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The Dangerous Act of Writing

by Debra Spark


Her boyfriend was very intense. I know, because he’d been my boyfriend before he’d been hers. This was at Yale in the early eighties. Bob and Debra Spark, then Bob and Robin Kornegay, though Robin was with Bob far longer and more seriously than I had been. Bob wanted to marry Robin, but Robin wasn’t sure. They were young, after all. She didn’t want to be with one person all her life, to marry before she experienced anything else, so she broke up with him.

Not long after, Robin was looking out her dorm-room window, when she saw a tall, attractive man sitting on a courtyard bench. She went outside and started talking to him. A very purposeful self-introduction. Robin Kornegay meets Michael Laudor. I was impressed when I learned this, thirty years after the fact. I would never have been so bold when I was in college. And then what came next had such romantic intensity! Robin and Michael talked for three hours. About what? “Truth and what intelligence is, and his faith,” she remembers. “I didn’t have a strong faith, and he had grown up with a tradition.” He was Jewish from a middle-class home in New Rochelle. The two had a passionate, three-week relationship. Then Robin went back to Bob.

But while they were still involved, Robin brought Michael to her dorm room, as one invariably does with a lover. If her roommate, Carrie Costello, was around, she would do splits.

“Splits?” I said when Robin told me this. “Like gymnastic splits?” I remember Carrie as petite, a blond girl with bangs, who didn’t exactly push herself forward in conversation.

“Yes,” Robin said. “She’d never done that before, and I thought, ‘Hey, this is weird.’”

Indeed.

When Robin asked Carrie why she was doing splits, Carrie said she was trying to get Michael’s attention. She thought he was cute. This surprised me, too, this directness. If I were attracted to a friend’s boyfriend, I’d never say so.

Carrie didn’t act on her attraction, though. Not during the three weeks Robin and Michael were together and not for years after. Then in 1990 Carrie visited Linus Yamane, one of her closest friends from her undergraduate days, in New Haven. (She was working at IBM and living there herself at the time.) Michael happened to be one of Linus’s roommates in a four-bedroom sublet. Michael and Carrie re-met and got involved.

Still, in Robin’s mind, she introduced the two.

She introduced them in 1983, and Michael killed Carrie in 1998. He stabbed her to death in the kitchen of their apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

~

Everyone was shocked when it happened: Michael’s friends, his former classmates and professors. Robin was driving to sign a new job contract when she heard the news on NPR. She pulled over to the side of the road and wept. The dean of Yale Law School, Guido Calabresi, also cried. A college friend of Michael’s, Betsy Graves, who remembers him penning her little ditties that referred to her as “lassie,” sent Michael a card, letting him know she was still his friend. Yes, yes, Michael was schizophrenic—he’d had a psychotic break after college; we all knew that; he’d confided his struggles—but he wasn’t a violent person. Gentle, compassionate, and warm is how his law school classmate James Forman remembers him, adding, “He had a kind of rabbi-in-training manner.” He was deeply moral and kind. Brilliant, by many people’s estimation, and witty. He was fun to talk to. He had to have been completely taken over by the disease to have done it, everyone said. A terrible irony, since his employment struggles in and after law school led him to work as a mental health advocate, challenging, among other things, the conventional notions about the mentally ill and violence. What had interrupted those efforts was what looked, at the time, like a stroke of good luck: a positive New York Times article about what Michael had managed to achieve academically despite his schizophrenia. The New York Times article led to a major book deal and then a film deal, $600,000 from Charles Scribner and Sons, and $1.5 million from Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. There was talk of Brad Pitt for the lead role.

~

The last time I talked to Michael, he was telling me about his good fortune. He had a habit of calling me, out of the blue, once a year. I’d known him because we were in the same dorm at Yale, though they call them “colleges” not dorms. Each college encompasses a dining hall and a library as well as student rooms. I’d see him in all these places. Michael used to call his law classmate James Forman once a year, too, to wish him happy birthday. A touching surprise, Forman thought, since they weren’t all that close, and the only other person who religiously made such a call was Forman’s mother.

Months after my last conversation with Michael, I was on the phone with Melanie Thernstrom, a writer friend. I had been away teaching and hadn’t read any newspapers or listened to the radio for a few weeks. “What are you working on?” I asked her.

“Well,” she said. “The New Yorker wants me to write an article about Michael Laudor.”

“Oh, I know Michael,” I piped up. I assumed the story was about his big success.

“I just don’t know if I want to write another book about murder,” Melanie said. Her first two books had concerned murders, and she was in the process of turning the New Yorker offer down.

It took me a long, long while to process the conversation that followed. I do remember eventually shouting, and even though I was at work, “What? What? Michael Laudor killed Carrie Costello?”

I flashed on the first time I met Carrie, not long after she’d transferred to Yale from Middlebury. She was standing in a dorm room, being introduced to new people. She struck me as shy—there was another transfer, a tall, amusing, theatrical woman, who seemed to be stealing the limelight. But my first impressions were wrong. She was “spunky,” her friend Linus Yamane later told me. She wasn’t intimidated, as other undergraduates were, by Linus’s status as a graduate student. She had no problem challenging his perceptions.

“It’s been in the news,” Melanie said, surprised I didn’t know what she was talking about. When I hung up, I went to the library, where I found a magazine article with more details: On her last day of life, Carrie had stayed home from work because she was worried about Michael. His mother, also worried, had called and, after a disturbing conversation with Michael, phoned the police. Sometime after that call, he fled north to a college campus where he’d once been a student in a program for gifted and talented youth. There, wearing blood-drenched clothes, he waved down a college security car—or a police car, this detail I don’t remember—and said he thought he might have killed his girlfriend. If not for the caption, I wouldn’t have recognized Michael in the photograph that accompanied the magazine article. He’d always been big but slim with a close-cropped beard and glasses. Now he was bloated, more fully bearded—strange to me.

~

A Google search will get you the rest of the details. He told police that Carrie “was threatening to have him put away, so he killed her or her wind-up doll,” The New York Times reported. In her To Punish and Protect, prosecuting attorney Jeanine Pirro, now of Fox News, writes of her disappointment when a forensic psychiatrist concluded that Michael was “suffering from a mental defect at the time of the killing.” Pirro quotes the psychiatrist as saying, “He thought Carrie was evil. In his mind, it’s all good and evil.” To which Pirro responds, “No, that’s my mind you’re talking about. In my mind, it’s all about good and evil, and Laudor is evil. He killed that girl.”

But Michael was not evil. We all knew him to be good, and yet he did, indeed, “kill that girl.” How can one even begin to understand this? Can one say that his illness did it and that he didn’t? That he was “not himself ”? Yet who is the self: the healthy self or the whole person, whether healthy or not? Are you guilty of the results of madness over which you have no control? The law has its own answer. And what about the court of public opinion? When I tell Michael’s story to friends, people inevitably bring up Adam Lanza or the Santa Barbara killer. But the news reports suggest that those murderers never had an intact, integrated personality to begin with. Michael did. There was a reason so very many people were fond of him. “I loved him,” Guido Calabresi, who is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, told me.

For years, I imagined it would be best for Michael never to return from the psychosis he descended into when he killed Carrie. Surely, if he knew what he had done, he wouldn’t be able to bear it. I felt confident that he’d kill himself if he knew. Fran Bennett, the wife of a Yale engineering professor, a lover of books who served as mentor to both Michael and me, came to the same thought independently. Later, I wondered if our notion was unkind. Maybe it would be better to be dead than to be alive in a forensic hospital, subject to the horrors of your own mind.

~

Michael was primed, perhaps too primed, for success before his psychotic break. He’d graduated from Yale summa cum laude in three years. To save his parents money was the avowed reason. He then went to work as a consultant for Bain & Company in Boston. “Why did you want to go to Yale?” a former classmate’s mother once asked him. The mother was without pretension—uneasy, in fact, with her daughter’s enrollment at Yale. “Because I want to make money,” Michael said. Later the mother told her daughter that another of her college friends was an oddball, but not Michael: “That Michael was a winner.”

In fact, Michael didn’t want to make money. He wanted, like me, to be a writer. When Michael saved up enough, he left Bain and rented an attic apartment in a rambling Victorian in New York. There he wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer-style stories until he went crazy. Or, in more clinical terms, until he had his first psychotic break. Fran Bennett reported that his characters started talking to him, but not in the way that writers often speak of their characters talking to them. They’d come up to him while he was walking down the street; some of them wanted to kill him. He ended up at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital for many months, then at a halfway house. As part of his treatment plan, his doctors suggested he find a low-stress job when he returned to the world. I remember him telling me the doctors wanted him to be a clerk at Macy’s. One of his college roommates remembers it as bagging groceries. But Michael told me his father knew he wouldn’t survive such a dreary life, apart from all intellectual stimulation, and saved him from that fate. (Or maybe that’s the polite way of putting it. The plainspoken version: Michael thought he was too smart for that. His father did too.) Sometime before the psychotic break, Michael had been admitted to all the law schools he’d applied to. He chose to return to Yale. After being accepted, he’d taken a deferment . . . and then another deferment. To be admitted again, he needed to tell them what had happened. He did, and Yale allowed him to matriculate. With his father’s day-by-day help by phone, Michael got through. In the mornings, when he woke up thinking his room was on fire, his father would tell him that things were okay. He would encourage Michael to reach out his hand and touch the fire, so he would understand that the flames weren’t really there. At the time, Michael told friends that he was working sixty percent of the day just to figure out what was real.

It wasn’t only Michael’s father keeping Michael intellectually engaged. He had help from a by-all-accounts-inspired New York therapist named Murray, several good friends, and the law school professors he’d opened up to about his situation. When more traditional job placements and academic offers were not forthcoming, Michael was still able to do research for his professors during the summers and afterward on a postdoctoral fellowship. Indeed Michael received so much help from Yale Law School that he came to think of it as something like his halfway house. This was, in a sense, what the memoir and movie were going to be about. (Ron Howard moved on from the aborted Laudor project to make A Beautiful Mind about John Nash, a different brilliant schizophrenic.)

Guido Calabresi was one of the many people who shepherded Michael along. He looked at the psychotic break as the equivalent of a car accident. It was something bad that had happened to an admitted student, but the student was still admitted, and as long as his physicians said it was safe for him to attend school, he was welcome to do so. When Michael first arrived on campus to find his law school dorm room empty, Calabresi himself helped lug the necessary furniture across campus.

Calabresi remembers saying to Michael, “If you were here, and your problem or illness was that you needed a wheelchair and a ramp, there would be a wheelchair and a ramp. It isn’t so easy to do, but I will be your wheelchair and ramp.”

Calabresi came to know Michael well. “He was very interesting, original, slightly kooky,” he says. You don’t put together a great law school on the basis of psychological stability, Calabresi observes, and then adds, “Everyone is struggling. The degree of people, faculty, and students who have some problems of mental health . . . I don’t think people have any idea.” He remembers a law student who sat for an exam and wrote a very good answer to the first question, then answered the second question by writing, “I am the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Windsor.” The student was admitted to a nearby mental health center and spent years as an inpatient till a pharmaceutical treatment came along that worked for him. He was released, finished Yale Law, and eventually went on to a legal career with the government.

Owen Fiss and Bo Burt were also Yale Law School professors who helped Michael when he was a student. Did they help too much? Is that possible? Yale accommodated Michael’s disabilities with extensions and support that the real world couldn’t or wouldn’t offer later. One summer Michael was hired to work at a New York law firm, but he was having difficulty concentrating at work. Or so Burt, a specialist in biomedical ethics, remembers. All of the summer associates were in one office, and Michael didn’t want to share the same space. (Robin remembers the situation differently. The problem was that he didn’t want to sit in a room with his back to the door.) Burt says Michael went to the hiring partner and explained that he was a schizophrenic, which apparently did not sit well. Michael was given a private room but no work to do.

After law school, it was clear that working for a traditional firm wouldn’t be possible. Michael hoped then for an academic job in New York, near his psychiatrist. Nothing was really coming through, however, till the windfall of the book and movie deal.

~

The only problem with a book deal is that you then have to write a book.

~

I had two friends who, on entering a mental institution, were forbidden to write. One was Michael. The other was David Foster Wallace, one of the most lauded writers of his generation, once featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, and author of numerous highly praised books, including his magnum opus (he is the sort of writer who is spoken of as having a magnum opus), Infinite Jest. He is the Baby Boomers’ Thomas Pynchon.

If you had asked me in my twenties or thirties which friend, the schizophrenic Michael or the depressed David, was more likely to be violent, I’d have said David. David had an edge. His relationships with women were complicated. I remember being told that he trashed a friend’s coffee table during an argument. I used to compare the two men a lot after Carrie died, and then reprimanded myself by saying, “Debra, there is nothing to puzzle through here. Schizophrenia is a different disease from depression. That’s all you need to know.” But then, David killed someone too. He hanged himself when he was forty-six. Dissimilar deaths, of course, but violent deaths all the same.

~

Both men went off their medications. Michael didn’t like the way his medicine made him feel. It gave him a dry mouth, affected his sex life. He couldn’t read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. One source told me his medicine stopped working, and only then did he stop taking them. I’m not sure that’s true, but it would get rid of the issue of blame if there was no willful act that sent him into psychosis. Many schizophrenics—as well as healthy people—are reluctant to take their meds. The reluctance may even be a symptom of the disease. A popular book for family members of the mentally ill is Xavier Amador’s revealingly titled I am Not Sick! I Don’t Need Help! In the beautifully written memoir The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks, a chaired professor of law, psychology, psychiatry, and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California Law School, writes about her own years of disinclination to medicate her schizophrenia, despite the obvious evidence that pills were the only thing keeping her from florid psychosis. As for David Foster Wallace, “Whenever he was not writing well, he wondered if [his anti-depressant] played a role,” D.T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. At the end of David’s life, he was struggling mightily with his work. “Writing,” Max reports him telling a friend, “is like shitting sharp stones.” David went off his anti-depressant, Nardil, and fell into a deep depression. When he tried other drugs, they didn’t help. Eventually he asked to go back on the Nardil, but it no longer worked.

~

Was the culprit not just the failure of medicine but the failure of medicine coupled with the dangerous act of writing? I asked a psychiatrist friend why Columbia-Presbyterian, in the case of Michael, and Massachusetts’s McLean Hospital, in the case of David, might have prohibited the men from writing. The friend was surprised at the prohibition, said it wasn’t usual for the mentally ill as far as he knew. Another psychiatrist said that perhaps the issue with both men was that they needed to be in the here and now. It’s a lot of work being in a mental hospital, she said. It’s not like there is a lot of free time. People need to work on themselves. They can’t be escaping into an imaginary world of their own creation.

“That book deal was the worst thing that ever happened to him,” Fran Bennett, the woman at Yale who had served as a writing mentor for both Michael and me, told me recently. That said, it seemed like a godsend at the time. Michael’s record as a schizophrenic seemed to make him unemployable. Carrie had a good job-she’d gone from a position with IBM in New Haven to Harvard for a master’s degree in education to a job as assistant director of technology for the Edison Project, a private manager of public schools. But Michael didn’t want to depend on her. The book contract looked like gainful employment. Of course, it meant being alone at a desk, writing about painful material. When he’d last written, really written, creative work, he couldn’t separate reality from fiction. Now he had to return in his mind to the darkest part of his life. And he had the pressure of a book deal and a deadline. Still, I didn’t worry much when he told me he was having trouble writing. All my writer friends struggled with their work.

~

Writing wasn’t the only pressure in the end. Michael’s father and great supporter died of prostate cancer. Carrie wanted a child—she was, in fact, a month pregnant when she died—and Michael was frightened to have one, in no small part because he wasn’t the only mentally ill person in his family. There was trouble along the paternal line. He didn’t want to pass down his illness.

Most of the people I’ve talked to about Michael don’t have memories of him acting oddly. Michael would tell them—he would tell me—about his struggles, but aside from a flattened affect due to the medicine, he always seemed very much himself. A few do have stories to tell. When I met Guido Calabresi in his New Haven chambers, he said, “Michael did tell me that on some occasions he thought of me as the devil.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I smiled, and I said, ‘I’m a mighty strange-looking Devil,’ and he said, ‘I know it. It is nothing that ultimately wins out. I know what is going on.’”

Linus Yamane, the roommate who re-introduced Carrie and Michael, remembers there were days when Michael wouldn’t come out of his room. When Linus said something like “Let’s have dinner together,” Michael would look scared, thinking Linus had said he wanted to eat him for dinner. At least Michael was well enough to share this perception later, to know he was confused.

~

There was a time, after he was first jailed, that Michael wanted to know why Carrie wasn’t visiting him. So how much does he understand now? The four people I know who have received letters from him don’t know what sort of accommodation he has made with what he’s done, or they aren’t able to articulate it for me. As for the people I know who have visited him, one man says he’s still smart and thoughtful and funny, but he’s also symptomatic. Another man speculates that Michael remains symptomatic because he might subconsciously want to keep himself in the forensic hospital, might fear leaving—since how could he trust himself again? I twice wrote to ask Michael if I could visit him at the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, where he lives, but I didn’t get a reply. If he’s still paranoid, maybe my letter struck him as suspicious, as if it had come from the CIA and not from me. Or maybe my interest is of no interest to him. Maybe he just needs to be left alone. When I ask people about the contents of the letters they’ve received, they shrug, say they don’t remember, that it was just commonplaces or a regret about the life not lived. At the time when Yale Law School hired Michael’s old classmate James Forman, Michael mused in a letter to a former professor that if things hadn’t gone as they had, perhaps that could have been him.

~

It’s not that schizophrenia would, in theory, have prevented Michael from achieving all he hoped to achieve. In her memoir, Elyn Saks describes how she, in a manner of speaking, secured the life that Michael did not. Like him, she was a spectacularly bright person who went, by all appearances, from one academic success to another. Class valedictorian at Vanderbilt, Marshall Scholar at Oxford, her work frequently singled out for high praise by her instructors. Like Michael, she went to Yale Law School. Like him, she struggled with schizophrenia and had a long in-patient hospitalization. Like him, she had good friends and therapists, all of whom cared for her deeply and tried to help her out. But her life story ended up being very different from his. Though she, too, resisted medicine at times, she eventually found one that worked for her. She became a professor, also a research clinical associate at the Los Angeles Psychiatric Society and Institute, and, in addition to writing movingly about her schizophrenia, she has written about forced treatment and the rights of the mentally ill. Among her honors: a MacArthur grant.

So why did Michael’s life turn out as it did? Perhaps Michael was simply one of those people medicine couldn’t treat. Or perhaps his prodigious intelligence made him believe, at times, that he was capable of outrunning his illness—as if one could be smart enough and determined enough to “beat” schizophrenia, as if (though surely he was smart enough not to believe) will and intelligence had anything to do with it. Perhaps his past successes and his drive to sustain his achievement were part of the problem. Could he have been trying to do and be too much? Might a job at Macy’s, or a less boring equivalent, have been a good idea after all?

~

When Robin Kornegay was dating Michael, he told her about the golem, the Jewish folkloric creature fashioned out of mud who at first protects his community but then, growing and growing, runs amok, endangering the people he was meant to help. Though Robin is now a pediatrician, she spent a year as a stay-at-home mom in Europe while her husband was dean of Notre Dame’s law school in London. On her long walks that year, she reflected on Michael and Carrie. “I had the idea,” she says, “that Mike was the golem. He grew and grew as a person and then his brain grew even further in a very uncontrolled and disturbing way, which was not acceptable to society and which was not reality.” Robin started a book that year titled “The Golem,” but she’s misplaced it. “I may have thrown it out,” she says. “I was ridding myself of the burden of that relationship.”

Robin is not the only one I know who began to write to process what happened. Linus Yamane wrote a private piece. Michael’s psychiatrist contemplated a book. Jonathan Rosen, Michael’s childhood best friend and neighbor, is under contract with Penguin for a book. And here I sit, typing, feeling similarly compelled.

Writing may be bad for some minds. For others, it serves a therapeutic function. It helps to have it out.

But to what purpose, I wonder, even as I write this. Why rehash the tragedy after all this time?

Could something have been done to prevent this? Could Carrie have been saved?

The answer seems to be no.

Bo Burt says, “It’s such a common American response to say, ‘It shouldn’t have happened. We should have some techniques to prevent it.’ But the tragic vision says, ‘Bad things happen, and good people can’t stop them. You do your best.’ Sometimes things are wrong. Sometimes everybody is behaving absolutely rightly, and tragedy happens.”

Why write it then, after all these years? One person close to Michael’s story, who didn’t want to talk, said it could only harm Michael to have attention of any sort at this point. It would hurt his chances of release to a private medical facility.

Could something written harm him more than he’s already been harmed? And if there’s any chance of it, why pen this?

When I approach people who knew him, some don’t want to talk, but most say, “Yes. Please. Call me. I welcome this conversation.” It’s not only Michael, after all, whose life has been affected.

~

When I found out about Carrie’s murder, I was living in Waterville, Maine. Two years earlier, there had been a bizarre murder in town. Mark Bechard, a psychotic man had gone to a local convent, the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, and bludgeoned and stomped two nuns to death. Two others were gravely injured. Bechard had been mentally ill but a member of the Catholic community, frequently present at prayer. One of the nuns who he killed was considering offering him a job in the yard. Just as Michael’s friends, family, and physicians were trying to help him on the day of Carrie’s murder, so Bechard’s family was trying to get in touch with his doctor on the stormy night—the phone lines down—when he set out for the convent. The tragedy in the convent kitchen played out in ten minutes.

On a summer afternoon in 2014, I visit the nuns in the hopes that they will have something to teach me about Michael and Carrie. I know the nuns have forgiven Mark Bechard—“What else can you do?” the Mother Superior, Sister Mary Catherine Perko, says to me—in a way the Costellos did not forgive Michael. But who can blame Carrie’s parents? I can’t imagine feeling any sympathy for the mentally ill if it was my child who’d been murdered. What’s more, Carrie had named Michael as the beneficiary of her retirement savings and her life insurance, and the Laudors kept the money for Michael’s trial. Insult added to (unbearable) injury. A civil suit followed.

As for the nuns, their hearts are open. “Poor creature,” Mary Catherine says to me of Bechard. He was a sick, young man not taking his medicine. She adds, “But we don’t want this to happen again.”

Talking about the effect the murders had on their faith, Mary Catherine says that the nuns were “called to a deeper awareness that Jesus was carrying us.”

I read something Mary Catherine told an NPR reporter about the bell at St. Peter’s in Rome, where she lived for decades before coming to Waterville. So I ask her about it. She has the idea it must be very hard to be that bell, hit again and again, but then, oh, what a beautiful sound the bell made. What a lovely thing to believe, I think. Yes, as she is suggesting, there is beauty, heartbreaking beauty, in the way a community can respond to a tragedy, as with the many friends who came out to support the nuns in their time of need. Clearly I am not the only one who has been turning the intricacies of Michael and Carrie’s story over and over for fifteen years. But a beautiful sound? No. That could only apply to the community that has been hit, not the individual. There’s no beautiful sound in Carrie’s death. A professional and academic success, a lover of long bike rides, a self-deprecating woman and loyal partner . . .

“She screamed the most awful scream,” one sister, in a news report, said of one of the nuns Bechard strangled, “and then her cries were stifled.”

 

Debra Spark is the author of four books of fiction, including most recently The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception, and the novels Good for the Jews and Coconuts for the Saint. She is also the author of Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing and editor of the anthology Twenty Under Thirty. She lives with her husband and son in North Yarmouth, Maine. (4/2015)


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