A friend of a woman who took her life stands up to David Sedaris

The image of David Sedaris, the author and humorist, is taking a significant hit this week as the result of his October New Yorker article about the suicide of his sister.

In her will, Tiffany Sedaris mandated that no one from her family was allowed to attend her memorial service.

Two boxes was all she left, Sedaris suggested in his article.

“So put that in your pipe and smoke it,” our mother would have said.

A few days after getting the news, my sister Amy drove to Somerville with a friend and collected two boxes of things from Tiffany’s room: family photographs, many of which had been ripped into pieces, comment cards from a neighborhood grocery store, notebooks, receipts. The bed, a mattress on the floor, had been taken away and a large industrial fan had been set up.

Amy snapped some pictures while she was there, and, individually and in groups, those of us left studied them for clues: a paper plate on a dresser that had several drawers missing, a phone number written on a wall, a collection of mop handles, each one a different color, arranged like cattails in a barrel painted green.

But, it seems worth pointing out now, if clues are what the family wanted, why did only Sedaris’ sister, Amy, show up at Tiffany’s apartment?

Now, a friend of hers, Michael Knoblach, has called out Sedaris in a column of his own in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.

“Some of her family had been more than decent, loving and kind to her,” he writes, suggesting Sedaris, himself, was a callous brother.

“Two lousy boxes” is not Tiffany’s legacy. After her sister left with that meager lot, her house was still full of treasures. More than two vanloads of possession 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 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 rabbit, a rabbit, representing the rabbit she once owned named “Little Sweet Miss Bitsy Who’s Its,” a.k.a., “Hooos,” (the number of ooo’s varied with her pronunciation) — she gave the rabbit 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, multicolored 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.

And he does, suggesting that Sedaris could’ve shared some of his fortune from writing and mocking the life of his sister.

“As this holiday season and time of reunions approaches, he wrote, “let this be a warning to others — not every black sheep is a lost sheep and some might come back into the fold with just a little more kind attention or modest financial assistance.”

It might be a little harder to enjoy NPR’s tradition of airing Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries this year.

Update 1/31/14Sedaris reads his essay on This American Life.

  • Just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.

    Michael Knoblach’s Tiffany Sedaris is different than David Sedaris’s Tiffany Sedaris. The only thing their abstractions have in common is that neither of their ideas of who Tiffany was are more accurate than one another. Neither of these people truly “knew” Tiffany. David wrote about the Tiffany he knew, and Michael wrote about the Tiffany he knew. I don’t think that necessarily means one knows her more fully than the other. Two different people are expressing their subjective experiences with Tiffany. I don’t see why Sedaris’s subjectivity is any less real than Michael’s.

    • James C

      Well said. My thoughts exactly.

    • Kassie

      While I agree that there were different Tiffanys, it also seems Sedaris had some facts wrong. Either he didn’t know because Amy had said there was only two boxes of stuff, or he lied, knowing Amy had left lots of things there.

      • DavidG

        He may very well have known how much was left behind, but simply dismissed it as junk of no value. Of course, not being estranged, the friend was aware of the apparent value and purpose of the items for her art.

      • Sian Morton

        I am bemused by the nit-picking over these columns as if we can make sense of this tragedy by arguing over ‘facts’. The ‘truth’ about the two boxes are a perfect example. Who said there were only two boxes? Why would you assume David Sedaris is lying?

        David Sedaris simply wrote: ‘A few days after getting the news, my sister Amy drove to Somerville with a friend and collected two boxes of things from Tiffany’s room: family photographs, many of which had been ripped into pieces, comment cards from a neighborhood grocery store, notebooks, receipts.’

        Michael Knoblach writes: ‘ “Two lousy boxes” is not Tiffany’s legacy. After her sister left with that meager lot, her house was still full of treasures.’

        I can’t find any evidence that the phrase ‘two lousy boxes’ deserves the quotation marks given to them by Michael Knoblach.

        Rest in peace Tiffany Sedaris. I only know you through your brother’s stories but, although you are a stranger to me, I do feel a sense of loss. My thoughts are with your friends and your family.

    • Possibly. Although it appears that Michael was not estranged from Tiffany. I think his primary objection is Sedaris’ use of his sister as fodder for an article that, somehow, ended up being less about his sister and more about the beach house he bought. And clearly he believes that Sedaris intentionally portrayed his sister having nothing in the world but two boxes of stuff. Clearly he feels she left behind people who appreciated her and loved her and saw the beauty in her.

      In a perfect world, that’s the kind of observation that comes from a brother. But the world of apparent mental illness bears no resemblance to a perfect world.

      • M_Librarian

        I wonder if you’re not giving adequate credit to the role of the beach house in Sedaris’ article. After describing the house, he comes back to talking about Tiffany and says:

        “She might promise to come home for Christmas, but at the last minute there’d always be some excuse: she missed her plane, she had to work. The same would happen with our summer vacations. ‘The rest of us managed to make it,’ I’d say, aware of how old and guilt-trippy I sounded.”

        I think this passage shows how Tiffany’s absence is something that had always been a constant in her relationship with her family. In a way, the family being at the Beach House (a.k.a. the “summer vacations” from the quote above) without her was par for the course, and Sedaris has a guilty feeling about holding her absence against her. It’s at the beach that he has come to expect her absence, but also where he feels the full weight of his feelings towards his sister, (saying later) “How could anyone purposely leave us?”.

        In all, I think that the New Yorker piece has more feeling than your comment gives it credit for, Mr. Collins.

        • I liked the article when I read it; it reminded me of the trailer my family of 7 squeezed into every year on Plum Island in Massachusetts. I could relate to what it meant. I can relate to the changing nature of family.

          I know where he was coming from. As the youngest in my family, I recall thinking while reading the article, “the odds say that group of 7 will someday be down to 1 and all of those people who faced the world together will be gone and I will be the one left.”

          Looking back, however, I do recall being troubled that he raises questions of mystery about his sister. And yet, as I said, he didn’t appear to go far out of his way to find the answers.

          I think she deserved that effort and why Amy went and nobody else did, is a mystery to me and maybe that part should have been in the original article too. Maybe the title could be changed from “now we are five” to “we’ve been five for awhile.”

          Maybe Tiffany gave up on the Sedaris family. Maybe they gave up on her. I don’t know. For another article, perhaps.

          Suicide casts a big shadow on families.

          So does growing up and I think — especially with long physical and emotional distances — the inability to contextualize a family of one’s youth with one’s adulthood is a powerful thing.

          I am mindful though that articles like that are probably the last thing anyone will read or anyone will right about your sister. It’s a fine line to walk.

          • old friend

            Her brothers is a callous man, what a jerk! Tiffany was a funny, artful, character, great cook, and much more witty than her brother. tiffany you will be missed in and out of the dumpsters…..on your bike lugging old mantles down a sommerville st or a broken piece of tile to which she would turn into art. i will miss you. old friend your infectious laugh and your comedic self glow the world has lost a good one.

          • older friend

            “Tiffany was a funny artful character”… Perfect! the world needs more Tiffanys, it’s a colder place without her.

          • Anne Russell

            of: The people who knew my brother who committed suicide, and my firstborn daughter who totally estranges herself (for 25 years) from all our family, but do not know any of us, had affection for these two “lost” family members, as you did for Tiffany, who never showed them the dark side of themselves which rejected love from those who loved them. Tiffany may have been terrific as your friend, but she had a pathological hostility toward her own family, likely part of her mental illness which culminated in her choice to take her own life.

          • moop

            You assume she was mentally ill but I see no mention of it in articles about her. Perhaps your family members “rejected love” but that may well not be the case here.

            Your chosen words “pathological hostility” are quite harsh and accusatory. Again, nowhere did I read she exhibited such extreme behavior. The closest description was that she was at odds with family members. In a large family of strong personalities it’s not uncommon for the dynamic to shift. You don’t know what what she had to deal.

          • Kim

            Moop- generally, people do not take their own life if they are not mentally ill. Just a thought.

      • nzmccorm

        I think that the beach house is significant because, in one of Sedaris’s earlier stories, he talks about how the last time their family felt whole and happy was when his parents decided to buy a beach house, and then decided not to. The story’s more about his disillusionment with his father, but it’s also one of the few anecdotes about their childhood where everyone, including Tiffany, is happy.

    • You know, it’s funny. My brother, mostly because of mental illness, also became a little estranged from the family in his final years; not because of anger, but just because that’s the way things worked out. I didn’t call him much, maybe once on his birthday, and talking to him could be a bit of a chore. I’d get frustrated with him because that’s the way people often are with people with a mental illness. I suspect Sedaris had a somewhat similar relationship with his sister. Still, when he died, I think I treated how he’d be remembered better than Sedaris did. http://stirringsfromtheemptynest.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-michael-lee-collins-1948-2012.html

      I do tend to think Sedaris was a character in a story in his column, when she needed to be his sister. Sometimes you have to stop being a writer, and just be a brother.

      • I never read Sedaris’ New Yorker article as an obituary for his sister as much as a rumination on the family that is left behind. I can’t say I fully understood all the metaphors in the New Yorker piece, but after I read it, I felt emotionally moved.

  • MrE85

    I let people mourn in their own way. I’m also sure that he would love to have a chance to argue with Tiffany one more time. I wish I could argue with my sister Carla, gone these many years. Family is strange stuff. We do the best we can.

    • Lisa

      Couldn’t have said it better.

  • I think it was a bad move on the critique’s author to even utter the words “modest financial assistance”. That just makes it seem like sour grapes over his success, and actually paints Tiffany with that brush as well which ends up piling on the unfair.

    David was certainly insensitive here, but that’s his stock-in-trade. It’s a known quantity, and you can judge him for that all day long. On the other hand, family dynamics are not something that outsiders are in a position to judge.

  • I talked with Mary Lucia about this today on the 4:20 conversation. Skip the news and jump ahead to 3:01. http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2013/12/mary-and-bob-12313/

  • Matt

    Knoblach seems to have unrealistic and unfair expectations when it comes to familial obligations. According to him:

    1) Parents and siblings are under an obligation to offer financial assistance to family members who are struggling.

    2) Family members are under an obligation to do whatever it takes to bring estranged family members “back into the fold,” even if her actions contributed to the strained relationship in the first place.

    First, David did lend her money, likely knowing he would never see a dime of it back, even though, as I would argue, he was under no obligation to do so. And if he seemed angry about lending her money in an interview, didn’t Tiffany bring it on herself? She promised him that she would pay him back. How is it unreasonable to expect him to hold her to her word.

    Second, even in cases where mental illness is involved, it reaches a point where family members have to live their own lives. Just because one person is sick or struggling doesn’t mean that the world stops or that they get unlimited opportunities to try the patience of their families.

    Finally, I think it bears mentioning that Knoblach’s piece is just as self serving as Sedaris’. As the other commenter, Scott, pointed out, Knoblach’s take on the circumstances of Tiffany’s death and her relationship with her family is entirely subjective. Unfortunately, Knoblach doesn’t seem to recognize this.

    • I give everyone a little bit of slack here. Tiffany can’t speak for herself because she’s dead and I don’t object to a friend standing up for her when aggrieved. We should all have such friends.

      Sedaris is a story teller who writes in the first person and, as I said earlier, that presents some real challenges when you start writing about family. They have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and yet when you write in the first person about your life, you can’t pretend these other people don’t exist. So much the worse when one of them is dead. You can’t ask permission.

      I can tell you when a sibling dies, you start thinking about things — the kind of things Sedaris wrote about. The familial obligation, who said what, who owed what, who was the victim becomes pretty trivial stuff to the reality that one of the people who made you whole is dead. And you’re not as whole as you were.

      Clearly, there’s a hole in the Sedaris family and there had been for some time. They stopped going to the beach house because their mother stopped making the arrangements and none of the siblings saw fit to pick up the slack. That’s the way we are in our youth and careers, there will always be other times and other places.

      And then there aren’t. One of you dies.

      Emotionally, I think, saying that isn’t really Sedaris’ thing.

      “We didn’t really know our sister very well,” he wrote in his New Yorker piece.

      There’s a lot of guilt in that piece and a lot of attempts to absolve himself from it. But in the end, I think, he confronts the reality of a dead sibling. He’s not “whole” anymore. Yes, families of mental illness have to move on, and say to themselves ” that’s it, I’m done.” But you can tell yourself that all you want, but you never can be done because you can’t be done with a piece of you and still be you.

      Things end. But not that.

    • Anne Russell

      You nailed it! Thank you.

  • Suzanne

    I just read the Sedaris piece and he very well could have written about each experience separately. The two didn’t fit together at all, no matter how much he tried.

  • frightwig

    When I first read the David Sedaris piece, I felt unsettled because it didn’t seem a charitable remembrance of his sister, but looking at it again now I don’t think he did anything wrong. He’s just frankly honest about his perspective of Tiffany: she was estranged from the family, none of them really knew her well, he had not spoken to her in 8 years, and he feels hurt and perplexed at her death because he believes she had rejected him and the family, and he still doesn’t really understand why. The beach house represents the family clubhouse where the clan gathers at holidays and affirms the bonds between them–except Tiffany repeatedly found excuses not to join them. And her suicide felt to David and the family like the final rejection:

    “Why do you think she did it?” I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that’s all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news.

    Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that
    whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough, and that her
    failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone
    purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought
    of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in
    my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than
    everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously
    reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only
    club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.
    Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so
    badly that you’d take your own life?

    “I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?”

    It would be nice to think that we all might have nothing but fond things to say about departed family members, but what if the relationship was problematic? What does one say about a sibling who has killed herself, after pushing her family away for decades since she was a teenager?

    • I don’t think family members have an obligation to sugarcoat their siblings in death. OTOH, I’m uncomfortable with the “it,’s all her fault” nature spoken by the father’s voice in the piece. And yet, it’s true that families are often clueless about mental illness and being able to differentiate between the person and the disease.

      I think Sedaris, whether he realizes it or not, is working through this. It had only been a few months from the time she killed herself and when he wrote the piece; probably far too short to put true context on the event. I think one has to read the piece from a standpoint of someone being conflicted than certain.

      I hope the family can work it out and the beauty of Tiffany that her friend saw can be preserved while also remembering the horror of an illness society has worked hard to ignore and even trivialize.

      • DavidG

        I guess I read those almost the opposite. The father’s “I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” is as close to an acknowledgement of possible/probable mental illness as I read in the piece. After all, if she was suffering, from mental illness, the suicide was mostly about that, and not the family.

        And I guess I’m less charitable towards David. He seems to put more of the onus on her, implying “Sure, we get mad at each other, but we’re so awesome, it doesn’t last, why couldn’t she do that.”

        There are a lot of tantalizing morsels besides her suicide suggesting Tiffany suffered from mental illness. From his essay, I can’t decide whether David simply doesn’t recognize them, or just decided not to make the connections for the reader.

        • That’s a great observation, David and I think you’ve really hit on it. There are a lot of people who don’t really understand mental illness in a family. Take depression. “Just be happy,” is a common suggestion as if it’s not a neurological issue. Over time families become a little more knowledgeable or they give up. Whether the Sedaris family gave up — not seeing your sister for 8 years might be a clue — or whether they just never knew what to do at all (certainly understandable) we don’t know because, as I think you point out, that didn’t seem to be the focus of the essay as much as “we’re not the same family we were when were kids” was he focus.

          I don’t pretend to know where Sedaris and his family is on this; I suspect Amy is a little more sensitive to the whole thing because she bothered to at least go to the apartment to do what she could do.

          There are no blacks and whites on this sort of thing, there are just grays.

  • Katharine

    The line in Sedaris’ original column that speaks to me is: “One day she’d throw a dish at you and the next she’d create a stunning mosaic made of the shards.” That beautifully describes my family of origin. It, no doubt, describes me, too. I think we all need to cut Sedaris some slack. He’s doing the best he can with some old, old wounds and sorrows.

  • Tatiana Greenleaf

    Michael Knoblach is grieving. That’s his excuse. I don’t know what Bob Collins’ is. David Sedaris is a writer. He is famous for being a writer. The New Yorker piece was a piece of writing, not an obituary. And readers will react to it as they may–including those who it angered. Bob Collins’ could have written a very interesting essay about these reactions and the perils of writing about the dead. The trouble and ethical questions when writing ‘the last word’ about people who lived lives you may not have understood. And the uncomfortable emotions it provokes in readers. Instead, he’s chosen a side in a rather intimate, personal disagreement between two men with real grief and pain…scouring Sedaris’ essay for clues about what a horrible brother he was, ostensibly for our benefit (‘Why didn’t the whole family go to the sister’s house? Smoking gun! They were evil! And David is the worst!’). No–this was purely for Collins’ benefit. He has essentially, written a navel-gazing blog post about his own righteous anger and passed it off as something for public consumption. Writers may begin with righteous anger, but to write anything worth reading, you have to do something more with it. Otherwise, its just self-centered, mud-slinging drivel. This was tasteless and not worthy of MPR.

    • You just wrote a long paragraph declaring reality of my motive and thought after starting your response by stating that you really didn’t KNOW what my “excuse” is. So, do you know or do you not know? Because I’m pretty sure we’ve never met, you’ve never asked, and you didn’t read the lengthy discussion here in the comments section, because all of the things you said I COULD have written about, I’ve written about here and also in a subsequent discussion (also available on NewsCut) on the radio.

      Could I have written about the perils of writing about the dead? Scroll down and read the discussion including this line that started an essay on the question: “Sedaris is a story teller who writes in the first person and, as I said earlier, that presents some real challenges when you start writing about family.”

      Take the time. Scroll.

      • Louis

        I met Tiffany back in the 1980s when she was a cute 20 something with a good job and sharing a nice apartment with two other attractive women near Porter Sq. in Somerville. I lived on the same street. The way she was then is how I’ll remember her since I never knew her after that.
        Even those who knew her best will probably never find the ‘rosebud’ which would explain everything. I feel for her friends and family who will always wonder if there was something more they could have done to bring her back.

  • Mikael Hattingh

    The sad thing is how we’ve all taken to discussing someone else’s family dynamic – something that is different from one family to the next and can’t truly be understood unless you’re a part of it. And in the case of the Sedaris family, its made even more elusive to on-lookers by the mysteries surrounding why Tiffany distanced herself from the family and then finally left for good. It seems foolish and petty to me to speculate and cast judgements. She’s gone now and so are all the possible conclusions.

    • True. But the fact Sedaris writes about the death of his sister is an invitation for the reader to discuss it.

  • Anonymous

    I feel very bad for the Sedaris family…as well as for those who knew and loved Tiffany Sedaris. Suicide is never the answer. It’s the grand “Screw You” gesture to anyone who knew or loved the deceased person. Tiffany chose to abuse drugs from an early age; I know she didn’t ask for her mental illness and I do hold her parents responsible for getting or not getting her proper diagnoses and treatment before she turned 18. However, nobody knows BUT the Sedaris siblings as to whether or not Tiffany was appropriately diagnosed and treated that would have involved the “right” combination of psychotropic medication(s). If Tiffany’s parents were lax in this regard, shame on them for not getting her proper help as soon as they realized something was “off” or “wrong” with her. Sounds like she also struggled with tremendous anxiety; central nervous system depressants are the most common choice when this is an ongoing issue in a person’s life (alcohol, weed, vicodin, oxy, heroin, etc.) All the things that “slow” a person down and make them feel “chill”. Very sad. Our culture is so ignorant about how to treat bipolar disorder and all the other major mood disorders which involve depression and anxiety….and/or depression and anxiety with mania and/or psychotic episodes. My deepest condolences to the Sedaris family and I can only hope Tiffany is now at peace because God knows she needed it….

    • Anne Russell

      What most people do not understand about the law is that family members are not allowed to intervene with an adult family member unless that person is imminently homicidal or suicidal. And mentally ill people often reject all help from loved ones. We must stand aside with breaking hearts and watch the downslide, prevented from giving the help and love we wish so much to give.

      • krissy

        So true, Anne. All I could add is to remind folks before they pile on the guilt trip REMEMBER THIS: “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” Oh, and do I need to remind those who have no siblings—Your negative opinion doesn’t count. Because you have NO STANDING.

        • guest

          Are you implying that only or all people with siblings are qualified to make negative comments, as if they have some exclusive special insight? You seem pretty adamant about this with the all caps

    • exit 7

      Ms Sedaris was a teenager at a different time. In the 60’s and 70’s there weren’t the medications or treatment modalities that we have today. Don’t blame her family. They did what was the norm at the time. I have read David’s essay a few times. I didn’t feel it was about his sister, it is about a families survival after a suicide. Also, no family member, no friend, no spouse or child can cure another’s mental illness. Don’t blame her family. Her illness made her reality one that did not include allowing her family in.

  • KSW

    There is no place for strangers (outsiders) to criticize family matters.
    Clearly, the Sedaris family suffered the tragic loss and it is up to them to grieve the way they want to. Money does not take care of everything.
    Beach house or not, it is none of your business.

  • Anne Russell

    I am not a great fan of David Sedaris (though I am from Raleigh), but I’ve just heard on NPR his piece on sister Tiffany’s suicide, and I beg to take issue with those who cast any blame on the Sedaris family. Two years ago I lost my only brother to suicide, and a quarter century ago lost my beloved firstborn daughter (of 4 daughters) to total estrangement from all our family (her choice), courtesy of FMS (false memory syndrome) with accompanying behavioral dysfunctions. She had been a hardworking tv reporter/producer, talented, beautiful, the apple of my eye. Her estrangement is like a living death, as if she killed herself, the person we all had known, and became a hostile stranger to us. What I want to say is that no amount of reaching out, caring, effort on my part as her mother and by all her family members could deter my brother’s actual death and my daughter’s figurative death. Whatever demons took hold of them would not allow them to accept love and caused them to withdraw all love from their family. Both rejected every loving gesture, threatening to charge us with stalking and trespass and harassment if we even sent a birthday card. I am sad for David and his family that they have this cross to bear, and I am sad that such an intelligent and talented woman as Tiffany slid downward into self-destruction. Mental illness is a tragedy. I add that my husband’s father, a popular retired professor, killed himself after he retired and sank into depression, a shock to everyone who knew him. Please do not judge those left behind by suicidal family members.

    • Keith Epstein

      I, too, just listened to the essay on This American Life. I have mixed feelings about David as an author, but the audio essay did make we want to find out more about Tiffany. Michael Knoblach’s piece provided comfort that there really is more to the story. I agree with commenters who suggest neither David’s nor Michael’s view is necessarily wrong or right. It is enough to me that there are other views on Tiffany and her circumstances, and that she touched different people in unique ways.

  • kgene

    I wonder how long Tiffany felt estranged from her family and why? Sometimes birth order can play a role. Anger can cause rifts. Why was she so angry with her family to rip up their pictures? Or, was she just making a collage. So many questions. It must really hurt.

  • Interesting to see the conversation resume after two months. How is it you all happened to get here today? Was this mentioned somewhere? Thanks for stopping by.

    • guest

      It was likely the airing of David sedari’s essay about it on this American life this weekend

    • Nina

      He read the essay on This American Life yesterday.

    • Chrisnolan

      Coincidence. I was looking for something else. But I’d just been listening to Mark Mulcahy’s song, Where’s the Indifference Now?, which he says was inspired by the prurience of public interest in the circumstances of Heath Ledger’s death. Plus I’m a dumpster-diver to whose basement are consigned the legacies of strangers, in letters, photos, medals, jewelry, and dumb mementoes rescued from the negligence of their heirs; so I thought I might have an affinity for this Tiffany. And then, after seeing this discussion, I heard David reading his New Yorker piece on TAL yesterday. But I try to mind a stranger’s past with a little circumspection. It seems indiscreet of this audience to focus on the recriminations of personalities over what’s really more of an essay, to insert ourselves into what remains, if no longer private, thanks to DS’s publication, a personal relationship. And the downright solipsism of some of these comments (“I am certain if I committed suicide, they would have all sorts of things to say about me”) is only a magnification of how the rest of us have appropriated it.

  • I imagine it’s quite hard to have not one but two siblings who are wildly and very publicly successful in their chosen career paths. I wonder if Tiffany would’ve wanted a share of either David or Amy’s money. My gut tells me she didn’t and that her problems with her family were not ones based in finances.

  • Nina

    I am one of those family rejects. My family, I am sure, mocks me. They do not reach out to me. They have left me to my own devices. I am certain if I committed suicide, they would have all sorts of things to say about me. Almost none of them would be accurate or reflect who I am in any way, because, in truth, they know next to zero about me. They chose to make it that way, not I. It’s a tragic way for a family to function. David Sedaris is a jerk.

    • Guest

      This is a very unfair situation for you and I am sorry to read about it here. Stay strong and keep recognizing the all the good even if none of seems to be coming from your family.

    • BillyBob Johnson

      Perhaps it’s your choice, as it was her choice, to be distant from the family.

    • Guest

      sedaris is a jerk and one gets the sense he recognizes it, it’s usually the highlight of his stories and it is in part what makes him popular .. for being so self depreciating.

      but the essay in which everyone seems offended, seems as if its endearing her more than being an insult to her memory. It’s one of not really knowing her as a person – yet a stranger in which he shares memories with – a connection.

      ties with family are often this… like distant relatives one visits on holiday when you’re a kid but as a teen, as an adult they often fade away. immediate family the same, it takes more effort to stay close or soon you’re only making it for the holidays to which most of the conversation is steered towards old memories rather than new because you’ve become strangers, so people often revert back to when they were kid, often more as teenagers in regards to their parents and siblings when returning home.

      Tiffany’s obituary ran in the Raleigh News & Observer.
      It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed
      away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old,
      and had a house. But what else could you do? People were leaving
      responses on the paper’s Web site, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany
      used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When
      his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging
      for art supplies in somebody’s trash can. He said that she also gave him
      a Playboy magazine from the nineteen-sixties that included a photo spread titled “The Ass Menagerie.”

      This was fascinating, as we didn’t really know our sister very well. Each of
      us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives—we’d had
      to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to being our own specific Sedaris. Tiffany, though, stayed away.She might promise to come home for Christmas, but at the last minute there’d always be some excuse: she missed her plane, she had to work. The same would happen with our summer vacations. “The rest of us managed to make it,” I’d say, aware of how old and guilt-trippy I sounded.

      All of us would be disappointed, though for different reasons. Even if you
      weren’t getting along with Tiffany at the time, you couldn’t deny the
      show she put on—the dramatic entrances, the non-stop, professional-grade
      insults, the chaos she’d inevitably leave in her wake. One day she’d
      throw a dish at you and the next she’d create a stunning mosaic made of
      the shards. When allegiances with one brother or sister flamed out,
      she’d take up with someone else. At no time did she get along with
      everybody, but there was always someone she was in contact with. Toward
      the end, it was Lisa, but before that we’d all had our turn.

      did you know when “strangers of candy” was still on the air, even though it was more clearly fiction, amy got some of that too.

      but on david

      from the 2004 article:

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

      the key argument you might be missing

      “But then everyone says, ‘Oh, what, does your brother not like you?’ Even when he doesn’t write about you, he’s writing about you.”

      so aren’t david and amy just screwed regardless because they’re pseudo celebs?

      or maybe it’s more commentary on the social/class divides and the expectation/fantasy that because they have more perceived power (money & fame) that they should have been able to prevent her death?

      rather than acknowledging the public’s treatment of mental health issues… or schools like elan, which even the the state of new york wrote off various black sheep and other youth, pushing them to a school with a horrible track record — and NY isn’t alone, most states have similar schools, similar programs which rather than just kids accidentally falling through the cracks are forced, crammed, hammered into them… so none of you have to worry about the freaks, geeks and other misfits whenever a tragedy strikes, affecting schools, neighborhoods, the public…

      but here we get to point the fingers again at either end of the spectrum when it comes to the infamous 1% (the poor, though plentiful, take up the other side of the so called privileged) — but not the burgoise or the working class, or the public as a whole. We all failed her but she too failed herself


  • Tootsie

    I have a sister I haven’t talked to in a few years. After a while, the heart can’t take the pain. Sometimes things are so fucking complicated, and you can’t break a family’s secrets unless you want to break a family.

  • Tia

    Sometimes you need to escape your family dynamics to fully be the person you are. The expectations of others can be a huge weight.

  • Judy

    I’m an estranged sister. David Sedaris helped me understand it from my family’s perspective. David’s lack of understanding has only validated my decision. Especially in the light that I use to like him. I’m sorry for Tiffany. You deserve better and I hope you find peace.

  • Feenix

    David said that Amy left Tiffany’s home with two boxes and some photographs she had taken while there. I don’t see any evidence that he suggested that was all that Tiffany had, merely all that Amy took.

  • It’s Me

    Apparently, many of you have not read any of Sedaris’ books. He’s mentioned her in several. Mostly that whenever they asked her to show up, she would tell them “I don’t like you people” and either come and leave very quickly, or not come at all. He wrote an entire chapter about her, both flattering and truthfully unflattering – how she spit words at him with disgust. She felt she was constantly being judged, yet the family was doing its best to reconcile why she chose to live in a garbage filled dump spending her nights eating turkey she found in dumpsters. She once held down a pastry chef job that she was good at, but got fired for making a racial comment to one of the owners.

    That being said, my oldest brother committed suicide and I can tell you from experience that we did our best for him. He chose not to change, not to get help with his problems and when he finally ran out of options (burned every bridge offered), he killed himself. All while never trying anything to change or modify his behavior, his drinking, his stealing, cheating and lying.

    So while it’s very easy for all of Tiffany’s “friends” to comment, but understand that people like this tell wonderfully colorful stories. My brother told people my father used to beat us with a belt with studs embedded in it. My father never touched one of us. He’d say none of us would lift a finger to help him. Again, untrue.

    So cut Sedaris some slack – both of them. Nobody but they know both sides.

    • Guest

      and there’s the old article from 2004 everyone brings up


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

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

      *”Death is the ultimate adjudicator”

      also from one of David’s in the same time period (the year before)


      “One of us should get hit by a car,” I said. “That would teach the
      both of them.” I pictured Gretchen, her life hanging by a thread as my
      parents paced the halls of Rex Hospital, wishing they had been more
      attentive. It was really the perfect solution. With her out of the way,
      the rest of us would be more valuable and have a bit more room to spread
      out. “Gretchen, go lie in the street.”

      “Make Amy do it,” she said.

      Amy, in turn, pushed it off on Tiffany, who was the youngest and had
      no concept of death. “It’s like sleeping,” we told her. “Only you get a
      canopy bed.”

      Poor Tiffany. She’d do just about anything in return for a little
      affection. All you had to do was call her Tiff, and whatever you wanted
      was yours: her allowance, her dinner, the contents of her Easter basket.
      Her eagerness to please was absolute and naked. When we asked her to
      lie in the middle of the street, her only question was “Where?”

      • Guest

        it’s also funny how many people miss the bit in her own interview.. where her biggest problem was dealing with people who read david’s work and then rushed to her defense, refuting whatever claims were made in what she recognized as a caricature of herself, family and their experiences… ever concerned with her ego as if it was that fragile.

        or for those people that looking at the family as a whole, don’t catch on the most of the family shares similar issues, like the hesitation towards relationships, creating families of their own or having children; even those that did. It’s mild thing, in general, no big deal for a personal choice… but if we’re taking the simplistic approach and submitting to a b&w dogma with sociocultural witchhunts and moral masturbation… it screams the loudest here that several consciously, reportedly, decided against it or were at least weary of it, course another just rolled with it.

  • Elizabeth

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and their own reflection. No grief is the proper grief. You can criticize either of these men as callous for ignoring someone who was clearly in pain, but you cannot make them feel differently. You shouldn’t even want to, but then, that is just my own opinion. What is gained by the critique? Poor Tiffany. Rest in peace. It’s too late to save her now.

  • BillyBob Johnson

    Mr. Collins – What is YOUR agenda in writing this article? You purposely put some of Mr. Sedaris’ writing out of sequence. To do what? Gain more sympathy for Mr. Knoblach? This is what YOU wrote:

    “In her will, Tiffany Sedaris mandated that no one from her family was allowed to attend her memorial service.

    Two boxes was all she left, Sedaris suggested in his article.

    ‘So put that in your pipe and smoke it,’ our mother would have said.”

    This is what Mr. Sedaris wrote:

    “In her will, Tiffany Sedaris mandated that no one from her family was allowed to attend her memorial service.

    ‘So put that in your pipe and smoke it,’ our mother would have said.”

    YOU imply that his mother’s potential statement would have been about the two boxes, and not about the mandate that no family members attend her service, as Mr. Sedaris wrote. Shame on you.

  • Kate

    Who do people think they are, judging David Sedaris for his exact words at what would be a difficult time for anyone? She was his sister. His loss of his sister is his business, and how he processes it is up to him. Maybe in twenty years we can sit back and armchair psychanalyze his writings.
    I recently got really nastily harrassed for putting my dog down. I was so hurt that these neighbors judged me so harshly before even talking to me, but they clearly are not worth the effort it takes to think about them that I am just done.
    Bottom line: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

    • People didn’t break down David Sedaris’ door forcing him to reveal the most intimate details of his life. He wrote about it in one of the most popular journals in America. Like any other work of literature, his words are more than fair game.

  • Bart

    Suicide is devastating to all left in its wake. A post by a friend of Tiffany’s noted that she admitted to being an addict, and drugs and/or alcohol are often involved in suicide. Someone noted that they had a falling out with Tiffany, and once you were out you were “out.” I am sorry for her pain and for the pain of those who loved her. The guilt felt by survivors left behind is immense, and anger, blame, and confusion may result. No one has ownership of the “reason,” possibly not even Tiffany, and to lash out and criticize friends or family does not give the finger pointer the corner on truth. I do know that there are people in pain who will not let you help them. Attend an Alanon meeting and you will see that you cannot own or fix another person’s addiction. To expect her family to have achieved the impossible is unhelpful at best. Peace to all.

  • Drew

    seems like the only callous person here is Bob Collins

    • Because why exactly? Because a writer wrote about the death of his sister, thus inviting us all to share . And because a friend of the sister took exception to the article?

      This idea that this is somehow a private matter is an interesting assertion. The New Yorker probably isn’t the best place to keep things on the down low.

      • Drew

        Maybe I misunderstood something, but it seems like this article is trivializing Tiffany’s suicide by saying “It might be a little harder to enjoy NPR’s tradition of airing Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries this year.” Just my opinion, but your response to his article comes off even more morbid what was originally published.

        PS- The link to Michael Knoblach’s ‘call out’ doesn’t seem to work anymore.