It is August 2007. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has just been released, and the movie version of Order of the Phoenix has just hit theaters. And I’m about to learn about the suicide of a friend.
I was working at the Kansas City Public Library, doing the occasional theatre work in my spare time. I had met Michael Mangus while attending Park, and was a fellow theatre nerd. He was a great friend: he performed the wedding ceremony for Rich and I. The prior winter, he had driven me to work because my car was acting up. However, our friendship had recently cooled. After agreeing to help with a theatre production, he had dropped out in order to work with someone else, and I was battling feelings of betrayal and disappointment.
When the Harry Potter books were initially released, I scoffed. Why all this ruckus about a children’s book series? When the first movie came out, I saw it partly out of curiosity. It wasn’t bad, but I still couldn’t see what the hubbub was about. I read the book to see if it differed much, and wasn’t impressed. So I continued to scoff.
When the second movie was released (Chamber of Secrets), I only went to see it because I like Kenneth Branagh. A friend of mine, after asking me why I wasn’t a fan, gave me what turned out to be very good advice: to not judge the whole series just on the first book, and to give the others a try. I did, and I fell headlong in love.
The books and movies continued being released, and I devoured them as they came. I loved how the books got darker as the series progressed, and how Rowling was not afraid to tackle such complex concepts as the War on Terror in books that are intended for children.
So what does Harry Potter have to do with my friend’s suicide? A few weeks after the release of Deathly Hallows, Rich and I are home, and there is a knock at the door. It is our landlady, asking if we had known Michael. She then asked if we knew anything about how to find his family, or whether he had anyone in the area that was close.
That’s when everything in my mind slows down. I remember it clearly: halfway down the steps from the second floor, the words tumbling out of my mouth before I could stop them: “You keep using the past tense.”
The landlady informs us Michael had been found dead. He had shot himself. She needed to find his family, his place cleaned out and his stuff taken care of. She’d toss everything if she couldn’t find someone to take care of it.
We offered to spend the weekend doing what we could to clean. Michael was a hoarder, and we knew it would be a chore. There was also the hope of finding a will or suicide note. She hesitantly agreed, more concerned with getting the place rentable than with giving him (or us) any sense of peace.
That weekend is still seared in my mind, both the humorous (finding slices of cheese in books) as well as the serious (Rich took on the task of cleaning out the bedroom, where the suicide had happened, cleaning off the blood that was still on the wall). The only way I was able to get through it with any kind of sanity was to distance myself.
On his headboard was his copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s a good bet it was the last book he read, and I believe he waited to kill himself until he had finished it.
Two weeks before it had happened, my car had some issues again. I had contemplated calling Michael to get a ride, but I’d decided not to. To this day, I wonder if contacting him may have made a difference – maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself, and he’d still be alive today had I just been willing to make that step.
I both love and hate the Harry Potter books and movies. The later movies are painful for me to watch, and I have yet to re-read any of the books. I can’t separate the suicide from the work, and yet the fact that the later books deal with death and hard decisions in life make me appreciate them that much more. In the end, hope prevails.