I have a crush on Sarah Manguso’s brain. This epiphany occurred slowly, over the weeks we spoke about her latest book, The Guardians. Sapiosexual feelings aside, I will admit I’m not easily intimidated by situations or people, but in this instance, I found myself incredibly so. Reason being, Sarah has an ease with language that makes you feel like you’re experiencing certain thoughts and feelings for the first time.
Having read her memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, both of her collections of poetry, (Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise) and her story collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, I knew one thing for certain: Sarah was a keen observer of the human condition. There is a brand of surety and ferocity in Sarah’s writing that is uniquely hers. The Guardians, an elegy written in memory of her close friend, Harris, who took his own life, is no exception. This book looks to answer the spoken and unspoken questions we have when someone close to us dies. Sarah bravely dissects the inadequate answers we are left with in the wake of anyone’s death, while employing imagination and memory as scaffolding for the painful grief that surrounds any mourning period.
In addition to Sarah’s numerous works, she has been a faculty member of the undergraduate writing program at the Pratt Institute and of the graduate writing programs at Columbia, Fairfield, and the New School universities. She also maintains a private writing studio. Born and raised near Boston, she was educated at Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A citizen of the United States and Ireland, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The Rumpus: Tell me how you settled on The Guardians as your title. What does it mean? Did the meaning of the title change as you wrote the book, or does it hold the same definition for you now as when you began?
Sarah Manguso: The guardians are the ones who outlived Harris—all of us who are still alive, managing the consequence of our survival.
I’ve been waiting to use The Guardians as a title since 2003, when I gave it to a book-length poem I never showed anyone. Then in about 2006 I started a research project about my orphaned Sicilian great-grandfather, hoping to use the same title, but the project went nowhere. Then in 2007 I thought I’d give the title to a novel, but that didn’t work, either. Then Harris died. I wrote the book. The title got used.
Rumpus: I read a piece on grieving at Tablet Magazine shortly after Whitney Houston’s death that addressed the need people have to skip over what Judaism calls “aninut,” the period between first receiving the bad news (of someone’s death) and completing the funeral rites. Liebovitz writes, “Judaism understands that it takes us time to process the most unnatural fact of another human being having forever disappeared and therefore suggests that we focus only on the practical arrangements of burial and leave the emotional stuff for later, when we’ve had a chance to absorb the blow.” Did your grieving process affect your decision to write The Guardians?
Manguso: Belonging to a faith is comforting when someone dies—ritual calls one back to the world, if just barely. For twenty years and counting I’ve kept a diary, and it’s there that I first wrote about Harris’s death. I didn’t write much, though. This is all I wrote the day after I learned he’d disappeared (carriage returns indicate time passing):
Worried sick, can’t sleep. Terrible dreams. Adam is in bed, hungover from a tequila slushy.
Fear Harris is dead.
Harris is dead. His family positively identified a John Doe found in Riverdale.
His sister writes: sarah harris is dead. i am so sorry to tell you over email but i do not have your phone number.
Change is to was on his Wikipedia page, as he would have for me.
Rumpus: You mention how reluctant you were, a mere three months after Harris’s funeral, to participate in a memorial concert some friends had prepared, saying “Everyone else could mourn, obedient, but I would not participate.” The struggle you mention, “raising the tiny irrational child of Harris’s death” seemed overwhelming at the time, forcing you to tend to the complicated feelings that come from losing someone so important. Do you recall a defining moment where this process became easier for you? Do you believe it ever really gets easier? Or perhaps the dynamic just changes for those who survive the deceased?
Manguso: I wasn’t ready to sing and feel the sweetness of Harris’s memory. Maybe no one else was, either. Eventually I could do those things, but I don’t believe in recovery. I believe in relentless forward momentum. One is never the same, but one must continue. In the book I write about a lucid dream in which I knew I was dreaming of Harris for the last time. That dream marked the beginning of the end of my grief.
Rumpus: You bring up an interesting point about recovery and its connection to trauma. People live with death and disease, and when they’re ready to address life again, some slowly re-enter the world while acknowledging a great change. Was your reintegration after losing Harris different from the reintegration after your own illness?
Manguso: Well, my disease happened to me, and Harris’s death happened to Harris. And Harris’s death happened in an instant, but my disease relapses and remits—the experience is ongoing. And of course there’s been no moment in my illness that’s felt as final as the fact of Harris’s death.
Rumpus: You wrote “I want to know about my particular grief, which is unknowable, just like everyone else’s,” explaining that other rituals, customs, and other grief processes don’t serve much purpose where your own healing’s concerned. I find it so interesting to examine the coping mechanisms we develop after a death. As a writer, how has your writing helped you learn about your own grief? What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of this process? Or is it still a process?
Manguso: I don’t quite say that rituals don’t serve a purpose; I state that they can’t teach me anything about my grief. They’re mindless, automatic, the opposite of analysis or rumination. Harris’s death taught me merely that I’m capable of outliving him—and that I might live a long time, now that he’s so violently reduced the statistical likelihood of my own self-dispatch. But these things came to me only via writing (and rewriting).
Rumpus: What becomes clear in The Guardians is your understanding of what it’s like to suffer from something you have no control over. Your book The Two Kinds of Decay discusses your autoimmune disorder, another situation that suspended your control. Can the lessons of one problem apply to other problems?
Manguso: Difficulty becomes familiar, at least, if no less difficult.
Rumpus: No one welcomes the addition of a physical or mental illness to their lives, yet you both had diseases to contend with at different points that dramatically affected your ability to live life. Do you feel like you understood Harris any better as a result of the common ground you shared?
Manguso: Sure, but I’m not the only person Harris told about his time in the hospital, and I’m not convinced we had a special understanding that trumped everyone else’s. No friend gets to claim the greatest intimacy. That’s one of the anxieties I write about.
Rumpus: That’s a true and fair statement, to be sure. What’s one thing Harris knew about you that would have made him feel (even if temporarily) he truly did have the greatest intimacy with you?
Manguso: Ah, but if I told you, that intimacy would be gone…
Rumpus: You mention various hypotheses in regard to Harris’s suicide. Because the reason remains unknown, you (and others) imagined a myriad reasons for the suicide. You discuss the agonizing side effects of antipsychotic drugs, mainly, akathisia, citing three disturbing examples of patients who reacted violently and/or committed suicide as a result. How helpful are drugs whose side effects create new monsters for patients to slay? How has your own medical treatment changed the way you think about prescription medication?
Manguso: It’s true that side effects create problems for patients, but side effects aren’t the root problem in the doctor-patient system—it’s capitalism. Companies obtain patents for drugs, and when the patents expire, they obtain new patents for revisions so minuscule, they’re essentially the same drugs. Meanwhile no one can manufacture a generic, so patients who can’t afford the name brand take shittier drugs with worse side effects, and they get sicker or die, and in the case of psychiatric drugs, the deaths are suicides. (NB: I don’t believe this is what happened to Harris.) While this is going on, the drug companies promote off-label uses in order to sell more pills without having to earn FDA approval. Then more patients get sick and die, and the companies buy gag orders and keep the remaining lawsuits tied up in court forever. This past week, AstraZeneca lost its US patent for Seroquel, a drug I’ve taken for eight years. On the day the patent expired, the company appealed the judgment. They made more than five billion dollars last year just from this one drug. I’d take my business elsewhere, but I need the stuff. Without it I’m dead. It’s only a matter of time before the revolution comes, but that’s probably a subject for another interview.
Rumpus: When things in life occur unexpectedly, it can take much longer to find peace in our hearts and minds. How do you feel about closure after an expected or timely death?
Manguso: My mother-in-law took years to die, but her death still undid me. A tiny box of her ashes sits behind my computer. The first time I looked in it I cried as if I’d discovered her body—which, of course, I had.
Rumpus: The year you went to Italy, you and Harris stopped talking. You had your own struggles that year. Were you aware of Harris’s absence or did you feel his absence on a subconscious level?
Manguso: It was a year of great anxiety for me, as I detail in the book. I wasn’t myself, had disengaged from my actual life, and I felt his absence only after the fact—only after I realized I’d wasted his last year.
Rumpus: In hindsight, is there anything about the year in Italy that you now recognize as having been positive, in spite of the distance from Harris, having missed his last year?
Manguso: Of course. For one thing, I ate better that year than I ever had, and I came to understand why some people care so much about eating well.
Rumpus: After you marry, you tell your husband you want to see a psychic because you want to talk to Harris. You also mention that you feel his presence at times and entertain the idea of ghosts. In the Kabbalah, there is a verb, davok, which means to cleave and, in 17th-century literature, it often refers to evil affecting the spirit and body. Dybbuk is shortened from the phrase dibbuk me ru’ah ra’ah, which roughly means to cleave or attach to outside spirits. Harris’s sister believes a dybbuk killed him. Do you believe in ghosts or possessed spirits? Do you think believing in them would make a difference in how you dealt with Harris’ death?
Manguso: I neither believe nor disbelieve that ghosts exist. I take it case by case. So far I’m still undecided. I’ve tried to believe in them, but I can’t.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the idea of ghosts existing on a case-by-case basis. What keeps you from fully embracing the idea of them?
Manguso: Never seen one, and I’m an empiricist.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write this book?
Manguso: Well, I met Harris in 1994, then I wrote the title in 2003, and then the various iterations of the attached book appeared and disappeared. Harris died in 2008, and then I sold a draft of the book in 2010 but kept revising it until late 2011. I didn’t work on it every day, and the days I did work, I worked on it between one minute and ten hours. How long, indeed?
Rumpus: I think writing about death or illness is always difficult. You’ve managed to do both (here and in your memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay). Did you worry about finding publishers for these books? What has that journey been like for you as a writer?
Manguso: Writing about anything is difficult. Selling a book is also difficult, but in a different way. My so-called journey began years ago—my first book was published in 2002, and there were two more books before I found the agent who sold Decay, heaven bless him.
Rumpus: Were you ever concerned about this book’s subject matter being an obstacle in regard to pitching or marketing the book? As a writer, you must think about what might excite your agent. Did the subject matter of the book give anyone pause?
Manguso: No, I know myself well enough that I don’t expect to produce a blockbuster. Despite this (and/or because of it), my agent’s belief in the inherent value of my work has lasted since the week we met, and my book editors have been just as supportive. I’m a lucky fool.
Rumpus: Writers write the stories that need to be told. They aren’t always the ones that get bought, nor do writers control market trends. Earlier, you mentioned writing through problems as a means to understanding life and the struggles you’ve encountered. How do you feel that process is helping you evolve as a writer?
Manguso: Well, for one thing, my books keep getting longer.
Rumpus: You recently moved back to New York from Los Angeles. You’re married now. You just published another book. These are all positive changes. If ghosts really do exist, what would want it to observe about your life?
Manguso: Enough that if the ghost ever spoke to me, I’d learn something.
Author photograph © Andy Ryan.