Sharing Someone Else’s Pain: A Question of Tact with David Sedaris

david

David Sedaris penned a fantastic piece in The New Yorker about the suicide death of his youngest sister, Tiffany. In it, he talks about Tiffany’s slow descent into depression by way of horrific living conditions and mental illness. This is framed, interestingly, by a family vacation he paid for shortly after her death.

I understand that grief is a funny, tricky and wholly individual business. But I suppose what bothers me about Sedaris’s story is that this is the same sister that he wrote about in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim who, from the sound of it, repeatedly requested that he not write about her, or use her sad existence for witty little bon mots and anecdotes.

So knowing that she wasn’t pleased with this kind of “therapy through public forum” in life, I can’t imagine she would’ve been terribly happy with it being used in the circumstance of her death. Especially when most of this story is about Sedaris coming to terms with losing the identity of being part of a 6-child family and his mixed feelings of guilt and pride over his wealth.

I’m not saying that everybody doesn’t have “this” family member, directly or distantly, but I do feel like both Amy and David have a bad habit of over-sharing stories that aren’t theirs to over-share. And while I appreciate the excellence of the writing, the subject makes me feel like I’m being shown a dead woman’s diary, knowing that she wouldn’t want me to look.

Has anyone else read the piece? Want to agree/disagree wildly?

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33 thoughts on “Sharing Someone Else’s Pain: A Question of Tact with David Sedaris

  1. sfgalliance says:

    Writing is cathartic and also in this day in age reading someone else’s thoughts are easy to find online. I believe that while she was alive he respected her request after it had been made, but when she took her own life, as many people who take their own life do, they create such gut wrenching impact on the lives of the people around them that each person struggles to process both their feelings of grief and guilt. I don’t think that Mr. Sedaris is unaware that it is extremely sad that his sister died in poverty and in pain when he had the means to help her. What I do think, however, is that having a mentally unstable or damaged relative is so incredibly draining that at some point out of pure self preservation you feel forced to remove yourself. I am sure that he felt that he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

    I did read in some of the blogs that people thought she may have been molested. There is a good possibility that when she was institutionalized when she was young that she was abused and molested and never spoke about it and probably never processed this. Her family might still think that the place was just “horrible” in that the food was bad and she got yelled at never knowing that she was abused. Abuse is so prevalent in these institutions and still is. Many pedophiles have a tendency to find employment at institutions and then when the heat is on them they just move on to another institution. It is so hard to find staffing that many probably don’t really look up job references.

    I say all this because I have a very good friend who was abandoned by their mother with her sisters to an abusive father and lived a very difficult upbringing. She currently resides with one of her sisters who sounds very much like Ms. Sedaris. She is creative and yet will fly off the handle. Many people have denounced Mr. Sedaris for his comments regarding his sister, but just reading between the lines I believe he has actually held back out of respect and has shared just the framework of the problems in their relationship to share a story. I find his story would be something that many in his situation leading up to his sister’s death both a cautionary tale and also something that says, “You’re not alone.” I have never had a relative who had mental problems, but it is easy to throw stones when you’re not the one who can’t remove someone painful from their lives. It appears that Ms. Sedaris blamed her family for her problems it was a weight that drowned their relationships for many years before her tragic death.

  2. Joanne says:

    In honor of tiffany.

  3. Mr Writer Man says:

    I’ve never met the Sedaris family, they all seemed to be remarkably talented individuals, however to respond on whether it was right or not, was it exploitative? I can only comment based on an interview with David Sedaris back in 2004 when he answered a question about humiliating anecdotes to do with his family – he commented that Tiffany once told him that he better not write about her, then, apparently in 2003 she asked him to put her in a story as she was worried that people would think he didn’t like her.

    With that in mind isn’t it better he memorialises her in a story? To show the world how much she meant to him. David is clearly a brilliant writer conveying exactly what he wants with expert skill. He does not paint himself well with this story – he makes himself look very poor (especially in flaunting his wealth in comparison to her lack of it) – and we’ve judged him because of it. But in his talent perhaps that was his intent? His guilt expressed in self loathing, and calling for the reader to loath him also. A public self-flogging as a cry for forgiveness?

    It’s not right for us to comment why they had such a grand falling out, why Tiffany died in squaller, why she felt so anxious around her family. It’s very sad for all involved but it’s not for us to debate the hypotheticals. It’s just for us to look on sadly and sympathetically. I hope the best for the Sedaris family, none of this can be easy, especially with it being so aggressively explored in public.

  4. Michael Knoblach says:

    I was the last person on this earth to speak with Tiffany Sedaris. We were close friends for nearly a dozen years. The night before she killed herself, she begged me to go along with her to her family reunion,in order to help her through the anxiety over the event. I agreed to go, promising to rent a vehicle, so she could flee at a moment’s notice, should she feel uncomfortable.I even had her a little excited to show me around where she grew up and had her howling with laughter. I expressed the depth of my love and affection for her as a friend, and did so again, when we spoke very briefly the next day… It wasn’t enough.

    I know (or can logically guess at) reasons small and large why she committed suicide. I was her friend. I do not give a hoot what anyone else says about this letter. I will do whatever is required of me to defend her honor and legacy. I only wish I could have saved her and have her back in this world.

    I found David Sedaris’ article, “Now We Are Five” in the Oct. 28, 2013, New Yorker to be obviously self serving, often grossly inaccurate, almost completely unresearched, and, at times,outright callous. Some of her family had been more than decent, loving and kind to her. “Two lousy boxes”, is Not Tiffany’s legacy. After her sister left with that meager lot, her house was still filled with treasures. Over two vanloads of possessions were pulled from there and other locations by friends. She was a hoarder, of items worthless to most but vitally important to her. There were fantastic art materials; milk crates full of angular rocks (good ones), each crate containing one round stone, which perfectly fits the hand, bearing signs of some form of unorthodox flint knapping to bash and hammer the rocks into shapes she needed; dozens of boxes of antique broken ceramics or stained glass for her mosaics (many dug out of the ground from a hidden 19th century dump whose location she shared only with me); my favorite broken bit being the bottom part of a piece of green McCoy pottery, that now only said “Coy”, (pure Tiffany wit); ephemera, old cdv photos, old letters; fragments of vintage children’s books, her collection of antique baleen corsets, an original picture sleeve from the Little Richard 45 “ooh! my soul/true, fine mama”; her antique baby blue high chair, in part covered with ancient happy dolphin decals, in which sat a doll (representing her) and an old stuffed animal; a rabbit (representing the rabbit she once owned) named ” Little Sweet Miss Bitsy Who’s Its” AKA, “Hooos” (the number of Os varied with her pronunciation), (she gave it away when she could no longer afford or manage to feed it/care for it), she had already long since given away her cat “Mister Wonderful”; those beautiful, multi-colored old vivid lead paint broom handles David mentioned (which she used to have strung together as a divider between rooms when she had a larger apartment) and the cheap plastic flowers she scattered around her body before taking her life. I could go on and on.

    As an artist, she was fixated on color and one of the most colorful personalities I am ever likely to meet. She was the queen of the trash pickers. Then there was her astounding artwork, willed to another loyal friend from long before I met her. And most importantly, there is the intangible; the love, the wit, the friendship, humor and affection that her friends will most remember her for. She was ten times funnier than any other Sedaris, since her humor stemmed partly from living a darker, harder life on the razor’s edge. Her passing and the circumstances surrounding it have been unbearably upsetting to her many friends and personally, I will mourn her until my dying day.

    Not only could Tiffany been saved, she could have blossomed. While her friends had done all they could,at least half of her mental health issues stemmed from (or were exaggerated by) her poverty and unstable housing situations, but also from David’s occasional mockery of her in his writings.

    Her father had the wealth and should have had the wisdom of age to see that she was in dire need of more financial support

    David Sedaris made a fortune writing about the foibles and idiosyncrasies of his family, which America and the world has latched onto, since most families are somewhat dysfunctional. As this holiday season and time of reunions approaches, let this be a warning to others: not every black sheep is a lost sheep. Some might come back into the fold with just a little more kind attention or modest financial assistance.

    In an interview on Dutch TV, given a month after Tiffany’s suicide, David was asked, “What if you could ask her on question?” He replied, “Can I have the money back that I loaned you?” He laughed. “She borrowed all this money from me. She said “I will pay you back in my lifetime”. I can’t believe I fell for that”. David should consider the payment for his article about Tiffany’s suicide to be a debt paid in full. David’s detachment and insensitivity is insulting and offensive to all who loved Tiffany, likely including his own family. Maybe David could have given Tiffany some more of the money he made off of stories about her. He repeatedly heard she was living a hardscrabble life.

    David spent a good 10-20 percent of the article talking about how to name the posh beach house he bought on a whim, three weeks after his youngest sister died, destitute, from a brutally violent suicide in her ramshackle hovel on the ” hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts.” I have a good suggestion as to how to name the new beachfront vacation home, the one with the nice view from David’s bedroom, one of a few houses David owns. Perhaps this one should be named The House of Shame.

    • John Bridell says:

      Thank you for sharing. I did not see what you saw in his writings. Put a lid on it did not strike me as mean, I read his concern for her in it, and his helplessness. All things considered, she wasn’t very nice to her family, even though they were mean to her first, she was younger then 5 of them. Did she not go to her mothers funeral? That’s cold. She also stabbed David in the eye with a pencil, nearly costing him half his sight. These things need to be mentioned as well.

    • Steve says:

      I’m glad you wrote this, though sometimes it seems that you could give everything you have to a loved family member or friend…and only destroy yourself in the process.

    • Bob Johnson says:

      She didn’t want her brother’s money or possessions. If you truly knew her as you say, you would also know that she was a deeply troubled soul. You only know one, brief side of her life story. Don’t cast stones on others when you don’t know the whole story.

  5. John Bridell says:

    It bears mentioning that he says he lent her a large sum of money, he said this in a video interview with some Dutch tv thing.

    • Tina says:

      I knew Tiffany during the last 10 years of her life. David never lent her large sums during that time, and I don’t think he did so before then either, because after Tiffany stopped working she lived on inheritance from her mother for a while. [All the siblings inherited from their mother.] That takes the time line back to before David would have had the necessary wealth to lend large sums to anyone. Many of Tiffany’s friends gave her money and support. It was never enough. Given that writing about Tiffany (even against her wishes, because it was always exploitative with no benefit to Tiffany AT ALL) was part of David’s bread and butter, why couldn’t he help set up a trust for her so his brilliantly talented, struggling sister would not be ground down by poverty and abandonment? To contribute to your sister’s wellbeing if you have the means, no matter how hard she is to get along with, seems like a no brainer. I fell sorry for David that he squandered the chance to make that kind of choice. I shudder that instead he spontaneously bought a beach house so that what remains of his family can vacation together. In defiance of all the many tragedies of her life, Tiffany created joyful, vibrant art and was hilariously funny. She never stopped being worthy of help.

  6. William says:

    I knew Tiffany for many years and she was certainly troubled by how her brother had profited by penning her misfortune. She was especially vocal about an incident at Symphony Hall where her brother refused to greet her after a reading and had a door closed in her face, after she purchased a ticket. I could never understand how he could shut her out, but I only knew her story. She was an amazing artist trying to find her way in the shadows cast by the bright fame of her siblings. I am sad that she is gone.

    • AlllieG says:

      It is difficult to sort out the emotions and relationships in one’s one family: trying to do it for other peoples’ families is pointless. There are two broad ways of looking at this (1) the wishes of any individual, after they have passed away, should be respected (2) never expect an artist to refrain from using what happens in their life for their art. Unfortunately, these two things were not simultaneously possible in this situation. The sister was clearly a troubled soul, and while I understand Sedaris believing himself within his artistic rights to put out the piece, to me it seems as though artistic opportunism triumphed over family wishes. I don’t think we would be as bothered by it had he put it aside for a few years before making it public. This is why so many public figures request that their private papers are not made public for 50 or 100 years: they do not want to hurt or unbalance relationships of the people around them. And I think that had he put it aside for 10-20 years, he may have written a different piece.

  7. […] SHARING SOMEONE ELSE’S PAIN: A QUESTION OF TACT WITH DAVID SEDARIS (TEA LEAVES AND DOG EARS – […]

  8. […] of the responses to Sedaris’s piece have been equivocal in their praise. In particular, a response by writer Sarah Arboleda questions the ethics of, as she calls it, “sharing someone else’s pain”. Arboleda […]

  9. I respectfully disagree with your position of intrusion. When the mentally ill suffer, they rarely suffer alone; their family/loved ones suffer with them. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for David and his family to express their shock, grief and loss in any way they want because I assume they’re a loving family, trying to accept each other.
    As a survivor (my brother), I think the idea of suicide is oceans away from the actual experience of that kind of loss.

  10. Rotsne says:

    I just recently saw the piece. It made me painfully aware that we as parents who have made the ultimate sacrifice to let others handle the emotional issues our children could suffer from always must be alert to hunt down damaging residential programs regardless of the country they are placed in. Only global awareness can prevent adults to live an entire life with the burden of the experiences they suffered while they were in so-called treatment as a child.

    His sister was sent to Elan School brutally known for its so-called therapeutic boxing ring where the teenagers were forced to jump and insult each other. She suffered at this place for two years. The fact that every single employee involved in this scam which destroyed the emotional life of many teenagers have not been brought to trial has sent me as a caring parent into battle against abusive residential programs not only in Denmark where I live – but on a worldwide basis.

    His parents are quote to say that they did not stop the world because they had 6 children and only one was ill. I believe that a child’s illness affects the entire family despite the number of siblings. I believe that each sibling easily could understand if everyone closed in as a family and dealt with the problem so it didn’t need to end up as a kind of exile process for the child who suffered from the illness.

    We have no way to understand the pain his sister suffered during her adult life as result of her stay at Elan School. We don’t know many nights she got ruined due to nightmares as thousand of survivors from similar places speak about. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is so common that it should be listed as a subject on the graduation paper from a residential program.

    Here is where I find that he fails a bit in the article. He didn’t realize how much he failed her by not attacking the programs very minute she returned home telling her family what Elan School was really about. Earlier this month an Amber Alert was sent out because boys were hidden from the authorities by the manager of a ranch for at-risk teenagers. The authorities only acted on the ranch before clients started dying because a parent had done years of investigation.

    What if Elan School had been closed before they did if siblings and parents of Tiffany Sedaris had spoken out against the program? What if they had collected testimonies from former clients? Maybe there would not have been a conviction against Michael Shakel – a conviction which was so doubtful that they now – many years later – have to do a new trial?

    Maybe Tiffany Sedaris had lived today knowing that while her parents made a mistake sending her to Elan they did do right by going after those so-called professionals who destroyed her life. His article was a sad piece to read but it inspired me to work harder doing what I am already doing – to find abusive residential programs and close them by using public awareness of their abuse.

    I find the article fine and acceptable because it inspired me.

    • I was at Elan, about a year after Tiffany. Yes it has greatly effected my life even thirty years on. So many kids from there just.. sank.. as adults, including myself if I’m to be honest about it.

      Elan never leaves me. They utilized brain washing techniques taken from North Korea along with the basic brutality and dehumanization. They tore us down and never built us back up. A lot of us left shattered.

      • atkinspea says:

        Thank you for speaking about your experiences at Elan and the hard legacy of pain. I hope there are many forums where people who have been so harmed by such institutions are able to let the world know. From reading the comments on this post, I have done research and educated myself. Thank you, again.

  11. AlllieG says:

    While I agree with what you’ve written, that it is exploitative to use someone else’s feelings and experiences as fodder for writing, especially when the “someone” is acknowledged as being emotionally troubled. However, it is hard to imagine a writer who has not done exactly that. While on a personal level it is disrespectful, on a professional level, how do you ask a writer/painter/composer/poet to stop from expressing the thoughts and emotions they experience — when that is exactly their raison d’etre? And don’t we wish that the friends/families of many writers had NOT followed their wishes about burning anything left behind? In the 21st century we are inundated by TMI about people who we really wish would hide away – at least in this case, it’s well written…

    • Monica Jobim says:

      “how do you ask a writer/painter/composer/poet to stop from expressing the thoughts and emotions they experience — when that is exactly their raison d’etre?”

      That’s a very insensitive justification for David’s ignoring his sister’s wishes.

  12. A writer gets in a lot of trouble with the people he/she knows, the way he/she remembers things, and the boundaries that inevitably are crossed in sharing personal things. If an artist paints a picture of a subject who invariably ends up hating the final result, that does not mean it doesn’t have value, nor that it cannot be appreciated by others. And it’s easy to criticize a writer for their style and their openness, and that is why it takes a lot of courage to write, especially about family or people that you know. I have always found that in all of David Sedaris’ pieces that focus on his family, his love and appreciation of them is evident in spite of some potentially uncomfortable foibles he reveals in the process. Such transparency is disturbing for any subject, but his work has never been damning or hateful. From the little I’ve read about Tiffany outside of the pieces by her brother, she was a beautiful person, a rare artist in her own right (I would love to see the mosaics she did with glass at some point) and a private person, who found beauty in things that other people discarded. A writer does something similar with words, and it’s unfair to censor the artist or dictate what is or is not acceptable to use as material. The loss of a family member is tragic. Figuring out a way to piece it together and make sense of it is very much like arranging a glass mosaic, only with words. Like glass, words can be sharp and dangerous as well as being colorful and filled with light.

    • I respect that David Sedaris has the right to write this. I respect that this is his experience and his sister and his grief and his work and that he is a writer of such a high caliber that his musings, reflections and essays are published in The New Yorker. But I still take issue with the piece itself. It just feels too… expository.

  13. David says:

    “Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?” This brilliant sentence makes the whole piece worth it.

  14. Lisa says:

    I think it’s obvious that her family loved her very, very much despite any real or perceived distance. She herself said to use her stories once she was dead– that people could “recycle” her then.

    I think it seems rather obvious that she was ill and suffering. People should not worry about ‘appropriate’ ways to grieve. I think her family loved her very much, and David loved her very much, and that piece was to show his love.

    So as one Sedaris fan to another (right?), I would say that there is always more to the story (and different versions of every story).

    Regardless, are you *writing* that *writing* about one’s OWN sibling’s suicide is gross? Then what on earth are you doing with it? That seems awfully hypocritical to me and just rather unfair.

    It’d be hard to have a close relative writing about my family but– I would imagine– far worse to have strangers doing the same thing without the help of such things as shared life experiences and, well, facts.

    • Absolutely — like every black sheep in the family, no matter what they do or say, you can’t help but love them and care for them and worry about them. I don’t question David Sedaris’s grieving process, I just worry that given that she specifically asked him to stop writing about her, it feels… inappropriate to do so after she’s dead.

  15. Tia says:

    I understand David’s need to write about it, but there is a selfishness there. I feel like it is disrespectful to her memory by putting things out there that she might not have wanted to be shared. I have lost someone very close to me and when writing about them I leave out the most personal parts. Not only as respect for them, but also because those private moments are mine specially. No one else’s. I think keeping them to yourself is a way to cherish their memory. But maybe that’s just me.

    I did feel like intruding when I read the piece. I felt the same way about reading Anne Frank’s diary…it’s her friggin’ diary, you know? I wouldn’t want anyone reading my private thoughts after I’ve perished.

    With that being said, I still understand his need to grieve in his own way.

    • This^. I understand his need to grieve, and writing is very helpful. Having said that, I did not read his piece, but I would hope in her death, he could honor her wishes. If not, I’d at least hope (as in Anne Frank’s diary) something important could be learned in exposing her private thoughts and feelings…

    • Exactly. Not every single person was liked by everyone they met, but we say it when they’ve passed, because why not remember them at their best? It may be hackneyed, it may be a cliche — it may even be dishonest. But we do it as a social gesture of kindness.

  16. Suzanne says:

    Maybe not wildly disagree but disagree. David Sedaris writes about what he knows best–his experiences. He wasn’t raised in a vacuum, which is why his family is major part of his work. He stayed true to his art and wrote about what he knew even if it did disturb his sister. I don’t think he did it to upset her but pursue his craft. She couldn’t control what he did when he was alive so she certainly can’t control what he’s doing from the grave. Lou Sedaris asked, “Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?” Yes, it does. David is handling it by doing what he knows best. RIP Tiffany and my condolences to the Sedarises.

    • Suzanne says:

      If I could correct myself, David asked, “Doesn’t the blood…” not his dad. Thanks.

    • Absolutely. I guess my issue is with the fact that she did publicly request that he stop writing about her. She somewhat recanted that over time, but the description of her will suggests she may have gone back on that again before the end. I get that it’s his story and his experience. I suppose that in knowing about her, I just find it disrespectful in this instance.

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