David Sedaris on his sister’s suicide

Author David Sedaris has been relatively quiet about the suicide of his sister, Tiffany, since penning a New Yorker essay about it in 2013 that elicited a rebuke from his sister’s friend, and revealed the difficulty that families have trying to reach loved ones with mental illness.

But this week Sedaris opened up again in an interview in Vice magazine.

Anyone with a loved one with mental illness — I had an older brother, who died several years ago, who struggled — will recognize the pain that Sedaris tenderly describes. Loved ones reach out to help but are rebuffed and they’re left struggling with their own feelings of anger, continually trying to focus their anger on the illness, not the person with the illness. Sometimes you succeed; sometimes you don’t.

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…

“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,” he says.

They found out later she had been diagnosed as bipolar, though she described it as PTSD, and the trauma was her childhood.

He touches — too briefly — on the way his ill sister was treated.

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.

Sedaris and Tiffany hadn’t talked for more than eight years up to her death.

He acknowledges he could try to learn more about who his sister was, but he can’t.

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.

After the New Yorker essay, it was easy to criticize Sedaris, as if there’s something he or the family could have done to help someone who didn’t want their help; as if they hadn’t constantly wondered if there’s something they hadn’t thought of. Sometimes the answer is “no.”

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.

There’s no indication in the piece that time has presented the Sedaris family with any new perspective on Tiffany’s life and death.

(h/t: Nikki Tundel)

  • Anna

    My father is bipolar and I can remember one incident from my childhood before he started medication where my mother had to hide the 38 pistol for fear he would try to kill himself.

    The crisis passed but the mood cycling continued with sometimes devastating consequences (run on the bank accounts, hare-brained investment schemes, etc) until he finally started on medication and treatment when I was in high school.

    Our mother made sure he took his medication, especially in those early days because persons with bipolar I (there are different forms of it) like the feeling of invincibility and endless energy they get when the pendulum swings to the manic end.

    The manic phase of bipolar disorder can be likened to the high from cocaine–intoxicating and addictive.

    My father is one of the lucky ones whose disorder is well controlled with the right medication but others, like David Sedaris’s sister, don’t take their medication regularly and fall victim to the vicious cycle of ups and downs until the pendulum swings to severe depression and they eventually commit suicide.

    The brain is the one organ of the body we are still exploring and mental illness still has secrets we don’t yet understand.

  • Michael Knoblach

    Comment by Michael Knoblach:

    I think that David Sedaris should learn to button his mouth and grant Tiffany some of the dignity she deserved, but was seldom able to find during her hard life. Why he continues to write or comment negatively about her dumbfounds me. Wouldn’t it be decent of him, if he could only learn to have the sense, honor and decorum to allow that poor, deeply wounded woman to have a chance to rest in peace?

  • Les Toolish

    Poor thing was one child too many. Bipolar disorder is a proximate explanation and likely relevant, but the development of the pathology probably had a lot to do with her birth order, the number of well-developed predators that came before her, and the dearth of parental investment–including pride and vigilance–that children need to develop feeling they are esteemed. David and Amy are gifted artists. David’s cup floweth over. But artistry and narcissism can go hand in hand and David even admits that he responded to her prey mentality by giving Tiffany justifications for her fear. From his perspective, feeling he received all he needed from the clan, he cannot imagine Tiffany’s needs. He isn’t really trying. It is not difficult to imagine at all. I don’t think he is really trying. “There is nothing we could have done to save her” is not the language of soul-searching. It is the language of a search concluded, a case closed.The truth is that families can be wonderful things if you are positioned well, and dreadful nightmares if you are not. Both are the same family from different perspectives. I know siblings who quietly view the deaths of certain brothers and sisters as final victories. What I have read of David’s reaction to Tiffany’s death, I am undecided about his sincerity. Tiffany viewed these people as a lawnmower of souls for people like her and it is important that we remember that families are not always great things. For some people, a family can be the bane of their existence.