When Tara McGuire’s son Holden died from an accidental opioid overdose at the age of 21, she was flattened by grief. There is no playbook for how to mourn the loss of your child, particularly when they die in a highly stigmatized way, and McGuire found herself having to invent her own. The result is her memoir-like book Holden After and Before: Love Letter for a Son Lost to Overdose, which is both a moving portrait of her son and an attempt to investigate the events that led to his death.
Holden dies after McGuire has spent a year travelling abroad, and she struggles to figure out how he changed from a bright and engaging young boy – his first-grade teacher described Holden as seeming to have a party going on inside of him – into someone with a burgeoning heroin habit who can’t seem to hold down a job, apartment, or relationship. McGuire’s prose is vivid and raw as she does her best to weave together a narrative of what went wrong. She soon recognizes that she won’t be able to do this alone. The realization sends her on an unusual mission that seems to give her a sense of purpose in the middle of the mess that grief has made of her life.
McGuire’s undertaking leads her down many paths. She scours the cellphone that Holden had with him when he died, scrolling through old texts to see who might have known what. She contacts Holden’s friends in the hopes of piecing together his last days, weeks, and months. She visits a safe consumption site to see what smoking heroin looks like and get as much information as possible about her son’s drug of choice. She writes to the police department and asks to see a holding cell similar to the one where Holden spent time on what would turn out to be the last full night of his life. She comes up with excruciating lists of ways that she might have failed Holden, from the breakdown of her marriage to his father to her own past relationship with substance use to moments of perceived failure in parenting. McGuire is determined to get a full picture, even when that means holding herself accountable.
But no matter how many facts McGuire is able to acquire, none of it amounts to a full picture – at least, not one that’s satisfactory for her. So McGuire resorts to writing fiction about her son’s life to paper over the gaps. She imagines a trip they took together to New York from his point of view – that of a teenager alternately embarrassed, impressed, and annoyed by his mother. When she discovers the police had been called on her son over a domestic dispute with a girlfriend, she imagines it was sparked by an argument over an unplanned pregnancy. A young woman discloses that she self-harmed in an effort to stop Holden from leaving her apartment, so McGuire imagines in vivid detail how that scene might have played out. All this imagining puts McGuire’s work into territory that is at times difficult to parse.
What does it mean to write fiction about real people and place it alongside nonfiction in ways that sometimes make it difficult to distinguish one from the other? Though McGuire says that many of Holden’s friends described in the book are composite characters, surely the moments she recounts, however altered, are recognizable to the right sets of eyes. And it’s not as if McGuire hasn’t given any thought to this – she admits to being troubled by the ethics of writing about Holden’s friends in this way. The best answer she can come up with is that there are many notions of truth, and emotional truth is one of them.
While McGuire’s work would have been stronger had she lingered a little longer over those ethical questions, her impulse to imagine her son’s life – to create what she calls “informed fiction” – is an understandable one. McGuire struggled to know her son during his last years, and now he is forever unknowable except in the spot where memory intersects with imagination, which might be another way of saying “emotional truth.”
At its best, McGuire’s writing reminds us that behind every death statistic there is a complex story, one that’s both meaningful and heartbreaking. She shows how close any of us are to having the people we care about slip between the cracks. But most of all, she makes it clear that she would do absolutely anything for her son.