The two faces of Michael
Michael Laudor is a schizophrenic who battled with his demons and won. Hollywood paid $1.5m for his story; Brad Pitt was going to play him. But a tale of triumph over adversity has become a horror story. Michael Laudor cracked, and stabbed his pregnant girlfriend to death
Last Wednesday, in the apartment he shared with his victim, 37-year-old Caroline Costello, Laudor's illness fought back.
In time, Laudor, a husky bear of man and a brilliant graduate of the Yale Law School, may reveal to us the impulse that drove him to slaughter the woman he loved, the woman known to friends as Carrie, and who was bearing his child. What - or who - possessed him to leave her dying on the kitchen floor, with 10 stab wounds to her neck and chest? What compelled him to flee in her black Honda to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, 170 miles to the north, only to give himself up on arrival to campus police?
It is his talent for autobiography that won Mr Laudor the attentions of Hollywood in the first place. His gift came to light in an interview with the New York Times in 1995, in which he detailed his battles with the symptoms of his illness. There were terrifying hallucinations, such as becoming trapped in rooms engulfed in flames, and paranoid delusions, like the time he watched mesmerised in horror at blood dripping from the teeth of a work colleague.
The interest generated by the interview prompted him to write an 80- page proposal for a book about his life. Literary agents in Manhattan were electrified by what he had written. Here was a person considered a genius by everyone who knew him describing vividly and with absolute candour a petrifying journey into the blackness of mental despair.
What really appealed, however, was the notion that Laudor, after eight months in a mental facility and with the help of drugs, was beating back the darkness and finding light again. He was could be cast as a model for surviving schizophrenia - a beacon for his fellow sufferers. Scribner, the publisher, gave him a book contract for $600,000. It was not long before Ron Howard, of Imagine Entertainment, gave him a $1.5m contract for a film of his book. Brad Pitt was earmarked to play Laudor. Tentatively called, "Laws of Madness", the project was scheduled to shoot this September.
A glimpse at that 80-page proposal quickly reveals the power in Laudor's tale. Raised in New Rochelle, a New York suburb just a few miles from Hastings-on-Hudson, he was born into a talented family. With a university economics professor for a father, he breezed through school and went onto Yale, from where he graduated in three years, a year faster than normal for undergraduates, with a raft of glittering honours.
From Yale, he went to work for Bain and Company, a management consultancy firm in Boston. It was while he was at Bain that the then self-assured associate first began - another inadequate cliche - to lose his mind. One of his first delusions was about his devoted secretary, Abby. In his book proposal he wrote how he began to see her as a dangerous and satanic enemy. "One minute we were standing in a well-lit room, and in another second, like a candle flickering, we were in darkness flashing on and off and there was blood dripping from her teeth as her clawed hands reached for me".
With the hallucinations becoming more frequent, Laudor left Bain and returned to New Rochelle. Whilst in the sanctuary of his parents home, he began an intense romantic relationship with an old schoolfriend. But the relationship quickly broke up and Laudor, dejected and desperate, began a novel and played once a week with a jazz group at a local bookshop. His visions seemed to be fed by characters in the book he was writing, including Nazi agents.
"I would be walking... when suddenly I would see Nazis in trench coats with their hands dipping into their pockets, reaching for guns as I would dive for cover."
He began to see his musician friends as members of a bizarre cult, "some sort of Moonie or neo-Nazi group intent on kidnapping me". In time, the delusions even began to involve his devoted mother and father. He writes of bursting into their room one day at 3am to "accuse my parents of being impostors, of having killed my real parents while they themselves were neo-Nazi agents altered by special surgery and trained to mimic my parents". He even rushed up to the house's attic to in an attempt to seek out the "bodies of my dead parents".
Finally, Laudor went into psychiatric treatment and was admitted to the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was to stay confined for eight months.
For a long while, the ravings persisted. "The Nazi agents pretending to be my parents came every day," he recounted. He would greet them by assuming positions of the martial art tae kwon do. In the meantime, however, Laudor had applied to seven of the country's most prestigious law schools. Acceptance letters from each of them came just as the doctors suggested releasing him from hospital.
But even as he told his brother, Danny, to say yes to Yale, his mental state was uneven. In the same breath, he yelled, "The monkeys are eating my brains! Stop them, Danny!"
At Yale, he was watched over by the dean of the school, Guido Calabresi, who said that if Yale could accommodate the handicapped with wheelchairs by installing ramps, then they would find ways to accommodate Laudor. His, simply, would be an "invisible wheelchair", the dean decreed.
Laudor thrived in the academic cradle of Yale. He graduated, again with honours, and was given two-year scholarship to remain there conducting research. In that time, he resumed his friendship with the wraithlike Ms Costello, herself a Yale graduate who was then working for the computer giant, IBM. Their relationship quickly developed into a full-blown romance.
The mental tortures suffered by Laudor were known to Ms Costello. She stayed by the side of a deeply troubled man most women would have fled from. In 1995, the year of the Times interview, Laudor's father, Charles, died from prostate cancer. His death, friends said, utterly devastated Michael. During the worst of his delusional episodes, it had often been his father who had brought Laudor back to reality.
During Michael's infernal visions, his father would urge him to put his hand out to touch the flames and thus to discover that they existed only his mind. Now living in Hudson-on-Hastings with the woman he wanted to marry, Laudor apparently suffered other setbacks.
The book that Scribner had asked to him to complete was not coming easily. Indeed, it remains unfinished. In the past year, moreover, Laudor began to complain that the drugs his doctors had prescribed to control the visions were proving less and less effective. Then, last Wednesday, Laudor's mother, Ruth, telephoned the police in Hudson saying she had received an especially frightening call from her son in the morning. She feared for the welfare of both him and Carrie, who had taken the day off for "personal emergency" reasons from her job at the Edison Project, a private education company that runs public schools in some states. Mrs Laudor begged the police the police to send a cruiser to the apartment.
A police officer was dispatched and let in by the superintendent of the building. The bloody scene inside, Carrie in a pool of her own blood, confirmed the mother's worst fears. By dusk, Laudor was on his way back to Hudson-on-Hastings in handcuffs.
Why he had gone to Cornell was unclear. He had one link with the campus, however: a visit there as a teenager to participate in a summer camp for talented young writers.
Charged already with second-degree murder, Laudor is on suicide watch in a county jail as he awaits the start of his trial. Randy Banner, a journalist and long-time friend of Laudor's, is one of a few who have been able to meet him.
"I look at his eyes, which I have done many, many times, but they are somebody else's eyes," she said of a meeting with him last Friday. "If you can fathom that, they are somebody else's eyes."
Fathoming what courses through the brains of schizophrenics is hard even for the professionally trained. For those people, the tragedy of Michael Laudor could hold depressing and frightening consequences. It will fuel preconceptions and prejudices about sufferers of schizophrenia as people who are prone to violence and who cannot be trusted in wider society. It is doubly sad that it should be Laudor who leaves that legacy, when he had been seen as a victim of the disease, offering so much inspiration to other people.
"We thought, what a wonderful and courageous thing it was for him to step up and say people of talent and accomplishment can have schizophrenia and they can manage it and keep moving forward," commented Laurie Flynn, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Now the book may never be finished and Brad Pitt is unlikely ever to portray Michael Laudor. As one Hollywood insider remarked: "It is not a Ron Howard film any more."
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