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)