David Sedaris Talks About Surviving the Suicide of a Sibling
The essayist discusses the complex tragedy of having a loved one take their own life.
The Sedaris family. Front row, left to right: Lisa, David, and Dad (Lou). Second row: Paul, Amy, Mom (Sharon), and Gretchen. Photos courtesy of Lisa Sedaris Evans
This article appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
I first met David Sedaris about ten years ago, after he mentioned my Richard Yates biography on the Harvard Book Store website. I wouldn't have been more flattered if I'd discovered that Mark Twain had read and enjoyed my work, and I made a point of attending David's next reading in Gainesville, Florida, where I lived at the time. Later I moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and met David for a drink one night when his tour was in town—or, rather, I had a martini and David, as I recall, had seltzer. He sat across from me, alertly smiling, and sometimes he'd unobtrusively flip open a little steno pad and make a note. Which is to say, he's almost always working, even when he's picking up litter along the side of the road near his home in West Sussex, England (his diligence has been commended by the Queen).
On May 24, 2013, David's youngest sister, Tiffany, killed herself in Somerville, Massachusetts, and David wrote a poignant piece about this and other matters, "Now We Are Five," that appeared in the New Yorker. Tiffany had stipulated in her will that the family "could not have her body or attend her memorial service," and among her effects were a number of family photos that had been ripped to pieces. "Now We Are Five" recounts a family trip that summer to a beach house in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, where the surviving children and their 90-year-old father wonder who Tiffany really was and how things had gone so wrong. "Ours is the only club I've ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn't imagine quitting," David writes of his family. "Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you'd take your own life?"
After reading the piece, I remarked to my wife that Tiffany reminded me a lot of my older brother, Scott, the main subject of a memoir I was about to publish, The Splendid Things We Planned. Growing up, Scott was the more promising one: better-looking, more athletic, and arguably smarter (he spoke German, our mother's first language, whereas I can hardly count to ten in anything but English). In many ways, both good and bad, he was more like me than anyone on Earth: He and only he would laugh at the same stupid shit that I did, and nowadays I often find myself laughing alone, and it will occur to me that Scott would have laughed just as hard. But Scott eventually killed himself, too, and by then it wasn't so surprising, though one always wondered to what extent the drugs and drink contributed to his mental illness or vice versa. As early as the age of ten or so, Scott would tell me he had a different family in another dimension (and no little brother) and that someday he'd disappear into their loving arms forever.
Before his local show on April 29, David and I met at the Skirvin Hilton in downtown Oklahoma City, across the street from where my father practiced law for almost 45 years. We candidly discussed our families, especially the "remarkable messes" that were Tiffany and Scott.
VICE: Though Scott and I had a certain affinity, for the most part it wasn't much fun growing up with him. Would you say that you had a relatively happy time growing up in your family?
David Sedaris: I had a happy time with my family. I always felt safe with them. I always felt a part of them. When I think back on my childhood, I think of my siblings and me sitting around a table laughing with my mother. And I mean long after dinner was finished. We did not leave the table the second we were done eating; my father would, and then we would all breathe a sigh of relief and talk for hours and hours. Elementary school, junior high school, high school, after high school—we just always really enjoyed one another's company.
That sounds great. My heart would kind of sink when it was time to sit down for dinner with my family—or with Scott, anyway.
One thing that I've been saying to people about your book is that, if you've had someone like Scott in your family, it's a grinding wheel. He fucks up majorly, and after he begs forgiveness, you let him back. Then he wrecks the car and goes to rehab. Then he gets out and starts taking drugs—it's the same story over and over and over. What saves a reader from feeling hopeless in your book is that you portray your brother as a remarkable person. A remarkable mess, but a remarkable person nonetheless. As a brother and an author you never lose sight of that. And I think a lot of times people do, especially because they cause you so much pain, these messes. It's the remarkable ones you want to write a book about.
Speaking of remarkable messes: Was Tiffany the difficult one even when she was small?
Yes. She was a lot like my mother. The physical resemblance was almost spooky, and they had a similar personality. Perhaps because of this, our mom never really liked Tiffany. 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...
More from the Fiction Issue: "Three Love Stories" by April Ayers Lawson
So was she picked on?
She was picked on, though it would have been different if she were higher up in the birth order. Generally speaking, the older you are, the fewer people there are to fuck with you. I was talking to Zach Galifianakis a few weeks ago, and he told me that his older brother used to stuff his filthy underpants into Zach's mouth and say, "I'm serving you with a gag order." He said—and I thought it was very interesting—that his older brother had "formed" him. Zach is a hugely successful comedian and is grateful to have the family that he did. I think of my older sister, Lisa, and how she used to pin me to the ground and spit into my mouth. At the time it wasn't a whole lot of fun, but I certainly don't hold it against her. Tiffany, on the other hand, retained it all. I think it felt like betrayal to her to recall a happy moment. The narrative was that we were horrible to her and nothing we said or did could change it.
Did your younger siblings, Amy and Paul, connect a bit better with her?
Yes, but as Tiffany got older she couldn't hold that in her mind. She was diagnosed, we later learned, as bipolar II, though she preferred to say there was nothing wrong with her. When pressed she'd say that she was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and that the trauma was her childhood.
How did you find out about her bipolar diagnosis?
She had cleaned her room but left some papers amongst some trash in a plastic bag hanging on the back of her bedroom door. We never knew what was going on with Tiffany and thought, at one point, of hiring a private detective to find out what her life was like. Because of her secrecy we suspected the worst. I know that she had sex with people for money at certain points in her life.
How do you know that?
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.
There was a guy she knew in Queens who wasn't a boyfriend exactly, who'd buy her plane tickets and give her money. Maybe it's not fair of me, but I suspected it was in return for sex. There were other guys she referred to and situations she recounted in phone calls. Tiffany was very beautiful, and 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.
More from the Fiction Issue: "The Love Trip" by Brian Booker
We know that Tiffany complained about being in your work.
Tiffany told me I could never write about her, and I said "fine." Then she called one day in the year 2000 and said, "Everybody thinks you don't like me. Will you write a story about me?" I wrote "Put a Lid on It" and sent it to her with a note reading, "Is this OK with you?" She said, "My boyfriend and I read it, and we laughed so hard. You captured me perfectly." Then I took some things out, sent her the revised version, asking, again, "Is this OK?" "Love it," she told me. When the book it was included in came out in 2004, she gave an interview [to the Boston Globe] and said I had invaded her privacy and ruined her life. That was Tiffany in a nutshell. I should have kept it in mind and never written the story. She was always testing the wind and tailoring her reaction according to who she was talking to. Were someone to say, "I love the story your brother wrote," her response would be, "Yes, isn't it great?" And if somebody said, "I can't believe what your brother wrote about you," she'd say, "Yes, isn't it awful?"
How do your siblings react to their appearances in your work? Have there been conflicts with the others? Or do you have a policy of letting them see a given piece before?
I always let them see it first, or almost always. I was in Asheville, North Carolina, about ten days ago, and read a new story I had written about my sister Lisa, who is always willing to laugh at herself. She was in the audience that night, and rather than having her read it in advance, I wanted to surprise her with it. When people laugh at a story about one of my family members, they're laughing because the family member in question is funny. They're laughing, most often, at quotes. Lisa knows she's funny. She's not inclined to get up on stage and do what I do, but the laughs I get with that story are hers, and she earned every one of them.
Growing up, were you closer to some siblings than others? Or did alliances sort of form and dissolve over time?
I think it's like this for everyone in a big family. Relationships shift. When I was in junior high school and high school, I was best friends with my sister Gretchen. We were inseparable. When she went off to college, I started spending more time with Lisa. Then Amy and I moved to Chicago and became inseparable. In New York it was still me and Amy. Then I left the United States, and kind of moved back to Lisa, with short forays to Gretchen. I don't see Paul that often, but things shift, and who knows ten years from now? Amy and I go to Japan together, and she comes to Europe for Christmas, as do the others. I like them all.
Is there a sibling who's relatively conservative, or are you all a bunch of live wires?
Lisa's more—a bit more sober perhaps. I wouldn't use the word conservative. But the stories she tells are wild, and she delivers them beautifully. If you're looking from the outside in, she might appear a little more straitlaced than anybody else—the suburban house, etc.—but I don't know that she really is.
You mention how Paul would occasionally make "Rooster-ish" fun of your sexual orientation. What about your other siblings? Were you out as a gay man with them before you were out with your parents? How did that go down?
That's the great thing about a big family. All you have to do is tell one person, then by sunset everybody knows. I confided in Gretchen, and she did the rest of the work for me. Except for my father, and Paul when he was young, nobody seemed to care. That's probably pretty normal, though. When you're a kid, 13 or 14 years old, you don't want your older brother to be gay. It's embarrassing to you. As a young man Paul had a few bad experiences. Once, he was doing yard work at somebody's house, and this guy pulled over to ask for directions. Paul helped him out, and the guy said, "How about if I suck your dick?" My brother was shocked and went crazy with his rake. I think he thought that this was what being gay was like: You drive around and try to pick up teenagers with rakes and shovels in their hands.
So was there any friction between you and Paul about it?
Not friction, no. He was, like I said, embarrassed for a while, but he got over it.
In an interview, Amy said something about the first time you brought a boyfriend to the seaside cottage or whatever. Everybody teased him.
When my sisters brought boyfriends home, my mother would make them sleep in separate rooms—this because they weren't married. With my boyfriends, though, there were no restrictions. Funny, but the only sex my mother allowed under her roof was gay sex, perhaps because it couldn't lead to pregnancy. I didn't have a serious boyfriend until I was 27. That was the first time my family saw me in a relationship.
Did your father try to talk you out of it?
Even as late as 2005 he tried to sell me on my friend Evelyne, who is ten years older than me and lives in Chicago. "She's a great gal! You ought to marry her." I'd been with Hugh for 15 years by that point, and I said, "What do you think it says about her that she'd want to marry a gay man?" It was just so weird to me.
He gets along with Hugh OK, right? Or...?
Yes, he does, amazingly well, especially given that he's 92 and Greek. When I started on the radio my father said, "Why do you have to talk about that stuff?" I thought he meant being gay, but he was talking about cleaning apartments. He didn't want people to know that I did that for a living. That, somehow, was more shameful to him than my sexuality, which was interesting.
In your latest story about the Rooster [his younger brother, Paul], you said something about how your mom became a mean drunk at the end.
When you're writing about somebody, whether they're dead or alive, there are things that they wouldn't want the world to know. So I never really addressed my mother's drinking. Writing that story about my brother, though, I wanted to talk about how he was formed, about how different his childhood was from mine. The mother I had would never have spoken to me the way she did to Paul, would never have acted the way she did in front of him, would never have lost control like that. It's hard to admit it, but toward the end of her life she was really an unhappy person, and it broke our hearts because we loved her. Worse still, we never confronted her about it. Instead it just sat there, seeping.
More from the Fiction Issue: "The Terminal Artist" by David Means
So it was sort of doubly sad?
I suppose we all sort of enabled her. She drank like an unhappy person, and that made it all the more troubling. Would our saying something have changed the situation? Who knows. My mom was the sort who really got a kick out of her children. She enjoyed spending time with us, and the feeling was mutual. Then we were gone and the darkness crept in. I was signing books one day, and this mother came up with her two children, aged maybe 18 and 20. They were in that golden period: the kids in college, both so beautiful and content with each other. And I just wanted to protect them. "Horrible, horrible things are coming," I wanted to say. "Remember this time! Cherish it!" I remember my dad boasting to a friend, "I've got the most beautiful daughters in the neighborhood!" And he did.
Speaking of your mom and dad, usually I find the humor about your father to be non-scathing. He's a character, and he's lovable. In "Ashes," though, about your mother's cancer, there's one part where he's berating her about smoking a cigarette, and you write something like, "He'd made a commitment to make her life miserable, and he would stick to that until the bitter end." Did that hurt your dad?
The only time my father got mad at me is when I wrote a story about my grandmother ["Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!"]. I remember when Naked came out, I called him to tell him that the book was on the best-seller list, and he hung up the phone on me. Ouch. Honestly, though, he could have been a lot angrier. I think about that story you mentioned, "Ashes," and cringe. After our mother died we were all mad at my father. We blamed him for making our mother unhappy. She had free will, though. She could have left and improved her life. She could have quit drinking. What did any of us know about marriage, about being with someone for 35 years? In retrospect, he was just an easy target. So when I look at that story it just seems bratty to me, and ignorant.
Was there much physical violence between you and your siblings? You said Lisa got on top of you and spit in your mouth.
As the older brother, it's your job to torment people, to tie your sisters up in a wheelbarrow, for instance, and roll it off a cliff into the ravine. But there was rarely serious violence, never throwing a brick at anybody. A person can really get hurt that way. I remember we had a butterfly chair. You know those canvas—
With the metal frame—
Exactly. So if you were all watching TV and you decided that you wanted to sit in the butterfly chair, you'd take a pin and stick it through the canvas into whichever ass was occupying it at the time. They'd run upstairs to tell on you, and voilà: The chair was yours. But there wasn't a lot of blood drawn. Tiffany stabbed me in the eye with a pencil once. I changed the channel while she was watching Bewitched and she just went ballistic. Blood was everywhere. I had to go to the hospital, but it wound up being nothing serious. She was pretty young, third grade or something, when that happened.
Was she remorseful?
Sure, and I don't hold it against her.
I've gotten occasional hate mail about my memoir. Strangers who go to my website, they've read the memoir and they think I'm callous and having fun at Scott's expense. And I've noticed—though the overwhelming response to "Now We Are Five" is positive—there have been some snarky things written about it too. Do you take notice of that sort of thing?
No. I mean, I know that it exists, but I don't pay it any mind. I gave a reading last year in Mississippi, and during the Q&A this woman asked, "What do you say about the charge that you were responsible for your sister's suicide?"
You suggest in "Now We Are Five" that the suicide was, in some ways, a pointed gesture against the family. Do you think that?
Tiffany wrote a seven- or eight-page suicide note that was addressed to her lawyer and said, basically, "This is what led me to do what I did." It was mainly about friends she thought were stealing from her. The letter was so tangled and desperate-sounding. One of the things I noticed while reading it was that she capitalized all of her B's: But, Because, Barely. Everything else was lower case. I only received one letter from Tiffany, and she sent it to me long ago, in 1998, I think. I wasn't aware, then, of what her writing was like. I mean, who capitalizes all their B's?
She said she didn't want any family coming to her memorial service.
Yes. She also stated that we weren't allowed to have her body. Tiffany left all her belongings to a woman she once worked for who lives in New York State. Lisa called about maybe getting a cupful of ashes, and the woman said no. She was furious about this Dutch interview I gave. A couple months after Tiffany died, this Dutch film crew came to Sussex. They followed me around for several days, and toward the end of it, the interviewer kind of pulled up very close to me and said, "I know your sister recently committed suicide. So if you could say one thing to her, if she was here right now, what question would you ask?" And I said, "Can I have back that $6,000 that I loaned you?" I said it because the moment felt so cheesy: the lowered voice, the closeness. Certain people got bent out of shape over it, but come on. Tiffany was nothing if not funny. She would have been the first one to say something like that.
More from the Fiction Issue: "The Bridgetender" by Joy Williams
There's a YouTube video, about five minutes long, of Tiffany. And it was published in 2013, so it must have been toward the end of her life. She's kind of hilarious. She tells this story about Fred Astaire and Dick Cavett—
I saw that, and it made me sad, mainly because she was so much funnier than that. She could really make you laugh, Tiffany could. Most often, though, she'd go on too long. It was rare that she'd let the other person talk, and after a while it became oppressive, especially as she got older.
How would that happen? Can you give me an example of how an otherwise amiable gathering would deteriorate because of Tiffany?
I did a live This American Life show in Boston one year. Tiffany came with me and was getting high all evening, smoking pot, and talking nonstop. Ira Glass was there, a bunch of people, some I knew and some I didn't. At the end of the night, I put Tiffany in a cab, and Jonathan Goldstein said "wow." Because she was out of control that evening. Just would not stop talking. I know when I get nervous I talk a lot, but this was—
Do you think that was the mania?
Maybe. All I know is that I've never seen anything like it. You could set the phone down while talking to Tiffany, and when you picked it up again ten minutes later she'd still be going at it, never asking anything about you, never pausing. It was just this cascade of words. There was rarely any level of engagement, rarely a sense that you were actually conversing. Maybe she was different with her friends. I don't know. I hope it was different with them.
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.
You said that you hadn't spoken to her in eight years before she died, because the last argument was so nasty. Was that argument because of the Boston Globe story, or just another argument with Tiffany?
It was that, yes, and then there were other things. There was never any resolution after an argument with Tiffany. She'd call you up six months after a fight and just pretend that nothing ever happened. I usually went along with it, but this time something stopped me. I just couldn't trust her anymore. She threatened to sell my letters after that and accused me of taking down her Myspace page. As if I'd ever seen it. She accused me of buying her name as a web address, all sorts of things. You don't want to be the brother who's not talking to his sister, but sometimes...
Back when we were talking I'd see her in Boston. Some visits were better than others, and the worse would take a heavy toll. My father, though, was always up for it. He never stopped talking to her, even after she'd berate him, saying the worst things you can imagine. "Things are looking up for Tiffany!" he'd tell us, always so positive. It's sort of beautiful that he believed she was capable of change. [ Imitating his father:]
"What she needs to do is put out an album. She's got a beautiful voice! I talked to her and said, 'We gotta get you on the radio!' ... I talked to her and said, 'What you need to do is pull yourself up by the bootstraps!'" He supported her financially. And that's part of Dad's deal: If he's going to give you money, you're going to listen to all his suggestions about what to do with your life. That's probably every parent's deal. It's why you stand on your own two feet, because you think, If I have to listen to this for five more minutes, I'm going kill myself.
A few years before she died, she decided to move back to Raleigh. It didn't work out, and during the three weeks that she was there she caused some real problems. I'm told she had a knapsack with her. It was locked, and no one was allowed to go anywhere near it. We wonder if there wasn't a tape recorder in it. "Do you think I'm beautiful?" she kept asking my father. "Do you think I'm sexy?" After ten days, she left and moved in with a woman she knew from high school. That lasted a week, and she left claiming that the woman had made sexual advances toward her. This was always the story.
I suggested that my father buy Tiffany an apartment, someplace warm like Key West. There are a lot of people like her down there. In ten minutes she'd have carved out a place for herself, though it wouldn't have solved her greater problems.
Now that Tiffany is dead, or even if she weren't, do you think about writing a memoir—I mean a book-length thing rather than individual pieces? Is that something that tempts you at all?
I would love to find out who she was. But I don't have your skill, the skill to go out and talk to her friends, to hunt down people she went to Élan with and construct a concise portrait of her. We all wonder, my family and I. We talk about it all the time. We'd like to know how she survived. For close to 20 years Tiffany had a good deal on an apartment in Somerville. Her landlady was from China, Mrs. Yip, and for years my sister sang her praises. "Mrs. Yip, she's the greatest. She's teaching me tai chi!" Little by little Tiffany destroyed the apartment: pulled up the linoleum in the kitchen, overturned buckets of paint on the living-room floor, wrote on the walls. The tub was black, and the spare room was crowded floor to ceiling with junk. It became a complete wreck. This rental unit was Mrs. Yip's retirement account. Somerville is full of students, and instead of renting to Tiffany for $1,000 a month, she could have been getting at least twice that, and having tenants who didn't destroy the place. I don't know what happened between my sister and Mrs. Yip, but at some point she stopped paying rent and claimed she'd put $25,000 worth of work into the apartment. There was an eviction notice. Tiffany took out a restraining order. It got ugly, and eventually she moved into a single room in a much worse part of town, and then into another single room.
Can I ask you a question? When people write you ugly things about your book, what does that make you feel? Do you read that stuff?
Yeah. I'm not David Sedaris; I get pretty sparse reader mail, so when I do get it, I tend to respond to it. And most of it is kind. But when I get nasty stuff... OK. So there was this woman who wrote, "You should be ashamed of yourself, turning your brother out of your house at Christmas. What kind of a person are you? You're a monster." That sort of thing. So I reminded her that my brother, around that Christmas, had assaulted my mother and threatened to kill her, so I was just protecting my mother. And I really think we all did the best we could. So I told her, "Why don't you go pick on some other memoir author you don't like, or maybe you have better things to do? For your sake I certainly hope so." Something like that. And other people have said that I'm too detached from my brother's suffering, that I have a tacky sense of humor—things like that. Some people are pretty humorless, and if you don't have a sense of humor you tend to see things in a way I don't understand. It's almost as if they're talking to me in Swahili or something. I don't get it.
I never read anything about myself. No reviews, nothing.
Sometimes people tell me, "You didn't try hard enough with Scott. You didn't try hard enough to help him." Do you get that sort of thing?
In order for things to be different, Tiffany would have had to be a completely different person. I mean, why not say, "Well, if she were four inches tall, and her name were Thumbelina, everything would have been fine." I could not have saved Tiffany. If you don't want to take your medication, there's nothing anyone can do. There's not a single day that I don't think about her, though. She was a remarkable person.
Follow Blake on Twitter.