BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 19, 2007
'The events described in these stories are real," humorist David Sedaris wrote in the introductory note to Naked, his 1997 collection of nonfiction essays. The New York Times was convinced: When Naked hit the best-seller list, it categorized the book as nonfiction. The Library of Congress called it biography, and Sedaris assured several interviewers over the years that the book was essentially factual. "Everything in Naked was true," he told the webzine GettingIt in 1999. "I mean, I exaggerate. But all the situations were true."
Great. Except that some things in Naked aren't true, even if you allow for an extra-wiggly definition of "exaggerate." Start with the story called "Dix Hill," in which David is a 13-year-old on summer vacation in 1970. His acerbic (and now deceased) mom, Sharon Sedaris, decrees that he has to volunteer for a job somewhere. Since David is an eerie little guy, he casts his gaze toward the state mental hospital on the south side of his hometown, Raleigh, North Carolina. "Dorothea Dix Sanitarium," Sedaris informs us, was a bizarre madhouse marked by "a bleak colony of Gothic buildings" and trees whose limbs "resembled the palsied fingers of mad scientists tapping against the windows in search of fresh brains."
That's funny, but what comes next isn't meant as a joke; you're supposed to think it really happened. David toddles into the mental hospital and tells a receptionist he's reporting for duty. She answers in screwball-comedy dialogue--"Tell me, son, are you by any chance a current resident?"--but allows him in anyway. With no training at all, he's sent off to work with a "plum-colored" African American orderly fake-named Clarence Poole. Shortly, they're in action, yanking an insane old lady off her bed and strapping her to a gurney:
"I'll take her up top and you get the feet," [Clarence] said. "Come on, granny, you're going for a ride." When the sheet was lifted, I was shocked to discover that this woman was naked. I had never before seen a naked woman and hesitated just long enough for her to lurch forward and sink her remaining three teeth into my forearm.
Wow. Call me a skeptic, but that didn't sound likely. So I made some calls, working through a few baffled state employees until I found Margaret Raynor, a 62-year-old registered nurse who has worked at Dix since 1969. Raynor had never read "Dix Hill" before. I faxed her a copy and then phoned. What did she think?
"He's lying through his teeth!" she said--loudly--before schooling me on the more obvious factual errors. There's no Gothic anything on Dix Hill. The main building, McBryde, is a huge, wide Tuscan Revival structure slathered with stucco. The facility is called Dorothea Dix Hospital, not "sanitarium." There are big trees on the grounds, and there was a volunteer program back in the early '70s. But it was carefully organized, a fact I absorbed when I visited Dix recently, met Raynor, and leafed through a scrapbook kept in the hospital library.
Judging by old newspaper clips, Dix was no paradise: In 1972, all of North Carolina's mental hospitals were officially rebuked because of substandard conditions. And there was, evidently, an organized role for young volunteers, including a 16-year-old named Bonnie Brunson who was featured in a 1973 story in the Raleigh News and Observer. But her duties--"being with the patients, escorting them to special events, writing letters for them"--sounded awfully light compared with Sedaris's battlefront tales.
Even so, in the end, I decided Kid Sedaris probably did volunteer at Dix. Why? Because I called him and asked. He says he did, and I believe him. During a long conversation from his temporary roost in Tokyo--where he has been holed up trying to quit smoking, poor guy--Sedaris was admirably open to fielding my most obnoxious questions about the hard-to-believe things I had found in some of his stories. He admitted that he had pumped up the Dix episode to tell a funnier yarn and that the juicy details with Clarence didn't take place.
That seems beyond the boundaries of comic exaggeration. It's fine to use absurdly embellished descriptions for laughs--this is an essential tool for any humorist. If I write, "I was so hungover, I threw up my own skeleton," you know I'm kidding. It's not fine to pretend--in a long and detailed scene--that you performed outlandish, dangerous tasks at a mental hospital when you didn't.
And Sedaris definitely didn't. When I asked him about his duties at Dix, he said, in that gentle voice so many people know and love, "It would have been more like helping set up parties." That cleared it up. Everything in Naked was true, except for the parts that weren't.
No. I do think Sedaris exaggerates too much for a writer using the nonfiction label. And after spending several weeks fact-checking four of his books--Barrel Fever (1994), Naked (1997), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)--I'd recommend that he issue Oprah Moment apologies to a few people, including all the unclothed frolickers at the Empire Haven nudist camp in the summer of 1996; platoons of women who are stereotyped as harpies, hicks, or sluts; and the ghost of his mom, who usually was one-dimensionalized into a sarcasm-dispensing cliche.
On the plus side, I was a fan when I started my odd little project, and I still am--mostly. One benefit of studying Sedaris's work is that I learned more about him, and there's plenty to like. He's an outstanding comic stylist who is consistently entertaining (his 2006 Princeton graduation speech, published in The New Yorker last year, is one of the funniest things I've ever read), and he seems to be getting better with age.
As a magazine editor and writer, I also admire his work ethic. I edited him once at The New York Times Magazine--a short piece about why he loved the TV show "COPS"--and he was a real pro. That's when I first became aware of Sedaris's improbable (but true) backstory, which involves an amazing mid-thirties turn-around that only could have happened through discipline. Between the time he dropped out of college in 1977 and became a big name some 15 years later, Sedaris paid serious dues--performing manual labor as a housecleaner and mover, battling drug addiction, diligently filling up journals that became the basis for his later work, and giving college another try, when, starting in the mid-'80s, he studied creative writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The hallelujah moment came during the 1992 holiday season, when Sedaris read a nonfiction piece on NPR called "SantaLand Diaries," which recounted his experiences working as an elf at Macy's Santaland. (Yes, he really was employed at Santaland. Bob Rutan, a Macy's executive who worked there when Sedaris was around, remembers him as "an outstanding elf.") Book publishers came calling, and Sedaris started churning out the pieces for NPR's "This American Life," Esquire, GQ, and The New Yorker that eventually made him famous.
As fans know, the stories are largely autobiographical and often concern funny occurrences from his years as an odd-jobs desperado. His other great subject is his family--the daily doings of Sharon, his dad Lou, and the sibling Brat Pack of Lisa, Gretchen, Amy (now a prominent comedian and author in her own right), Tiffany, and Paul. David's persona is Weird Little Gay Guy who grows up into a catty-but-caring adult. Though he's mellowed over time--Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a gentler book than Naked--he's not shy about letting everybody in his family have it, including himself.
It's all pretty funny, but, like many readers, I've often wondered if, as advertised, it's all true. The family stories, for the most part, never struck me as that hard to believe--the Sedaris kids seem a little tame, frankly--but every now and then, especially in Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, you come across something that sounds like a whopper flopping on the deck.
Over the years, as I watched other nonfiction writers go down in flames--Frey, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, the "monkeyfishing" guy at Slate--I wondered why no one had checked on America's favorite nonfiction imp. So I decided to do it myself. The trail was long and fascinating, and it led me to a larger question: whether "nonfiction" means anything when you're talking about humor writers who admit to flubberizing the truth for comic effect.
Sedaris doesn't appear to think so, and he certainly doesn't see himself as a journalist. In interviews, he's groaned about the time Esquire sent him to cover life at a morgue in Phoenix. The problem: He had to restrict himself to what actually happened. "I couldn't exaggerate at all," he told an interviewer. "It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who can honestly tell the truth, because people just didn't always say what I wanted them to." For Sedaris, it's all about telling "good stories." During our conversation, he told me he wouldn't care a bit if he found out that Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was written by "some guy in Montana who made the whole thing up," because the tale he spins is so beautiful.
To answer that question, I first had to try to figure out what is untrue in Sedaris's books. My method consisted of sniff-testing the oeuvre, looking for stories that seemed checkable (many aren't), and launching a fleet of e-mails and idiotic-sounding cold-calls to dig deeper.
In the initial stages--after my early score with "Dix Hill"--I was surprised to find that some of the weirder billboard events checked out. When Sedaris was at college at Kent State in 1976-1977, he really did hitchhike from Ohio to North Carolina with a girl in a wheelchair (as described in "The Incomplete Quad," from Naked). His account of Raleigh community-theater peccadilloes circa 1972 ("The Drama Bug," Naked) was an accurate smackdown. And, though I had limited success checking the family stories-- everybody but David, Lou, and Tiffany declined to talk to me--there was apparently an episode in which an unidentified family member smeared human feces on the household bath towels ("True Detective," Naked).
But some stories collapsed like a shaky Jenga tower, including the first two selections in Sedaris's fourth book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. They both contain outright fabrications, and the fabrications matter. Indeed, if Sedaris hadn't made up significant events and dialogue in these pieces, he wouldn't have had "nonfiction" stories to tell.
In "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities," David is twelve, and his dad, Lou--an IBM engineer and grumpy Greek who is usually depicted as a tightwad and a stiff--forces him to take guitar lessons from a teacher at a shopping mall near their home in north Raleigh. The teacher is a "perfectly formed midget" whom Sedaris fake-names "Mister Mancini."
Sedaris once told an interviewer he exaggerates people "up," making them better than they are. That's hard to see in Mancini's case. Sedaris describes him as a badly dressed cornball with a "high and strange" voice. Kids in the mall razz him ("Go back to Oz, munchkin"), but, lest you feel too sympathetic, Mancini's own deeds condemn him to scorn. He's a lecher (he tells David he should name his guitar after a sexy babe) and a homophobe. The story climaxes when David, hoping to show Mancini what he really wants to do, tries out his new cabaret act, in which he imitates Billie Holiday singing the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle. Mancini freaks out: "'Hey, guy,' he said. 'You can hold it right there. I'm not into that scene. ... There were plenty of screwballs like you back in Atlanta, but me, I don't swing that way--you got it?'"
Get it? Mancini thinks David wants to eat his bologna. It's not funny, and, if you tried this in a work of fiction, your audience might boo. Oh, wait, Sedaris did try this in a work of fiction: The Mancini character, this time named "Mr. Chatam," appears in a Barrel Fever piece, clearly labeled fiction, called "My Manuscript." (In Barrel Fever, unlike in subsequent books, a clear distinction was made between fiction and nonfiction stories.) Chatam didn't make much of an impression on critics, but Mancini sure did. Reviewers took the story as fact, and they extracted meaningful content from this overblown midget joke. "No doubt the teacher's response embarrassed him," J. Peder Zane wrote in a News and Observer overview of Sedaris's work, "but that is not the central point, which is tolerance--the notion that when you look under the hood, we're all a little strange." In an LA Weekly review, the hardworking nonfiction humorist Henry Alford opined, "We feel for the child Sedaris even as we laugh with him, and if our sympathy ... is rooted in the fact that a boy is being ostracized for being gay, the overall effect is not at all one of politically correct cant."
Too bad none of it happened. Well, one thing happened. Sedaris did briefly take guitar lessons from a little person, but he made up Mancini's style, quirks, and speeches, and he invented the moment when Mancini thought young David was making a pass at him. Sedaris admitted as much during our interview, but I already felt sure of it, because I'd found a man who, like Sedaris, took guitar lessons from Mancini when he was a child.
The former student is 49-year-old L.M. (Sam) Hawkins, and he seems quite credible. He works on the Executive Security Branch of the Kentucky State Police, which means he protects Governor Ernie Fletcher and his wife, Glenna. The teacher's name was George Sage, and, though I was unable to locate Sage, alive or dead, Hawkins says he was an excellent instructor. The lessons worked: To this day, Hawkins makes extra money playing jazz guitar on the side, and Sedaris's depiction of his old mentor bothers him. "My recollections of the character represented as Mr. Mancini are not the same as David Sedaris's," he says. "George Sage was a very serious-minded guitar teacher. I am indebted to him, because, without his patience with me as a student, guitar would not be the integral part of my life that it is today."
The same thing happens in "Go Carolina," a story in which fifth-grade David is drafted into a speech-therapy class because he lisps. Sedaris would have you believe that, by this time, he was already flamboyantly gay and that only he and similarly fey lads were compelled to take speech therapy. "None of the therapy students were girls," he writes. "They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains."
Things didn't unfold that way. Sedaris told me so, as did his old principal at Brooks Elementary School, a retired Raleigh educator named John Mallette. Mallette wasn't angry after reading the story (which I faxed), just confused. "I don't understand why he thinks we would make decisions about a speech class based on such factors," he said. "I'm sorry it seemed that way to him."
You'll notice that all three examples thus far involve Little David, but a story like "Naked" (which Sedaris reported when he was 39) can be just as flimsy. Indeed, though the story's subject matter is trivial, "Naked" reveals patterns that appear throughout the book, making all of Naked seem iffy. The problem is the dialogue. Sedaris has never denied putting words in people's mouths ("I exaggerate wildly, for the sake of the story. Mostly in dialogue," he once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune) but nobody bothers to ask the crucial follow-up: Do the phony speeches create a distortion?
They do in "Naked." Though Sedaris doesn't name the nudist camp he visited or say what state it was in, it was Empire Haven, a woodsy retreat in the Finger Lakes region of New York. After a long, grueling quest, I located Empire Haven's co-owner, a woman named Marleen Robinson, as well as a longtime regular named Morley Schloss. They said Sedaris's take barely resembled the camp they know, and Schloss was particularly offended by Sedaris's stereotyping of nudists as cranks and freaks. Robinson was able to identify the man behind a "Naked" character named Dusty, whose comic function is to ridicule Sedaris about his citified ways. "Oh," Dusty sputters at one point, "you're all just so sophisticated sitting in your little cafes and looking up at the Empire State Building while the rest of us lie around in haystacks smoking our corncob pipes."
"The person he's talking about doesn't have a hostile bone in his body," Marleen told me. "It's very embellished." It also sounds contrived. Sedaris is credited with having an impeccable ear for American slang, but his characters' speeches often seem too good to be true. Once they start reverberating inside your head, you realize he's pushing different pedals on the same instrument: the Sharon Sedaris grump organ, turned up to eleven.
Here's a woman on a bus ride from North Carolina to Oregon, hollering about her baby's shiftless father: "I said, 'I got a good mind to call him Cecil Fucking Fuckwad, after his daddy, you ugly fucking fuckwad.'"
And here's Sharon Sedaris, over drinks, discussing David's nervous tics with his teacher from school: "I know exactly what you're talking about. The eyes rolling every which way, it's like talking to a slot machine. Hopefully, one day he'll pay off, but until then, what do you say we have ourselves another glass of wine?"
As Sedaris told me, the Dusty quote is partly fabricated and the other two are made up. So what? Well, it's one thing for a humorist to recreate dialogue that captures the general spirit of how a conversation unfolded. It's another to manufacture lines like a playwright, a technique that lets you sidestep a problem that hobbles nonfiction writers all the time: Often, nothing interesting happens when you report a story. But that's exactly what Sedaris does. When reality sags, he opens the funny-dialogue nozzle. Sometimes in Naked, these rants aren't just the glue holding his stories together; they are the story.
No, I'm not equating him with Frey or Blair or Glass. Though his treatment of George Sage is inexcusable, most of his crimes are petty, making him a nonfiction juvenile delinquent rather than a frogwalk-worthy felon. Still, his work is marketed as nonfiction, and there's a simple rule associated with that: Don't make things up.
I imagine Sedaris's defenders would argue that, since it's just humor, none of this is a big deal. But humor is powerful stuff--in Glass's fabrications, the faked humor was often the only thing his stories had going for them--and writers reap tangible rewards when they present their humor as nonfiction. Things that seem stupid as fiction somehow seem hilarious if they're perceived to be real. You see this at work with Sedaris's dueling midgets. Chatam, the fictional one, is contrived and lame. But Mancini, the "real" character, struck readers as comical and deeply moving.
Whether Sedaris understands the difference between fiction and nonfiction is moot at this point--he could label his next book "hallucinations" and it would sell--but the principle still matters. The editors and radio producers who packaged Sedaris's earlier work certainly understood the difference. They knew that, in our time, nonfiction is bankable in ways that fiction is not. What bugs me is that they milked the term for all its value, while laughing off any of the ethical requirements it entails.
Last month, I flew to Raleigh to conduct a few final interviews in person, including one with 83-year-old Lou Sedaris inside the famous family homestead. Lou wasn't keen on seeing me because I had bluntly informed him, in a letter, that I was interested in whether David's exaggerations about family members ever amounted to fiction and whether this had caused any problems. That went over less than well--"I'm not sure I like your agenda," he said when I called the first time--so hats off to Lou for granting me an audience. Most of the kids went into a defensive crouch when they got the word. "You've got everybody all upset," Lou told me.
Sorry, guys, but it's not like I invented either of these questions. They've come up before, and they should, because David plays hardball. Among other things, he has written about his sister Lisa getting her first period on a golf course, depicted Tiffany as a problem child and slob adult, and told us more than we need to know about Paul training his dog to eat another dog's poop. Not surprisingly, the occasional spark has crackled, with Lou once telling the Raleigh paper, "They're really being invaded, you know, when he writes about them," and Tiffany, a Boston-area artist who makes beautiful mosaics, telling The Boston Globe in 2004, "I don't trust David to have boundaries. Our friends, our shrinks, the guy who gives us our meds--they all think David is incredibly violating."
These days, Tiffany seems more at peace, although she'd like the wider world to get the message that David sometimes exaggerates the family for comic effect. "I don't walk around my house in my bare feet, stamping out cigarettes," she says, referring to "Put a Lid On It," a story from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in which David visits her home and doesn't like what he sees. What struck me about Tiffany-the-character versus Tiffany-the-person is that Sedaris mined her for laughs but left out the best parts--how funny she is in her own right, and how talented and tough.
For his part, Lou was diplomatic when I visited him at the tree-shaded family rambler in Raleigh. A small man with a friendly face, he showed me around the upstairs portion of his home while jazz played on the stereo. We looked at his art collection, which is gloomy, and his own amateur paintings, which are not, and I felt the distant vibe of a household where creativity blossomed in an unlikely setting.
Lou takes hard hits in the stories but seems unscarred. He wasn't happy with the way David depicted his late mother, Ya Ya--that is, as a senile kook who supposedly kneaded bread on the kitchen floor--but, after years of reeducation by the kids ("They kept telling me, 'It's funny, Dad, it's all right'"), he gets it, and he echoed David about the fiction-nonfiction divide: It's a story, it's funny--so what's the problem?
It turned out that my most memorable Raleigh interview was with a family friend--a woman named Elizabeth Currence Cochran, better known as Libby Currence when she, like David, graduated from Raleigh's Sanderson High School in 1975. Libby is a sweetheart, and she made young David sound like a memorable guy. They were in high-school plays together, and, for a couple of years, they were very close. Not quite boyfriend and girlfriend close--that wasn't in the cards--but, for Libby, there was real love involved, and painful heartbreak when their intense platonic friendship finally came to an end.
Libby describes a friend who was funny and caring, and who had a soft spot for outcasts. She thinks the depiction of Sharon in David's "novels" (her term) is entertaining but a little off, because Sharon, far from being the full-time grouch of David's stories, was a capable mother. "The sarcasm is a little bit her," Libby said. "But she was nurturing, she was warm, she cooked dinner every night. I thought she was a marvelous woman."
David wrote Libby a number of letters from college, and you can see his funny style taking shape. But the one that caught my eye wasn't funny. In the fall of 1976, during his year at Kent State, Sedaris went on some sort of field trip to the Apple Creek State Institute, a facility for the mentally retarded in Apple Creek, Ohio. There, he saw terrible things that sound like the raw material for his fabricated scene in "Dix Hill." "We went to a ward with terribly afflicted children," he wrote Libby. "Children lying naked [on] the floor with shit and mucus in their hair and hands. ... It made me sick. These kids will never leave the hospital. ... Nobody even visits them."
Strange. In real life, young David felt more sympathy for mental patients than he would later display in Naked. I guess being mean was funnier. Libby and I talked about this tendency, and she said, "David probably sidestepped intimacy with humor." That's cool by me. Just don't call it nonfiction.
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine.
By Alex Heard