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October 21, 2013 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Now we are five: David Sedaris, on the suicide of his sister Tiffany.
posted by Partial Law (158 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
Writing such as this helps me feel like my family's a little more typical and makes me feel like a little less of a monster.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:38 PM on October 21, 2013 [17 favorites]


I can't believe it. He even wrote a story about her, how they didn't connect. He always mentioned how they treated her when she was a tiny kid and how growing up she'd been so eager to please. I'm so sorry for her.
posted by discopolo at 1:41 PM on October 21, 2013 [12 favorites]


Oh geez. I always wondered about her- I read all of his books, and was struck by the fact that he basically never mentioned her, in contrast to all his other siblings. There was only one story about her. But I always kinda figured I shouldn't think too hard about why she was missing from his books, because I remember he also wrote that his family was sometimes creeped out by how much strangers knew about them through David's writing. I thought maybe she just wanted to be left out of the narrative...
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:53 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


my parent's family has recently gone from 6 to 5 siblings - and much of the family were out of contact with my aunt when she passed (for entirely different reasons than the sedaris family faced). this is pretty hard stuff to read, but really well written, as he's prone to do.
posted by nadawi at 1:54 PM on October 21, 2013


I'm sorry for her family too. Her suffering is over. They will have to live with her suicide for the rest of their lives. Thank you for posting the link, PL.
posted by longdaysjourney at 1:58 PM on October 21, 2013


Here's a 2004 news story on Tiffany. It sounds like she deeply resented David's writing about her and the family. From what I've read of David's work, I don't find it derogatory, but I'm a private person myself and understand Tiffany's desire not to have her stories told.

And, from what I've read of David's work, Tiffany was the sibling I was most curious about, the one I'd most like to meet.

I grew up in North Carolina, vacationed a few times at Emerald Isle, and currently live near Somerville. I sometimes feel like I'm on a parallel, less interesting track to the Sedaris family's. Sometimes less interesting is a blessing.

.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:58 PM on October 21, 2013 [27 favorites]


From a 2008 newspaper story (sorry, link is mobile):
Although Sedaris continues writing about all of his family members, he actively avoids covering one: his sister Tiffany. Years ago, she had told Sedaris never to write about her. "So I didn't," he says. "Then she calls and says, 'Everybody thinks you don't like me. Will you write a story about me?' " So Sedaris wrote a piece, and showed Tiffany, who said she loved it.

However, when the book was released, Tiffany did an interview with The Boston Globe insisting Sedaris had invaded her privacy.

Sedaris admits their relationship still isn't exactly civil.
posted by purpleclover at 2:01 PM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


Man, I love the way he writes. I totally, totally understand this piece.

.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:02 PM on October 21, 2013


Beautifully written piece. But I have to say that I have a hard time swallowing this:

How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.

In light of this:

She and I usually made up after arguing, but our last fight took it out of me, and at the time of her death we hadn’t spoken in eight years. During that period, I regularly found myself near Somerville, and though I’d always toy with the idea of contacting her and spending a few hours together, I never did, despite my father’s encouragement.
posted by snarfles at 2:03 PM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


My sister killed herself and we went from 2 to 1, sibling-wise. There's some stuff in there that really hits home. When he says “And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,’ ” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.” it's so totally true. Almost everything about how I handle the whole thing with people is based on making sure no one feels any discomfort.

In my case, people say "do you have any brothers or sisters?" And the answer, 15 years later, is still a total mystery to me. At first, I used to say "I have a sister." Inevitably I then got "oh, how old is she? What does she do? Where does she live?" and a barrage of other questions. So then I started saying "I did, but she died." Which, you know, makes things weird REALLY fast.

Now I say "Nope, just me" and put up with all the amazing "oooooooh, you're an only child? I could tell that about you" bs and just keep my mouth shut. It's much easier that way.
posted by nevercalm at 2:05 PM on October 21, 2013 [78 favorites]


I haven't read it yet...
My sister's body was found Oct. 8th... She had killed her self sometime over the weekend by consuming all her pills.
She had borderline personality disorder. Our family's interaction with her ranged from cut-off (my father) to talking almost every night on the phone (my mother). I was more towards my father's side, but I tried to keep in touch in small ways. Her 2 children also had different degrees of connection.

I'm still trying to process it all. Listening to Pink Floyd Echoes, today, was the first time I teared up in over a week. I pictured putting headphones on her as she faded away, with minimal brain activity, going with one of her favorite bands sending her off. I had to settle for hearing her breathe over the phone and telling my mom to give her a kiss for me.

Her death wasn't a shock, necessarily, but it doesn't make it easier. Just... different.

I look forward to reading what he has to say and maybe I can find something useful to me right now.
posted by symbioid at 2:07 PM on October 21, 2013 [50 favorites]


.
posted by jquinby at 2:08 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Beautifully written piece. But I have to say that I have a hard time swallowing this:

How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.

In light of this:

She and I usually made up after arguing, but our last fight took it out of me, and at the time of her death we hadn’t spoken in eight years. During that period, I regularly found myself near Somerville, and though I’d always toy with the idea of contacting her and spending a few hours together, I never did, despite my father’s encouragement.


Really? My family isn't in anyway dysfunctional and that still makes total sense to me.
posted by Think_Long at 2:09 PM on October 21, 2013 [14 favorites]


Amazing piece. I tried to focus on the more humorous/quirky bits as well, like his father taking spinning classes at 90, and the fact that people said "check your ass later" as long ago as 1978.

Just to get through the whole thing.
posted by sweetkid at 2:09 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was curious about the reference to her having spent time at the Elan School in Maine as a child. In looking it up, I found this website, which describes it as precisely the kind of school for "troubled" children that claims psyches and lives. It quotes extensively from an NYT article in 2002, as here:

Some accounts by recent graduates suggest that little has changed at Elan since [Michael] Skakel attended in 1978. Tatiana Karam, 21, who attended Elan from 1996 to 1998, said . . . she saw a student placed in a corner in plastic restraints for so long that she became malnourished and was sent to the hospital. Ms. Karam said that phone calls to her parents, who spent more than $100,000 on her schooling, were monitored and that the students who accurately described life at Elan were punished for being "manipulative." But Ms. Karam, the Northeastern student, said: "Not a day goes by that I don't think about it. I'll never forgive them for what they did."

An unsourced allegation:

Everyone imprisoned at Elan developed physical problems. By the mid-2000s, at least 30% of students developed temporary or permanent Osgood-Schlatter disease, a debilitating knee condition. Students in lower hierarchy positions would spend months at a time (years in total) scrubbing the linoleum floors on their knees with a dirty sponge for 2 to 12 hours per day. Elan's tiny medical staff did not report this epidemic nor enforce changes in Elan's practices. Who knows how many teenagers uncovered diseases, carpal tunnel or arthritis during their time there?

There's more and worse. I can easily imagine that two years of this would cause a rift in the family that could never be repaired. Especially if your parents say, "We had other kids . . . You think we could let the world stop on account of any one of you?"

I've enjoyed reading the Sedaris family stories for years, but it always seemed like a difficult family to be part of.

.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:11 PM on October 21, 2013 [41 favorites]


I've found middle-period Sedaris pretty twee and fluffy, but when he writes from the heart, yeah, he's a pleasure to read.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Symbioid, if you haven't, check your MeMail.
posted by nevercalm at 2:16 PM on October 21, 2013


From this essay, I find myself very much sympathetic to his sister, Tiffany, and almost entirely unsympathetic to the rest of the family.
posted by oddman at 2:18 PM on October 21, 2013 [29 favorites]


I'm a bit at-odds with the piece. On one hand, the description of the family seems to paint them as unique individuals with a enduring bond as a family. It's a very moving and personal piece.

But, on the other hand, there's an obviously troubled sister whom no one ever seems to actually go out of their way to connect with or help. A family with at least two very successful members who could have possibly made a difference in her life.

I'm left with an impression of a family which exists in name and surface appearance only.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:20 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


From this essay, I find myself very much sympathetic to his sister, Tiffany, and almost entirely unsympathetic to the rest of the family.

I agree. This piece, as moving as it is, seems oddly blind to how troubled Tiffany was and how much the family's dynamics had hurt her over the years -- like he can't even entertain the notion that being sent away as a child or being written about in a cartoonish fashion that she obviously resented or being cut off could have really mattered to her. In general, I've found that David Sedaris's writing in the past several years has gradually become more glib on this score -- more self-consumed, even self-lacerating, but at the same time somehow less insightful.

So yeah, I have very mixed feelings about this piece, too. I can't imagine the grief that the Sedaris family is feeling in the wake of her suicide, but I also feel a little angry on her behalf.
posted by scody at 2:27 PM on October 21, 2013 [21 favorites]


I think that it's easy to ignore the complicated family dynamics that build up over a lifetime, as well as the difficulty of helping people who don't want to be helped. I think most families have a member or two who not everyone interacts well with, and that the point of this essay wasn't to open critique on a challnging family dynamic. Assigning fault doesn't feel appropriate, and also disregards that people don't commit suicide just because they're not close to their siblings or aren't receiving financial support from siblings it sounds like they aren't talking to. Even if that's the putative reason, there are countless other mental, physical, and environmental contributors to suicide. I think the urge to blame the Sedaris family for this tragedy is beside the point.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 2:28 PM on October 21, 2013 [36 favorites]


It's a family of people who failed to live up to their own high ideals.

In other words, a buncha humans. Every family falls short like this, one way or another. Many are still worth loving in spite of it. Some aren't. I figure it's not my family so it's not my call.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:28 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


But, on the other hand, there's an obviously troubled sister whom no one ever seems to actually go out of their way to connect with or help.

How do you get all of that history from this small bit of writing?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:28 PM on October 21, 2013 [12 favorites]


Great writing. I think that the thing I like best about Sedaris is that you can feel the words behind the words. And perceived glibness here I think says a lot about the love he had for his sibling, the seeming apathy just a shell that is hiding the real pain. I think he writes about how fantastic his family is--how it's the best club ever--with conscious irony.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:31 PM on October 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


I think the urge to blame the Sedaris family for this tragedy is beside the point.

I'm not blaming them for her suicide. I just find that my feelings are mixed, given not just this piece but much of Sedaris's writing for the past several years. I feel bad for Tiffany that a family whose dysfunctions have been the basis for (often great) art for two of her siblings seems to have been quite debilitating for her.
posted by scody at 2:32 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


But, on the other hand, there's an obviously troubled sister whom no one ever seems to actually go out of their way to connect with or help. A family with at least two very successful members who could have possibly made a difference in her life.

Yea, that was my reaction too. Of course, we don't know all the details, but I found her penniless death juxtaposed with him buying a beach house on a whim just heartbreaking.

I think he writes about how fantastic his family is--how it's the best club ever--with conscious irony.

I think (and hope) you are right.
posted by snarfles at 2:33 PM on October 21, 2013 [12 favorites]


How do you get all of that history from this small bit of writing?

Well, he certainly takes pains to talk about how removed Tiffany was from everyone, down to his little aside that he was once in the area area and thought about visiting. Seems to me if anyone had reached out to her, he would have mentioned it, however briefly, if just to say how badly it had gone. The absence of any mention of contact really stands out to me.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:33 PM on October 21, 2013


I think the urge to blame the Sedaris family for this tragedy is beside the point.

Death in the family is a strange thing.

While obviously there are situations where there is "right" and "wrong", or an aggrieved party and a complicit party, in my experience, for the most part, due to the "enmeshed" nature of family dynamics, and the fact that people rarely do what you expect or want them to do, even family members who need help... sometimes there is nothing that can be done.

Sometimes people behave cruelly. Sometimes people behave stupidly. Sometimes these same people behave beautifully. That's family.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:39 PM on October 21, 2013


This piece, as moving as it is, seems oddly blind to how troubled Tiffany was and how much the family's dynamics had hurt her over the years -- like he can't even entertain the notion that being sent away as a child or being written about in a cartoonish fashion that she obviously resented or being cut off could have really mattered to her.

Um... This is a piece written in the New Yorker... While yes, it is tangentially on his sister, and it is designed to express a bit of emotion - it is a piece for a newspaper. It is not a tell all biography where David Sedaris indicts his whole family for their culpability in their sister's suicide. This is the very definition of a nostalgic eulogy.

Brush off the stuff that makes a family dynamic ugly, provide some positive comments about the person, acknowledge the fact that the family is smaller - that despite the tenuous relationship they all had with their sister, they tried to maintain at least one person in contact. Acknowledge the feeling of being remiss by failing to visit his sister when she was 15 minutes across town. Finding their whole family dynamic now has a shadow over it of their sister's death - even though she hadn't attended a family vacation in thirty years. And he finishes with the acknowledgement that from the outside he still has a large family, even though on the inside, they know it is smaller... and in this context, they have to move on.

So yeah, sorry the piece wasn't depressing enough for you. I would bet that if you sent David Sedaris a comment card - particularly one from a Somerville restaurant along with suggestions on how he should saddle his family with greater guilt to accompany the grief they are likely all still experiencing...

I know I still haven't looked at a paint can lid the same way after knowing how my uncle, also one of six, killed himself.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:40 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


The absence of any mention of contact really stands out to me.

From the article:

When allegiances with one brother or sister flamed out, she’d take up with someone else. At no time did she get along with everybody, but there was always someone she was in contact with. Toward the end, it was Lisa, but before that we’d all had our turn.


Seems to me that even if David Sedaris chooses to write about what it's like to lose a sibling to suicide, even if he chooses to share certain aspects of his family's lives, doesn't mean that we're getting every last detail and that if something isn't mentioned, that means that it didn't happen at all. Come on.
posted by palomar at 2:41 PM on October 21, 2013 [23 favorites]


I come from a similarly large family. I mostly avoid talking to them and visit with Mom, once a year if I can afford it. This makes me unrelievedly sad. I don't think that I would do well with the deaths of any of my siblings. Even the ones I vociferously disagree with.
posted by evilDoug at 2:45 PM on October 21, 2013


From that 2004 story on Tiffany:
Tiffany is petite, with sculpted arms, bronzed from long bike rides in the sun, a strong brow, auburn hair, and a searching, sympathetic gaze. She remembers her family harassing her for being skinny and an older sister for being fat. These days, she's not up for categorization. ''I look how I look, and that's fine," she says. She concedes: She looks just like her brother.

She values, above all, what she sees and seeks beautiful things in an unlikely place: the bottom of trash cans. Only here can she find what she needs for her mosaics -- rare red and orange glass, pottery from the 1920s or '30s, tiles, plates, even dolls or statues with elegant arms or interesting faces. ''I don't do it because it's cool. If someone took me to a glass or pottery store, I wouldn't complain," she insists.

Then again, Tiffany knows that something happens to stuff nobody wants anymore. Abandoned, already a little broken, it needs context, which her mosaics offer. She picks up sugar bowls, ash trays, and tea pots because she can make them something else. ''Eventually the idea of buying a plate becomes completely ridiculous," she concedes. ''Why use something someone has worked to make beautiful? When you break it, it's just not pretty any more." ...

When Tiffany goes picking, she's after stories. Sure, she can eat any of the 16 cans of Progresso soup she found one night in July. She can sell some jewelry and furniture. If she likes the buyers, and they're fair, she'll even pick for their needs, carting home Legos or oboes or any other oddity she can trade for marbles or pottery.

The stories, though, she keeps. Portraits and family photos fill file boxes in her stuffed spare room. She organizes the photos by person, even though she rarely learns their names. ''I don't split up lives," she declares.

Tiffany creates principles like this one, which guide her trash picking: Death is the ultimate adjudicator. Letters, pictures, and diaries are fair game only if Tiffany has never met the person who they describe. They don't leave her house again unless their previous owner is surely dead. ''Do I have the right to sell someone's letters, to print them, to give them away?" she asks. ''What if the woman who wrote that love letter as a kid is alive, and her husband beats her? These are real people, which means there are consequences to things."
I looked up some of her art. It's beautiful.

Pain Wall

Her MySpace profile pic

posted by maudlin at 2:45 PM on October 21, 2013 [31 favorites]


he mentions that one of his sisters and father were in contact with her up until the end. so the idea that no one was reaching out seems misplaced. he also says She did leave a will, though. In it, she decreed that we, her family, could not have her body or attend her memorial service. i feel like there was a lot written between the lines here, and when that's the case a people are going to come up with different answers, but i feel like there's much not said here about mental health and the steps he and his sister (and the rest of the family) have taken to try to help tiffany. i don't at all get the impression that they just sent her out into to world to fail - but that their love and help wasn't enough, and sometimes made it worse. i'm with Kafkaesque on the conscious irony part.
posted by nadawi at 2:46 PM on October 21, 2013 [16 favorites]


" Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives—we’d had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to being our own specific Sedaris. "

I was literally wondering about yesterday, on this phenomenon the author implicitly refers to—this particular way of facing the issue of individualism, by *breaking off* from the family—to what extent is it part of American society, or modern/global culture, etc? And how did it come to be, and so on? In the bigger picture it kind of informs why some people can end up becoming isolated because of it.
posted by polymodus at 2:46 PM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


More on what it was like to be a resident of Elan during the 1970's, when Tiffany spent two years there:

According to an "Elan Survivors" Internet home page, the Elan of 1975 is characterized as a treatment facility whose bizarre practices include "...evidence of physical abuse, forced labor, spankings, being forced to fight one another in a boxing ring, senseless ditch diggins, handcuffing children to the tables, pouring mixtures of food and human feces onto residents' heads, denial of food and recreation, improper medical care and a total lack of privacy."
posted by mlis at 2:47 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Holy hell. (via)
Elan victims were utterly depersonalized on a par with the strongest cults.... Conditions at Elan were beneath those of federal prisons, mental health facilities, military and private boot camps, and even comparable therapeutic boarding schools. Elan had a barbaric reputation that worked to its advantage with understandably desperate caretakers.

posted by argonauta at 2:47 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love the voice his father has in his writing. He sounds like he's a hoot.
posted by zzazazz at 2:49 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


“I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” my father said.

Yeah, a real hoot.
posted by mlis at 2:52 PM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


the elan stuff is fucking awful. in the 90s i knew a lot of kids sent to juvi retreats and central american christian rehabs and every single story i've ever heard about them are horrifying. we hear about the pray away the gay camps all the time, but i think we forget that these sorts of places exist for all sorts of "bad kid" rehabilitation.
posted by nadawi at 2:52 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Um... This is a piece written in the New Yorker... While yes, it is tangentially on his sister, and it is designed to express a bit of emotion - it is a piece for a newspaper.

Two points: The New Yorker isn't exactly a "newspaper" (it's a magazine that features long-form writing) and David Sedaris has regularly published long-form pieces in its very pages.

So yeah, sorry the piece wasn't depressing enough for you.

The piece was exceedingly depressing to me. You miss my point entirely.
posted by scody at 2:53 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Jesus Christ. Elan sounds like a factory for suicides. How did it persist for 41 years? How was it opened at all?
posted by Iridic at 2:55 PM on October 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


Throw me in with the lot who finds this essay bothersome. She wanted to be left out of your stories, so you write up a quick hitter for the New Yorker after she commits suicide? The more Sedaris stories I read, the less I like him as a person. His stories seem to lack empathy completely.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:57 PM on October 21, 2013 [15 favorites]


Reading about Elan, I can't help but take Tiffany's side in this. If I were sent to a place "worse than a federal prison" for being a partying teenager, I think I'd be unable to forgive my family too. Especially if my parents' response was as dismissive as hers. "Doing your best" may be enough in many instances, but not when it comes to raising children.

I hope Tiffany finds the peace in death that she couldn't find in life.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:59 PM on October 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


What a completely fucking crass thing to do to his sister. Really? You're going to violate her privacy in the New Yorker - including publicizing comments at her newspaper obit page that mention "Ass Menagerie" in Playboy and stoner comments in the high school yearbook you found cleaning out her house - after *knowing* that she hated you doing that when she was alive?

Ugh. Completely and utterly disgusting. That anyone could think this piece is more heartwarming than cringe-inducing is beyond me.

I know it's His Brand, but it's always surprised me how many people accepted David's stories about his family as True Facts instead of as humorous exaggerations that violate his family's privacy. I liked the Christmas elf thing because it was about him, but most of the other early stuff left a bad taste in my mouth and I stopped reading it. This final nail in the coffin clinches the feeling that he's not only wildly disrespectful but also mercenary and just generally awful.

And hell, Tiffany seems a lot more interesting to me than David ever did:

She prices her pieces on a sliding scale. ''It depends on how much I had to hurt myself while I made it, how far I had to drag it, whether it was night or day. Mostly, I make it up," she says. ''It's a made-up price for made-up stuff in a made-up world."
posted by mediareport at 3:00 PM on October 21, 2013 [40 favorites]


How did it persist for 41 years? How was it opened at all?

There where a lot of Elan's in the US.

Here in Mn there is an ongoing project to try and get grave markers for all the unnamed graves of folks with different disabilities who where institutionalized
posted by edgeways at 3:03 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This piece feels incomplete to me. I wanted to learn more about Tiffany. Maybe David will try again, and expand on what he's written here. I've always really liked his writing, but his jokes don't really work in this context. This piece feels like navel-gazing, and not the good kind. Or maybe I'm just in a mood. I think a small part of me identifies with Tiffany.
posted by bennett being thrown at 3:05 PM on October 21, 2013


Sedaris is always at his best, writing about his family. His original essay about Tiffany is a funny but also heartbreaking prequel to this one. At one point she tells him, "Don't you get it? I don't like you people."
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:07 PM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's your opinion, mediareport, and one that I don't share. I found this very touching.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 3:07 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's far too easy to judge in hindsight the inaction or actions of families not your own, especially when dealing with mental illness, which I think we are dealing with here. What is known about Elan now probably wasn't known to the family then. It seems this piece isn't so much a quick hitter as a painful public processing from a public person. For as many as it offends, there is at least one it comforts. For that I thank him, and sympathize with his loss.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:09 PM on October 21, 2013 [13 favorites]


I can't help but take Tiffany's side in this

Why are there "sides" in this tragedy? Man.
posted by sweetkid at 3:14 PM on October 21, 2013 [32 favorites]


I don't understand the mixed feelings here, but maybe that's because my aunt has severe borderline personality disorder and I sympathize with his perspective. Talking or being with her is like getting hijacked. You can't contribute anything to the conversation, and in NYC, where she lives, she will regularly piss off wait staff over small infractions (or made up infractions, like her mayonnaise being served warm or her perfectly clean glass not being "clean enough") or loudly chastise strangers in the street.

The segment where he discusses a typical conversation or interaction with Tiffany is spot on. We don't know how to help my aunt. She doesn't seem to understand she acts like a selfish, aggressive and overwhelming person 99% of the time. So to say that it's easy to be upset with the Sedaris family is to fundamentally misunderstand how hard it really is for reasonable people to try and help someone who is mentally ill in such a way that they can't recognize their own unreasonableness. It's sad but the force of will and stubbornness with this illness is staggering.
posted by glaucon at 3:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [32 favorites]


A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling?

So very true, this. A few years ago my little brother, a healthy, funny 24-year-old died, from no evident cause leaving his older and younger brothers behind. I was far away at the time; the youngest brother got the grim duty of being called in to identify the body, to call the parents, and wait on the doorstep for my late brother's girlfriend to come home from her weekend trip out of the country, the first nights they had spent apart in years.

I realized then that while we generally slowly reconcile ourselves to seeing grandparents and aunts and uncles and parents (and barring grievous misfortune, our kids outlive us by decades), with siblings it is almost a coin toss. My brother was more than a decade my junior and far healthier; by all rights he should have been my pallbearer, not the other way around.

When I returned to work after the funeral I was talking to a colleague who was (and is) one of a dozen siblings. While he was offering his condolences, I suddenly felt a wave of sympathy about his family: "You poor lot... one of you will have to go through what I just did eleven times."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:19 PM on October 21, 2013 [15 favorites]


Dear David Sedaris: if your goal was to have strangers on the internet diagnose your dead sister as having BPD, congratulations.

The more I think about this essay, the more upset I get, so I'll step away. I understand that others can and will receive much more from this piece, and I have no issue with that. I'm not interested in telling anyone how they should feel about it -- just trying to express how it struck me.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 3:24 PM on October 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


I think mediareport's primary complaint, that Sedaris is after-the-fact violating his sister's privacy, is pretty valid.
Being as forgiving as possible one could say this is a method of dealing with the loss. Writing is cathartic to many people. But the step of publishing it... eh. What is gained in publishing this, a piece about someone who didn't want to be a prop for his public writing while alive no has no say about it.
posted by edgeways at 3:25 PM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


We should mention this piece about truth and David Sedaris from Alex Heard in the New Republic, This American Lie, which caused a splash in 2007 and has David admitting he made up early stories about being bitten on the arm by a naked old insane lady at Raleigh's Dorothea Dix Hospital, among other "this goes way beyond exaggeration into lying" gems:

These days, Tiffany seems more at peace, although she'd like the wider world to get the message that David sometimes exaggerates the family for comic effect. "I don't walk around my house in my barefeet, stamping out cigarettes," she says, referring to "Put a Lid On It," a story from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in which David visits her home and doesn't like what he sees. What struck me about Tiffany-the-character versus Tiffany-the-person is that Sedaris mined her for laughs but left out the best parts--how funny she is in her own right, and how talented and tough.

Also, the framing above of the "Tiffany said write a story about me" episode seems unfair and misleading:

Years ago, she had told Sedaris never to write about her. "So I didn't," he says. "Then she calls and says, 'Everybody thinks you don't like me. Will you write a story about me?' " So Sedaris wrote a piece, and showed Tiffany, who said she loved it. However, when the book was released, Tiffany did an interview with The Boston Globe insisting Sedaris had invaded her privacy.

Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Assuming the 2004 Boston Globe piece linked above is the one being referenced, here's what she said:

'I was the only one who told him not to put me in his books," Tiffany, 41, says of her five siblings. ''I don't trust David to have boundaries. Our friends, our shrinks, the guy who gives us our meds, they all think David is incredibly violating. But then everyone says, 'Oh, what, does your brother not like you?' Even when he doesn't write about you, he's writing about you."

That she'd grow tired of people always asking her why David wasn't writing about her and ask him to go ahead and write something, be happy with it, and then tell a reporter she still had privacy concerns is not inconsistent.
posted by mediareport at 3:27 PM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


strangers on the internet diagnose your dead sister as having BPD

How were people diagnosed with mental illness before the internet, I wonder?
posted by thelonius at 3:29 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Somerville Times in memoriam is quite touching.
posted by snarfles at 3:32 PM on October 21, 2013 [17 favorites]


The thing is, there's almost no way to know - even the kind of limited and imperfect knowledge that a historian might have - about something personal like this. So we're left with the person who is still alive, who is famous, who can be published and linked. That's why it feels unfair. It's not that there are "sides", like one side is right and one side is wrong - it's that if you read this piece, you are immersed in only one person's emotions and viewpoint when you know that there's obviously more, and engaging with the piece none the less tempts you to treat the piece as the whole story, or the primary story. It is for this reason, I realize now, that I find this kind of story a bit unethical both to read and to write (to write for widespread publication, anyway) and I should probably rethink reading this sort of thing.
posted by Frowner at 3:32 PM on October 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


What a completely fucking crass thing to do to his sister. Really? You're going to violate her privacy in the New Yorker[...]

I don't know about that; I mean, she's dead. She isn't capable of being hurt by this type of thing anymore...
posted by Juffo-Wup at 3:35 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Although Sedaris continues writing about all of his family members, he actively avoids covering one: his sister Tiffany. Years ago, she had told Sedaris never to write about her. "So I didn't," he says. "Then she calls and says, 'Everybody thinks you don't like me. Will you write a story about me?' " So Sedaris wrote a piece, and showed Tiffany, who said she loved it.

However, when the book was released, Tiffany did an interview with The Boston Globe insisting Sedaris had invaded her privacy.


I can, with not so much difficulty, imagine that Tiffany didn't expect that he would then publish the story.

I had to stop reading his stories because the ones about his family -- except his husband, who I assume has a say in things -- made me too uncomfortable. The way he responds to his sister -- who alone of six siblings was sent to a reform school which was mostly a place to abuse kids -- where he just says "well, wasn't MY fault, I was a kid too!" and his father says "We had other kids, what else could we have done?" I can see why someone might want space from that.

I am very sorry for the whole family, though.
posted by jeather at 3:38 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey, glaucon, this:

and in NYC, where she lives, she will regularly piss off wait staff over small infractions (or made up infractions, like her mayonnaise being served warm or her perfectly clean glass not being "clean enough")


describes a not insignificant % of people dining in NYC restaurants.

Next time make a note to "Rule out NYC residency" before arriving at a diagnosis of BPD.
posted by mlis at 3:42 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't understand what is so unusual about a writer using family as material, and also making stuff up.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:43 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I feel bad for Tiffany and I feel bad for the family. And I'm very happy that nobody makes a living mining my family's dramas large and small for the entertainment of strangers.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:44 PM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


It might be possible that the family dynamics at play here are too complex for us to diagnose over the internet based on a rather elliptical story.
posted by kyrademon at 3:46 PM on October 21, 2013 [14 favorites]


I'm astonished how personally aggrieved some on this thread are about someone they don't know, based on sketchy or spotty information at best.

David Sedaris is a writer of creative nonfiction. It is unusual for him to play it straight at all. This essay is an exception, or appears to be, in that it appears to give a fairly clear picture into some moments with his remaining family, and more generally into the state of being one of several older siblings in middle/late-middle age.

It isn't exactly a tribute to Tiffany, because he didn't really know Tiffany. I have friends with siblings like that. The lack of a relationship is a void even when they're alive, especially if they've been repeatedly rebuffed. I'm fortunate in that I have no idea what that's like, but close enough to my brother that the idea of it is horrific and scary and sad to me.

Does he play his family for laughs? Sure. Does it sound like that, had he been an unpublished English teacher, Tiffany would've had some other reason to dislike him? Given that the rest of his family seems to have had a similarly difficult relationship with her, it seems very likely. That's the sadness of this piece, to me: not just the suicide, but the fact that for whatever reason the other five were never successful in having the relationship with Tiffany that they had with each other.
posted by uberchet at 3:49 PM on October 21, 2013 [15 favorites]


and also making stuff up.

Yeah, lots of folks had no problem with James Frey, either. *shrug* I don't understand that, so I guess we're even.

The more important point for me is the disrespect shown by parading details of his sister's life around in ways he never would have done while she was alive (at least not since the story in Dress Your Family back in 2004). It seems gross, and unnecessary (except as part of His Brand) and deeply disrespectful of his dead sister's wishes.

I get that some other folks don't share that opinion.
posted by mediareport at 3:51 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love David Sedaris, have seen him live, etc. but I'm really disappointed that he's not more sympathetic or understanding of the sadness and legitimate anger that comes from having been treated badly by older siblings and neglected by parents, especially if you're in need of kindness.

Then again, I guess people have limitations and everybody loves differently. It's just so very sad that Tiffany had to isolate herself from her family to find what little peace she could, but how horribly lonely and sad it is when you don't have the family you need growing up in order to be at your emotional healthiest later on in life.
posted by discopolo at 3:51 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Her MySpace profile pic

Thank you, Maudlin.

There are six discernible figures in that tree mosaic.
posted by mwhybark at 3:58 PM on October 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm really taken aback by the sanctimonious tone some people are adopting here. I don't get it.

Mental illness, suicide, it's all rough stuff to deal with in a family, and this guy writes about his family: that's his art. He's processing. I thought it was an honest, beautiful piece.
posted by MoxieProxy at 4:02 PM on October 21, 2013 [40 favorites]


Next time make a note to "Rule out NYC residency" before arriving at a diagnosis of BPD.

It's actually something she does no matter where we are. I was pointing out the NYC residency only because I'm perhaps a bit Midwestern in thinking that it's not a good idea to piss off random strangers while walking around New York.

I know it's safer than it was, but still not a good idea, and something she regularly does.
posted by glaucon at 4:02 PM on October 21, 2013


Tiffany's obituary in the Raleigh News & Observer
posted by Bwithh at 4:08 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Regarding whether or not David is invading Tiffany's privacy or not, I was struck by how much of her life he left out of the piece. When she appears either in retrospect or in her absence (for example, the discovery of her body) it is in as few words as possible and always expressive of a perspective of distance. David can be an astounding stylist and this piece has been worked and reworked with great care, I think.

He also left out the other great difficult woman in his life whom he has used as a character, their mother. This is of course because she is not around to be there in the wake of his sister's death, and hews to the structure of the piece. His literary characterizations of her also show someone who was incredibly challenging to be in a relationship with. He is also saying something here via omission, I think.
posted by mwhybark at 4:09 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm astonished how personally aggrieved some on this thread are about someone they don't know, based on sketchy or spotty information at best.

I think readers of creative nonfiction engage with the characters/narrator the same way they do with fiction, and I'm not sure why it would be otherwise.
posted by snarfles at 4:13 PM on October 21, 2013


.

When I read the linked New Yorker article, it struck me as not "His Brand" but as the self accusatory words of a grieving sibling. There are parallels in how he wrote about the death of Tiffany and how he wrote about his mother's death: mostly, all the missed opportunities for connection.

He knows.
posted by apartment dweller at 4:14 PM on October 21, 2013 [23 favorites]


Poor girl, poor woman, poor family. It's even sadder when I realize I've probably eaten her pastries at two different locations, and could have walked by her a hundred times.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:16 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure how I feel about this, exactly. On the one hand, it is a lovely piece of writing. On the other hand, I wish that Sedaris had found a way into this subject that was not so celebratory of the Sedaris clan. Because with that tone, juxtaposed with the fucking what the hell school experience and her subsequent disability, plus the whole issue of her not wanting him to write about her in the first place -- gah.

And yes, he's an amazing stylist, but the details about her body not being found for days and the industrial strength fan -- yeah, he doesn't provide a lot of details, but one gets the picture pretty clearly. It feels too clever to sort of have this thing where he supposedly protects his sister's privacy by not writing too much about her, when the details like the fan are pretty telling.
posted by angrycat at 4:26 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


There is so much shame associated with death anyway, especially suicide, and so much guilt on the part of the survivors, that I try to make it a policy not to add to that. Questions of family privacy are questions every writer who writes autobiographically wrestles with, and comes to terms with in their own way, as does the subjects of their writing, and those questions are a bit orthogonal to the subject of Tiffany's suicide. I'm not comfortable clumping them in with her death to make a case against David Sedaris, or his family. We don't know them, and all we can know is what we get through the writing, and it is not enough for us to judge and condemn someone who has just lost a family member.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:44 PM on October 21, 2013 [36 favorites]


From the Boston.com article: "David has his own version of the truth, and it bumps into my version. His makes mine not true, and mine makes his not true," Tiffany says matter-of-factly. ''He said he wrote about our pain because we weren't doing anything with it. When I die, you can recycle me. Till then, it's mine."
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:44 PM on October 21, 2013 [23 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod just eloquently summarized what has been spinning in my mind for the last hour. Thank you.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:56 PM on October 21, 2013


"the details about her body not being found for days and the industrial strength fan -- yeah, he doesn't provide a lot of details, but one gets the picture pretty clearly. It feels too clever to sort of have this thing where he supposedly protects his sister's privacy by not writing too much about her, when the details like the fan are pretty telling."

Surely, this has nothing to do with her privacy, as she was not present in the moment.

I write this as someone who lost a sibling at the cusp of adulthood, both of ours, and a bandmate to suicide who was discovered, in turn, by his sibling after five days. The detail is important because it gestures to the isolation his sister was experiencing, just as Karel was.
posted by mwhybark at 5:05 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm astonished how personally aggrieved some on this thread...

No kidding. I feel like you could say that about 20% of all randomly selected MeFi comments.
posted by mikeand1 at 5:21 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


''David has his own version of the truth, and it bumps into my version. His makes mine not true, and mine makes his not true," Tiffany says matter-of-factly. ''He said he wrote about our pain because we weren't doing anything with it. When I die, you can recycle me. Till then, it's mine."




Families are complicated. Even when there is love there, they are complicated.


.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:27 PM on October 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yeah, lots of folks had no problem with James Frey, either. *shrug* I don't understand that, so I guess we're even.

Is he that Oprah guy that made all the daytime tv watchers angry?

Sedaris has admitted to fabricating information about his family for comedic effect. It's not that unusual. That said, his family certainly doesn't have to accept it, or put up with it.

As well, as some Canadian writer guy said, "real life writes real bad."
posted by KokuRyu at 5:29 PM on October 21, 2013


The more important point for me is the disrespect shown by parading details of his sister's life around in ways he never would have done while she was alive (at least not since the story in Dress Your Family back in 2004).

I dunno, I didn't think there were any particularly salacious details in this piece. The "Ass Menagerie" thing sounds funny and cool, and she herself even mentions finding 100 Playboys and 200 potholders in her trash digging. I can't figure out how that reflects badly on her in any way. And from her interview, it sounds like she's not concerned about what he writes after she is gone:

''David has his own version of the truth, and it bumps into my version. His makes mine not true, and mine makes his not true," Tiffany says matter-of-factly. ''He said he wrote about our pain because we weren't doing anything with it. When I die, you can recycle me. Till then, it's mine."
posted by oneirodynia at 5:31 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


How were people diagnosed with mental illness before the internet, I wonder?

Far less often.
posted by y2karl at 5:57 PM on October 21, 2013


Is there a reason why this article is dated the 28th of October?
posted by misozaki at 6:06 PM on October 21, 2013


upon reflection, I think that I am responding to my own experience, which is when somebody I was close to died and was not found for days. The girlfriend went to look over the apartment afterwards, and was going on and on Facebook about how their must have been foul play given all the *redacted* but wasn't redacted in her posts.

So, I spent some time talking with a cop who let me know that when you die, I guess if you just get left alone, you create quite a mess when you are finally moved. This girlfriend was in a whirlwind of horror and grief, but the fact that she shared it with all of Facebook made me angry in a way I couldn't put my finger on. It has to do with respect for the dead, but more than that, probably; I didn't have a lot of support through this thing aside from the girlfriend and I felt like she had stuck a knife in me somehow when I opened up Facebook and it was like *HERE ARE THE INTIMATE DETAILS OF A LOVED ONE'S DEATH THAT I AM GOING TO MAKE INTO A FANTASTICAL CONSPIRACY*

So, when I read Sedaris, whom I have always loved before, in this piece, it is hard to not hearken back to that time when somebody's death became part of the public domain and I felt really bad about it.

But this is about Tiffany, so I'll leave another . I hope that her life wasn't as lonely as the details of her death suggest.
posted by angrycat at 6:09 PM on October 21, 2013 [6 favorites]



Is there a reason why this article is dated the 28th of October?

I presume this is when it will go in the print edition?
posted by rollbiz at 6:11 PM on October 21, 2013


Ah, I see. Thanks.

Thanks for the post and comments. Lots to think about.
posted by misozaki at 6:16 PM on October 21, 2013


.

I suppose I'll never know why she died. No one knows why she was so anxious and distracted that day. What was so important to her that she stepped out into traffic like that? I wish she'd been stronger. Maybe if she'd been stronger she could have jumped out of the way. Why did she leave us?

She stopped fighting yesterday. I don't understand. I was on the train coming up to see her. If she'd only held on for one more day I could have held her hand. Maybe I could have said something that mattered. Sure, the cancer was stage 4, but couldn't she have held on for just one more day? Another week? Another month? Why did she leave us?

Why do we treat death by mental illness as though it was a failing of character? Suicide will always be hard on the family because it indicates that their loved one died in pain - died of pain. We make it harder for the family if we treat it as though the death was a betrayal.

My family was four before my mother died. I'm not saying what she died of. We're still four.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:22 PM on October 21, 2013 [15 favorites]


It isn't exactly a tribute to Tiffany, because he didn't really know Tiffany. I have friends with siblings like that.

That describes my older siblings. I know one of them not at all (different household growing up) and one of them barely (big age difference). Some families are big "us against the world" folks, and others are less connected, some to point of wonder from others. (My family is in the latter category.)

I liked this piece and the overall impression I came away with was a regret at not being able to connect with his sister, and quite a few jabs at his family for pretending to be "one-for-all-and-all-for-one" when the reality was, and is, much different.
posted by maxwelton at 6:54 PM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I normally admire Sedaris's writing but I didn't think it was fair of him to include so many personal details here, when he knows she did not agree with the way he portrayed their family's relationships, and when he knows no one is there to give the other side. It reminds me a little bit of how I felt when Ted Hughes wrote the last word about what Sylvia Plath was like, long after she died. I guess that was his right, but it seemed ignoble and too much like stacking the deck.

There is something about Sedaris and how he writes about some of the people he is close to sometimes that seems cold and sort of distant. I have read him write about Hugh with this sort of distant curiosity as though he is some sort of strange wild animal, and Sedaris comes off as a bit of a narcissist. I like Sedaris's writing about his family best when he is acknowledging his own failure, as in the story about teaching his sister's parrot to say, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." In this story it reads a lot to me like he is blaming his sister for not trying hard enough to get along with them all, to be normal, to make more of an effort, when it really wasn't her fault that she was sent away to this awful school that had what seems to be a terrible effect on her life and relationship with her family. Whatever acting out she was doing, nobody deserves a school like that.

To me this read like Sedaris being Sedaris and writing about his sister from his normal, self-involved perspective, whereas in this case it seemed like, to me, reading along, he owed Tiffany either something essentially humbler and more empathetic, or simply something unpublished. Maybe that is an old school perspective that doesn't give the people left behind enough room to do what they might need to to process things, but there you go.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:08 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


While I understand other views in the thread, this piece hit home for me.

Coming from a big family where the youngest child doesn't really fit in describes my family exactly. My youngest brother didn't go to any fucked up boarding school, but my parents were worn out by the time he was born, and I could definitely see one of my parents saying something like "What were we supposed to do?"

I keep wanting to explain more, but the words won't come right now. If nothing else, this should be a reminder to call your siblings and tell them you love them. It's never too late until it's actually too late.
posted by KGMoney at 7:18 PM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


if you read this piece, you are immersed in only one person's emotions and viewpoint when you know that there's obviously more, and engaging with the piece none the less tempts you to treat the piece as the whole story, or the primary story. It is for this reason, I realize now, that I find this kind of story a bit unethical both to read and to write

The story is so incomplete with regards to his sister that it hardly feels like a "whole story" to me. It barely raises the "why" question (at least explicitly) and even then basically says "I don't know that it had anything to do with us" and "but how could it have not?" He mentions the Elan school, which is obviously significant. But there's no tidy box where his sister's life gets wrapped up, just a lot of feelings of distance.
posted by leopard at 7:42 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had two brothers who died. When people ask me whether I have siblings, that's exactly what I say. They weren't suicides but they didn't die from old age or "natural" causes, either, and I'll tell what they died from if people ask, too. People usually say, Oh, I'm so sorry, and I say, Thanks, it's OK, it was a long time ago (20 and nearly 30 years now, in fact). And we move on to another topic, or not. I talk about my brothers once in a while if it's relevant.

I suppose it makes some people uncomfortable, but only for a moment, and I don't think I should deny my brothers' existence to spare people I just met from hearing that people they've never met died. They asked about my siblings, and it's a fact about me that I had two brothers who died. I figure that if they asked, they wanted to know.

Why do people ask about your siblings anyway? To get to know you better; maybe to find something you have in common. Every so often I meet someone who says, My brother/sister died too, and then that person and I have something in common, and they know they don't have to deny the existence of their dead sibling to spare me. I wouldn't want anyone to have to do that.
posted by caryatid at 7:47 PM on October 21, 2013 [26 favorites]


He also left out the other great difficult woman in his life whom he has used as a character, their mother. This is of course because she is not around to be there in the wake of his sister's death, and hews to the structure of the piece. His literary characterizations of her also show someone who was incredibly challenging to be in a relationship with. He is also saying something here via omission, I think.

I don't think Sharon Sedaris was ever portrayed as difficult. She was portrayed as a hilarious, strong, and charming woman by David (in all of his writings). He so clearly deeply loved, admired, and revered her, more than he did his father. He was very close to her.

Your understanding of David's characterization of Sharon Sedaris really surprises me.
posted by discopolo at 8:12 PM on October 21, 2013


Also, I recall a story mentioning it was their mom who saw Élan mentioned on a talk show and spent part of her inheritance from her rich aunt to send Tiffany there.
posted by discopolo at 8:14 PM on October 21, 2013


The whole reconfiguring the number of siblings in your head thing is weird. My older brother died before I was even born, but I still think of myself as having a brother, and being the youngest of three instead of two, because Mom always talked about him when I was little.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:41 PM on October 21, 2013


I don't think Sharon Sedaris was ever portrayed as difficult. She was portrayed as a hilarious, strong, and charming woman by David (in all of his writings). He so clearly deeply loved, admired, and revered her, more than he did his father. He was very close to her.

Your understanding of David's characterization of Sharon Sedaris really surprises me.


I definitely got the impression that he both admired and revered her AND found her difficult to deal with at times.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:44 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a good story, but it is not a good or honest obituary. I feel dirty for having enjoyed reading it.
posted by 256 at 8:48 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


As someone who has enjoyed David Sedaris' work in the past (to varying degrees) and also someone who has shifting degrees of friendship with each of his several siblings, who have their own assortment of profound and mundane problems, I thought that this was a more than decent attempt at trying to resolve some of the issues that he had with his sister over the course of her life. For that matter, I remember the original story that he'd written about her--the one that she requested, then rejected--as being one that was clearly written from the perspective of a sibling that loved her and couldn't quite understand why she made the choices that she did.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


sounds like she's not concerned about what he writes after she is gone.

If it's not clear, that was what I meant to suggest by quoting her from the 2004 story. I can sympathize with her frustration, and her family's frustration with her. The Sedaris family seems like a bunch of funny, scrappy people with a bit of a genuine crazy streak... but her funniness and scrappiness and craziness were just different enough from the rest of her family's that they could never connect right.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:22 PM on October 21, 2013


What I can tell from this is that she was troubled, her family drove her nuts and she didn't want contact with them, and they did try to have contact with her but it sounds like she felt better without them. Mental illness and family drama is really, really complicated, and I don't think the Sedaris family was up to fixing it or handling her in whatever way she wanted to be handled. They weren't close to her, they wanted to be but it wasn't mutual...and fucked up life stuff happens.

I can't get the gallery of mosaics to work, but the MySpace mosaic is excellent. I say this as someone who spent tonight teaching a mosaic class and is really into the concept of taking broken things and making them into something awesome. (Yeah, obvious metaphor.) I hope doing that gave her some peace.

And oddly enough, I found myself cracking the hell up when it got to the point where David spontaneously bought a beach house and then everyone sat around thinking up dirty pun names for it. I really want to know what Gretchen's was for it to top the "seaman" reference. I didn't expect to find a piece on suicide to be funny, but there you go.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


My family was four before my mother died. I'm not saying what she died of. We're still four.

I have four brothers and two sisters. A couple of years ago, my youngest brother put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger (after going to his office at City Hall and leaving all his passwords and keys to city property, with instructions to staff). His suicide note said that he didn't want to watch his siblings struggle with ilness and death. Basically, he didn't want to win the tontine.

We were not aware that he was depressed. My eldest brother, while cleaning out the apartment, found a draft of his will under the TV dated some 18 months earlier. He had been planning this for a very long time.

I still have four brothers. One of them just lives in my heart, though.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:36 PM on October 21, 2013 [20 favorites]


"Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?"

.
posted by RainyJay at 11:04 PM on October 21, 2013


So, this was too personal and too detached, he didn't paint a full enough picture of her but he violated her privacy, he acknowledged his personal regrets but didn't beat himself up enough over decisions by other family members...?

Good grief. He's writing about his complicated feelings over the suicide of his sister with whom he had a strained relationship. HIS grief, how he is processing it, what he is thinking. That is the subject of this essay. It's not a biography and it's not a eulogy. And while eulogies serve an important function at the funeral, they're not a representation of how it feels to grieve. That's the point. A much more complicated stew of anger and frustration and helplessness and fear and withdrawal.

I don't see why sides need to be taken. I am sorry to hear that she was unhappy and had a difficult time, and I can readily empathize with her position. I also empathize mightily with his account and difficulties with his relationship with his troubled sibling and what to do with his feelings about it now.
posted by desuetude at 11:11 PM on October 21, 2013 [34 favorites]


It might be possible that the family dynamics at play here are too complex for us to diagnose over the internet based on a rather elliptical story.

I thought the opposite; it seems fairly obvious to me this is a family damaged by one or more narcissists. Those people took more than their fair share of attention, leaving none to spare for Tiffany.

I can't help but read his piece as nothing more than a big "look what you've done to us" quasi screed. "Your suicide ruined our vacation!"

They ask "what were we supposed to do?" I wasn't there, I'm not them. But maybe they just cut her some slack and try to understand her and accept her?

'I was the only one who told him not to put me in his books," Tiffany, 41, says of her five siblings. ''I don't trust David to have boundaries. Our friends, our shrinks, the guy who gives us our meds, they all think David is incredibly violating. But then everyone says, 'Oh, what, does your brother not like you?' Even when he doesn't write about you, he's writing about you."

Just heartbreaking. I don't know why, but I get the odd impression she wasn't nearly as "troubled" as she was being made out to be. She was just the wrong kind of different in a family that prides itself on being different.
posted by gjc at 12:44 AM on October 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've lived in Somerville for over ten years now and saw Tiffany every now and then with her bike cart. I knew that a Sedaris sibling lived nearby and was an artist, but until I read these pieces, I didn't know who the bike cart lady was other than another cool person in Somerville doing their thing.

There is a lovely memorial for her on the bike path near Davis Square. Just past the community vegetable garden are three painted blocks. It's set up like a triptych. The years of her life, 1963-2013, are painted on the middle block. It's not until you see the infinity symbols on the flanking blocks that you get the full message.
posted by Spatch at 12:53 AM on October 22, 2013 [19 favorites]


Being the one sent to the reformatory must have left her feeling something like Dickens when sent to the blacking factory. Why me?
posted by pracowity at 1:11 AM on October 22, 2013


These schools were horrible places. Elan was among the worst of them. They can damage a person for life. What David and Amy Sedaris could have done was fund Tiffany's housing, food, therapy, etc, for the rest of her life, and accept Tiffany's right to have as much or as little contact with them as she wanted. A survivor's pension, of a sort.

This is what we do for survivors of horrible dictatorships; just because a family sent a child to a prison camp instead of a government sending them there doesn't make it any better.

Reddit group organising against such schools

.
posted by Mistress at 3:05 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Did it seem to anyone else like the entire family except Tiffany had been invited to the beach this year for vacation? Sedaris planned this vacation and found the rental home six months before Tiffany's suicide, so presumably he did the inviting, but he says he hadn't talked to Tiffany in eight years and that their last falling out had been a tough one. The home had six bedrooms, which was one each for his father and only five of the six siblings. I mean, it sounded like Tiffany may have kept herself away from her family anyway, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't hurt to know that they were all getting together without you and that they didn't particularly want you there.

He said Tiffany hadn't gone with them on these vacations since 1997 (?) I think, but that sounds like it would have been when his mother was still alive and planning them, and that it was a new thing for David to be planning it and paying for it and inviting people. So I do wonder, perhaps unfairly, if they excluded her, and if the timing of her suicide shortly before their vacation wasn't entirely coincidental.
posted by onlyconnect at 5:27 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I agree with those above who have insisted that families are complicated, people are complicated, and it's impossible to diagnose blame and/or mental illness from this vantage point. And I also somehow agree both with the assertion that the family is left behind, hurt, and this is their pain they have to work out, it's not about Tiffany anymore but also that there's something about the piece that sort of adds insult to injury of Tiffany's alienation from her family. I have really mixed feelings about it and I'm left feeling angry with Tiffany and her family and defending Tiffany and her family from criticism.

That said, I don't think it can be emphasized enough how fundamentally damaging, or at least essentially and irrevocably alienating, it would be to be sent away to a reform school at fourteen for two years even under the best of conditions. And this school was not, as the above comments have illustrated, remotely close to the best of conditions. It was a terrible, abusive, horrible place.

Regardless of whether or not Tiffany had later, or already had, a personality disorder (and she might have, we don't know), that experience was going to badly hurt her and change the course of her life in a way that makes a stark contrast to the rest of her family.

It sounded like she needed them to somehow truly recognize what had been done to her, what it meant to send her away but to somehow still be considered "part of the family", and of course they couldn't really do what she wanted them to do. Because at the heart of this sort of lifelong resentment is a hurt that cannot be undone, but people hurt like this keep trying somehow to make it not have happened. People hurt by family like this somehow want those family members to take it back, to restore whatever more innocent state existed before the rupture.

So that's going to be a fundamental and to a greater or lesser degree, essentially unresolvable conflict between Tiffany and her family pretty much no matter how the family responded.

And here's where I get recklessly speculative — my sense from this piece, or at least about David, is that this is the sort of family that just tried to make this problem not exist. They had no response to Tiffany's complaint and they wished she would stop talking about it. My sense is that they need their own family mythology that David has leveraged professionally so well, and Tiffany's narrative didn't really work with it. I'm not explaining this very well, but I'd say that many families, perhaps most families, just don't know how to respond productively to the essential issue that troubled Tiffany as a result of her being sent away. Even the more emotionally healthy families tend to deny problems that they don't intuitively know how to deal with, things that they'd rather wish would just go away.

I imagine many of here have varying personal experience that is more or less close to this.

In my family, it's my mom's older sister. My mom's the middle sister, her older sister is two years older and then there's a baby sister who is much younger — twelve years younger than my mother (and she is more like a sister to me, since my mom was eighteen when I was born). This older sister, my aunt, is deaf. My grandmother contracted rubella when she was pregnant with her.

This was the early forties. When my aunt reached school-age, paternalistic doctors and others convinced my grandmother to send her away to one of those "speech only" schools for the deaf. There, my aunt was beaten when she was caught signing, as was the case for all those speech-only schools. My grandmother was never comfortable with this whole thing, and after two years decided to bring my aunt home. It's interesting that in my grandmother's narrative about this, my grandfather never makes an appearance.

Anyway, I love my aunt, but she's that problematic person in the family. I think she does have a (milder) case of a personality disorder. But, also, she has a huge grudge about being sent away to that school. While my grandmother was alive, she would bring it up quite often. She still brings it up now. And she's pissed about it. She talks about it like she's making an accusation, she's angry, and there's a subtext that somehow there's something that somebody is supposed to say — someone owes her an apology. But my grandmother apologized to my aunt many times about this (but not until later in her life, she was pretty no-nonsense and unsympathetic in general when she was younger — I love and practically idolize that grandmother, but I've been on the wrong side of her icy disdain, so I know).

And the weird thing is that my mom, who has that middle-child thing going on anyway, is a caretaker personality even more so because she naturally became my aunt's translator and advocate when they were young. My mom's the last person in the world that my aunt could have a grudge against from childhood, but my aunt will hurl the speaking-only school thing in her face, too, as if it made any sense at all, given that she's two years younger than her and was her advocate and helper during childhood, anyway.

Also, when I was ten, I was sent away to a hospital for about a month to have surgery on my hips and my parents couldn't stay in town. They were six hours away and only came to visit on the weekends, and missed one of those weekends. It's a deeply traumatic incident of my childhood, the funny thing is that the surgery and being confronted with the reality of this congenital illness — none of that was then, or in my memory now, much of a big deal to me, I didn't feel traumatized by that stuff. I felt traumatized because I felt abandoned.

I understand some of this stuff. I have resentments that really my mom doesn't and cannot have an answer for.

But she acknowledges it. I mean, she really acknowledges it. I think that the thing that people in that position want from their parents and families is in some very true sense, impossible, they can't have it. No one can make the injury never to have happened.

Even so, not trying to brush it away, or being silent about it, or whatever, and letting that person feel those things and express those resentments and just accept that even though you can't answer them, really, can't fix it or make it right, what you can do is let them feel those things and acknowledge that their hurt is completely valid. That's the thing that families can do, and I think often they don't do because they're in some denial about their own pain related to the injury, too, and so it's easier to implicitly (or explicitly) ask the child (young or grown) to stop talking about it. And that ... well, that sort of is pounding the nails into the coffin.

Anyway. Thanks for posting this piece. It made me feel a lot of things, good and bad and some I don't know how to characterize.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:34 AM on October 22, 2013 [30 favorites]


What David and Amy Sedaris could have done was fund Tiffany's housing, food, therapy, etc, for the rest of her life, and accept Tiffany's right to have as much or as little contact with them as she wanted. A survivor's pension, of a sort.

You're making one hell of an assumption here: that neither of them ever offered, and that if they had, she would have gladly accepted the money.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:40 AM on October 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


We each read and write the same words but those words have different meaning for each of us. Each of us lives our lives but our lives have different meaning for each to understand, as the shades of a rainbow's colors are described differently for each of us depending on our own perspective.

Similarly, the article and discussions are more about our own interpretations than any arbitrary truth.

The indisputible truth is that there is a person who is no longer present and all are impacted by that loss.

.
posted by mightshould at 5:45 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


maudlin's link to Tiffany's 2010 artist statement is wonderful:

The trash gods have been good to me.

When I am really lucky, I find whole lives stretched across the curb week after week. I visit that house and load up the wooden cart attached to my bicycle with baby pictures, cards that say "Congratulations on the new baby...can't leave you two alone for a minute," and on and on. I unearth this person's entire growth in their final trash. I pull this life home. I find child photos, graduation pictures, snapshots of a first boyfriend or a first girlfriend in front of a proud first car. I find wedding pictures. I watch a person get progressively older through all the things discarded at the end. A couple with their friends, highball glasses raised, having a good time and not knowing that two years around the corner, one of the women will be divorced, one of the men will go to war. Later I might wear that woman's dress. I will hold that man's dog tags in my hand. I will sleep under his war issue blanket thinking how afraid he must have been. I will find pictures of him later showing a different face, a different man. I appreciate these materials that I find for my work. The story of the average person's life is treasure and I believe in drawing it out, holding it up to the light, feeling its bite, and giving it a home.

Jesus doesn't live at the dump. I checked.

These are whole, rich, discarded lives and stories made refuse, pawed apart and put back together. I like digging for materials this way, and actually like the challenge of getting them home. All the dirty rotten things said to me while I dig and cart these prizes home is worth the scattered riches I gather onto my palette.

posted by mediareport at 6:40 AM on October 22, 2013 [20 favorites]


I guess I can kind of see everyone involved. You never get the whole story, even when you’re a part of it. There’s no doubt that Tiffany suffered, that her family caused some of her suffering and made some of it worse, although I have no doubt that none of them intended to. She sounds like a strong person who survived as long as she could and left some beautiful things behind. My parents both come from six-sibling families, and even without any diagnosed mental illnesses among them I sometimes wonder how they made it to adulthood as intact as they did.

I’ve written about my family, because there are some really fascinating stories. But I’ve never attempted to publish anything yet, because I know what the reactions will be. On the rare occasions that extended family gathers, and the storytelling ventures beyond the mildest, safest topics, you get a lot of, “That didn’t happen” and “Where did you get that from” and “That’s a damn lie; why would you make up something like that?” And that’s about stories where you were there in the room. It’s like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, except all the men are willfully blind. Who knows, maybe I’m willfully blind, too, but I’m only saying what I saw.

Mom never got much help from Grandma on the family tree, because according to Grandma, “Everybody’s a God-damned liar.” She figured you couldn’t trust anyone to put their real names or pertinent information on documents, so what was the point in bothering?

You know how you start going to the doctor with an elderly parent because you can’t be sure if they’re accurately relating what the doctor told them? TWO siblings had to go to the doctor with Grandma, AND write everything down, because then they’d argue with EACH OTHER for hours afterward.
“That’s not what he said!”
“Yes, it was! You were right there next to me!”
“He said she OUGHT to have an EKG, but she didn’t HAVE to.”
“No, he said she HAD to have an EKG as soon as possible.”
“He said I already HAD an EKG!”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:52 AM on October 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


You're right showbiz_liz, it is an assumption. I guess my instinctive sense had been that if sort of offer had happened it would have been mentioned in this kind of an essay. I could of course be wrong. My emotions get a bit high about these sort of schools.
posted by Mistress at 7:33 AM on October 22, 2013


The stories, though, she keeps. Portraits and family photos fill file boxes in her stuffed spare room. She organizes the photos by person, even though she rarely learns their names. ''I don't split up lives," she declares.

Tiffany creates principles like this one, which guide her trash picking: Death is the ultimate adjudicator. Letters, pictures, and diaries are fair game only if Tiffany has never met the person who they describe. They don't leave her house again unless their previous owner is surely dead. ''Do I have the right to sell someone's letters, to print them, to give them away?" she asks. ''What if the woman who wrote that love letter as a kid is alive, and her husband beats her? These are real people, which means there are consequences to things."

Irony, above all, is revered: the set of 100 Playboys and 200 potholders, boxed together, is not for sale. The trash is so good, in fact, that it's kept her in Somerville for 17 years.

Tiffany remembers David playing tricks on her as a kid. He'd stick slugs to matchbooks and hang them over her bed, rouse her from sleep to stand for the national anthem, or tie rocks to her and toss her in the lake. ''He'd do that to me and Paul, especially," she says, '' and we would say, hey, that was fun, let's do it again! Then you spend the rest of your adult life looking for a rock and a rope."

Once, he hired a neighbor to pretend to break into their house. All the kids knew it was a joke, except for her, she says. She looked in each room for the intruder. ''In the kitchen, I just lost it. I'm so afraid that I can't move." Her siblings laughed, and she realized it wasn't real. ''That's how it was in my house -- everything was a joke. It didn't matter how much it hurt, you'd laugh before you did anything about it."

Thousands pick up David's books and laugh, ruefully at times, at his family's folklore. His sister, unsurprisingly, is not one of them. She reads his books indifferently. They are stories about the ''unspeakable things we did to each other," she says. And there are, after all, consequences to things.

Tiffany noticed the same thing most critics did about David's newest volume: ''He seems to be more soul-searching, more sensitive," she concedes. The book is the first of his to acknowledge, if indirectly, the muddiness of bringing shared lives into the spotlight. And the first that Tiffany has allowed David to put her in.

''David has his own version of the truth, and it bumps into my version. His makes mine not true, and mine makes his not true," Tiffany says matter-of-factly. ''He said he wrote about our pain because we weren't doing anything with it. When I die, you can recycle me. Till then, it's mine."


Given this description from that controversial Boston Globe story, doesn't it seem like at least part of the reason why she tore up all her old family pictures (an act that her father and brother couldn't seem to understand) and barred them all from attending her memorial service was so that they could not "recycle" these materials and experiences into fodder for mass consumption, despite what she said in the article? Could they not make the simple connection between her experience with other peoples pictures and memories being put out into the trash (and her reclamation of them) and her precautionary treatment of her own pictures? If she hadn't torn the photos up and barred her family from the funeral, wouldn't the linked story have contained details about the seemingly happy childhood photos that Tiffany treasured enough to keep and Sedaris's feelings about attending the memorial? The more I think about it, the more Sedaris's act of writing and selling this article bothers me. It has really gotten under my skin.

Then you spend the rest of your adult life looking for a rock and a rope.
.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:34 AM on October 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


The segment where he discusses a typical conversation or interaction with Tiffany is spot on. We don't know how to help my aunt. She doesn't seem to understand she acts like a selfish, aggressive and overwhelming person 99% of the time. So to say that it's easy to be upset with the Sedaris family is to fundamentally misunderstand how hard it really is for reasonable people to try and help someone who is mentally ill in such a way that they can't recognize their own unreasonableness. It's sad but the force of will and stubbornness with this illness is staggering.

Yes, this exactly.

My brother, whom I dearly love, suffers from AT LEAST two forms of mental illness. But he refuses to seek treatment, doesn't recognize that his refusal to seek treatment impacts everyone around him, and it just makes him exhausting to be around. All you can really do is try, and muddle along as best as you can.

It takes its toll, though. It's easy for people on the outside to say "Why aren't you doing more to help him?" It's much, much harder to be the person offering help and being shouted down every time than you might think.
posted by MissySedai at 9:24 AM on October 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


It's good writing. The fact that so many commenters have had such a strong reaction bears that out. And the fact that so many chose to share their experiences. Death sparks so many emotions that you don't know what to do with--I always think of that moment in The Big Lebowski where Walter and The Dude are out there on that cliff with Donnie's remains. Walter blathers about Vietnam, and The Dude yells at him, and in the end they can't do anything but share a man-hug. So eloquent.
posted by Kafkaesque at 9:46 AM on October 22, 2013


I'm not sure it's fair to assert here that Tiffany Sedaris was mentally ill. I didn't see that stated in any of the links, and though she talked about seeing therapists and doctors, she talked about her whole family seeing therapists and doctors. Poor people, even people with addictions, can have social workers and lose their apartments and have artistic temperments and still not be mentally ill. Maybe I have missed something. It seems like another stigma we are attaching to her because of how she is written about.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


she was ill of some sort - she was on disability. i think this is just another thing that comes down to what each of us reads between the lines, because we're all doing it, no matter what viewpoint we're putting forth. i think it probably comes down to our own family histories/people we've known and how we view those experiences.
posted by nadawi at 10:02 AM on October 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure it's fair to assert here that Tiffany Sedaris was mentally ill.

She killed herself.
posted by anastasiav at 10:09 AM on October 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I keep thinking about Tiffany, this poor fourteen year-old girl at Élan, after reading Put A Lid On It, the story David Sedaris wrote which led to the estrangement between them.

In the story, David goes to visit Tiffany like a good brother would. I put it this way because it seems obvious that David wants the reader to see it that way--he is looking out for his little sister because that's what good brothers do! See what a good guy I am?

Tiffany didn't want him there. She didn't ask him to come; David insisted that she fit him into his schedule, and then he is upset that she reminds him of this. She is not appreciative of what a good brother he is.

He spends quite a bit of time setting her up as someone who basically dumpster dives through people's refuse. I feel there is probably a distinction between going through antiques and memorabilia, as she seems to, and riffling through garbage, but really that line is not so clear with the turkey anecdote, so whatever.

Anyway, once David gets to Tiffany's home, he is appalled at the messiness, especially the state of her kitchen, where she creates her mosaics. Tiffany has torn up the linoleum floor, leaving the tar lining exposed, and he cannot believe that she has left the floor in this condition. It obviously offends his sense of what is right and proper.

At this point in the story, even the pretense of any sympathy for his sister (let alone empathy) seems to fly right out of the window. Tiffany becomes a beast, stomping out lit cigarettes on the rough, glass-strewn tar with the calloused 'hoofs' her feet have become. He literally refers to her feet as hoofs, not once but several times. It is really ugly, this caricature.

So then, I read about Élan, the place his sister was carted off to as a child, to spend years away from her family. At least 2 yearss; David says most kids stayed until they reached their majority at eighteen, though, so Tiffany may actually have been there longer. This short passage screams out at me:

Students in lower hierarchy positions would spend months at a time (years in total) scrubbing the linoleum floors on their knees with a dirty sponge for 2 to 12 hours per day.

I think of Tiffany, on her hands and knees, scrubbing linoleum for months at a time. I see her buying herself a home, a place she can call her own, a safe space. I picture her walking the rooms, thinking of curtains and rugs and all the other mundane things you do to make a place yours. Reaching that last room, the kitchen, and staring down at that floor. Standing there, and picturing herself scrubbing linoleum again in her own home. I do not wonder that Tiffany tore up that kitchen floor with a vengeance. I can easily accept that she never wanted to see another linoleum floor as long as she lived.

I think that, after reading just a few lines on a website, and I didn't even know this woman. I can't help wondering why her own brother, rather than fretting over the unsuitability of that tar floor his sister had in her home, ever thought to ask her why she tore up that linoleum in the first place. Did he ever ask her about Élan? Rather than fastidiously cleaning up her messes so everything looked right, did he ever ask her what was wrong?

I can't help thinking how differently this story might have ended had he tried to connect with her with empathy instead of writing about her as he did. He so wants us to see him as the caring older brother, and this sister as the misfit who never really fit in despite his best efforts to reach out to her. But his own words belie this interpretation.

Is David Sedaris really so lacking in empathy that he could not understand how exposing his vulnerable, troubled little sister's life to utter strangers--again--is something a good caring big brother would never have done?
posted by misha at 11:36 AM on October 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


I think that, after reading just a few lines on a website, and I didn't even know this woman. I can't help wondering why her own brother, rather than fretting over the unsuitability of that tar floor his sister had in her home, ever thought to ask her why she tore up that linoleum in the first place. Did he ever ask her about Élan? Rather than fastidiously cleaning up her messes so everything looked right, did he ever ask her what was wrong?

Maybe he didn't. But then again, maybe he did, and none of us are in any position to know that.

Seriously, isn't it possible that no one in this story is a monster or a saint? That they're all just seriously flawed people who tried and failed to connect with each other?
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:46 AM on October 22, 2013 [14 favorites]


just because a family sent a child to a prison camp instead of a government sending them there doesn't make it any better.

Saying "the family sent her away" seems to be implying that child-David, child-Gretchen, child-Amy, whoever, could somehow have stopped their parents. I don't know about you all, but I did not exactly have supreme veto power over my folks when I was a child. They made their decisions and, because they were not assholes, often consulted us kids for our input. But in the end they still did dumb shit! That I disagreed with! That continues to have negative effects on me, and all of my siblings, to this day.

There's a lot of language in this thread that tends toward making David and Amy culpable for ALL of Tiffany's life, because...why?

Because they ended up rich and somehow that means they weren't similarly injured or neglected?

Because they have money and that would supposedly have fixed everything for someone whose chief injury seems to have been emotional?

Because their attempts to patch up or cope with what their PARENTS wrecked were imperfect, or anyway, didn't prevent her suicide? (because preventing someone else's suicide--that's a thing people can and totally ALWAYS manage to do, right?)

Maybe the inclination to blame David is just because he's the one telling the story, but it seems really fucking wrongheaded to me.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2013 [15 favorites]


I know a lot of people are reacting to Tiffany’s story, and whether it’s fair or not that Sedaris seems to be appropriating his sister’s death, against her wishes, for his own narcissistic means. I generally am not a Sedaris apologist (he’s frequently brilliant, but not always as deep as he sounds) but I think the anger about Tiffany is really a misunderstanding of what this piece is about. As in almost all of Sedaris’s family stories, it is never about just one member of the family. The joke is never just about his brother’s eccentricity, his parents’ cantankerous relationship, or his family’s rowdy arguments. The stories are about the family as a whole, as a unit. This is what Sedaris is exploring. No matter how much he exposes of its messy underside, this has always been his thesis:

. . . though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.

So this story, which some are arguing is about Tiffany’s suicide, is not called “Tiffany’s Story”, it’s actually called “A Big Family”. It’s not her story at all. She’s a part of it, but not all of it. Anything that he told in this was either already covered in past essays, or it was public knowledge anyway (there was a public obituary, after all).

“How about naming it [the cottage] Tiffany?” he said.
Our silence translated to: Let’s pretend we didn’t hear that.

He picked his hamburger back up. “I think it’s a great idea. The perfect way to pay our respects.”

“If that’s the case, we could name it after Mom,” I told him. “Or half after Tiffany and half after Mom. But it’s a house, not a tombstone, and it wouldn’t fit in with the names of the other houses.”

“Aw, baloney,” my father said. “Fitting in—that’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about.”

This piece is about how this unique family chooses to grieve this unique person, how they share their memories of her. It’s about the Sedaris clan, not just one of them.

I can't help thinking how differently this story might have ended had he tried to connect with her with empathy instead of writing about her as he did. He so wants us to see him as the caring older brother, and this sister as the misfit who never really fit in despite his best efforts to reach out to her. But his own words belie this interpretation.

I dunno, I can definitely see your point and I don't want to diminish Tiffany's hellish experience, but we truthfully don't know what the Sedaris's did and didn't do for her. We're not really in the position to judge, I think. And I don't necessarily think that Sedaris can be accused of wanting to come off as the good guy, his whole career is partly based on him examining his own vanity
posted by Think_Long at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2013 [10 favorites]



This piece is about how this unique family chooses to grieve this unique person, how they share their memories of her. It’s about the Sedaris clan, not just one of them.


Yeah, exactly. I've never been a huge Sedaris fan though I enjoy things now and again, but I'm really surprised at the vitriol here, and all the people who just know that they would have been better siblings to Tiffany than David and Amy (and yea why them specifically?)

Also hardly shocking that a memoirist who writes about his family would grieve the loss of a family member by...writing about it.
posted by sweetkid at 11:55 AM on October 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


all the people who just know that they would have been better siblings to Tiffany than David and Amy (and yea why them specifically?)

Because they're celebrities and supposed to wave their celebrity wands and make everything better. Apparently.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:36 PM on October 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


gjc: "I can't help but read his piece as nothing more than a big "look what you've done to us" quasi screed. "Your suicide ruined our vacation!""

Well, they probably did think that. It's very common to feel angry at people who commit suicide. I think that "I feel bad because your suicide didn't ruin our vacation!" would also be a fair reading. They probably thought that too, as well as many other thoughts. We humans, we think a lot of selfish-sounding things when family members die, whether the relationship is happy or troubled.

We aren't good at controlling how we feel about death when it's happening near us. In the moment, we don't understand it. That's not evidence that they didn't try to understand her.
posted by desuetude at 12:50 PM on October 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


David is a writer. A writer writes what he knows, and yeah that hurts people sometimes--if not often, but that's the way it works. It is a selfish, narcissistic profession, and he's never pretended to be otherwise, I don't think. I've always had great respect for the fact that he was willing to put it out there (exaggerations notwithstanding) for all to read. That's what writers are supposed to do. Tell the story.

I've read a lot of David's work, and I don't think he's ever characterized himself as anything other than the neurotic and screwed up person he (and pretty much everyone is). I think he tries hard to be honest about how fucked up he and his sensibilities are, and I think he's very conscious about how cruel his stories can be. The story he wrote about his sister was from *his* perspective--one that is obsessed with cleanliness--so much so that the man in real life spends his free time in France walking around picking up trash as an expression of his OCD. (And thus, I don't think he's being particularly insulting to her by talking about her dumpster diving. He might be appalled by it, but he himself basically does the same thing on roadsides. I'm sure he thinks of her often when he finds crockery or things she would have found useful.) He is never particularly kind to anyone in his writing, and I think this is especially true of the way he writes about himself.

I thought the piece was beautiful, and that writing in itself is an exploitive act. It is that by its very nature.

Tiffany is dead. Her loss leaves a hole in the world of anyone who ever came in contact with her. (Though I think she'd already left a hole in her family, of her own choice. That they didn't quite understand why is their own battle.) I think there's nothing at all wrong or inherently bad about writing about it. She would have expected nothing less from him.
posted by RedEmma at 1:13 PM on October 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


"I can't help but read his piece as nothing more than a big "look what you've done to us" quasi screed. "Your suicide ruined our vacation!""

Grief can manifest itself in strange ways. It's not an emotion or state of mind that is easy to describe.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:58 PM on October 22, 2013


He so wants us to see him as the caring older brother, and this sister as the misfit who never really fit in despite his best efforts to reach out to her.

This is a really strange image, since to me Dave Sedaris is always going to be a gay elf in Macy's Santaland.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:01 PM on October 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I had always dreamed that when I got married, both of my parents would walk me down the aisle.

Less than two years before I got married, my mother dropped dead of a heart attack. She was 57.

My mother was morbidly obese. She smoked and had both lupus and high cholesterol. At one point, her untreated high blood pressure was so out of control that she got nose bleeds at work. She read stories to kids so she was bleeding on the children's books.

My mother didn't go to the doctor unless something was serious. My sister frequently says that the only times our mother went to the doctor were when she was pregnant because they'd give her a picture of the baby. She went when she got nosebleeds and when she was first diagnosed with lupus. But she didn't go to her doctor regularly because they always told her she had to lose weight.

I felt angry with my mother for leaving us soon, unnecessarily. Weren't we enough of a reason to see a doctor? Didn't she want to walk down the aisle with me and my dad, all together?

That all must sound really self-centered, because it is. But I think grief is like that. I can't write about my mother's death without writing about how it affected me.

In my experience, people often want to beatify the dead. My mother wasn't perfect. His sister wasn't perfect. My relationship with my mother wasn't perfect. His relationship with his sister wasn't perfect.

I apologize for rambling but it just seems really weird that people are reading what someone wrote about losing his sister and walking away thinking, wow, the guy who just lost his sister is such a jerk.
posted by kat518 at 4:30 PM on October 22, 2013 [14 favorites]


Well, I had to go check and find out if it was Tiffany to whom he was always happy to give advice when she had trouble getting 'this lid off this jar'. And it was.
posted by y2karl at 4:33 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Put the pointy tip of a beer bottle opener just under the jar lid. Bend the metal a tiny bit, and this will relieve the air pressure in the jar just enough so you can open the jar. Easy peasy, no wrist needed.
posted by sweetkid at 5:09 PM on October 22, 2013


. . . though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.

See, this gets at what's both heartbreaking and infuriating about this, if you read the essay with the specter of Élan in mind: When she was fourteen, Tiffany got exiled from the Sedaris family club. She got exiled, and shipped off to two years of unimaginable hell.

And though everyone acknowledges that it happened, it doesn't seem like anyone takes responsibility. Sedaris renders is it absurd, almost fantastical terms: He describes staff members putting golf balls into Tiffany's mouth, but he doesn't talk about grinding isolation, forced labor, withholding of education, sleep deprivation, etc-- the believable and unfunny, workaday aspects of his sister's hell. In Sedaris's telling, his father just says "What were we supposed to do?" like there was only one option. I don't see any indication that the family wants to deal with what happened to Tiffany, at all. Tiffany does want to deal with it, though: She brings up Élan in every conversation, according to Sedaris. It reads to me like she was looking for something that she just never, ever got.

Given that, I can absolutely see why she'd want them all out of her life.

To be clear: I don't fault Sedaris for writing this, or for writing "Put a Lid on it." I think they're both wonderful essays; and all the more so for showing us how well-intentioned, loving people can fail at supporting, connecting, and understanding.

I would love to see Sedaris confront, and write about, the Élan experience. I wonder if he ever will.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 5:43 PM on October 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


Tiffany didn't want David writing about her. Of course he didn't write about Élan or the effect had on Tiffany or the family.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:11 PM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read Put a Lid On It first. I made and makes me furious on Tiffany's behalf; I think she was completely right in her decision to permanently cut David out of her life. I also am not a big fan of Sedaris in general and think Tiffany's artist's statement is more moving than anything I've seen written by him. She sounds like she was an incredible person.

This obituary piece is painful-- they are all obviously still in grief and shock-- and it seems like Sedaris coming up hard against the way his family mythologizes themselves and how this mythology is so, so hollow It does not substitute for real emotional connection; it is used to gloss over pain; it is totally useless in the face of someone whose pain should not have been put a lid on.

Who cares? Let's call it the Ass Menagerie. Let's joke about semen. Let's talk about the nice cottage on the beach. Let's talk about the fitness center. Let's do anything but talk about Tiffany. Don't even react when Dad says her name.

It starts with David's best approximation of being the one who was cast out because there was no room, being banished to the maid's quarters where he could not get into the house. Like he was trying but failing to register that when they sent her to a torture camp because there were more children than they could cope with, because "We had other kids," that Tiffany had been thrown out of the family more seriously and effectively than David was able to comprehend. "How many times can you apologize" from people who wanted the problem to go away, wanted Tiffany to go away, and now she finally has.

I think Sedaris' writing is generally unbelievably self-serving-- the last line, "saving her life" of "Put A Lid On It" made me have a rageout-- but I think this is a pretty harsh indictment of the Sedaris family and their coping mechanisms, and how that pattern of making everything into snark allowed them to do what they did to their sister.

“I want to come inside.”

“That’s funny,” Lisa, the eldest, would say to the others, who were gathered like disciples around her. “Did you hear something, a little whining sound? What is it that makes a noise like that?


.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:08 PM on October 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


“I want to come inside.”

“That’s funny,” Lisa, the eldest, would say to the others, who were gathered like disciples around her. “Did you hear something, a little whining sound? What is it that makes a noise like that?


The way you quoted that makes it sound like it was Tiffany they had shut out. In the story though, it's David.
posted by sweetkid at 7:41 PM on October 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


palmorder_yajna wrote:
See, this gets at what's both heartbreaking and infuriating about this, if you read the essay with the specter of Élan in mind: When she was fourteen, Tiffany got exiled from the Sedaris family club. She got exiled, and shipped off to two years of unimaginable hell.

And though everyone acknowledges that it happened, it doesn't seem like anyone takes responsibility. Sedaris renders is it absurd, almost fantastical terms: He describes staff members putting golf balls into Tiffany's mouth, but he doesn't talk about grinding isolation, forced labor, withholding of education, sleep deprivation, etc-- the believable and unfunny, workaday aspects of his sister's hell. In Sedaris's telling, his father just says "What were we supposed to do?" like there was only one option. I don't see any indication that the family wants to deal with what happened to Tiffany, at all. Tiffany does want to deal with it, though: She brings up Élan in every conversation, according to Sedaris. It reads to me like she was looking for something that she just never, ever got.
and moonlight on vermont wrote:
This obituary piece is painful-- they are all obviously still in grief and shock-- and it seems like Sedaris coming up hard against the way his family mythologizes themselves and how this mythology is so, so hollow It does not substitute for real emotional connection; it is used to gloss over pain; it is totally useless in the face of someone whose pain should not have been put a lid on.

Who cares? Let's call it the Ass Menagerie. Let's joke about semen. Let's talk about the nice cottage on the beach. Let's talk about the fitness center. Let's do anything but talk about Tiffany. Don't even react when Dad says her name.

It starts with David's best approximation of being the one who was cast out because there was no room, being banished to the maid's quarters where he could not get into the house. Like he was trying but failing to register that when they sent her to a torture camp because there were more children than they could cope with, because "We had other kids," that Tiffany had been thrown out of the family more seriously and effectively than David was able to comprehend. "How many times can you apologize" from people who wanted the problem to go away, wanted Tiffany to go away, and now she finally has.
Both of those were worth quoting like this.

I totally understand where people are coming from when they make these arguments:
  • We don't know enough to portion out blame
  • We're given some evidence that Tiffany was difficult to deal with and we really oughtn't judge the family as "abandoning" her, especially given that not only David's, but her own words show that she shut them out.
  • With the previous point in mind, there's a whole lot of us here who have had family members with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder who strongly understand and condone just cutting such people out of one's life. It's possible that Tiffany was such a person. On the other hand, it's possible that another member of the family is/was such a person.
  • Suicide is a terribly hurtful thing to the people left behind. Personally, I don't really care that much for Tiffany's attributed postmortem concerns/rights, as I don't think she exists. But I do care about the people who are hurt by her suicide. And it's very difficult, it makes people (rightly) angry, and families deal with it in different ways. In my family, no one talked about it, ever, or my grandfather who killed himself, ever, even about just regular things, like that he existed, for thirty years.
  • People who write autobiographical stuff necessarily violate boundaries. Personally, I'm deeply ambivalent about this. I don't have any answers about it, really. I recognize that people should be able to speak about their lives, and that doing so necessarily involves the people who shared those lives and will violate some of their boundaries. It's confusing.
Okay, but all those things notwithstanding, I think that Tiffany's exile to the reform school, at a very volatile age, and by parents in a family that is a tight-knit group who cultivates their own mythology and tribal self-awareness, and for that "school" to be one that was shockingly abusive, and for at least two years, really is such a huge thing that pretty much sweeps everything else off the table.

And I think that the two insightful comments from two different commenters are correct to detect that there's something not-quite-right in what we know about how the family dealt with what that exile and abuse meant to Tiffany, and also that their reactions to her suicide are also revealing, or at least suggestive.

What I sense is that her time in abusive exile from her family was a mortal wound that perhaps could have not been one, except that there was a big chasm in how she understand what happened to her in relationship to her family, and how they understood it. My sense is that normally with that kind of wound, there would either be a complete severance from the family, or there would be a collective attempt to recognize the wound and heal it. Put differently, given its severity, I think that usually either the individual would truly cut ties, or the family would cut ties, if there were aborted and frustrating attempts to heal. Eventually, you let go.

But for several reasons, not the least David's writing about his family as a famous, bestselling writer, Tiffany and her family remained in some in-between place with this. She needed a total break, or for them to recognize what happened to her and deal with it somehow. But my impression is that they couldn't do that. But the family couldn't let her go, either. It had a grip on her. And you can see this in David's presentation of the family's mythology and self-image. He says it himself: he was offended that she'd want to leave the family. This is possibly a family that wouldn't let her go for reasons as much involving pride and vanity as love. They could leave her out in the wasteland, sure, just like she was exiled as a child. But they couldn't actually let her go. She knew that. And David's published writing just reified what was already true in the family's emotional dynamic.

None of this is to say that I think the family could have waved their hands and made it all better. Not at all. I just don't think that they are blameless in what happened to Tiffany. Not the suicide — that's pretty much her own responsibility, ultimately. But probably they are responsible for a whole lot of things that led up to it. Her, too. But this isn't a simple "troubled child in a loving family, sometimes there's nothing you can do". She never should have been sent to Elan. That's one thing that could have been done.

On preview:

"The way you quoted that makes it sound like it was Tiffany they had shut out. In the story though, it's David."

You need to read moonlight on vermont's fourth paragraph again, carefully, to understand the relevance of that quote to the comment. David is struggling around comprehending what happened to Tiffany when she was young and how the family responded to it. It's either deliberately self-incriminatory, or subconsciously self-incriminatory. Either way, he was aware that he was creating a parallelism when he wrote it. I think it's just a question of how much he understood that parallelism implied.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:54 PM on October 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


"Tiffany remembers David playing tricks on her as a kid... ...everything was a joke. It didn't matter how much it hurt, you'd laugh before you did anything about it."


OMG, that rings so true to stories I hear about my parents' childhoods. I hear about things that, if they were done by soldiers or prison guards, would be considered torture. I can never wrap my head around that kind of thing. How does that kind of stuff occur to a person, and how do they enjoy it? It's not like some kind of Zimbardo situation where they're officially placed in a position of power over someone.

My mother's claustrophobia is still so bad all these years later that she can't sleep with the bedroom door shut, because of all the times her brothers rolled her up in a carpet and swung her around before shutting her in the closet. They STILL think it's hilarious. The stories from Dad's side are even worse.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:14 PM on October 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


> I think Sedaris' writing is generally unbelievably self-serving-- the last line, "saving her life" of "Put A Lid On It" made me have a rageout-- but I think this is a pretty harsh indictment of the Sedaris family and their coping mechanisms, and how that pattern of making everything into snark allowed them to do what they did to their sister.

It's interesting; to me, Put A Lid On It also read like David's harsh indictment of his way of dealing with Tiffany, much as this piece did. The whole story describes his complete failure to relate to her, and in the final two paragraphs he writes:
I can't seem to fathom that the things important to me are not important to other people as well, and so I come off sounding like a missionary, someone whose job it is to convert rather than listen. "Yes, your Tiki god is very handsome, but we're here to talk about Jesus." It's no wonder Tiffany dreads my visits. Even when silent, I seem to broadcast my prissy disapproval, comparing the woman she is with the woman she will never be, a sanitized version who struggles with real jars and leaves other people's teeth and frozen turkeys where she finds them. It's not that I don't like her---far from it---I just worry that, without a regular job and the proper linoleum, she'll fall through a crack and disappear to a place where we can't find her.

The phone rings in the living room and I'm not surprised when Tiffany answers it. She does not tell her caller that she has company, but rather, much to my relief, she launches into what promises to be a long conversation. I watch my sister pace the living room, her great hooves kicking up clouds of dust, and when I am certain she's no longer looking, I shoo Daddy off my sports coat. Then I fill the sink with hot, soapy water, roll up my shirtsleeves, and start saving her life.
In that context, after calling his attitude "prissy disapproval" and criticizing himself for proselytizing rather than listening, the last line about "saving her life" doesn't sound self-congratulatory to me. It sounds damningly facetious, as if he'd looked back on his complete failure to connect with (or even accept) his sister and wondered just what exactly he thought he was doing by cleaning up/meddling with her space: saving her?

I just worry that ... she'll fall through a crack and disappear to a place where we can't find her.

.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:32 AM on October 23, 2013 [18 favorites]


The thing I got from the end of "Put a Lid On It" was that David knew that he couldn't "fix" his sister. But he could do her dishes. I get that. There are a lot of things that I can't do for my siblings but I'm happy to do for them the handful of things that I can do.

It seems like there's a lot of blame directed at David for the fact that Tiffany spent time in that horrible place. He didn't put her there. That was not his fault. I'm not under any delusions that he was a perfect brother but I don't blame my siblings for any of the crazy stuff my parents did and I wouldn't want anyone else to, either.
posted by kat518 at 8:50 AM on October 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


It seems like there's a lot of blame directed at David for the fact that Tiffany spent time in that horrible place. He didn't put her there. That was not his fault.

I'm not really seeing that. The blame I'm seeing directed at the siblings isn't for sending her there, but for having the attitude that it was all OK for her parents to have sent her there, that there was something wrong with her for having been scarred by the experience, that she should be able to just shrug it off and laugh about it and be exactly like them even they didn't go through the same horrors she did.

It stands out to me that he makes sure to speak in his parents' defense ("As for my parents, there were only so many times they could apologize") but never mentions a single time he or any of his siblings might have questioned the decision out loud to either her or them, even in retrospect. A simple, "I think they made the wrong decision when they sent you there" might have gone a long way, and I know it would have gone a long way to the readers to have heard about it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:47 AM on October 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


Who cares? Let's call it the Ass Menagerie.

This is not a phrase that came from any of the Sedaris' mouths. It was the title of a photoshoot in an old 1960's Playboy that Tiffany gave to the guy who worked in her local video store. That guy wrote about it as a comment on her obituary.

I don't know why some people seem to be so hung up on this as some sort of shameful or snarky thing done to Tiffany or by her family. I think if you're missing the point of the tale of the gifted Playboy you may be missing other nuance in this story.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:22 PM on October 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe I read it on reddit and not here, but I believe there is some controversy over whether the Ass Menagerie comment can be substantiated, since people have read the online obit comments and haven't seen it. I have read at least 3 obits and related comment sections for Tiffany Sedaris and haven't seen it anywhere.

Moreover, part of the point was that, as mediareport noted above, some people are bothered by the fact that even if this comment did exist, Sedaris has widened its notoriety from the small comment section of a local obit to the New Yorker, when Tiffany herself seemed to be a fairly private person wrt this sort of thing.
posted by onlyconnect at 3:20 PM on October 24, 2013


"Ass Menagerie" definitely sounds more like Hustler, for whatever that's worth.
posted by jquinby at 3:39 PM on October 24, 2013


There is some discussion at the bottom of the comments here over whether anyone actually made the Ass Menagerie comment, since people noted they had read all the comments Sedaris seemed to be citing and there was nothing about Tiffany Sedaris giving someone a nudie magazine. I have read all these obit comment sections too, I believe, and haven't seen it. I suppose it could have been deleted out of respect.
posted by onlyconnect at 4:22 PM on October 24, 2013


A few more links a few days later:

Here is a video described as "a typical five minutes with Tiffany Sedaris," taken I think by someone who also lived in Somerville and was her friend. The two discuss comedians and tell funny stories about old Hollywood. From this reddit comment.

I'm also linking a video where David Sedaris talks about his practice of keeping diaries and how he uses them to process events in his life, specifically his sister's suicide, here. The interviewer, Wim Brands, narrates in German but all of the interview with Sedaris is conducted in English. The part discussing Tiffany Sedaris and David's writing of the New Yorker piece starts a bit after the 19 minute mark.

Here is an inexpert transcript of part of this video, badly typed out by me so please be warned there may be words left out, typed wrong, etc, of the section about his sister's suicide:

WB: How old was she?
DS: She was going to be fifty, in two weeks.
WB: What kind of a relationship did you have with her?
DS: Oh it was a very difficult relationship. I hadn't spoken to her for eight years, when she died. I mean, there's guilt, and sorrow, and regret, and, you know, so, kind of anger and all sorts of things. Maybe some people go to a psychiatrist and that's how they do it, and they talk it through.. I got diaries for thirty five years, that I was going through, and recalling conversations she and I had had, or gifts we had given one another, or arguments that we had had. And so I was just trying to shape it into a story...
WB: Or reconstruct the relationship you had.
DS: Or on some level, I don't know, just trying to make sense of it. But people who don't write, I don't know what they do, I don't know how they process all that, I suppose. And I know that, you know, sometimes you have to have a certain distance from what you write about. And what I write today is going to be completely different than what I write five years from now, or ten years from now or twenty years from now. But I don't feel that I have a choice.
[reads opening of New Yorker piece.]
So, I don't know, it felt like a story to me.
. . .
WB: What if you could ask her one question?
DS: Do you know what I would say? Can I have the money back that I loaned you? She borrowed all this money from me, and she said I'll pay you back in my lifetime. I can't believe I fell for that.


Finally, here is another account from David Sedaris, to a different interviewer, about Tiffany Sedaris's reaction to Put a Lid on It and their falling out:

Another family member has been utilizing the Internet, too. His youngest sister, Tiffany, was immortalized in the “Corduroy and Denim” essay “Put a Lid on It.”
She spent some time in a juvenile detention facility, tried to become a gourmet cook but now scavenges through trash to sell or trade found treasures. The essay is bittersweet — ending with neat-freak David trying to bridge an emotional distance by literally rolling up his sleeves and scrubbing Tiffany’s squalid wine-stained floor.
But last year, Tiffany auctioned off a coffee date on E-bay to tell her side of the story.
“Years ago, she said I could never write about her. Then she called me up and said, ‘Everybody thinks you don’t like me. You have to write a story about me.’ And so I did,” Sedaris recalls.
He sent the essay to Tiffany — twice, both times asking if there was anything that she wanted him to change.
“She said no — that she loved it. But then the book came out, and then she freaked out. I don’t know what’s going on with her,” Sedaris says. “I think she saw this perfectly good outrage going to waste. No one in my family was outraged at all. But then ‘Wham!’ when the book came out, she just changed.”
He says any stories about Tiffany are now officially off-limits.

posted by onlyconnect at 2:50 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


WB: What if you could ask her one question?
DS: Do you know what I would say? Can I have the money back that I loaned you? She borrowed all this money from me, and she said I'll pay you back in my lifetime. I can't believe I fell for that.


That comment completely amps up my unease with the article. He strikes me as either not self-aware (in not knowing that's a dick comment and highlights the disparity between his station in life and hers) or not knowing how to communicate in a situation that asks for more than quirky sarcasm (meaning that he doesn't really mean what he is saying).

In either case, I wouldn't care but for the fact that his alternative to psychiatry is publication in widely-read forums. Great power, great responsibility, etc.
posted by angrycat at 3:15 PM on October 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think he's very aware that it's all of those things. I think he knows it's a dick comment, and a dick attitude, but he's willing to share it because of a number of things, including wanting to deflect a serious question that might make one cry if one were to really think about it, like, ON THE AIR.

Also, I take it as exactly the sort of thing my brother might say if I killed myself, because one of the things one feels after someone close to you suicides is "WTF??? YOU FUCKER! You don't get to opt out of all your responsibilities just by walking out the door of life you chicken shit!"

One of the things I've always liked about David S. is his willingness to be open about his dickishness. I think that most of us hide our most dickish feelings and opinions. He's willing to admit to them, and I think if you told him to his face that he's being a dick, he'd say, "Well YES, I know!" and look at you like you've missed the point of everything he's ever written.
posted by RedEmma at 8:09 AM on October 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't really like dickish people, whether or not they are open or self-aware of it. In fact, being self-aware and open about and continuing to be that person makes it much worse.

There's a big difference between someone saying what David did when it was a close relationship. When it's an estrangement, no, it's not a joke. He didn't like his sister and he's always been willing the tell the world this. Now that she's killed herself, he can't restrain himself from saying, see? she's such a jerk she killed herself.

And, as I wrote earlier, suicide is an extremely selfish act that is terribly hurtful to those left behind. But that doesn't make David's behaviour any less ugly.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:30 AM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of all the cruelty in the world, the bulk of it is dealt between the people closest to and most familiar with one another, most usually in homeopathic doses. Larger amounts are dealt between parents and children, and even larger amounts between brothers and sisters, growing, as they say, up. Your mileage may vary but my experience is that death can bring out the worst in people. Among my friends, I have heard a few touching anecdotes when there is a death in the family, where people grieved and pulled together. But the bulk of it has been horror story after horror story, where people do and say the most incredibly mean, stupid, shortsighted and petty things. Otherwise kind and gentle people suddenly turn into werewolves. A mother has died and someone, not knowing what to do, starts washing her collection of tea cups. Then one sister dries them and then another sister grabs and hides them from the first. Then everyone starts screaming how much they loved her, slam doors, break things, run off in the dark. I find it hard to judge people I know under such circumstances, let alone strangers, when they are grasping at straws and climbing over each other like well diggers in a cave in.
posted by y2karl at 7:17 PM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


And, as I wrote earlier, suicide is an extremely selfish act

This is a sad and reductive framing that ignores so many of the mental health issues involved in suicidal actions and ideation.
posted by sweetkid at 7:24 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also that's really well said y2karl. We can read all the essays we want but we'll never really know how David Sedaris felt about his sister in life and death. Because we're not him.
posted by sweetkid at 7:26 PM on October 29, 2013


"This is a sad and reductive framing that ignores so many of the mental health issues involved in suicidal actions and ideation."

It's the relevant perspective when talking about the surviving friends and family.

I don't know what your own experience is, but I've experienced suicide in my family and have closely observed its effects.

Furthermore, I've lived portions of my life experiencing suicidal ideation; I've been hospitalized twice for suicidal depression, and so have other members of my family. I am deeply sympathetic and understanding, emotionally and intellectually, of "mental health issues involved in suicidal actions and ideation". I am excruciatingly familiar, within myself, with many of the thoughts and feelings and circumstances surrounding someone's choice of suicide.

Nevertheless, I am also well aware of the damage I would cause for those left behind were I to kill myself. It would be huge. I know this because even when, in my family, a suicide left the living in many respects in better circumstances — that is, with an absence of a chronically unemployed, alcoholic, violently abusive husband and father — it was like a poison that everyone had to live with for the rest of their lives and which, in various ways, have further damaged them beyond the abuse they suffered, even after death. It's no accident that a portion of suicides are vindictive, intended to be hurtful. Because they are. It is profoundly selfish to chose to kill oneself given the amount of pain it inflicts on others.

Being angry at a family member who kills themselves is appropriate and justified. It's also very common, almost inevitable. This is why I made that clear — I'm not critical of Sedaris because he might be angry or is otherwise unsympathetic to his sister in her suicide and pain.

I'm critical because his past words place his present words about his sister into a context that is distinct from what families usually feel about a suicide. He was self-centered and judgmental while being exploitative long before his sister died; this is just more of the same.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:48 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


> > I think he knows it's a dick comment, and a dick attitude, but he's willing to share it because of a number of things, including wanting to deflect a serious question that might make one cry if one were to really think about it, like, ON THE AIR.

> There's a big difference between someone saying what David did when it was a close relationship. When it's an estrangement, no, it's not a joke. He didn't like his sister and he's always been willing the tell the world this. Now that she's killed herself, he can't restrain himself from saying, see? she's such a jerk she killed herself.

Part of what makes this so interesting to me is the wildly different reactions we've all had to it. I find I keep flip-flopping how I feel about it; every new comment changes my perspective a bit. I guess what I mean to say is that I see where you're both coming from....

But also, I interpreted the quote in question much differently when I watched the video than when I initially read it. The bit about the money is indeed totally flip, but in the preceding bits of the interview he's very clearly struggling to make sense of their relationship and her suicide. In that context it doesn't seem quite as simple as him just feeling free to call her a jerk.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:57 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


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