Mothers of Invention

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum JUNE/JULY/AUG 2015

As an institution, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

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The Guardians: An Elegy


By Sarah Manguso

Parul Sehgal, Plain Dealer, February 2012

On July 23, 2008, a young man leaptto his death in front of a Metro-North train in New York City. He was identified later as Harris Wulfson, a beloved Brooklyn, N.Y., musician whohad suffered from intermittent psychotic episodes.

He is eulogized in a new book, “The Guardians,” by Sarah Manguso, author of “Two Kinds of Decay.” Theirs was a platonic friendship, a twinship tinged by Eros.

Manguso had just returned to New York after a year abroad when she heard that Harris had escaped from a psychiatric institution and committed suicide. Her book is as much a memoir of mourning, of piecing together the puzzle of Harris’ final hours, as it is a struggle to find a vessel to contain her pain, the search for the right kind of book to write.

“If I were a journalist I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away,” she writes. But she’s afraid, she says, afraid to talk to his parents, his last lover or the man that drove the train. She retreats, skipping the memorial, refusing the family’s invitation to visit Harris’ apartment to choose something of his to keep.

“I wasn’t going to continue without Harris,” she writes. “Everyone else could mourn, obedient, but I would not participate.”

She surrenders to her grief. “I don’t try to hide it. I let it get all over everything.”

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