MENTAL ILLNESS IS A DIFFICULT subject for me. Last week, I watched the movie Young Adult and almost threw up at the appallingly light-hearted treatment of the main character, who is unquestionably and seriously ill. Mental illness runs in my family, and in me, and so I tend to stay away from personal narratives in the vein of The Guardians. But Sarah Manguso needs to tell us something, and we need to listen. She needs to tell us about her friend Harris who jumped in front of a train.
Here are the facts: Sarah and Harris met in college, living together among a rotating crew of young people in a New York City loft. Together, on 9/11, they watched the towers fall from the bank of the East River, then rode out to Harris’s parents house on Long Island and ate candy. Harris was a gifted musician. In his life he had a total of three psychotic breaks for which he was institutionalized. During the third, while Manguso was living in Italy on a writing fellowship, Harris somehow walked out of the hospital, went missing for ten hours, and then jumped in front of a train.
The Guardians is a requiem, written by a friend in the beginning stages of the messy, lifelong process of grief. “I could have waited until the end of my life to try to understand what happened on that day,” Manguso writes, “saved it for last so I could know its whole effect, but instead I waited what seems an arbitrary, meaningless length of time.”
What makes this book so revelatory, what sets it apart from the seemingly endless succession of recent grief memoirs, is that it all seems to happen in real time. The Guardians is like a Polaroid, developing while you watch; Manguso works through her despair moment by moment, on the page, right in front of you. Because she’s experiencing and documenting at the same time, she has no clear perspective. And yet it turns out this might be the best way to tackle the subject. After all, what perspective does one ever get on suicide? At most, you gain some muted sense of acceptance, which is both negating and boring to read about.
So how does Manguso achieve this sense of collaboration with the reader? How does she make it feel like the words are appearing on the page you’re holding as she’s writing them? First, through a seeming disorder. The prose is fractured, ordinary, oral, random. The writer addresses herself, Harris, and us. Just when she’s in the middle of an anecdote about her friend, or providing some background information on the science of antipsychotic drugs — at precisely the moment you expect an assertion of authority — she drops in to remind the reader: she has no idea what she’s doing. She tells us, “Everyone writes, ‘What are you working on?’ I’m working on a book about a man who jumps in front of a train. I have no interest in hanging a true story on an artificial scaffolding of plot, but what is the true story? My friend died — that isn’t a story.”
She’s right. It isn’t a story. The Guardians is more of a rendering, in the literal sense — one where the author offers the conceit upfront: “I want to set aside every expectation of how I should feel or act given that my friend had a bad death, and try to explain what has actually happened to me — if, in fact, anything has actually happened to me.”
What happens when there are two people, and then one of them dies? What do the details of the death matter? Or the life, even? What happens to the one who didn’t die? They live, yes, but how do they live? This is what the author is trying to figure out, and she’s trying to do it from a very particular place. “Some people believe,” Manguso writes, “that only selfish people accept suicide as a possibility, but I don’t believe suicide is available to everyone. It was available to me for a moment, and then a door shut between me and it. The door has stayed shut.”
The prose also seems to include the reader by spinning relentlessly in every direction, turning up every rock, playing with the language in ways that challenge you to consider everything — life, death, friendship, time, memory — from different perspectives. For instance, here Manguso imagines the last moments of Harris’s life:
He walks across the platform to the yellow edge. Maybe he thinks about the way his body looks, how it would look to someone looking at it. Maybe he is looking at it.
During the next moment he’s alive, and during the moment after that he isn’t alive yet still exists, just not anymore as himself but as a body thrown in front of a train, which raises the questions of responsibility and blame.
Did Harris throw someone’s body under a train?
If I could I would blame him, but I can identify Harris only with the body, not with the one who threw the body.”
She is equally ruthless in her self-questioning:
“Why is it easier for me to think ‘Harris killed himself’ than to think ‘Some unknown invasive pathology entered Harris without my knowledge and, while I wasn’t looking, murdered him?’”
“When did I stop separating the pathological self-murdering part of him from the rest of him — at what point did I reassign the so-called self-murder to his actual self?”
Manguso also acknowledges something I think almost everyone can identify with: the inherent, necessary selfishness of the survivor. (She is, after all, writing an entire book about her suffering.) She warns us,
Don’t tell me about the rich variety of mourning customs throughout the world from the beginning of civilization to now — I don’t want to know about customs. I don’t care to know how others act out the playlet of their ruination. I want to know about my particular grief, which is unknowable, just like everyone else’s.”
One of the ways in which Manguso feels that her grief is unknowable is that she and Harris weren’t lovers. They weren’t related in any way, and so the general assumption that “great friends are all alike,” complicates her ability to fully tell the story: “It doesn’t sound like much when I say my friend died.”
She captures, perfectly, the inability to capture what it is like to lose a friend, the weird jealousy and covetousness, the dissolving ownership of the dead that is left for the living to contend with, to tear them apart like vultures. At Harris’s memorial service, Sarah notices that his last girlfriend is avoiding her:
She kept her distance, and I understood. She had been the last one to go to bed with Harris. At least she had that. Maybe she didn’t want that last intimacy threatened by someone who had known her lover ten times longer than she had. I didn’t want my own intimacy threatened by hers.
“How can intimacy be threatened? It isn’t a finite substance like gold or coal,” a friend chides. But of course it is, and I missed the whole last year of it, and now there isn’t any of it left.
Throughout the book, we do get to see Harris alive. These sections are like snapshots: here’s Harris on the train, at work, getting lost on the freeway in California. Even these, though, Manguso imbues with a challenge: See this? Now see it like this.
He was concerned that he possessed a one-way refrigerator. He said, “The thing is, I keep putting food into it, and then I forget about it and by the time I remember it, the food’s gone bad. It’s starting to cost money. Does your refrigerator have this problem?” I told him my refrigerator was a two-way, that I hadn’t paid extra for it, but that he should specify to his next landlord that he would need a two-way refrigerator. This conversation is approximate. Imagine having it with a mental patient.
Now imagine having it with a regular person, your friend, on the sunniest afternoon in the world.
Of course, that’s part of what makes Manguso’s attempt to reconcile with the death so impossible. Harris was mentally ill. Mental illness is a thing, but what kind of thing is it?
“The dictionary,” Manguso writes,
defines psychosis as ‘the abnormal condition of the mind,’ which doesn’t narrow it down much. […] The diagnosis depends on the report of a person whose reports are, by clinical definition, unreliable. Hallucinations and delusional beliefs may accompany unusual or bizarre behavior, difficulty with social interaction, and impairment in carrying out daily life activities.
There’s nothing to measure, just judgments of what is ‘unusual or bizarre,’ what constitutes ‘difficulty and impairment.’
Because she has a complicated relationship with such illness and with antipsychotics herself, Manguso knows just how futile platitudes can be when a course of treatment fails: “I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering. […] It’s impossible to calculate the number of good days left for a person with the kind of illness that Harris had, so maybe my belief that he would have had many more good days is a false belief.”
Actually, she admits that probably every belief is false — “Nothing I perceive is real. Nothing I remember is real.” — and so she often drops into a deadpan, stares straight at the reader, and says the facts:
My friend didn’t die of some secret tumor. He died because someone opened the door of a building. […] He had an experience unknowable to anyone but him, an episode, and then was well again, and then had another episode, and then was well again, and then had another one, during which something happened and he died.”
Am I giving too much away? Am I stealing too many of Manguso’s words and rearranging them here on the page in order to convince you to read the book? Yes. The truth is, I don’t know how to review The Guardians, because I’ve never read anything like it.
I’m at my desk, it’s a Tuesday, I’ve had three cups of black coffee, I’ve forcibly disconnected myself from the internet. I’m looking dejectedly at the book beside me on the table and thinking, how am I supposed to do this?
Here’s Sarah: “I am aware of accuracy as an abstract goal, but I don’t know what it looks like or how to find it or how I would know it if I found it or what I would do if I did.”
Words are difficult. And they’re intractable. We often have to ask ourselves, when we’re recalling something: is this a memory, or a memory of thinking about putting this memory into words? Sarah, recalling the moment the first tower crumbled to the earth on 9/11, writes, “I watched its hundreds of glass windows shimmer to the ground. The roof fell neatly downward, erasing floor after floor, like an accordion, but I remember this only because I remember thinking ‘shimmer’ and ‘accordion.’”
We share the writer’s curse. We share a lot, Sarah Manguso and I. So what of her own struggle with mental illness? How has she been able to stay on this, the living side of the door? Drugs, mostly: “I’ve felt insulated from my death,” she writes, “since I began taking this new medicine. I am no longer moved to write poetry, but I traded poetry for a longer life. I knew I was doing it.”
It’s been almost four years since Harris’s death, and the thing that’s left behind for Sarah — if it can be called a thing — is, of course, chronic grief. But Sarah has figured out that question of how to live: by treating the grief, too, as a living thing.
I’m raising the tiny irrational child of Harris’s death. It hides, then appears and demands all my attention and all my power. I limit its range: when I teach, I will not think of it; when I run, I will not think of it; when I am with others, I will not think of it. But then it surprises me and I have to go home and be with it, tend to it.
I take good care of the little infant death. It’s learning to behave.
“I don’t think I can live without Harris,” I tell it.
“You’d be surprised by what you can live without,” it tells me.
That’s how you live. You live without, and you keep going. And that’s the story.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.