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.
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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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