"An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night," reported the July 24, 2008, edition of the Riverdale Press. This man was named Harris, and The Guardianswritten in the years after he escaped from a psychiatric hospital and ended his lifeis Sarah Manguso's heartbreaking elegy.
Harris was a man who "played music, wrote software, wrote music, learned to drive, went to college, went to bed with girls." In The Guardians, Manguso grieves not for family or for a lover, but for a best friend. With startling humor and candor, she paints a portrait of a friendship between a man and a womanin all its unexpected detailand shows that love and grief do not always take the shapes we expect them to.
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About the Author
Sarah Manguso is the author of a memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay; two books of poetry, Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise; and a short-story collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape.
Read an Excerpt
The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the Riverdale station on West 254th Street.
The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.
* * *
If I were a journalist I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away. I’d have gone to the hospital and met all the people who were on the psychiatric ward at the moment Harris walked out the door, and then this book would be a more accurate rendering of the truth.
If I were to write responsibly, with adequate research to confirm certain facts, I’d have to ask people about the last time they saw or spoke with or heard from my friend Harris. I’m afraid to ask his parents those questions. I’m afraid to talk with his last lover. I’m afraid to meet his doctors and the man who drove the train.
For three years I’ve studied klezmer orchestration, the physics of rainstorms, maps of Eastern Europe. I thought I could trade my life for this useless, vigorous research. Since I was afraid to know so many answers, I didn’t ask any questions, and now it’s been three years. Now no one could possibly be able to remember the mundanities of July 23, 2008.
I could have waited until the end of my life to try to understand what happened on that day, saved it for last so I could know its whole effect, but instead I waited what seems an arbitrary, meaningless length of time.
I tried so hard not to notice Harris’s death, I barely remember it. Time eroded the memory of it even as it gathered the dust of what’s happened since. But I need to try to remember it now so I might keep it from haunting me.
* * *
We know the lost time begins just after noon because that’s what the desk nurse said, and we know it ends at 10:48 because that’s when the train pulled into the station. Sometime during that minute, maybe the engineer engaged the air brake. Maybe he blew the whistle. And before or after the engineer did those things, the train’s snub nose, or maybe its whole underside, just above the rails, made contact with my friend’s still living body.
I want to say that ten hours are missing from Harris’s life, but that isn’t right. They were in his life. They just weren’t in anyone else’s.
Though I wish I could, I can’t say Harris lay down on the train track and felt relief. I can’t imagine anything but torment, a blinding light, then nothing.
What I carry now—it brightens sometimes, without warning—is not his pain. This pain is mine, and unlike my friend, I don’t try to hide it. I let it get all over everything. I yell in my studio. I cry on the subway. I tell everyone I know that my friend threw himself under a train.
* * *
Some people believe that only the selfish 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.
Some people think I should be angry at Harris, but I’m not angry. I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering.
A man whose lover died slowly wants this book to be about love.
A man whose brother died quickly wants this book to be about rage. I couldn’t save my brother, he says. It never goes away, he says.
* * *
Sometimes I wish someone else had died instead—someone who blocks the open subway doors, for example, or someone who leaves piles of peanut shells on a train car. The fantasy comes to me in a flash—I can bring him back to life!
The woman who changed her baby’s diaper and left the filth on an orange plastic subway seat—I’d have traded her for Harris. And I’d have traded the man who unwrapped a candy, placed it in his mouth, dropped the wrapper on the platform in front of his feet, chewed, unwrapped another candy, placed it in his mouth, dropped the wrapper on the platform in front of his feet, chewed.
* * *
Harris played music, wrote software, wrote music, learned to drive, went to college, went to bed with girls, moved to New York, moved to California, went to graduate school, moved back to New York, went to more graduate school. His three psychotic breaks occupied almost no part of his actual life.
During the first episode, he hired a lawyer, convinced his colleagues were conspiring against him. He called his sister, not knowing where he was, thinking he might have been slipped something. She told him to lie down and rest. He called himself an ambulance, sent it away, drove himself to a gas station, parked the car, got out, slept behind a trash bin. A talking dog appeared and told him to enter a house. The door was unlocked. The people inside called the police, and Harris was arrested and brought to the hospital. After thirty-six hours of telephone calls his mother found him.
I don’t know what breed of dog it was. I don’t know what color the house was. I don’t know how the doorknob felt in my friend’s hand.
After the first episode, sometimes he’d stop speaking before the end of a sentence.
Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Manguso
Reading Group Guide
1. Who are the guardians referred to in the book's title? Why would an elegy be named not for the dead person but for those left behind?
2. Discuss the special traits of this book's form, such as the author's use of short sections, repeated words and phrases, and dense, distilled narratives. What makes her unique structure appropriate for the topic? In what way is Manguso's skill as a poet evident in her prose?
3. How does Manguso's experience of grief accompany her experience of courtship and marriage?
4. One of the defining traits of Manguso's grief is its frequent refusal to proceed linearly toward what could be called "recovery." How does the book represent that meandering path?
5. Grieving a suicide is different from other griefs. There is an extra mystery besides the mystery of death. How does Manguso manage this component of her grief? Does she seem to find solace in the exercise?
6. How does Manguso's depiction of her grief differ from other memoirs on this topic?
7. At the end of the book, Manguso tells us, "It's tempting to try to claim I've learned something very important from the experience of Harris's death." In the past, have you learned anything from the experience of grief? Was it what you expected to learn?
8. What are your opinions of the chemical treatment of psychiatric conditions? Did your opinions change as a result of reading this book?
9. How do the other suicides and other deaths mentioned or depicted in the book provide context for Harris's death?
10. What's the function of the quoted material in the book-letters, case studies, lines of poetry?
11. What's the effect of the author's decision to absolutely wallow in her grief? Does it make you like her more or less?