“My friend died—that isn’t a story,” Sarah Manguso writes near the beginning of The Guardians: An Elegy (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux).
But, of course, it is. We all have friends, and we love them, and we lose them. In the best cases, we just grow apart—we move away, or we discover new interests, or we just change. We have fights with friends, too—we say the wrong thing or send the wrong e-mail, and away they walk out of our lives, inexplicably, for good. And then, once we live long enough, they die on us.
My friend Sarah Hammond died on Thanksgiving last year. I found out the next Tuesday, when our mutual friend Kramer sent me a Facebook message that said, “I’m writing to let you know that Sarah Hammond committed suicide this past weekend in Virginia. Her body was discovered today.” The message had been sent overnight—Kramer lives in California—so it was the first thing I read upon waking up.
Sarah is dead? Sarah killed herself? How could that be?
I write this now because it is impossible for me to separate the reading of The Guardians and my mourning of Sarah Hammond. The book is one of the most powerful and devastating works I’ve read in a long time, a true elegy to one of the author’s closest friends, Harris, who suffered from psychotic spells and one night jumped in front of a Metro-North train in New York.
When Sarah and I were in college, we took Metro-North trains to the city, although probably never at the same time. We weren’t as close as I would have wanted. I didn’t like most of my classmates, but Sarah was one of the good ones. She was smarter than me and she was funny and she was kind.
Manguso met her friend Harris at college while at Harvard. They were roommates one summer, then again after college. They watched the World Trade Center fall. They had parties and loved music and they never had sex. They were just friends, although in Manguso’s recounting you get the feeling that Harris wanted more.
“He liked whitefish. He liked drinking Manhattans. He timed his jump in front of the train, and that’s the story,” she writes. But the story, a hypnotic prose poem of a memoir, is really how Manguso processes her grief, which is what makes the book such a compelling read. It is an elegy to a lost friend but also to a lost youth, a lost innocence, a lost city.
“I can’t measure my grief and I can’t show anyone what color it is,” she writes. “I can offer testimony that others can accept or reject on faith, but my grief is always just my grief, unobservable by anyone but me, and then imperfectly.”
Ultimately, though, the book is about living. Manguso gets married and moves to Los Angeles and goes on missing Harris and goes on with life, the way we must. She writes, “I don’t want to admit that I couldn’t have saved Harris from his death, that I’m not magic, that I’m not special, that I won’t be able to save anyone. The avocados ripen on the tree and the sun dries out the garden.”
The last time I talked to Sarah was in 2010. She was going abroad and needed someone to take care of her cats; I tried to talk my sister into it, since she lived nearby. Sarah wrote me once. I never wrote her back. I still keep thinking that if only I had reached out, if only I had known how down she was, I could have done something, although I know that’s irrational.
But that’s what Manguso’s book captures so well—the impossibility of mental illness. “Some people think I should be angry at Harris, but I’m not angry,” she writes. “I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering.” Manguso acknowledges what our culture so often won’t, that mental illness is a disease, and a deadly one, and sometimes the “cure” makes things that much worse. (She suspects the medications Harris was put on may have inadvertently led to his death.) People die of cancer and people die of psychosis and either way, in the end, we are just left with their memories.
I miss you, Sarah Hammond, your wit and your obsession with Billy Graham and your smile. And I can think of no better way for anyone missing a lost friend to celebrate his or her memory than by reading The Guardians, perhaps more than once.