On Tiffany Sedaris and Writing About Family

DressYourFamily_hiresI recently read “Now We Are Five,” David Sedaris’ heartbreaking piece in The New Yorker about his sister Tiffany’s death. She committed suicide earlier this year at age 49 after many years of mental instability and other issues.

For those unfamiliar with Sedaris’ work, he often writes about his family and has openly admitted to exaggerating facts for humorous effect. At one point over the years, Tiffany specifically asked her brother to not write about her, a request he honored until the publication of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, his 2004 collection of essays.

Many of the reactions I’ve read to “Now We Are Five” question Sedaris’ use of autobiographical writing to address Tiffany’s death, and his apparent disregard for her wishes in the 2004 book.

I know for a fact that “Put a Lid on It,” a story describing a visit to Tiffany’s house in vivid, less-than-flattering detail, was written with Tiffany’s consent, if not with her editorial approval. On a book tour stop in Pittsburgh to promote Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris read the story aloud and explained to the audience that Tiffany had lifted her embargo on appearing in his writing because readers had begun to think that he didn’t like her.

Though he admits in the New Yorker piece that he wasn’t on speaking terms with her at the time of her death, I think Sedaris did a beautiful job of making his written reflection about the “we” of a family, and not just about him or his sister. The notion of what a deceased person “would have wanted” is highly subjective, and it’s my opinion that mourning rituals are really not about the deceased; they’re about those left behind. Sedaris honored his sister’s wishes while she was alive. It’s my hope that he took the money he received for “Now We Are Five” and used it to somehow memorialize his sister in a way that betters others’ lives as well.

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