to attend a day hospital.  “Painfully aware of where he had been and where he ought to be” (p.243), he is advised to get a job as a cashier at Macy’s. Instead, he makes the extraordinary decision to matriculate at Yale Law School, whose acceptance he has deferred. At school, he wakes up every morning believing his room is on fire, “paralyzed with fear until his father called and told him the flames weren’t real” (p.277). Incredibly, with the encouragement of the dean and faculty, who “create a day hospital” (p.262) for Laudor and his classmates who read, edit, and type his work, he manages to graduate.   

Laudor looks for a job, but determined to be open about his illness, seems unemployable. Nevertheless, he is in a unique position to be a powerful advocate.  He is interviewed by the New York Times and is portrayed in glowing terms in a widely circulated article. There are bidding wars among several publishers for a book he is to write.  Leonardo DiCaprio expresses interest in playing him in a film. He receives a large advance which obviates the need for employment. For the director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) this is the perfect “opportunity to give the world a positive image of someone with serious mental illness” (p.406).   

Unfortunately, Laudor is not compliant with his medication.  His personal care and his thought processes deteriorate. However, since he knows how to “avoid the buzzwords that could trip a psychiatric alarm” (p.423) he evades treatment. Eventually he spirals into full-blown psychosis, and convinced his fiancée has been replaced by a wind-up doll, he stabs her to death.

Laudor is considered unfit to stand trial and is committed to a forensic psychiatric facility.  His book is never written, and the film director who was to tell his story instead makes A Beautiful Mind, which wins many awards.  After years of estrangement, Jonathan Rosen begins to visit his childhood friend again.  Laudor remains institutionalized to the present day. 


The Best Minds is a book about a friendship and the ruined life of a talented young person. However, the book, had that been all, would have been one-dimensional.  What makes it so rich and rewarding is Rosen’s ability to intertwine Laudor’s story with his own and to juxtapose both with concurrent trends in academia, law, and psychiatry.  

While Laudor is going through the peaks and troughs of his life, Rosen is attending a graduate program in English.  He studies Foucault for whom madness is just a “social construct” (p.187).  This idea has become fashionable in academia. Even psychiatrists such as Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing promote it. He reads the work of Allen Ginsburg, whose poem Howl supplies the title of this book. But Ginsburg has had firsthand experience with mental illness; his mother had schizophrenia.  After seeing for himself how sick his friend has become, Rosen comes to the realization it is “no more possible to pretend that he was suffering from a ‘social construct’ than it was to believe that his confusion and pain were the products of ‘discourse’” (p.220).  

Rosen implies that the romanticization of mental illness unwittingly set Laudor up for failure. He has been persuaded into believing Yale can take the place of a day hospital.  Later, it becomes clear that it is an impossibility for Laudor to produce the book he is tasked with writing.  But he must go through with it; he has been given an advance, and the film will be a “feather in the law school’s cap” (p.368).   Rosen shoulders some of the blame: “It did not occur to me that he could not write the story he had sold…You would have to be very ignorant about schizophrenia, as I certainly was, and deluded about writing…to think that telling the story of your struggle with psychosis could turn it into a past-tense affliction” (p.395).   

Laudor was failed by the mental health system as well.  Could tragedy somehow have been averted? Is it reasonable to think that one has the insight to make sensible decisions about one’s health when one is actively delusional? How far does one need to go, short of committing violence, to be considered an imminent danger to oneself or others?  Family members of the severely mentally ill are all too familiar with the impossible situation of attempting to get treatment for a loved one against their will.  

In a word, this is a multifaceted book that will interest specialists in psychiatry and mental health, and that patients and family members will find thought-provoking.   


Elyn Saks, is another graduate of Yale Law School who lives with schizophrenia, and whose memoir
The Center Cannot Hold  was made into an opera.

Saks is quoted numerous times in The Best Minds.  The murder of Laudor’s wife had a profound effect on her: “Would her friends and colleagues identify her with him?” (p.455).  In fact, initially it caused her to drop her plans to write her book.  Eventually, she decided the opposite “lest Michael’s tragedy appear to speak somehow for her and millions of others with schizophrenia” (ibid). 

NAMI ( remains an important resource.  Michael Laudor was so well-known at the time that his case “called into question everything we had been saying and doing” (p.516), and increased fear of stigma.  In fact, violence is uncommon among the mentally ill, who are “far more likely to take their own lives, or to become victims of a crime than to commit one” (ibid).      


Penguin Press

Place Published

New York



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