"Why do you have to talk about that stuff?"
June 2, 2015 12:30 PM   Subscribe

 
Not a double for those who might be thinking so - Sedaris wrote on the same subject two years ago and there was also an FPP, but this is a new article.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:33 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


You kind of get the impression from this piece that she was probably always going to be prone to some form of mental illness, but that stuff like getting sent to Élan and being part of a family that seemed to consider bullying to not be a big deal probably made it worse than it might have been otherwise. It seems like David Sedaris gets that intellectually, but since he grew up in the same family and he and his other siblings were able to deal with it, he can't empathize with it much.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:49 PM on June 2, 2015 [16 favorites]


Every single child in this world should have one or two adult friends.
posted by amtho at 12:59 PM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


I know I've read elsewhere that there were suspicions of sexual abuse at Élan. Certainly some of the sexualised behaviour hints at that (although of course that's a generalisation). But in terms of her younger childhood what struck me wasn't so much the bullying as the fact that her mother apparently didn't like her. If acceptance and validation of feelings from your primary caregivers helps build resilience - and it does - then having a parent who was less loving towards you than your siblings would perhaps do more damage to your longterm mental health than normal sibling "bullying" behaviour. The photo of them all when they were younger made me sad - big smiles from everyone and she is standing at the side, looking really tiny and anxious. It's a sad story, and one of the reasons I love David Sedaris is that he can move so easily between the comic and tragic moments. Great article, thanks for the post.
posted by billiebee at 1:00 PM on June 2, 2015 [21 favorites]


but since he grew up in the same family and he and his other siblings were able to deal with it, he can't empathize with it much

I had a close older relative who likely lived with a mild personality disorder of some kind, but until very late in life she was fully functional. And I must say that most of the times we interacted when I was a kid it was unpleasant. But I accepted it at the time.

To an outsider looking in, they might look at her life and perhaps look at her illness and have a lot of empathy for her. And looking back I do see how illness or personal experience or whatever contributed to the behavior of this older close relative of mine. But as a kid, and even as an adult, I still had to put up with it and be affected by her behavior. So like Sedaris I would probably look back somewhat analytically (at best).

For example, he had to deal with this:

Tiffany came twice to visit me and Amy in New York. She went home to Raleigh a few times after moving to Boston, and on every occasion it would end badly. It's like it had to end that way. If there wasn't unpleasantness she'd manufacture it, just so she could leave on a bad note and keep to the narrative she'd fashioned.

Obviously his sister is the loser here. She had a terrible life, and she's dead now, and she didn't deserve any of it all. But if you're living it as Sedaris did sometimes it may be a little hard to appear graceful about everything. I think that is just the human condition myself.

Anyway, this is an interesting post. I'm not actually much of a fan of Sedaris' rather twee writings, but when he tries to be serious I think he's a great essayist, and, in this case, a great interviewee.
posted by Nevin at 1:03 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


I should really have some sympathy for Sedaris and his family. But I always come away feeling like they're all horrible people.
posted by pan at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2015 [13 favorites]


As an adult member of a family I don't really 'click' with I see a lot of denial on Mr. Sedaris' part about his childhood. At my family gatherings there is so much left unsaid about the past and present that I can't stand being around them for more than 24 hours. Some people are willing/able to forget the low moments of the past and others aren't.
posted by Dmenet at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've never read of Sedaris' work apart from the two articles above, but his descriptions of large families, especially with mental illness or personality disorders, they ring very honest to me. Like Nevin says, it's easy to empathise with Tiffany from the outside. Growing up and having a relationshio with someone who is compelled to act out is terribly hard. I sympathise with the whole family.
posted by Braeburn at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


Man, there's not a day goes by that Sedaris doesn't sound more and more like Tennessee Williams.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:37 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I should really have some sympathy for Sedaris and his family. But I always come away feeling like they're all horrible people.

How much litter have you picked up today?
posted by maxsparber at 1:40 PM on June 2, 2015 [24 favorites]


At my family gatherings there is so much left unsaid about the past and present that I can't stand being around them for more than 24 hours.

I have the exact opposite experience with my extremely troubled family. At most family gatherings, all anybody wants to do is retell all the same stories of all the horrible stuff that happened 10+ years ago - and that's if I'm lucky and we're not relitigating all the same horrible stuff from 40+ years ago.

It's not at all that anyone needs to be "over" anything or wants to forget any of the bad stuff, it's just that reliving it all in exquisite detail for the 10,000th time might not be the best use of our very limited time together. Nearly every conversation in my family ends with somebody crying while telling a super-morose story from their childhood, I swear to god. I love them all to death but I think we'd all be so much better off with actual therapists instead of these piecemeal, unhelpful conversations - nobody in the family (including myself!) even has the coping skills to deal with any of their own stuff, much less help with anyone else's.

I've been in both Tiffany's and David's positions in my family at different points in my life, and I have so much empathy for them both. Neither role is easy and both are a lot harder than everyone would think. My comments above notwithstanding, it read to me like Tiffany really, really wanted her family to all acknowledge how wrong it was to send her to Élan, and it's unclear to what extent that ever actually happened (I may have missed it in one of the earlier stories though). It's one thing to just keep saying the same stuff over and over when nobody can do anything about it, but if her family never explicitly acknowledged how awful it was to do that to her and just brushed it off as "something that happened", I'm not at all surprised that she would have wanted to bring it up all the time.
posted by dialetheia at 1:44 PM on June 2, 2015 [26 favorites]


There is a homemade monument to Tiffany on my walk home from the subway, put there by her friends. (I can't find a picture of it online at the moment, which is a shame, really. I'll try to take one next time I pass by.) From what I have heard, they really hate David Sedaris and the way he has written about Tiffany. More local discussion of the Sedarises here.

That memorial is on a section of a heavily traveled bikepath that is decorated with statues and figures made from what one might call found objects and another might call junk. Behind the three painted sections there is a tree branch covered in vinyl records forming a dragon. There's a weird looking chair(giant?) and a little stand that stood as a Lost and Found for a bit. There's a painting of scales on the fence. The memorial is just down the path from a community garden space and it's still decorated with fake flower chains. Whatever else happened in her life, her friends here in Somerville clearly loved her and wanted to leave her in a special place. They wanted to leave her the bikepath and ArtBeat and community gardens and kids learning to ride bikes and dogs and people going to parties and people coming home from parties at 1 AM and old couples on Sunday afternoon walks and snow under lamplights and sun through trees. That bikepath is one of the lifelines of Somerville.

I never met Tiffany. I don't even know her friends. But I see her every time I walk home from the subway and I can tell you she was loved.
posted by maryr at 1:50 PM on June 2, 2015 [57 favorites]


If you don't want to take your medication, there's nothing anyone can do.

This is a limiting belief masquerading as an analytical statement, and to me says a lot about the cultural/generational mindset of someone like this author.
posted by polymodus at 1:51 PM on June 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


the joke (?) about sending his sisters over the edge of a hill in a wheelbarrow, yikes
posted by angrycat at 1:54 PM on June 2, 2015


My sister is -- though alive -- not unlike his sister in a lot of ways (holds grudges but doesn't accept if other people do, even if it's just that they stay angry for a day or two), starts fights to prove she can, cuts herself off from people, etc. And so I feel a lot of sympathy for his family, because it's really hard to live with. (She's also abusive occasionally, though not always. She has no friends, the only people she interacts with regularly are her family and a therapist.) I've got no idea how I would speak about her in an interview, because I go from angry at her to sorry for her to wishing we could be actual siblings to resenting her.

But on the other hand, he's acting as if "has PTSD from our childhood, including both constant teasing and sending her away to some kind of horrible so-called school" is clearly bullshit when it sounds like it's obviously true, and maybe acknowledging some of what they did would have been nice. Not just the school, but the family setup, because it sounds like all her siblings and both her parents were on the "get past it and move on train", and so that sounds supremely isolating for her.

Though it's also isolating on the other side -- it's impossible to explain to people outside of the family, and inside of the family, well, I'm not the only one she drives crazy, and I'm not the only one who loves her.

I don't want to put myself in the Sedaris family's place; we're not the same, and we don't have the same history, and my sister is not the same as his sister. But reading this I kept pingponging between thinking the way he described his sister was a total shit thing to do and that it was the most understandable thing possible.
posted by sockingjay at 2:00 PM on June 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


Here's a picture of the memorial maryr mentions. Whatever her relationship with her family, she will always be a part of Somerville.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:07 PM on June 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


The YouTube video of Tiffany that David mentions in the interview. It's something, because you can really see David in her, but also hear Amy.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is a limiting belief masquerading as an analytical statement

Clearly, she was not well. If we acknowledge her agency, one could ask if it would have otherwise been his responsibility to have her committed to a medical facility against her will, knowing what he knew. If we do, then it seems that also requires acknowledging her freedom to take medication when sick — or not. And perhaps some measure of responsibility lies with someone who chose to refuse treatment. I think we can acknowledge this, while also acknowledging the stigma of mental illness in society and working to reduce it. That can be helped, I think, by talking honestly about suicide and its effects on survivors, without stigmatizing them, as well.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:18 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


And perhaps some measure of responsibility lies with someone who chose to refuse treatment.

Well but what's the epistemology of this? Why is the philosophical status of Tiffany's agency relevant? It's not; it cannot be, because we are not her. What the author actually stated was:

If you don't want to take your medication, there's nothing anyone can do.

And I am saying, just like that Washington Post article from yesterday about school teachers and principals—the thing anyone could have done was to show a bit more kindness. Anyone in a position of power or authority, which applies to an older brother. And the fact that this grownup author doesn't draw this connection is what ticks me off a little. Maybe he's the one who needs a therapist now, or meds (just look at the ping-pong comment above in this thread) [to emphasize: this as a purely practical point].
posted by polymodus at 2:31 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


In this context David Sedaris is particularly interesting. I think we have all come to expect or perhaps demand that writers or interviewees will, when confronted by or reflecting on some sort of traumatic personal history, express some sort of catharsis, some real meaningful insights where they have come to terms with some past injustice, or at least acknowledge there was an injustice done in the first place.

But Sedaris' persona as a writer is not exactly that of a memoirist. He's a humorist who uses some of the conventions of the personal memoir to tell a story. But he doesn't always tell the whole truth, and he doesn't need to because the purpose of most of his writing is not to document what happened in this life, but to make others laugh.

So that's why it might be dissatisfying to read this sort of interview, or that New Yorker piece he wrote. He's not trying to be objective about his family history.
posted by Nevin at 2:32 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe he's the one who needs a therapist now, or meds

It doesn't seem like he is suffering the same ailment as his sister, but it is admittedly difficult to glean someone's state of mind solely from the text of an interview. Perhaps discussions about the human condition and grief are therapeutic. Perhaps there is something to be said for coming to terms with the fact that there's only so much you can do to save someone from themselves. It seems complicated.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:50 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Perhaps there is something to be said for coming to terms with the fact that there's only so much you can do to save someone from themselves.

Been there, done that in my extended family. There's only so many times you can extend the olive branch and have it blown out of your hands with a shotgun. I am glad that Tiffany had friends, had people that love and remember her. But having someone like this in a family is just fucking hard and doesn't get easier no matter what you do.
posted by Ber at 2:53 PM on June 2, 2015 [21 favorites]


You know, I don't think any of us can figure out who is at fault when someone is mentally ill, and it's a mug's game trying to decide who should have treated whom better. My mom had depression, my dad was an alcoholic. My sister is depressed and I'm an alcoholic. Was any of that something I could blame on my family? I can blame some of my dysfunction on the extremely dysfunctional family atmosphere in which I grew up, but all of that I could fix to a certain degree. My much-loved daughter, raised by two recovered alcoholics in a warm and affectionate family in which she knew she was loved and respected, is bipolar (I'm not being too dramatic - she manages it pretty well with medication). Is it our fault? She hasn't stopped being the person she was as a child.

I knew a funny, energetic guy in my doctoral program who was later killed, with his wife, by their mentally ill son for whom they cared deeply.

Just because someone writes funny, sad, sometimes confusing memoirs about the awkward details of being himself in his family, does not make him somehow culpable for his family's discontents. Blame mental illness if you have to blame something. It's a sad a difficult thing.
posted by Peach at 3:06 PM on June 2, 2015 [27 favorites]


Man, there's not a day goes by that Sedaris doesn't sound more and more like Tennessee Williams.

Except that Williams had a tremendous gift of empathy, and Sedaris is as cold-blooded as a frog.

In the things of his I've read, and the many pieces I've heard him read over the air, the only real person I've ever been able to see through all those words is Sedaris himself.
posted by jamjam at 3:35 PM on June 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


the thing anyone could have done was to show a bit more kindness.

I'm not clear what you're saying here. If someone had shown her more kindness she would have taken her meds? Been better without the meds? Not killed herself? I think any of those are a fairly naive way to look at serious mental illness and inappropriately place blame on family and friends for not being kind enough, where kindness alone is often not remotely sufficient to make a person with serious illness better.
posted by Mavri at 3:35 PM on June 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


I have written for years about abusive troubled teen programs and Elan is among the worst. It is amazing to me that anyone could have come out of that place *without* PTSD. It was sexist, bullying, humiliating and extremely violent. For example, one form of "discipline" was to have the whole group verbally attack the person, then put them in a makeshift boxing ring with fresh opponents, one after another, until they submitted and agreed to say whatever the group wanted them to say.

Also, kids who were sent there were always wrong and bad— and families were told not to believe stories about abuse. So, you get sent somewhere abusive for smoking pot and then you get seriously attacked for years, physically and mentally, all with the aim of breaking your personality and when you come back, your family doesn't believe there was any problem or that you are exaggerating it.

It both makes you unlikely to want to seek any kind of mental health care and cuts you off from the support of family. If you went into to such a place with mild mental illness, you almost certainly came out of it with severe mental illness— and it's a real scandal that it was allowed to continue operating for as long as it did. Sedaris should talk to other survivors of Elan and write about their stories— I've interviewed over 100 people who attended these kinds of programs for my book about their history, Help at Any Cost, and the people who went to Elan were among the most profoundly damaged.

Oh, and the suicide rate among people who were sent was well above what you'd expect for similarly troubled kids who mainly came from middle and upper class backgrounds, because it was expensive.
posted by Maias at 3:41 PM on June 2, 2015 [88 favorites]


angrycat: "the joke (?) about sending his sisters over the edge of a hill in a wheelbarrow, yikes"

Well you don't just START there, you start with slow wheelbarrow rides in the yard, and then running wheelbarrow rides, and then taking corners as fast as you can, and then you find a small incline and try it, and then it occurs to you you could send each other over the ravine ... big families typically have a secret society of the children that's relatively cut-off and well-hidden from the adults, and involves progressive risk-taking because risky things are fun and exciting, and it's not like you wake up one day and think "I'm going to scale this twelve-foot wall!" You start small and work up to it, it's just that when you fall OFF the twelve-foot wall onto concrete and all the adults are like, "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?" you're like, I didn't just DECIDE to do it, I spent two years scaling progressively higher walls and it was always fine and I've been up this one several times without falling off ... only you definitely don't say that because that is definitely not going to help the situation. I mean, I'm guessing.

Basically if my family had HAD a ravine, I'm sure my siblings and I would have at some point rigged up a way to roll each other down it, and being rolled down it would DEFINITELY have been the penalty for losing at some game or breaking some rule like or offending against some norm like "don't rat to mom."

Actually, now that I think about it, we totally did roll down a hill a) inside a gigantic tire and b) inside a refrigerator box that we turned into a sort of giant human hamster wheel. NEITHER WAS A GOOD IDEA. Both fun, though! And neither ended in serious bodily injury, unlike when we tried to build a bobsled jump. (Look, nobody NEEDS their baby teeth.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:00 PM on June 2, 2015 [23 favorites]


I should really have some sympathy for Sedaris and his family. But I always come away feeling like they're all horrible people.
posted by pan at 1:22 PM on June 2
[6 favorites +] [!]


Just people.
posted by bq at 4:07 PM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


I guess I'm kind of taken aback by by David Sedaris' lack of empathy for his sister in both pieces. But in this one, especially. I hoped when I saw this post that maybe now that some time has passed since Tiffany's death that Sedaris would at least be more forgiving towards her as a subject. I understand how challenging it must have been growing up with her, but now that she's gone, his lack of empathy is jarring. She was mentally ill and singled out in many ways by her own family. As well, she was sent away to the Elan school. I'm sure it's complicated, but as a fan of his writing I have to wonder if it might be better if he didn't talk about her anymore.
posted by marimeko at 4:13 PM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


I know I'm feeling down when I start blaming all my problems on my upbringing and family. It's absolutely true that I learned a lot of bad habits from them growing up, but part of being an adult is taking responsibility for one's own actions.

That being said, I think my family sees me in one particular light, a light that I stopped casting about 18 years ago. The more time I spend with them the more I start acting the way I used to - falling into behavioral patterns I thought I had broken a long time ago. They won't admit it, but it's better for everyone that we stay apart.

People have a desire to assign blame when irreversible things happen. Genetics, schooling, family, and lifestyle all play some part in this. 'Mental Illness' is a way to sweep up all the complexities in a person's life and dump them all in a single bin, dusting one's hands off at a job well done.

Maybe David gains some catharsis from the stories he writes and maybe Tiffany could have found a place where she could exist apart from her family and her past. I wish there were a giant ball of pure compassion radiating its light down on us from on high but I seriously doubt there is. I hope they can settle knowing there's a flickering light of it coming from a random person on the Internet.
posted by Dmenet at 4:26 PM on June 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


Oof, that interview is a "let's be buddies in public" piece. It's weird. Sedaris is super-twee, but that was like sitting next to a loud bro at a coffee shop trashing some "psycho" acquaintance to his buddy.
posted by ignignokt at 5:05 PM on June 2, 2015


Fuuuuck, it was hard enough blowing off my family. Wonder how much harder it would have been if it contained someone famous.
posted by telstar at 5:06 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I understand how challenging it must have been growing up with her, but now that she's gone, his lack of empathy is jarring.

...I have to wonder if it might be better if he didn't talk about her anymore.


Interesting. I felt he was quite empathic in connecting his sisters suicide to the family environment, her time at that place, her own behavior and his reaction to it.

I think this is why people don't talk about this stuff: either you have people judging you on not doing enough and not stopping it, or judging you for not reacting correctly, or not describing your own experience after some distance from the event correctly.

What I did like is their conversation about other people's judgement and how that can be difficult.
posted by sfkiddo at 5:10 PM on June 2, 2015 [24 favorites]


David Sedaris seems to have a certain kind of empathy for people who feel terrible about themselves because they are not perfectly empathetic, or they are weak, or they are ashamed of things they have done. Living with a constant sense of shame can prevent you from being brave enough to try to do something good but risky, and even the Catholic church has gone to great lengths to find ways to dissipate the shame the people accumulate over a lifetime of being human. Sedaris is relatively honest about his failings as a person, as are a number of comedians and other artists.

It's as though he's saying "I'm not a 'good' person, but it's OK because I trust you to have enough understanding to see that we're the same, and we're not so bad that we have to hide under a rock for the rest of our lives. We can go on, learn about our weaknesses, and do better in the future, because our commonality means we're both humans, and humans keep going on."
posted by amtho at 5:51 PM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you don't want to take your medication, there's nothing anyone can do.

Here's the thing - speaking as someone who deals with a lot of people on medication for a lot of symptoms, even on medication there can be precious little to do. Meds aren't some sinecure that you get tested for, prescribed, and yay everything is good now! They often have adverse effects, there's usually years of trial and error involved in finding the right combo and amounts, the right combo and amounts can and does change as people age, they often don't take care of all of the symptoms, a bunch of symptoms people have are actually rational responses to their lives that no longer serve them and so medication does nothing, and a bunch of symptoms people have we just don't know.

Acting as if she would have been different if only she had taken some unspecified medication is a gross oversimplification of a complex problem.

We can't and won't ever know what exactly was going on with her, but I think we can afford both her and her family some kindness as well. David is a grieving brother who has to make sense of the world with her in it and the decisions he made over time; we can't actually know what we would say or do in his place.
posted by Deoridhe at 6:04 PM on June 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


Ber: There's only so many times you can extend the olive branch and have it blown out of your hands with a shotgun.

That's a great summation of the matter at hand.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:10 PM on June 2, 2015


And I am saying, just like that Washington Post article from yesterday about school teachers and principals—the thing anyone could have done was to show a bit more kindness.

As a bipolar dude I have to say that sometimes I feel like I could never take in enough kindness and can't be sure that I would react with magnanimity towards heaps of it, and it does draw on the people that are closest to you in significant ways, and it's often extremely hard to give it out in the way that matters most myself (taking lots of "your time" to help someone else when you could be doing anything else).

There is a certain baseline amount of basic kindness that is tremendously important for someone to feel like a functioning member of society and I suspect that most people are denied that across the mental health spectrum (from "none" to "all of the above"), unfortunately.

I can definitely sympathize and empathize with both people in David's account very deeply.
posted by aydeejones at 6:32 PM on June 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


He could maybe just stop talking about her for a while, as suggested above.

Look, I don't doubt that she was a nightmare to deal with. But I personally don't subscribe to the not-uncommon growing-up thing of bullying happens, learn to live with it, you got sent to a shitty school, just let it seep there as we go about being adults to the best of our capability.

Elan, just from the comments here, was a shitty shitty place to send a kid to. His comments about his mom not loving her were really sad. It seems like if he were able to transcend the thousand times she fucked things up for him or for others, he would be able to see her as a product of her environment and feel more empathy for her.

David Sedaris is a voice that a lot of people pay attention to. Good for him, and if by some wacky crazy miracle I got to a point where I faced criticism in the press, I wouldn't read my reviews either. But sometimes I feel like Sedaris is just a wacky box full of magical stories, as opposed to the thinker he could be if he held himself to a different standard/ was a different kind of writer.

What I get from this piece and the FPP before is that Sedaris is bewildered by his sister's trajectory in life but ultimately hand waves away the idea that anything else matters than the the fact that she didn't take her medication.

I mean, a lot of other shit matters, Elan being one thing, and if Sedaris is going to continue to put himself out there on this subject, and I say this as a fan, I would rather him examining, for example, what really might have gone down at Elan, as opposed to shooting the shit with somebody in his writing pantheon
posted by angrycat at 6:38 PM on June 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


I also suspect Élan was super horrible and even if it wasn't, it would feel like having the entire kindness-rug yanked out from under you, like having all of your relationships ever up to that point upended and suspended. I would be seething forever and definitely would double down on that if nobody would take seriously how bad the experience was. If everyone's like "whatever, you're just histrionically exaggerating it and we don't want to feel bad," then yeah, I would be in a default state of "losing my shit" much of the time, maybe forever.
posted by aydeejones at 6:38 PM on June 2, 2015 [14 favorites]


Here is a photo of one of her pieces, a "pain wall" left up without any context on her former artist profile for the "Somerville Open Studios" tour; her "pain wall" glass artwork is mentioned in this Boston Globe interview of her from 2004, "Sister in a glass house".

...It's fucking gorgeous. I can only imagine the impact of seeing the piece in person - I wish I had the opportunity to do so.
posted by flex at 7:10 PM on June 2, 2015 [14 favorites]


Even as a child I looked at my sister and wondered what that would be like, not to feel the warmth of my mother's love. Tiffany didn't. There was always a nervous quality about her, a tentativeness, a desperate urge to be in your good graces. While the rest of us had eyes in the front of our heads, she had eyes on the sides, like a rabbit or a deer, like prey, always on the lookout for danger. Even when there wasn't any danger. You'd see her trembling and think, You want danger? I'll give you some danger...

Wow. I get the sick feeling from reading this article that David knows that it's gauche to say so, but what he really resents is that he's no longer able to give Tiffany danger. Shaming her for sex work, thinking nothing of the fact that the family considered hiring a private detective to stalk her when she set boundaries with them and withdrew? Jesus christ. She barred him from her funeral, she finally got away from all of them, and he's furious that she finally won, that she finally found a way to get all of them away from her forever.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:31 PM on June 2, 2015 [16 favorites]


"...by 14 or so she knew how to use her looks to her advantage. There were a few exceptions, but for the most part, her relationships with men were, well... it always seemed like she was using them, playing them. There never seemed to be an innocent period with her, a period of dating or having a crush. She was sent away to a kind of reform school, a place called Élan [in Maine], when she was 14. Maybe she was innocent there and because we weren't allowed to visit we missed it. It's like she went in as a child and came out a hardened vamp. "

Holy shit.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:35 PM on June 2, 2015 [13 favorites]


I have met him at a few book signings. He is a very odd duck, to say the least, and hard to have a conversation with most of the time. It's really, really awkward and I hope to god he doesn't remember who I am, ever.

I think he's doing the best he can to comprehend the situation, given what his personality is like. He's probably not the world's most empathetic person by nature, but I don't think he's intentionally trying to be hurtful. But one does get the feeling that the rest of them never did "get" her, and that's where a lot of the problem lies. There's always one black sheep who doesn't fit in with everyone else, isn't there?
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:01 PM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


He could maybe just stop talking about her for a while, as suggested above.

He has a right to discuss his experiences and those of his family. If you find it distasteful, you can always opt not to listen.
posted by maxsparber at 8:04 PM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


Just people.

Yeah, that's what I think. Or "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
posted by Nevin at 8:17 PM on June 2, 2015


At what point do people just have to accept that perhaps David Sedaris might have more insight into the dynamics of his own family and a better understanding of the people in it than those who only know these people through a few essays, articles, and videos?
posted by The Gooch at 9:27 PM on June 2, 2015 [14 favorites]


I've always been the hypersensitive one in the family. It makes being around family so difficult. I wanted to leave home for as long as I could remember, and did when I could. I met really good friends who love me.

But I often long for a home I could go to and a family when things feel tough. My sister tends to wonder why her inconsistent attitude towards me makes me fear her. It breaks my heart. When she suddenly sends me an "I love you" text, I can't even believe it. I wonder what she wants from me.

I feel bad that Sedaris doesn't see how legitimately painful it is to be an emotional person with somewhat differently relating siblings around you. And to be the one who needed to feel loved to be happy, and find yourself rejected and kind of used because you aren't tough enough to withstand the meanness or the explicit demands that you change yourself to suit them?

It's honestly awful that he says she did sexual favors for money. How does he know? Maybe she looked for love and ended up with FWB relationships.

I like Sedaris stories but I'm so sad for Tiffany. She probably would have done better with kinder siblings, in my opinion.
posted by discopolo at 9:40 PM on June 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


He has a right to discuss his experiences and those of his family. If you find it distasteful, you can always opt not to listen.
posted by maxsparber at 8:04 PM on June 2 [1 favorite +] [!]

At what point do people just have to accept that perhaps David Sedaris might have more insight into the dynamics of his own family and a better understanding of the people in it than those who only know these people through a few essays, articles, and videos?
posted by The Gooch at 9:27 PM on June 2 [+] [!]


Thank you both for these comments. I have been not commenting on this thread after my first one because I can't figure out how to be diplomatic about the types of attitudes displayed in the context of this thread. Thanks again.
posted by sfkiddo at 9:47 PM on June 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


After reading the linked article, I'm left wondering if perhaps Sedaris's low empathy quotient (or whatever) is the reason he made it out of his family relatively unscathed.
posted by KathrynT at 10:04 PM on June 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


Anyone in a position of power or authority, which applies to an older brother.

In my experience, younger siblings have this position of power and authority over their older siblings, too.

Also, I feel terrible for David to have experienced the lose of his sister from suicide. I've had several family members and several friends commit suicide, and it's really awful, even years afterwards, to hold that.
posted by agog at 10:27 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


After reading the linked article, I'm left wondering if perhaps Sedaris's low empathy quotient (or whatever) is the reason he made it out of his family relatively unscathed.

Yeah, it is interesting that his sister's problems are taken as sufficiently beyond her control to make her a victim, whereas David's issues are presumed to be a sign that he's a bad person. I suspect that in a family environment like this, and given their respective experiences, both Tiffany and David adapted to survive.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:41 PM on June 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


Elan was not just a "shitty school." Comparing Elan to a bad school is like saying a concentration camp was a just bad sleepaway camp. We're talking orders of magnitude here. And I say this as the child of a Holocaust survivor.
posted by Maias at 6:22 AM on June 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


He's kind of blase about thinking that just taking her meds would have made Tiffany okay. Schizophrenia is so difficult to manage. It's also incredibly awful for the person experiencing it. My Mom was an alcoholic and almost certainly had bipolar disorder, and a sibling appears to have bipolar disorder. I'm kid#5, the baby of the family for years. My sibling was not easy, often bullying, my parents were unaware, etc. It's hard to have compassion for a person who attacks you even as you are doing them a favor. My sibling's illness has made it impossible for me to have a relationship, though I try to maintain a connection, and to show compassion, even though it's not welcome. And schizophrenia is way worse.

At least publicly, Sedaris shows little understanding of schizophrenia, little interest in understanding it. Sedaris is wryly funny and shrewd, notices interesting things. I don't read him as an accurate reporter of his family's history. He's massively self-involved. His stories are about he experienced/ experiences his life at any given time and I think he's honest about that.

You should listen to Robert Sapolsky's Stanford lecture on schizophrenia if you have any interest at all in humans and mental illness.
posted by theora55 at 6:31 AM on June 3, 2015


Oh. Oh that was really sad. And that subtext. It left me feeling like Sedaris is not a very sympathetic or empathetic person, in an equally damaged way.

He keeps revealing history, then sliding away from any concept that that may have had an impact, rather than just an... excuse to have her complain?

He wondered what it would be like to have his mother not love him, the way she didn't love Tiffany.
You want danger? I'll give you some danger...

They way he talks about her coming back changed from Elan, having lost all childhood, sexualised, blaming her for it, and yet...

Do you think the Élan thing—I see it was a pretty rough place—do you think that was the most valid aspect of whatever overblown grievance Tiffany had against the family?
I can't remember a single conversation where she didn't talk about that place, I mean, ten, 20, 30 years after she left it.


How about yes? How about even, maybe?
Just been reading about Elan. Sounds like she was there from 14 to 16.
Horrible.
Traumatic.


And that Interviewer? I mean, they started with a pretty clear agenda, really egging Sedaris on, it sounded really weird.
I got slightly more context from the top comment, that was from someone who still says they 'adore' Sedaris's work, but commented of the Interviewers book, having read it, that "Instead of addressing the issue of mental illness the whole family just wished it would go away and in the end it felt like everyone was relieved that the problem was gone. Sad."
posted by Elysum at 6:40 AM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


You know, I really don't think the comment about taking one's meds is meant to encapsulate Sedaris's entire attitude towards mental illness. It reads to me as a shorthand way of saying, as he does in various ways throughout the interview, that Tiffany was unwilling to accept the kind of help that would have made a substantial difference.
posted by milk white peacock at 7:11 AM on June 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


And that Interviewer? I mean, they started with a pretty clear agenda, really egging Sedaris on, it sounded really weird.

That's because Blake Bailey, the guy doing the interview, comes at this from a similar perspective as Sedaris, in that they both had and wrote about their fucked-up families. I read this interview in that context.
posted by lyssabee at 7:29 AM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


He's kind of blase about thinking that just taking her meds would have made Tiffany okay. Schizophrenia is so difficult to manage.

I don't see any reference to Tiffany having a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. She appears to have been diagnosed with Bipolar II. When someone ends their life - official mental health diagnosis or not - there can be a tendency to blame oneself and sanctify them slightly (don't speak ill of the dead and all that). I think it's more honest of him to say something like "she was troubled and you know what? She was hard work." But he also says she was funny and smart and he thinks about her everyday. That's his experience and I'm not sure what else we can ask of him.
posted by billiebee at 8:38 AM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


This interview brought a few tears for me. My brother is so clearly suffering and unhappy and yet unbelievably difficult to be around and to help. So much of what is mentioned here is familiar.

It's so easy to say, "there's nothing you can do unless he helps himself", whether you fill that "helps himself" box with medication or some other specific intervention. I surely have a laundry list of things I can imagine would help my brother, some of which Sedaris mentions, such as if my parents put him up in a more reasonable location, getting him out of his increasingly trashed and trash-filled living space, or as he also alludes to, if my brother would just stop smoking so fucking much pot - and I know I'm conservative on this but I just don't think smoking several times a day every day for a 30+ year period can be good for someone who is increasingly mentally unstable. It's unclear to me if my brother is able to do the things that I think would help him - but able or not, he's certainly not willing to. So it's a bit of a moot point.

Working as a nurse case manager for people who have fallen out of society, I'm probably the most well equipped person to help someone like my brother, and yet I'm flummoxed by his intense emotionality, his poor "affect control" (crying, then rageful, then impassioned in a few minutes period), his deep stubbornness, his non-stop talking that reflects deep narcissism and likely unbelievable and unmanageable anxiety, but from my point of view, just makes interactions almost impossible (that bit about being able to set the phone down for 10 minutes and come back to the unbroken monologue is depressing and familiar). And I'm uniquely familiar with what will happen if I don't intervene.

I'm aware that no one else is likely to step in, and that he's in a downward spiral, and I'm not willing to just say, "there's nothing I can do". But I'm also hopeless enough about helping that I can see why people do say that. It's a way to feel a little more OK when you watch a loved one decline.
posted by latkes at 9:15 AM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Based on their mother's alcoholism and those childhood photos (where Tiffany has a very conspicuous shallow-philtrum/narrow-upper-lip appearance), I wonder if the possibility of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was ever considered. It wouldn't change the basic narrative of organic mental illness + shitty treatment by family, but it would certainly help explain some of the difficulties she seems to have experienced with integrating socially.
posted by Bardolph at 9:31 AM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


I really am sort of amazed at the attitude of he called her a whore but he's grieving or more knowledgeable about his family so don't read about if the whore stuff offends you

I mean what the ever loving fuck
posted by angrycat at 12:01 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


He didn't "call her a whore" though, he said "I know that she had sex with people for money at certain points in her life." It's a statement of fact, not an insult.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:11 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


That's because Blake Bailey, the guy doing the interview, comes at this from a similar perspective as Sedaris, in that they both had and wrote about their fucked-up families. I read this interview in that context.

I gathered that right away, but I added the part from the commenter, to note that someone who found nothing strange about David Sedaris's interview (which I did), still felt that the Interviewers book, even written from Blake's POV, came out with a view not that sympathetic to the author.


Further, I have a close relative who has been hospitalized repeatedly with episodes of psychosis, to whom I have lent thousands of dollars, and much much more than that in a commitment of time, both directly, when I have been caregiving, and in the ongoing stress.
And I can still see the combination of heritable traits, upbringing, and choices that lead to the person they are. I know fucked up families. I'm coming from a similar position to David Sedaris.

And yet he can't seem to sympathise with her, and in that, I don't sympathise with him.
I mean, the worst he seems to be able to say for here is that he thinks she had bipolar... while she says she had PTSD, which, er, is super likely), and cut herself off from the family. In the scale of relative fuckedupness, that's... relatively minor. Plenty of people are sub-functional.
But the summary seems to be that she's ill, damaged, and always-definitely the black sheep. Just in a single article a bunch of reasons were given as to why dynamic might have started, none that he really acknowledged.

This article gave me the creeps, in other words.
posted by Elysum at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Just in a single article a bunch of reasons were given as to why dynamic might have started, none that he really acknowledged.

Well, he is the one who brought them all up in said article.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:17 PM on June 3, 2015


I really am sort of amazed at the attitude of he called her a whore but he's grieving or more knowledgeable about his family so don't read about if the whore stuff offends you

Personally, my perspective is that unless one is using it as a springboard for re-examining how one treats people like Tiffany and David, it's fairly useless to Sunday Quarterback what David thinks of Tiffany and better to focus on not treating David as callously as David treats Tiffany. This obviously doesn't extend to people who actually know Tiffany, and thus are dealing with their own grief and rage over the loss of their friend and the family dynamics which may or may not have contributed to that loss - but unless I'm misreading this entire thread, the closest anyone here comes to Tiffany is walking by her memorial.

It is hard to treat people we disagree with on a moral/ethical level well. It takes consistent practice not only to treat those people well, but also to recognize what "treating them well" means. It is very easy to take a limited view of how someone talks about themselves and close relationships, make a moral judgment about that person, and then say things about that person - one could argue this is, in fact, the very dynamic David is describing in his relationship with his sister; he judged her based on a very narrow view of her life and condemned her based on that view for his own reasons. Now many are doing the same to him, and I'm really unsure what this accomplishes besides normalizing the very judgment-of-others the judging-of-David claims to decry.

I'm not happy about how he talks to her.
His doing so is a reminder to myself to be kinder to the people I talk about.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:32 PM on June 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


He didn't "call her a whore" though, he said "I know that she had sex with people for money at certain points in her life." It's a statement of fact, not an insult.

It's not a fact, and an uncharitable reading of events in her life. She may not have done it for money. She may have believed she was in a relationship. The money may have just been a part of a relationship.

If your boyfriend sends you a surprise ticket to fly with him to a conference he has to be at for a weekend, is that being a whore?

In one part he says she kept them out of her life. In the other we're supposed to believe she was letting him in on these kinds of things?

Honestly, I see David trying really hard to not feel guilty, because the mean impulses towards his younger sister, who seemed so desperate to feel their love, maybe make him feel terrible. This is what he says to himself to maybe just deal with it, because he's contradicting himself. In stories, the Élan school was vicious (he mentioned them putting golf balls into her mouth at that school), but now he says she was probably exaggerating about it, that she had a boyfriend but was also a prostitute.

He's her brother. I have no doubt he probably has days in which he feels deeply responsible and he hates her for it.

He's trying to process it. I try to process my older sister's inconsistencies constantly. She's aware that I'm very loving and that is my weakness, that she's trying to dip into that pool when she needs it and it frustrates her when I build up walls. She doesn't get me.

Siblings can simply not understand each other. It's maddening. You love this person so much, but it's just impossible to pinpoint them. You try and it comes out in words that you're constantly reconstructing, because you love them so much.

Tiffany has died. He feels guilty. He's going to struggle with this forever. I have no doubt he felt duty to her because many eldest siblings feel like they have to be dutiful, but was happy not to deal with her when he didn't have to.
posted by discopolo at 2:01 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Can we stop using the word whore? Sedaris never did, and it unfairly colors what he did say.
posted by maxsparber at 2:03 PM on June 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


Can we stop using the word whore? Sedaris never did, and it unfairly colors what he did say.


I don't think just saying sex for money is any less unfair. He may dress it up as something objective, but it's still unfair. He is being unfair and making it look like a fact without implications, that her main reason for having sex was for money alone. He's being unfair to her and making her seem like someone much less complex than she most likely was, all the while maintaining that he never understood her. So he gets to dress things he thinks as facts he knows and come off as legitimate.

I like David Sedaris. But he's not the all knowing. I think he'd like to be. This might be the worst thing that ever happened to him. And it's fine to point out how what he says is not necessarily so because he's too close to the situation, and he doesn't know the exact truth of anything about her or her motivations and is trying really desperately to think he does or make other people think he does.
posted by discopolo at 2:13 PM on June 3, 2015


It is less unfair. Whore is an epithet,
posted by maxsparber at 2:21 PM on June 3, 2015


I apologize for being an asshole on the internet. I had some shit this afternoon, but that's no excuse.

Look, I can't write about my experiences with suicide and mental illness here, aside to say that somebody in my immediate family has schizophrenia, and in addition to that, there have been some hair-raising things in my life. So while I couldn't write Sedaris's essay in the New Yorker, I could write about other intense experiences, albeit less skillfully, I'm sure. The answer to 'why not not read about it' is that I am a fan, and I had hoped he had walked his earlier comments back.

This thing with Sedaris triggers a lot in me. I'm not sure why. I mean, I know why, but I don't really get how people can see Sedaris's stuff about his sister and not collectively wince and go dude, stop.

It bothers me to see people celebrate what I see as not somebody who is bravely baring his soul about his mentally ill sibling, but somebody who is needlessly dismissive about a whole bunch of things. And then turning to the interviewer and asking *do you read your reviews? no, I don't.* It feels like somebody who is a)passive-aggressively saying fuck y'all to people who object to him with regards to his sister and b) somebody who gah, I don't want to overstate it, but narcissistic, maybe?
posted by angrycat at 2:24 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


If your boyfriend sends you a surprise ticket to fly with him to a conference he has to be at for a weekend, is that being a whore?

Those are not David Sedaris' words. He never called his sister a "whore" or anything vaguely near it.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:24 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


The reaction to this interview is reminding me a lot of The Stranger.
posted by infinitelives at 2:30 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Those are not David Sedaris' words. He never called his sister a "whore" or anything vaguely near it.

His words: I know that she had sex with people for money at certain points in her life.

This is "vaguely near it."
posted by discopolo at 6:19 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I really don't think it is. I got the sense that he wasn't referring to the plane ticket thing with that sentence, but rather something much more concrete and definitively-known. Either way, saying that someone has transactional sex is very, very different than calling them a whore.
posted by KathrynT at 6:24 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Those are not David Sedaris' words. He never called his sister a "whore" or anything vaguely near it.

His words: I know that she had sex with people for money at certain points in her life.

This is "vaguely near it." What else do you call selling sex with the sole, robotic motivation to obtain money, with the implication that it's an unemotional transaction. That's a whore, that's the term assholes use. A whore is someone who is accused of having no feelings, just a person disdained and accused of being manipulative. Someone who uses men. Men call women whores for betraying them, implying that manipulation and coldness and callousness took place.

Sex with people for money and money alone? I guess if she'd married a rich guy David would say it was a marriage of convenience?

Honestly, as a woman, anybody who pretends these phrases are objective is being willfully ignorant.
posted by discopolo at 6:26 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


And if he didn't think sad for money was distasteful, if he wasn't trying to cast her the way he has, he wouldn't have brought it up. It wouldn't have been worth mentioning. He's angry at her, he's trying to remain appearing legitimate and clinical. But he's the one being unfair.
posted by discopolo at 6:30 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is "vaguely near it."

No, it really isn't.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 6:39 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is "vaguely near it." What else do you call selling sex with the sole, robotic motivation to obtain money, with the implication that it's an unemotional transaction.

You call it "having sex for money" or "sex work," which are both factual statements without judgment or shaming inherent in the words.

That's a whore, that's the term assholes use. A whore is someone who is accused of having no feelings, just a person disdained and accused of being manipulative. Someone who uses men. Men call women whores for betraying them, implying that manipulation and coldness and callousness took place.

Exactly. Whore is a nasty, judgmental, shaming epithet. And Sedaris didn't use it. He said she had sex for money. There's a big difference. He may (or may not) be an asshole, but there's no need to put words in his mouth.
posted by Mavri at 6:53 PM on June 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


Honestly, as a woman, anybody who pretends these phrases are objective is being willfully ignorant.

You know, as a woman, I'm not "willfully ignorant." I just disagree with you.
posted by KathrynT at 9:26 PM on June 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


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