October 22, 2013

David Sedaris writes about the suicide of his 50-year-old sister.

He seems to have practically no information about why she did it, and the story is very much about the diminishment of the (still large) family. The sister, Tiffany, had been estranged from the rest for years. (She left a will: "In it, she decreed that we, her family, could not have her body or attend her memorial service.") So this is about the permanent loss of someone who really already wasn't there.
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....

“Why do you think she did it?”...  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?
I'm impressed by Sedaris's willingness to go ahead and say — in so many words — how could you do this to me? I'd like to think that in some circumstances, it could help the would-be suicide to see things from a different point of view. This is about my family... my ancient tribe.

26 comments:

El Pollo Raylan said...

Her death will unite the surviving family for a time before the relentless division continues. It's not the end of the world, just the end of some ancient tribes.

Elise Ronan said...

Yes suicide is very unsettling to relatives. But suicide is not about them, its about the person who decided that their best course of action was to take their own life. Depression deep enough to the point that a person wants to kill themselves is not about those left behind, but it is a terrible mental illness that needs treatment and in so many cases defies understanding. When relatives and loved ones of those who are so lost finally figure that out maybe then families can actually help potential suicides.

pm317 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron said...

His view strikes me as vain. If you're to the point that suicide makes sense to you, than why on earth should you care about the offense you give? The more I read what he says, the more empathy I have for her...not him.

Peter said...

The author makes a mistake in thinking the suicide was about him, or his family. It's always about the individual who commits the suicide.

But suicide is a hostile act; he'll just have to come to terms with that.

MadisonMan said...

Losing a sibling is an interesting and bewildering experience.

Small talk often includes how many siblings you have. The automatic response has to be altered.

El Pollo Raylan said...

Peter said...
The author makes a mistake in thinking the suicide was about him, or his family.

No Peter. The sister made that point. Plainly and in legalese.

Broomhandle said...

Interesting that he avoids any serious mention of what must have been decades of Tiffany's drug abuse/mental health issues/alienation. I'm from a large, close, family of eight children. Though we're loving and supportive of each other there's also an unspoken feeling that any failure by one of the siblings would be an insult to our parent's love and the near-legendary story of our happy childhood.

Carol said...

He's right, she made a statement expressly and impliedly. Fuck you and everything else. When contemplating suicide, you have to ask, do I really want to say this to everyone? But then I don't share the common belief that your life belongs to you only.

pm317 said...

But suicide is a hostile act

Not really. It is an act of desperation, losing hope, and losing the will to continue and giving up -- if you felt so alone that you don't see any point in continuing, why struggle? It is a myth to say that it is about 'showing the bastards'. It is about pride; it is about hurt; it is about despair; it is about anger. I don't ascribe the usual stigma attached to suicide -- people should feel free to end it when they want to but hopefully they don't have to feel it and it does not come to that.

I had a brother who went to Canada in the mid 70s (I was only 9 when he left). He was estranged from the rest of us. I tried to look him up when I came here but not right away and didn't try hard enough. He took his life about 10 years ago when he could not get a bank loan for his business and saw there was no financial future. He must have felt very alone. I wish I knew -- I could have helped him. Instead I went to cremate him.

Martha said...

Most large families I know have a " troubled " child who grows into a troubled adult-- an adult who resents his successful siblings and blames his parents and his siblings for perceived wrongs done to him. Tiffany blamed even her 10 year old brother because she was sent to a residential high school after SHE ran away. Relatives who inevitably cause chaos at family gatherings are troubled souls with a psychiatric illness.

" 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."

Tiffany was troubled--her perception of reality was skewed.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

Tiffany got a very nice memoriam in her adopted hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts.

David Sedaris described her biking around Somerville and collecting things from the trash in one of his books. That made her locally famous, but perhaps not in a way that she wanted.

Ann Althouse said...

"The author makes a mistake in thinking the suicide was about him, or his family. It's always about the individual who commits the suicide."

The individual who committed suicide no longer exists in this world. (I'll leave the afterlife aside, because if you believe in it, you're additionally burdened with the traditional belief, which is one more injury the suicide has committed.)

So it is definitely, as we exist in the real world and experience it now, about those who remain alive.

I am inviting you to read the story that is linked, if you have not read it yet, and to consider letting it affect your thinking.

wildswan said...

It's real feeling anyhow. In real life people don't have perfect, appropriate emotions. Maybe he should have kept quiet for awhile and asked himself why he was so critical of someone who was unhappy and then dead. But in real life ...

Joe said...

One thing I have learned late in life is that family experiences and relationships are often perceived white differently between different members. This is especially true in dysfunction families. In the latter, it isn't unusual to have some children be completely oblivious--by choice, naivete or because they really were treated better--to the family dynamic.

Some clues of this are in the article. David comes of as the golden child, an enabler and a bit abusive. "Lisa, Gretchen, and I treated the others like servants..." "This time, because I was paying, I got to choose the best room." Really? No thought of being nice to a sibling you abused by treating them as a servant?

This only confirms my impression of Sedaris over the years--he's a self-absorbed twit.

Bob Boyd said...

Sedaris writes about how they all pulled away from the family, then came back. But those were voluntary separations each undertook, as an adult, on their own terms.
Tiffany's separation, at a such a tender age, was not a choice.
I'm not blaming or judging, but I get the impression a gulf opened up between Tiffany and her family then, one that couldn't be recrossed.

El Pollo Raylan said...

Perhaps someone should erect a sponge in her honor somewhere--to soak up the residual bad feeling.

Titus said...

She was a very beautiful woman. I would see her hanging out around Davis Square in Somerville.

She was somewhat "famous" in the area after Sedaris wrote about her in one of his books.

He comes to Boston/Cambridge quite a bit and I always wondered if he saw her...now I know.

I love his writing and this was an amazing story....amazingly sad.

Titus said...

I have no idea why she killed herself but I would imagine having very successful siblings may present some challenges.

Balfegor said...

I actually found this very affecting. There are people in my own family, people among my own kin, who I worry will turn away from us eventually. And even now, the time I spend with my relatives is dear to me -- idle summer holidays, dinners in the interstices of trips for work, weddings, funerals, memorial observances and the rest. More than the suicide, the image portrayed of the surviving family is moving to me. Decades in the future, if I can be as free and easy with my own siblings, and my cousins who are like siblings to me, and my aunts and uncles and the next generation which is yet to come, I will be happy.

elkh1 said...

"I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else."

Fundamentally better than everyone else. What a judgmental ass! A Mafia-wannabe family without the perks.

Poor soul, suicide is the only way out of that dysfunctional stifling clan.

Larry J said...

Suicide is sometimes described as "a permanent solution to a temporary problem." That may be true in the case of young suicides but in this particular example, it sounds like the problem(s) were anything but temporary.

SOJO said...

Wow. What a selfish freaking family. How could they have not stepped in and helped their sibling before this? I don't mean the suicidal feelings, I mean the poverty during an economic meltdown. My family, and others of my acquaintance, are saints in comparison...siblings included. If one seemingly drops off the face of the earth, we give them time, then eventually seek them out no matter how difficult and take care of them...even if we don't like them; triple that if we love them.

And best of all, writing in the New Yorker, he remains clueless, oblivious, and selfish, as he no doubt is in real life. I'm very pleased to have never heard of him until now.

Lydia said...

Here's Tiffany remembering her family in a 2004 Boston Globe interview:

Tiffany remembers David playing tricks on her as a kid. He'd stick slugs to matchbooks and hang them over her bed, rouse her from sleep to stand for the national anthem, or tie rocks to her and toss her in the lake. ''He'd do that to me and Paul, especially," she says, '' and we would say, hey, that was fun, let's do it again! Then you spend the rest of your adult life looking for a rock and a rope."

Once, he hired a neighbor to pretend to break into their house. All the kids knew it was a joke, except for her, she says. She looked in each room for the intruder. ''In the kitchen, I just lost it. I'm so afraid that I can't move." Her siblings laughed, and she realized it wasn't real. ''That's how it was in my house -- everything was a joke. It didn't matter how much it hurt, you'd laugh before you did anything about it."


Being a Sedaris doesn't sound like all that much fun to me. And I'd say Tiffany finally did her pay-back.

donald said...

My wife died in a horrific fall.

After speaking with my Andy Stanley apostolic minister, I got no problem with it and will probably choose that option at some point. I've had a helluva ride. Till she died. Kinda changed every thing. What the heck.

By the way, Andy definitely does not feel that way or preach that, but he lets his flock go where their minds take them.

Mirabelle said...

David Sedaris should be ashamed of himself for writing that story. The piece doesn't celebrate her life or the memory of her within the family at all. If anything, he insults her memory. Reading that piece, I remember thinking, "Man, no wonder". He basically ends the story by suggesting that their family has lost nothing since her death.

David Sedaris was my favorite author untilI read this piece. I will never read anything of his again. Perhaps in that way, even a stranger can better honor her memory and offer the consideration and support (albeit, too late) that even her own family couldn't be bothered to do. He has immortalized her through his writing - telling the world how she didn't fit in with them, and basically saying he never really liked her. Probably the very feelings that caused her such tremendous pain to begin with.

Way to go, David! Just gotta twist that knife...too bad she's not here to defend herself. But then again, if she were, he and the rest of the family would probably just chaulk it up to her being difficult...again.