On the morning of June 18, 1998, Jonathan Rosen received a call from his mom, 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 his new book, “The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness and the Tragedy of Good Intentions” (Penguin Press) Carrie was more than hurt.
She was found in her Hastings-on-Hudson apartment in a pool of blood, with multiple stab wounds to her head, neck, and back. According to the forensic report, Carrie “had been grabbed from behind and stabbed repeatedly,” writes Rosen. “Blood was everywhere, soaking the floor of the narrow kitchen and spattering the walls and the refrigerator.”
The 37-year-old victim was also pregnant — the first her friends and family were learning of it. And worse, her fiancé, 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, a 220-mile drive away. Still covered in Costello’s blood, he told cops: “I might have killed her or her windup doll.”
What was most shocking about the murder was that Laudor had just become the New York Times-endorsed, Hollywood-ready poster boy for living safely with mental illness.
His upcoming memoir, called “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 just a few years earlier that the idea that schizophrenia was linked to violence was “a common and painful stereotype.” A Yale undergrad and Yale Law graduate, he was an eloquent and sympathetic voice making the case that schizophrenia was manageable and not a danger to the wider community.
In the lead-up to the killing Rosen, however was aware something was up. He’d called Laudor just days before that fateful night, and the conversation was tense and brief.
“I have to go,” Laudor told him. “I’m having bad thoughts I need to not be having.” Rosen suspected that “something was wrong in a new and dreadful way,” he writes.
Both born in 1963, Rosen and Laudor first met as children in the early ’70s, when their respective families lived near each other in New Rochelle, N.Y., a middle-class suburb that was once home to Norman Rockwell. Laudor immediately impressed his new friend as “someone who had lived a full span already and was just slumming it in childhood,” writes Rosen.
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 drifted apart. After graduation, Rosen moved to California and Laudor was recruited by the prestigious management consultancy Bain & Company in Boston, where the first cracks in his personality began to show.
During phone calls, he told Rosen that the higher-ups at his company “were out to get him,” and he was pretty sure they were tapping his phone.
Not long after, Laudor had his first psychotic break. As he shared in an early draft of Laws of Madnes, he once burst into his parents’ bedroom at 3am 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 mimic my parents.” Laudor even searched their 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, aged 26, with schizophrenia.
Even with medication, his paranoia couldn’t be contained. “I know they’re trying to kill me,” he confided to Rosen, adding that the doctors “were planning to operate on him without anesthesia to remove a portion of his brain,” Rosen writes.
After his release, he kept his condition mostly a secret. He only reluctantly shared it with Carrie, who wept when Laudor told her.
“She did not reproach him for having kept his illness a secret,” Rosen writes. “She showed no anger or fear or regret, only pain for his pain. She wept at the unfairness 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 didn’t. On some days, Rosen says his friend, who was on antipsychotic medications, seemed happy and healthy. On other days, Laudor would tell Rosen that he was “thinking of ways to kill myself.”
He graduated with honors from Yale in 1992, but what should have been a sure path to a brilliant legal career did not pan out,. He attempted (without success) to land a job as a law professor. He wrote a few legal articles, but mostly floundered around.
And then, in November of 1995, Laudor went public with his condition and his ambitions to rise above it in the most high-profile way possible: in a New York Times story headlined: “A Journey to Bedlam and Part Way Back.”
Laudor was “by all accounts a genius,” the Times writer declared, with a “steely refusal” to be “capsized by his disease.” When Laudor talked “about synapses and dendrites with the ease of a neurologist, the pyrotechnics of his intellect are on full display.”
It catapulted Laudor into the limelight, as a spokesperson for mental illness, who wasn’t willing to deny or feel shame for his schizophrenia. Excitement over his story led to a book proposal, with publishers battling for the chance to buy his (as yet unwritten) memoir. (Scribner eventually won with a $600,000 advance.)
Before a word had even been written, Howard offered $2 million to make a movie about Laudor’s life. Leonardo DiCaprio was interested in playing him, but the role went to Pitt.
Laudor had everything he’d ever wanted—adulation, money, a successful writing career. But his mind wasn’t well. “He was spending hours alone each day trying to write,” Rosen writes. “Alone was not the same as calm. He was still hallucinating, still grappling with delusions.”
Rosen remembers being disturbed by the Times profile, especially Laudor’s indignation at questions about whether he could become violent. Rosen’s first thought was, “But you can be violent.” This was a man who’d patrolled his house with a kitchen knife, terrifying his mother enough that she locked herself in the bathroom and called the police.
When Laudor was arrested in 1998, he was featured on the front page of The Post with the headline PSYCHO. The typeface, Rosen recalls, was even bigger 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 homicide by then Westchester DA Jeanine Pirro. But after a hearing on May 11, 2000—a day before his 37th birthday—Laudor was found unfit to stand trial, and sent to Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, a maximum-security facility where he lives to this day.
It wasn’t just a tragedy for Laudor’s friends and family. “It was only after the killing that I came to appreciate what Michael had meant to millions of people desperate for recognition and representation, and what a personal devastation his fall must have been for them,” writes Rosen.
Laurie Flynn, the executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) told The Washington Post in 1998 that she “broke into tears” after hearing about the murder. Laudor had been “inspiring to so many people like my daughter”—who also suffered from schizophrenia, and considered Laudor a role model.
When Rosen visited his friend—who’s now 59 —they didn’t talk about the murder. “But I mentioned (Carrie’s) name the first time I visited,” Rosen writes. “‘I’m so sorry about what happened with Carrie,’ I said. To which (Laudor) responded that it wouldn’t have worked out anyway.”
They mostly talked about their childhood, “which seemed a neutral place he enjoyed remembering,” Rosen writes. But even when it felt like he recognized his friend again, there was still the uncertainty and fear.
When he hugged Laudor goodbye, “it was like putting my head in the mouth of an old and toothless lion,” Rosen writes. “Softened by age but still capable of crushing me.”
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