The Best Minds

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1973, 10-year-old Jonathan Rosen and his family moved to New Rochelle, N.Y., a culturally sophisticated, intellectually vigorous middle-class suburb of New York City. It had been founded in 1688 by Huguenot refugees who fled France when Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal. Jonathan’s father, Robert, was himself a European refugee. At the age of 6, he had been among the unaccompanied Jewish children rescued from Nazi-controlled Vienna and taken to the safety of New York. Robert never saw his parents again. They were murdered in the Holocaust.

Robert, a professor of German literature, and his wife, Norma, a novelist, chose New Rochelle to ensure that Jonathan and his 12-year-old sister would obtain a better education than possible in New York City’s troubled public school system. They also looked forward to joining the town’s vibrant, welcoming Jewish community.

One summer day shortly after arriving in New Rochelle, Jonathan was in his front yard when he noticed a tall, gangly 10-year-old strolling down the street. Michael Laudor introduced himself, and soon the two bonded over many shared interests, establishing a deep and lasting friendship. Jonathan and Michael were passionate about music, board games, politics, pickup basketball and especially reading. As Mr. Rosen writes in his book “The Best Minds,” he and Michael held “the belief that your brain is your rocket ship and that simply as a matter of course you are going to climb inside and blast off. Propelled by some mysterious process—never specified, almost mystical and yet entirely real—we would outsoar the shadow of ordinary existence and think our way into stratospheric success.”

Michael was preternaturally comfortable when conversing with grown-ups; he addressed them by their first names, as if he were their peer. And he was as kind and charming as he was brilliant. But he was also, as the author would only gradually learn, a schizophrenic.

In the opening pages of his memoir, Mr. Rosen evokes shared memories from their happy boyhoods—memories made all the more freighted because of what happened when they grew up. Immensely emotional and unforgettably haunting, “The Best Minds” is the story of a deep friendship shattered by the nightmare of psychosis.

“Madness was in the air when Michael and I were growing up,” the author recalls, citing works like “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey. “Though it was hard to know whether it was a colloquial or clinical condition, the confusion itself shaped our world, which avoided nuclear destruction with a strategy called MAD.”

The boys attended the same public schools. Michael sailed through his Advanced Placement classes; Jonathan struggled with science and math but excelled in literature. Both boys attended Yale University, where Jonathan majored in literature and Michael in economics. After graduating summa cum laude (in three years), Michael landed a lucrative position at Bain & Co., the management consulting firm in Boston. His aim was to earn a fortune over the next 10 years, retire from corporate America and embark upon a career writing fiction.

But the brutal, 100-hour workweek at Bain took a toll, and symptoms emerged of something far more troubling than mere exhaustion. Michael became fearful that scheming colleagues had tapped his phone. One day, while conversing with his secretary, he noticed the room darken, revealing her as “a monster with long claws and vampire teeth,” menacing him and dripping blood. After this terrifying experience, Michael resigned from Bain and returned to New Rochelle, but his paranoid delusions worsened. When he accused his mother and father of being sinister doppelgängers who had replaced his real parents, Michael’s firm but supportive father convinced him to sign himself into a psychiatric unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he remained for eight months.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that anyone in any place can develop a mental illness. One of the most common reactions of the individual involved and those close to that individual is denial.

Nobody wants to be diagnosed with mental illness. Everybody has a bad day from time to time, but, for many of those suffering from mental illness, the days link together or a bad day is disabling.

Many people have an outdated perception of the mentally ill and treatments that can help them and, in many cases, completely remove the symptoms. The key is as simple as going to a family doctor, who may be competent to prescribe an appropriate medication or refer the patient to someone with more training in the treatment of mental illness.

PG has read some articles that posit that talented creative individuals may be more susceptible to mental illness than others, but any person, regardless of talents or background, can develop a mental illness at just about any time during their lives.


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