On the morning of June 18, 1998, Jonathan Rosen received a call from his mother, warning him not to go home. An old childhood friend of his, Michael Laudor, 35, had been involved in an incident, possibly hurting his fiancée Carrie Costello.
“Hurt her how?” Rosen asked his mom.
In fact, writes Rosen in her new book, “The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Folly, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions” (Penguin Press), Carrie was beyond hurt.
She was found in her Hastings-on-Hudson apartment in a pool of blood, with multiple stab wounds to the head, neck and back. According to the coroner’s report, Carrie “had been grabbed from behind and stabbed repeatedly,” Rosen writes. “There was blood everywhere, soaking the floor of the cramped kitchen and splattering on the walls and the refrigerator.”
The 37-year-old victim was also pregnant, the first time her friends and family found out. And what’s worse, her fiancée, Laudor, was nowhere to be found.
But this was no murder mystery: Laudor was schizophrenic and turned himself in that night at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, 220 miles away. Still covered in Costello’s blood, he told police: “He could have killed her or her wind-up doll.”
The most shocking thing about the murder was that Laudor had just become the New York Times-backed Hollywood sign ready to live safely with mental illness.
His next memoir, entitled “The Laws of Madness,” had been auctioned for $600,000 and was already being turned into a feature film by Ron Howard, with Brad Pitt set to play him.
Laudor himself told reporters a few years earlier that the idea that schizophrenia was related to violence was “a common and painful stereotype.” A Yale graduate and Yale Law graduate, he was an eloquent and sympathetic voice who argued that schizophrenia was manageable and not a danger to the community at large.
In the lead up to Rosen’s murder, however, he knew something was up. She had called Laudor only days before that fateful night, and the conversation was tense and brief.
“I have to go,” Laudor told him. “I’m having bad thoughts that I need not to have.” Rosen suspected that “something was wrong in a new and terrifying way,” he writes.
Both born in 1963, Rosen and Laudor first met as children in the early ’70s, when their respective families lived nearby in New Rochelle, New York, a middle-class suburb that was once the home of Norman Rockwell. . Laudor immediately struck his new friend as “someone who had already lived a full span and was only slum-dwelling in childhood,” Rosen writes.
Laudor was a voracious reader, consuming several paperbacks a day, often reading them simultaneously, “like Bobby Fischer playing chess with multiple opponents.” Rosen writes. Laudor was bookish and ambitious, with big plans for his future, which he hoped would include becoming a celebrated author.
They both attended Yale, where they grew apart. After graduation, Rosen moved to California and Laudor was hired by the prestigious management consultancy Bain & Company in Boston, where the first cracks in his personality began to show.
During the phone calls, he told Rosen that his company’s higher-ups “wanted to get him” and that he was pretty sure their phone was being tapped.
Not long after, Laudor had his first psychotic break. As he shared in a first draft of laws of insanity, once broke into his parents’ bedroom at 3 a.m. to “accuse them of being impostors, of having killed my real parents while they themselves were neo-Nazi agents altered by special surgery and trained to imitate my parents.” Laudor even searched his attic for the “bodies of my dead parents.”
With his father’s encouragement, Laudor spent eight months in a psychiatric unit at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was officially diagnosed, at age 26, with schizophrenia.
Even with medication, his paranoia couldn’t be contained. “I know they are trying to kill me,” he confided to Rosen, adding that the doctors “planned to operate on him without anesthesia to remove a part of his brain,” Rosen writes.
After his release, he kept his condition mostly a secret. He only reluctantly shared it with Carrie, who cried when Laudor told her.
“She did not reproach him for keeping his illness a secret,” Rosen writes. “She showed no anger, fear, or regret, just pain at her grief. She wept at the injustice of what he had suffered in the past and was still suffering.”
Shortly after the diagnosis, he was accepted to Yale Law School, and his future seemed bright, except when it wasn’t. Rosen says that some days his friend, who was on antipsychotic medication, seemed happy and healthy. Other days, Laudor would tell Rosen that he was “thinking of ways to commit suicide.”
He graduated with honors from Yale in 1992, but what should have been a sure path to a glittering legal career didn’t pan out. He tried (unsuccessfully) to get a job teaching law. He wrote a few legal articles, but most faltered.
And then, in November 1995, Laudor went public with his status and his ambitions to excel in the most prominent way possible: in a New York Times article entitled: “A trip to the asylum and part of the way back.”
Laudor was “for all intents and purposes a genius”, the Times declared the writer, with an “iron refusal” to be “overturned by his illness”. When Laudor spoke “about synapses and dendrites with the ease of a neurologist, the pyrotechnics of his intellect are on full display.”
It catapulted Laudor into the spotlight, as a spokesperson for mental illness, who was unwilling to deny or feel ashamed of his schizophrenia. Enthusiasm for his story led to a book proposal, with publishers fighting for the chance to buy his (as yet unwritten) memoir. (Scribner ultimately won with a $600,000 advance.)
Before a single word was written, Howard offered two million dollars to make a film about Laudor’s life. Leonardo DiCaprio was interested in playing him, but the part went to Pitt.
Laudor had everything he’d ever wanted: adulation, money, a successful writing career. But his mind was not right. “I spent hours alone every day trying to write,” Rosen writes. “Alone was not the same as calm. He was still hallucinating, still dealing with delusions.”
Rosen remembers being disturbed by the Times profile, especially Laudor’s outrage at questions about whether he might turn violent. Rosen’s first thought was: “But you can be violent.” This was a man who had patrolled his house with a kitchen knife, terrifying his mother so much that he locked himself in the bathroom and called the police.
When Laudor was arrested in 1998, he appeared on the front page of The Post with the headline PSYCHO. The typeface, Rosen recalls, was even larger than the one used to announce the arrest of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, during the summer of 1977.
He was charged with second-degree murder by then-Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. But after a hearing on May 11, 2000, the day before his 37th birthday, Laudor was found unfit to stand trial and sent to the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, a maximum-security facility where he lives to this day. from today.
It wasn’t just a tragedy for Laudor’s friends and family. “It was only after the murder that I came to appreciate what Michael had meant to millions of people desperate for recognition and representation, and the personal devastation his downfall must have been to them,” Rosen writes.
Laurie Flynn, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) said the washington post in 1998 that he “broke down in tears” after learning of the murder. Laudor had been “an inspiration to so many people like my daughter”, who also suffered from schizophrenia and considered Laudor a role model.
When Rosen visited his friend, now 59, they did not discuss the murder. “But I mentioned her (Carrie’s) name the first time I visited her,” Rosen writes. “’I’m so sorry about what happened with Carrie,’ I told her. To which (Laudor) replied that it wouldn’t have worked anyway.”
They mostly talked about their childhood, “which seemed like a neutral place that they enjoyed looking back on,” Rosen writes. But even when he felt that he recognized his friend again, there was still uncertainty and fear.
When she hugged Laudor goodbye, “it was like putting my head in the mouth of a toothless old lion,” Rosen writes. “Softened by age, but still capable of crushing me.”