Klezmer Musician's Death Plunges Author Into Exploration of Madness and Grief

Sarah Manguso's 'Guardians' Is an Elegy For Her Late Friend

Klezmer Elegy: Harris J. Wulfson, a klezmer musician, threw himself in front of a New York City train in 2008. HIs suicide forms the basis of Sarah Manguso’s mournful memoir.
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Klezmer Elegy: Harris J. Wulfson, a klezmer musician, threw himself in front of a New York City train in 2008. HIs suicide forms the basis of Sarah Manguso’s mournful memoir.

By Susan Comninos

Published July 10, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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She explains: “For the last four months of the four years I spent on olanzapine,” an antipsychotic used to treat both schizophrenia and acute bipolar mania, “whenever I lied or said anything even slightly insincere, my right shoulder jerked up and my head jerked down to meet it.”

A pill that functions like truth serum might not seem so bad to the average reader. But to Manguso, her experience represents a wrong she somehow perceives as having been perpetrated against Wulfson. “Clinicians write that akathisia contributes to impulsive acts of violence and suicide,” she declares, without any evidence that Wulfson suffered from it. From there she goes on to wonder why his prescribing doctors — and hospital staff — didn’t foresee his leap onto the train tracks.

At points, Manguso achieves a less autobiographical sense of her friend’s reality: “I know it was probably a group of people at the ward’s front desk, not a single person on duty when Harris left, but it feels very good to focus my attention on some imaginary wicked, murdering angel,” she writes, her prose at once insightful, exquisite and vengeful.

Of Wulfson, who’d never before attempted suicide, she admits that “he talked his way out.” Such acknowledgment is notable, because Manguso rarely assigns personal agency to Wulfson, especially when it comes to his use of recreational drugs. Instead, for the most part she refers to them as an ambient presence in the Downtown Manhattan loft she once shared with him and others.

She doesn’t implicate herself directly, either, noting only in the third person that in post-9/11 New York, “it was easy to find someone to go to bed with, do drugs with.” Such adolescent brio isn’t rare in a young person’s memoir. Still, it makes it hard not to wonder what role Manguso and Wulfson played in feeding their respective illnesses.

Frustratingly, the author never tells us basic facts about Wulfson and his mental health: Was there a genetic component to his madness? What led to two of his three psychotic breaks? (The first involved recreational drug use.) Finally, what — up until the point of his suicide — helped him recover?

Manguso may not know. But to be sure, her evasive yet heartfelt book looks askance at both free choice and understanding. “When a poet ends her life,” she writes of Rachel Wetzsteon, who, in 2009, while she was the poetry editor of The New Republic, killed herself, “ghouls send lines of the dead woman’s poems back and forth all day.” But isn’t it fair to want to know what drives a person toward oblivion?

Certainly, the question preoccupies Manguso. Yet the idea of exerting will in the face of mental illness seems anathema to her, and leads to some of her more bizarre conclusions. “I believe that a dybbuk killed Harris,” she writes at one point.

It’s an odd statement from a woman who mentions her own Jewishness only twice. But the thought that a demon infiltrated her friend appears more palatable than that Wulfson dove to his end.

Manguso’s grief is palpable, and gorgeously rendered. But the sheer number of fallen assembled here undercuts her argument of insanity — unless her definition swells to include all those maddened by the gap between their desires and life.

Susan Comninos is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Her journalism has recently appeared in The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor.


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