There’s a feeling you get rewatching a movie that ends in disaster. A hope against hope that this time the hero will cheat fate; that the captain of the Titanic’s desperate attempts to swerve the iceberg will pay off. Maybe that tear in the hull isn’t as bad as it looks? Though the jacket of The Best Minds, novelist Jonathan Rosen’s extraordinary account of his friend Michael Laudor’s mental illness, speaks only of a “horrific act” committed by its subject, readers are well aware that something dreadful is coming. It is testament to the author’s ability to immerse us in the world he builds that this doesn’t stop us from willing a different outcome, feeling that every success might just stick, and each calamity could in fact be a temporary setback. In doing so we mirror the reactions of those around Laudor at the time, from friends to teachers to the titans of media and Hollywood – reactions that arguably helped seal his fate and that of his fiancee, Carrie Costello.
To say that this is a memoir, a case study, or a book about schizophrenia is to dramatically undersell it. Though Rosen’s lens is particular, his view is panoptic. This is a magisterial work, as much a sociological study of late 20th-century America as it is a book about madness. It is also a book about childhood and friendship, the long shadow of the second world war and its unexpected intellectual legacy, about ambition and delusion and the danger of stories. Despite weighing in at more than 500 pages, the narrative scarcely drags thanks to Rosen’s style, which is easygoing, but spiced with moments of pin-sharp brilliance.
It opens in 1973, when the boys are just 10, and Jonathan has moved to Michael’s street in New Rochelle, about 30 minutes from Manhattan. He paints a wistful portrait of Goonies-style camaraderie amid suburban lawns, of scrapes and adventures, of play-acting adulthood in the offices of the high school newspaper. Despite being the same age, dazzling Michael has all the attributes of an older brother: academically way ahead, charming, somehow already worldly. Everyone knows him, or wants to.
The relationship gradually sharpens into something more competitive. Michael fails to help when Jonathan is beaten up on the way home from school; Jonathan is made editor-in-chief, a job Michael wanted. Even so, New Rochelle represents a mythic period that will reverberate for both of them. Much later, Jonathan reflects how “we carried the world of each other’s childhood in our pockets like a kryptonite pebble, a fragment of the home planet”.
Around them, society was being reshaped in ways that would prove decisive, at least for Michael. Various currents – Kennedy-era optimism, the counterculture, poststructuralist theory – had converged on the idea that severely mentally ill people ought to be treated differently than in the past. Perhaps their symptoms were a pertinent critique of a civilisation that had lost its way; maybe they were the sane ones in a mad world. The upshot was that most mental hospitals were earmarked for closure, with care to take place in communities instead. Making someone take drugs, or admitting them to a ward against their will, became much harder. And though reform of asylums – which were clearly not living up to their name – was a laudable goal, in reality their closure disgorged thousands of ill and dependent people into a void. Hopeful words about community-based treatment were not matched by hard cash. Asylums were in fact swapped for prisons, as more and more found themselves drawn into the arms of law enforcement, rather than medical care.
All of this would eventually become painfully relevant. In the meantime, though, both young men won places at Yale, with Michael completing his degree a year early, despite the strange hours he kept and the “long hibernatory sleeps” his roommates took for the foibles of a genius. While Jonathan worked in the canteen to make ends meet, Michael sailed into a high-pressure consulting job, where he began to show signs of paranoia, imagining that the company was bugging his phone. He quit, planning to return to Yale Law School for graduate study. But before long, he was in hospital. He had begun to believe his parents were evil doubles, sent by Nazis. In a moment of lucidity, he allowed his father to convince him to check himself in for treatment.
Slowly, and with a horrible burden of side-effects from antipsychotic medication, Michael began to recover. A place at Yale Law was still on the table, and he decided to be upfront about his diagnosis of schizophrenia. The faculty felt it would reflect well on them to accept him – to support a brilliant man with an unfortunate disability. At that moment, Michael’s story switched: from high-flyer with clipped wings to poster boy for success against the odds. And yet he was far from “back to normal”. “Every morning,” Rosen explains, “he opened his eyes and found his room on fire … Every morning, he lay in bed paralyzed with fear until his father called and told him the flames weren’t real. His father didn’t just tell him; he proved it. Ordering Michael to put out a hand and touch the fire, he asked him what he felt. ‘Does it burn?’ his father asked. ‘Does it burn? No? Good!’”
After the New York Times published a profile of him, his life took on a dizzying forward momentum: a publishing deal was followed, incredibly, by a full- fledged plan for a Hollywood movie charting his triumph over psychosis. Leonardo DiCaprio was to play the lead, and during script meetings he wore a Walkman that played a stream of jumbled voices, screams and gunshots in an attempt to mimic auditory hallucinations. Michael found himself suddenly rich. He moved with his girlfriend, Carrie, a computer engineer, to leafy Hastings-on-Hudson in New York state, where, his studies over, he would hole up to work on the book.
Instead, he unravelled. No one could make him take his medicine, and the brutal, unrelenting nature of his disease reasserted itself, a terrifying rebuke to the optimism of those who believed coercion had no place in the treatment of schizophrenia; to the professors who saw his participation in their classes as a sign of their enlightenment, rather than an added pressure on a vulnerable man; to the storytellers who thought their sanitising of the reality of severe mental illness would not only reduce stigma, but sell papers, books and movie tickets. Michael’s delusion that his loved ones had been replaced by impostors returned. He began to believe that Carrie was a replica and that the only way to keep himself safe was to kill her, and their unborn child.
Rosen brings a stunned realism to the description of what follows. After such a painstaking reconstruction of his and Laudor’s shared world, the denouement feels viscerally shocking. But his real achievement is that, by mapping this heartbreaking story from every angle, he has refused to reduce its complexity. Yes, it is an injustice that Carrie’s life will never be subject to the same close examination as Michael’s. Yes, it is alarming to have to convey the message that untreated schizophrenia can result in violence. Yes, Michael was brilliant, but brilliance and sanity are not the same thing. Almost every harm in this story is the result of good intentions, and there are no easy answers. Except, perhaps one: if it’s the kind of movie where the iceberg glances off the ship without doing much damage, then it is probably too good to be true.
• The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions by Jonathan Rosen is published on 18 April (Penguin, £30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.