Beyond checks and pills
BOOKS | A memoir indicts America’s mental health system
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Jonathan Rosen and Michael Laudor were destined to become best friends from the moment Jonathan’s parents decided to move to New Rochelle (33 minutes from Manhattan on Metro North). The boys were 10, with similar interests and backgrounds, but Michael was taller, faster, and above all smarter. More than money, Michael had brains, “the gold-back currency of the laissez-faire meritocracy.”
The two were inseparable through high school and into Yale, where they began to drift apart. Michael graduated early and accepted a consulting job at Bain Capital—where, he airily assured his friends, he expected to milk the capitalist system for 10 years and then quit to write, backed up by a lifetime income. Instead, less than a year later Jonathan was shocked to learn that his friend was in the psychiatric ward at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital after a psychotic collapse.
Tenuously, the two bonded again over Michael’s awakening interest in religion. After eight months of hospital treatment, Michael transferred to a halfway house where he was encouraged to start from scratch with a cashier’s job at Macy’s. Instead, he applied to Yale Law School. Yale professors not only accepted his application but adopted him as a kind of model project whose schizophrenia would not harm, and might even somehow enhance, his practice.
Michael’s fortunes took a giant leap when an article about his successful turnaround, featured in The New York Times, brought a publisher and a Hollywood director to his door. With a book contract for his life story in hand and Brad Pitt in talks for a feature film, Michael rented an apartment on the Hudson with his fiancée. Life with schizophrenia appeared not only possible but brilliant.
Then Jonathan received another call: His friend was in police custody after a shocking crime. He would never be a lawyer, or a writer, or even a husband and father.
The Best Minds (Penguin 2023) by Jonathan Rosen is the story of a fraught friendship but also an examination of society’s attitude toward mental illness since the mid-20th century. The Community Mental Health Act, signed by President Kennedy less than a month before his assassination, aimed to release patients from filthy, mismanaged “asylums” to the personal care of families with local support. But there was no local support in place when the act was signed, and none forthcoming.
By the time Michael Laudor needed it, “Money had replaced community mental health care the way medication had replaced state hospitals. … Checks and pills were what remained of a grand promise.” Moreover, Michael’s brilliance played into the romantic notion of madness as one-part genius, blinding friends and supporters to its dangerous potential.
Rosen’s memoir cries out to a system still reliant on “checks and pills”: We must do better.
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