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David Sedaris reflects on the driving force of his life: His war with his dad

David Sedaris writes in his new collection of essays, Happy-Go-Lucky, about his father Lou and their complicated relationship.

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Other segments from the episode on May 31, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 31, 2022: Interview with David Sedaris; Review of new album by Kendrick Lamar.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David Sedaris, is a famous humorist who got his start by reading his personal essays on the public radio show This American Life. He's had bestselling collections of his personal essays, and he's received The Thurber Prize for American Humor, the Jonathan Swift prize for satire and humor and the Terry Southern Prize for humor. Several of the essays in his new book take a pretty serious turn. Those essays are about his father, with whom Sedaris had a lifelong combative relationship. He says, as long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me. In Sedaris' new book, he writes about when his father was in his 90s and his power was continually diminishing in assisted living and the ICU. The new book is called "Happy-Go-Lucky." I spoke with David Sedaris last Tuesday.

David Sedaris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So great to talk to you again.

DAVID SEDARIS: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: So I have to start with your author photo before we get into the heavy stuff. So you're standing in front of, like, a library of bookshelves wearing an elegant suit, holding a pipe in your hands, looking off to the side. There's something so, like, 1950s movie about it. Like, what is this photo about?

SEDARIS: Hugh has an old friend who he went to college with, a photographer named Anne Fishbein. And so I needed an author photo, so I asked Anne if she would do it. And so she arranged to get into the LA County Library Children's Department before they opened. And she'd been taking photographs of authors smoking pipes, you know, fake pipes. And so that's what we wound up with. It's like a Playboy magazine author photo.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, that's right, or like a Hugh Hefner photo. Didn't he always have a pipe...

SEDARIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And look to the side like that?

SEDARIS: And I think some places are - you know, have a problem with it because they say he's smoking, but it's just a fake - you know, if you look at it, it's so clearly a fake pipe, but it's just a really fun prop, a pipe. Like, nobody smokes a pipe anymore.

GROSS: I know. I've been wondering that. Like, what happened to the pipe (laughter)?

SEDARIS: It's just for pot now, you know.

GROSS: Yes, that's right.

SEDARIS: But nobody smokes tobacco out of it.

GROSS: Right. But anyways, for anybody who knows you, that's not, like - or reads you - that's not, like, a David Sedaris real pose. That's just - that's...

SEDARIS: Right. I was playing, like, a character.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly.

SEDARIS: I was the author in his study.

GROSS: So why not just pose as you?

SEDARIS: Oh, gosh, I just can't think of anything worse. But I really - I've known Anne for - I don't know. I met her shortly after I met Hugh. So it's been, like, 30 years, so I feel super comfortable in front of her. But that said, I feel more comfortable with, you know, with a prop if there's something I can kind of hide behind.

GROSS: Right. OK. Understood. So I want to talk with you about your father who died not long ago. When was it exactly?

SEDARIS: It was a year ago yesterday.

GROSS: Oh, all right.

SEDARIS: Like, May 22, 2021.

GROSS: You have some beautiful and very conflicted writing about him in your book. Several of the essays are about your father in his later years and about his death. So I want to start with an excerpt of one of them toward the end of the book.

SEDARIS: (Reading) It used to be that people's parents died in their 60s and 70s, cleanly of good old-fashioned cancers and heart attacks, meaning the child was on his or her own by the age of 45 or so. Now, though, with people living longer and longer, you can be a grandparent and still be somebody's son or daughter. The woman across the road from us in Normandy was 80 when her mother died - 80. That, to me, is terrifying. It's disfiguring to be a child for that long. Or at least it is if your relationship with that parent is troubled. For years, I'd felt like one of those pollarded plane trees I'll forever associate with Paris, the sort that's been brutally pruned since saplinghood and in winter resembles a towering fist.

As long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me. In my youth, I just took it. Then I started to write about it, to actually profit from it. The money was a comfort, but better yet was the roar of live audiences as they laughed at how petty and arrogant he was. Well, I feel sorry for him, Hugh has taken to saying, nobody was born acting the way he did. Something must have happened that made him that mean. This is true. But getting to the root of my father was virtually impossible. He never answered questions about his youth, saying only, what do you want to know that for?

GROSS: David, you've written about your father for years. Did how you wrote about him change after his death and even before that, when he was too out of it to read what you'd written?

SEDARIS: Well, I think what changed was - you know, there's a real person and then there's a character of that person. And when you're in a story or an essay, you're the character of who you are, right? My father was not a good person, but he was a great character, right? I know plenty of people who are good people but terrible characters. You know, they just don't work in an essay. They just don't advance anything. When I wrote about my father in the past, he was like, oh, that naught (ph), you know? Gee, he can be tough some time, but it's lovable Lou. But that's not really who he was, you know? And that now that he is dead, I just feel like I can kind of let that aspect of it go. You know, it's tricky because you don't want to be - you don't want to be a 65-year-old man whining, you know, that your dad was mean to you, right? So here I am (laughter) 65. And hopefully it's not whining. But, I mean, I figured there's a lot of people in the same situation that I was in. I hear from them all the time.

GROSS: You know, I don't feel like you're whining. I feel like you've put your father and your relationship with your father on the examining table, and you're reporting on the findings, kind of like forensics.

SEDARIS: Well, I think - I mean, because the way I've always made sense of things is to write about it. When my mother died, she couldn't be buried in the Greek Orthodox Church because she wanted to be cremated. And you can't be cremated there. So we had to have a funeral at the funeral home. And so I wanted something personal, you know. So I got up and I wrote something about my mother and I read it out loud. And it was the easiest thing ever to remind a roomful of people why my mother was such a wonderful person, you know? And my father said, I want you to do that when I die.

So the Greek Orthodox Church, it's a priest's show. Like, you can't really have any stage time. But they allowed me to say a few words in the break room after the ceremony was over. And I - you know, he'd asked me to do it. And so I read a little something, and there was not a single good thing in what I read. It was just, you know, about how he used to ram other cars at the supermarket when somebody took his parking space and the comments that he made to people and how nobody understood his jokes.

But I said at the end, you know, people say, oh, I know you're going to miss him terribly, and the fact is, we will. You know, as for why, we'll have to get back to you on that because it's complicated and it's allowed to be complicated. I think now people are more inclined to say, like, well, that's a bad person. We all hate that person now because they're bad. But it's more nuanced than that, you know. You can still love a mean person. You can still love a difficult person. It's - your mind as an adult, you should be big enough to hold all of these things. You know, I just - could easily just spend the rest of my life trying to sort through the feelings that I had from my dad.

GROSS: Did your siblings have similar reactions to your father?

SEDARIS: You know, it's interesting. Everybody in the family can have a different parent. You know, Amy had said - Amy said last Christmas - she said, this is the first Christmas without Dad. And I thought, yeah, I guess (laughter). But her - you know, when she said, you know, like, the checks he used to send us every Christmas. But my father never sent me the checks. Like, he - when my mother died, my father became uncharacteristically generous, and he started sending checks to people. And at first, it was like $5,000, and then it went up. So it was like the limit you could give people and they didn't have to pay taxes on. And he said to me, I sent it to your banker, and they put it directly into your account. So every Christmas I would write my father a thank-you letter. That is so generous of you, so kind. You know, I spent the money doing this or this.

And a couple years ago, I was talking to my banker, and I said - I was going to Japan. And I said, I figured I'll - you know, I'll use the money Dad gave me for Christmas and, you know, treat myself to, like, a first-class ticket. And she said, your father's never put a dime into your account. And so when I confronted him about it, he said, you don't need it. And I said, well, why didn't you tell me this years ago? Like, why did you accept thank-you letters? I mean, I'm the only one in the family who sent them, right? Why didn't you tell me that sooner? So I think there was something, you know, he enjoyed about that.

GROSS: He lied to you. He pretended to be generous to you when he was just lying.

SEDARIS: Well, you know, my - I mean, my father was a perfect preparation for having Donald Trump as president, you know? Just outrageous lies. You know, like, it's 1:00 in the morning; go to bed. And it's like, Dad, it's 9:45. It's 1:00 in the morning. And it's like, then how come "Barnaby Jones" is still on? (Laughter).

GROSS: So that wasn't dementia? That was, like, earlier...

SEDARIS: No, no, no. This was early growing up - like, anything he would lie about. You know, talking about his daughters in a sexual way was something that was Trump-like, not paying people for the work that they did. When I was getting ready to move to New York City, he had a rental property, and he said, well, paint the rental property; it'll give you some money to move to New York with. And so we agreed on a price. I painted the rental property. He offered me half what he had promised and then offered to fill it in with S&H Green Stamps...

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gee.

SEDARIS: ...That he had brought from New York state when we moved south in 1964. And I said, Green Stamps? I mean, they're worthless. No, I heard you can redeem them in Florida (laughter).

GROSS: For anybody who doesn't know what S&H Green Stamps were, they were kind of like stamps that you could use as cash equivalent in certain markets and stores, and that's, like, from the early 1960s, late 1950s, maybe.

SEDARIS: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

SEDARIS: And you could get toaster ovens and things like that with them.

GROSS: Yes. Right, right, right. Sounds like your father had a lot of money.

SEDARIS: Yeah, he did, but it was my mother's money. My mother had a wealthy aunt who died. And we never knew how much money it was, but in 1970, our lives kind of changed. And my parents went to the funeral in Ohio and came back in a Cadillac. And they sold the Cadillac, but the Cadillac had, like, a fur throw in the back seat. My aunt had married - my mother's great aunt had married two wealthy men in Cleveland. And one was associated with Black & Decker. Like, you know, maybe he founded it or something like that. And the other one had a big department store. And she was childless, the aunt, and so the money was divided between nieces and nephews. And so we never knew the amount, but in 1970, my mother got $250,000, which was a fortune back then.

So my father took it away from her and invested it. But if you went to my father's house, you know, the air conditioner was set to, like, 87. The last time I went to my house - my dad's house and he was, you know, cognizant, he led me around through the house with a flashlight. And I said, oh, are the lights out? No, he just didn't want to burn the electricity, right? If you saw him on the street, you would think, that old man is going to ask me for money. So he lived - in his later life, I mean, he lived like a pauper.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here and take a break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris, and his new collection of essays is called "Happy-Go-Lucky." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "GROOVE HOLMES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Sedaris. His new collection of personal essays is called "Happy-Go-Lucky."

I want you to read another excerpt of one of your essays. And this is basically about you and your siblings around your father's deathbed.

SEDARIS: (Reading) You always think that if you gather round and really concentrate, the person on the bed will let go. We were all there, you imagine yourself saying to friends, and in an odd way, it was sort of beautiful. So you become solemn and silently sit, watching the chest unsteadily rise and fall. You look at the hands as they occasionally stir, doing some imaginary last-minute busywork.

GROSS: So you're imagining a deathbed scene as you and your siblings are sitting around your father's bed. But it didn't work out in that kind of beautiful way where everybody's together as the parent kind of, you know, dies. How did it work out?

SEDARIS: He lived for another four or five days but just sort of in a weird kind of neither-here-nor-there state. And he was on morphine, so he wasn't in pain. But it really wasn't a bad death at all. I mean, my father fell when he was 95. And he couldn't return home anymore. So he moved into this place, this assisted living facility. And then, as he got even older, he kind of developed dementia. And he forgot that he was a difficult person. And the last time I saw my father and he was cognizant, he was fantastic. He was just this little gnome, this little cheerful gnome. Nothing bothered him. He had no criticism for anyone. And, you know, I don't know if he was there all along and he was just, like, an onion and covered in these layers of, like, rage and disappointment. And that was his little core finally, like, shining through. But I was - I felt so fortunate that I was able to be in the presence of that lovely person.

GROSS: One of the things that really changed about him is he said, at some point, you know, that he voted for Trump. But he realizes now that was a mistake, that Trump had lied and that, you know, Biden is OK. And you were astonished.

SEDARIS: Oh, I never thought I would heard my - hear my father say, I was wrong, you know?

GROSS: About anything?

SEDARIS: About anything. But one of the differences, though - and it was something my father and I shared, you know? After the election, I let it all go, you know? I mean, I could have won any news quiz during the Trump years. Any - you know The New York Times has that weekly news quiz - always aced it. I knew everything that was going on. And I just kind of let everything go. And my father, when he moved into the assisted living facility, the television was too complicated. And he couldn't figure it out. And he lived with listening to Fox News and conservative talk radio. That was on all the time. And it kept him at a constant boiling point. And now for the first time, he didn't know how to make that happen. And then he kind of forgot that he cared about it in the first place.

GROSS: You know, those - the conservative news networks are, among other things, pretty homophobic. So did that ever influence his feelings about you, watching all that ultra-conservative news?

SEDARIS: Well, I remember a couple of years ago when there was a vote in North Carolina to make gay marriage unconstitutional. Like, and it was already unconstitutional in the state. But this was to make it extra, extra, extra unconstitutional. And my father voted for it. And I was in North Carolina. And he told me he voted for it. And I said, why would you do that? And he said, it sends the wrong message. It says that anyone can do anything, boy on boy or girl on girl. Or - and he said it as if there were more to come (laughter), you know? But he didn't - when I questioned him on it, he didn't even - he didn't have a straight answer for me, you know? I said, you know, my niece, her aunt is gay and wants to marry her girlfriend. How is that sending a wrong message to Madeline? But he couldn't even - it was just something he'd been told by his networks, right? But he didn't exactly remember the exact reason, you know?

GROSS: He had cut you out of his will without telling you. He wanted you to find out after he died. But you found out before he died. And you were really offended. It's not like you needed the money. You have plenty of money. But for him to do that and not tell you seemed like a real insult. And you confronted him about it. And then he told you that maybe he'd leave you a modest sum, but you couldn't let your boyfriend, Hugh - your boyfriend of 30 years, Hugh, have any of it, that he couldn't touch it. What message did that send you both about yourself and about your relationship with Hugh?

SEDARIS: Well, he had said a number of things in the past, you know, like that Hugh was just with me because he - you know, for money or - you know, which to me sends a message that, you know, I'd be completely unlovable, that someone might take advantage of me, but nobody would ever love me, you know? And likewise, Hugh and I had been together for, like, 25 years. And when he...

GROSS: When he said that?

SEDARIS: No. There was a woman I used to live with in Chicago. She just - she had an extra room in her house. And I was getting ready to move to New York. And she said, well, why don't you move in here, you know? I won't charge you any rent. You can save up money for New York. Her name was Evelyn (ph). And my dad met Evelyn. And Hugh and I had been together for 25 years. And I said, oh, I'm going to go to Chicago and I'm going to see Evelyn. He said, she's a great gal. Why don't you marry her?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEDARIS: And I said, but - I said, I've been with Hugh for 25 years. And she's - why would she want to marry a gay man, right? What makes you think she has so little respect for herself that she'd want to marry - oh, you can perform once a month. And I thought, ick.

(LAUGHTER)

SEDARIS: But, I mean, 25 years Hugh and I had been together. And just when I thought that my father could kind of wrap his mind around it, I realized he hadn't at all.

GROSS: Well, I want to talk some more, but we have to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. And his new collection of personal essays is called "Happy-Go-Lucky." We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with David Sedaris. He has a new collection of personal essays called "Happy-Go-Lucky." Don't let the title fool you (laughter), there's some pretty emotional stuff in this book.

OK, David, there's another reading I want you to do, and this is also about your father. And set it up for us. Where is your father at the time of this passage?

SEDARIS: I got a call that he was dying and that his heart was failing. And so I caught the next plane from London. And by the time I got to North Carolina, he was out of the hospital, and he was back at his assisted living place. And he lived another two years after this. He got better. He recovered. But he was kind of in a - he was in bed, but he was - he would come to and then kind of drift away. He was just kind of in a nether state. And we were all there in his room because we thought he might die at any moment.

(Reading) David, he said, as if he'd just realized who I was, you've accomplished so many fantastic things in your life. You're - well, I want to tell you, you - you - you won. I couldn't tell if he meant you won, as in you won the game of life, or you won over me, your father, who told you - assured you when you were small and then kept reassuring you - that you were worthless. Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them and, in doing so, throw down this lance I've been hoisting for the past 60 years. For I am old, myself, now. And it is so very, very heavy.

GROSS: I love that passage, but were you really able to put down that lance?

SEDARIS: I thought I did. I just picked it up again a month later (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause that's hard to do, right?

SEDARIS: Well, it's interesting, like...

GROSS: ...And, oh, wait. And I also think, when you think somebody is dying, and you're trying to make peace with them, and then they come back to life, all the grievances can come back to life, too.

SEDARIS: Well, they do. I mean, just when you think - because I really convinced myself, in that moment, I thought it's over, you know, just over. I can finally - because it's been the driving force in my life, the animosity that - you know, the war that my father and I started when I was young and fought every day of our lives. And there were so many places in this book - you know, when I wrote the title story, "Happy-Go-Lucky," I thought, well, that's a really good place to end the book because it was the day I saw my dad, and he was so kind and just so gentle and just this little glowing presence. And that's a really good place to end the book.

But then I kept going, right? And that - it's complicated because you'd like to end, like, there on a nice note, and you'd like to think, oh, look, everything just resolved itself. Now it's time for me to start a new chapter in my life. And then you realize, oh, no, the lance is still right here, right where it was, always was. I mean, one day, I'll be able to lay it down, but I guess a part of me will just always be angry or always be, you know, distrusting of people, you know, just waiting for the - you know, it's like a cat. Every now and then, the cat will get on your lap, and you think, oh, this is pretty nice. And then you - (laughter) we used to have this cat growing up, and I would just remember each one of us, at separate times, with the cat's claws dug into our temples, you know, (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

SEDARIS: ...To your face. And she'd go, (imitating cat) and just...

(LAUGHTER)

SEDARIS: I think everyone in my family has marks next to their eyes from this cat. And that's what my dad was like, you know, just - you know, I would do shows in Raleigh and, you know, go on tour and the theater there - I don't know how many people it seats. I don't know, maybe it's 2,200 people, something like that. And my father would say, God, it's good, you know? Yeah, you're home and you're - you know, you're - you're on top of the world. And then he would say, you've told me that that show was sold out, but I counted 16 empty seats...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEDARIS: ...That's not sold out. And I would think, who does that?

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think that one of the reasons why you're writing about your father so much now, and have been thinking about him so much, is because your contentious - your awful relationship with him, which was based on him, you know, belittling and insulting you and you trying to defend yourself - or at least, that's how you've portrayed it - do you think some of the - one of the reasons why you're so absorbed in that relationship is because you want to know how it shaped you? Like, who are you, and how did those battles, those constant battles, shape who you are? Is this about trying to understand yourself?

SEDARIS: Well, I think - I mean, I'm fortunate that - I think that I was equally shaped by both parents, you know?

GROSS: Oh, and you loved your mother.

SEDARIS: And my mother really loved me, you know? And so when she died, then it was hard because then I was alone in the family. I mean, you know, I had siblings, but, I mean, I didn't have anybody in the office that I could go to anymore, you know? But also, it changed things a bit. Like, my father - you know, in my family, you either belong to one parent or the other, and you would be punished by whichever parent you didn't belong to for not belonging to them, right? So I would come home from college and my mother would say, what do you want? I'll make you whatever you want. And that would infuriate my father. And then she would serve me first and, boy, then it was just on, you know - if she put the plate in front of me before she put it in front of him.

GROSS: I want to bring up something else that you write about about your father, that he hit you a lot as a kid. And you say he clamped your hands around your neck, lifted you off the ground and pinned you to the wall. He hit you with paddles. He shoved you into trees and whacked you over the head with heavy serving spoons. Was this while your mother was still alive? And did she know about it?

SEDARIS: Yeah. But it was like a Three Stooges cartoon. I mean, (laughter) that's really what it was like. I mean, it sounds horrible today...

GROSS: Yeah, it sounds horrible today.

SEDARIS: ...But back then, you know, everybody got punished, right? Everybody got punished by their parents. And it was normal to be hit by a parent. But it was different - you know, like, my mother might have slapped me across the face a few times, you know? Everybody got slapped across the face a few times, you know, usually for sassing her or something like that. But with my dad, it was more like just a feeling like, this person doesn't like me. This person wants me out of his life. I mean, I remember him saying once, the only reason I don't hit you right now is that I know I'd never be able to stop. And that kind of was worse than being hit over the head with a spoon, you know?

GROSS: Let's take another break here, then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of personal essays is called "Happy-Go-Lucky." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Sedaris. His new collection of personal essays is called "Happy-Go-Lucky."

I want to get to another chapter about your father, and this is the most probably sensitive - I don't even know what word to use. Like, I hardly even know how to approach this chapter. And this is about the possibility that your father sexually abused your sister Tiffany. Your sister Tiffany had, like, very serious mental health problems. And you found her once these mental health problems started to be a very unreliable narrator about her life. She lied a lot. She misled everybody a lot. And at some point, she told you that your father had sexually abused her. And you write, (reading) in the wake of #MeToo - I know how brutal this sounds - but it was hard to believe much of what she said.

Can you describe being in that position a little bit, about having a sister who had serious mental health problems, who wasn't reliable, who was telling you this awful thing about your father but wasn't giving you enough information so that you could really understand what it was she was telling you? She was very vague. And anyways, why don't you tell us about the position you felt you were in?

SEDARIS: My understanding, you know, from Tiffany, was that she went to a therapist in the 1980s who said, if you don't remember being sexually abused, that's a pretty good sign that you were sexually abused, right? And then she said, I remember Dad coming into my room in the middle of the night. And then it became Dad sexually abused me. And we'd say, how? You know, what did he do? And there was never an answer. I never said that he had intercourse with me. I never said that. I never said that he held me down and raped me. I never said that. I didn't say he raped me. So it could be - well, then what are you saying? Well, I didn't say he did that.

And then she told someone later that I had sexually abused her - right? - which, I mean, I - I mean, you know, kids do things, but I don't remember ever doing anything that could be, you know, construed as sexual abuse towards her. You know, I mean, you might - you know, like, we had this butterfly chair, and you always wanted to sit in the butterfly chair in front of the TV. And, you know, if some people were in the butterfly chair, I'd come up from behind, and I'd stick a pin through it so they'd jump up, and I could have the chair. I don't think that's sexual abuse, you know, when you're 8 and the other person is, like, 4. I just think that's just called being a pain in the - you know, being an older brother.

But at the same time, our dad did and said a lot of things that were, like, definitely beyond the pale. You know, like when my older sister was 17, he tried to get her to go into the woods and pose topless for him, right? He'd just gotten this Nikon camera, and he said he was going to take some art photos, you know? I've got magazines. I can show you. It's art; it's not smut. And, you know, there were the photos that you see in those photo magazines, you know, like the kind that have articles about what the best light for if you're photographing meat, you know, like Photography Today or whatever those magazines are called. And the way that he would talk about his daughters, you know, talk about their bodies and stuff like that, it - again, it was a different time, but he didn't help his case any - right? - by being creepy in that way, right?

So when that's introduced in a family, it really - you know, you don't know what to think. I mean, on the one hand, you know, I felt like Tiffany behaved like a sexually abused person would behave, right? She didn't - sex was a negotiation to her. It was - I mean, I knew that she had sex with people for money. It - she had sex with people for rides. It was a way of getting what you wanted from somebody. So something had happened to her, something had knocked something loose in her. But I don't know if it was just her mental illness or if it was something awful that had happened to her as a child.

GROSS: You had stopped talking to her in 2004. What was behind the break?

SEDARIS: I just couldn't - when you talked with Tiffany, it was sort of like everything was a gunfight. You know, like, certain people you might argue with and let's say you're going to argue over - you know, if you're going to say, well, you said you were going to make rice for dinner, and instead, you made noodles, but you said you were going to make rice. Oh, yeah? And maybe you, you know - and then they pull out the - they just hit you - you know, the - all of a sudden, you've got to - you're just bleeding, right? And the argument wasn't even about that, but they, like, pull out, like, the most painful thing that you can think of in your life, and it just takes you weeks to recover. And that's what it was like with Tiffany. It would just - every encounter just took so long to get over. And I think - I just couldn't do it anymore. She called me one day. Tiffany said - asked me never to write about her. And I said, that's no problem. And then she called and said, everyone thinks you don't like me. Will you write a story about me? So I did. And I sent it to her, and I said, is this OK? And she said, yeah, I love it, and it's really funny, and you capture me perfectly. And then the book came out and then she was like, I can't believe he did this to me. I can't believe that he would betray me like this. And it's like - you see, you just couldn't trust her, you know?

I mean, it's been interesting. After she died, I've gotten so many letters from people who have had a sibling, you know, take their own life. And the people who don't understand it are like, I can't believe you wouldn't, you know, talk to somebody who was vulnerable, that you wouldn't reach out a hand to somebody who was vulnerable. And the people who have someone like that in their family are like, I know just what you're going through, you know, that sometimes you just can't do it anymore. Sometimes you just have to - I mean, it sounds very selfish to say, you know, I have to protect myself, but sometimes you do, you know? Sometimes it can just be so brutal that you just have to take some time out. And I never meant for the time out to last so long. And I always thought Tiffany and I would find our way back, you know, to each other and - you know and then she killed herself.

GROSS: You've read the story about Tiffany's accusation that your father sexually abused her. You've read that to audiences.

SEDARIS: Yes.

GROSS: I'm wondering what reaction you get and if any women come up to you afterwards who are really angry that you don't just out and out believe your sister.

SEDARIS: No, a lot of women come up and they - you know, they tell me they had similar experiences, you know, with their father. Not that he - just that he was the same sort of man as my father appears to be in the essay. But no, I mean, I'm sure I'll get letters when the book comes out. But no, nobody came up to me - I mean, people will do that sometimes. During a question and answer, I had somebody a couple of weeks ago say, why do you think it's OK to say such and such? And I thought, well, I really kind of admired them for being - you know, standing up in a room and making the point that they wanted to make. But again, it was - when it was, like - Tiffany wasn't a reliable person that way, you know? It's really - it's something me and the rest of my family will spend the rest of our lives wondering.

GROSS: I think this is the most just kind of, like, serious conversation we've ever had on the air. By serious, I mean just dealing with, you know, death and trouble and, like, really troubled relationship with your father. And anyways, thank you for talking about it. And thank you for feeling like it wasn't your duty to be funny about it, either as a writer or in this interview.

SEDARIS: Well, I always think that's kind of irritating. Like Marc Maron, his podcast, you know, he just wants - he tries to get people to drop the shtick, and then some people just won't do it and those interviews don't work. So I just trust you to - you know, whatever you think. You know, it was a pleasure for me.

GROSS: Well, it was a pleasure for me, even though we were talking about really painful things. But I appreciate you sharing them. And I think we all learn a lot about ourselves by reading painful things that good writers like you write about.

SEDARIS: Well, thank you.

GROSS: David Sedaris' new collection of personal essays is called "Happy-Go-Lucky." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review Kendrick Lamar's new album, his first in five years. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER BAND SONG, "I WANNA GET OLD WITH YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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