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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Madness, brilliance and tragedy

Jonathan Rosen's best friend was brilliant, even after he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in his early 20s, he writes in his new book, The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions.

American Madness in The Atlantic excerpts part of the book.

While Michael Laudor was at Yale Law School, the pride of his professors, he was profiled in the New York Times as a symbol of success. The profile led to a huge book contract for a memoir. Ron Howard bought the rights and recruited Brad Pitt to star in a movie.

Then Laudor stopped taking his meds, became convinced that his pregnant fiancee was a nonhuman imposter and killed her. Laudor has spent the last 25 years in a mental institution.

On the day he was accepted to Yale Law, Laudor "also believed that monkeys were eating his brain," writes Bari Weiss in The Free Press. He woke up every morning convinced his room was on fire.

Rosen's book investigates "America’s ongoing failure to get people like Michael the help that they so desperately need."

Michael became severely mentally ill in a world that had decided that "all mental illness is a social construct," Rosen tells Weiss. Foucault said a mental hospital is "a place to put your enemies who you’ve othered by calling mad simply because they swim against the rational stream," reducing illness to an abuse of power. That formula rejects reforming mental hospitals: They must be torn down, like the Bastille.

One of Michael’s mentors said to me, “You know, if I wasn’t so busy thinking what an amazing place Yale Law School was for taking Michael, I might have thought more about how he was feeling.” And this was someone who had asked Michael, “Do you still hallucinate?” And Michael had said, “Oh, yes! I’m looking at angels right now waving fronds of fire.”

Leaving someone on the street who "doesn't know what's real and what isn't" is not honoring their autonomy, Rosen tells Gal Beckerman in an Atlantic interview. "There are people too sick to help themselves or even know they’re sick."

He fears mental illness is being redefined so broadly that it includes half the population. That makes it hard to help the truly ill. "If everyone is sick, nobody is."

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