Sarah Manguso’s memoir “The Guardians: An Elegy” is less about her friend Harris, who committed suicide by jumping in front of a Metro-North train, than about her experience coping with his death and absence. Her novel perspective is not to confront the confused psychologies of the mentally ill directly, but rather to mediate the psychological conflicts of those who love them.
Manguso’s prose is frank and sober, and from that sobriety comes an unshakable sincerity that carries the reader seamlessly through the text. Manguso, who herself has suffered from mental illness and uses antipsychotics, acknowledges that in choosing mental stability she had “traded poetry for a longer life,” but that “she knew what she was doing.” Both claims hold—Manguso is an adept and conscientious writer in control of her material, but there is nothing sentimental or overwrought in her prose, only plain descriptions that, in a sense, forbid visceral emotional responses.
Manguso strikes up the analogy between watching a loved one die and watching the Twin Towers fall, an event she and Harris experienced together from Kent Avenue in Brooklyn. She focuses on the fact that no pictures were taken from that exact location, “where we were standing,” that in a way every tragedy is imminently personal because of the singular vantage point from which it is viewed. For Manguso, tragedy lies in the interplay between the tragic actor and his grieving audience.
Much of the work focuses on Manguso’s life, her career editing a magazine and working on a failed novel in Rome. Certain passages are stunning in their glimpse into the psychology of loss: “I wrote my obituary soon after my college graduation. It seemed as necessary as knowing my social security number.” What makes it so difficult to conceive of her friend Harris’s death is, paradoxically, how close she came to suicide herself: “I also wrote the note that would be found with my corpse ... Now I save it to remember how far I have traveled from that place where no help comes.” Preserving her own sanity while coping with her friend’s death becomes a central challenge in the memoir.
“The Guardians” is metatextually concerned with the viability of its own project. The question arises of why one might try to make meaning out of death at all when it is much easier to label it away as “incomprehensible.” At one crucial juncture in her meditation, Manguso observes that “finding Harris,” both a literal moment in the narrative when Harris runs away from a psychiatric hospital, as well as a metaphorical stab at the reclamation of his lost essence, is, after all, “just a game,” and that she could “throw away ... the puzzle left unsolved, and it wouldn’t matter.” Instead, she pushes onward to the most difficult question. The result is a work whose prose does not flaunt its own stylistic merits, but is rather, in its modesty and stillness, quietly persuasive.
In the wake of losses in our own campus community and the fight to bring mental health issues to the forefront with initiatives like Mental Health Week, Manguso’s memoir seems resonant with Columbia at large. Ostracism and stigmatization are poor tools in confronting an issue that affects everyone, both those who suffer from mental illness and those who love them, despite their tragic stature as failed “guardians.”
Manguso asks, if the grief involved is inescapable, what’s the use in running? She sheds her fear of death and in doing so has scribed a fearless work. When she asks the question, “What is grief for?” Manguso offers a number of explanations, the most persuasive of which is this: “Real explanation: Love abides. There is no other solace.”