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This American Lie

A midget guitar teacher, a Macy’s elf, and the truth about David Sedaris.
Alex Heard

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he events described in these stories are real,” hu- That’s funny, but what comes next isn’t meant as a joke; you’re
morist David Sedaris wrote in the introductory supposed to think it really happened. David toddles into the
note to Naked, his 1997 collection of nonfiction es- mental hospital and tells a receptionist he’s reporting for duty.
says. The New York Times was convinced: When She answers in screwball-comedy dialogue—“Tell me, son, are
Naked hit the best-seller list, it categorized the you by any chance a current resident?”—but allows him in any-
book as nonfiction. The Library of Congress called it biography, way. With no training at all, he’s sent off to work with a “plum-
and Sedaris assured several interviewers over the years that the colored” African American orderly fake-named Clarence Poole.
book was essentially factual. “Everything in Naked was true,” he Shortly, they’re in action, yanking an insane old lady off her bed
told the webzine GettingIt in 1999. “I mean, I exaggerate. But all and strapping her to a gurney:
the situations were true.”
Great. Except that some things in Naked aren’t true, even if “I’ll take her up top and you get the feet,” [Clarence] said. “Come on,
you allow for an extra-wiggly definition of “exaggerate.” Start granny, you’re going for a ride.” When the sheet was lifted, I was
with the story called “Dix Hill,” in which David is a 13-year-old shocked to discover that this woman was naked. I had never before
on summer vacation in 1970. His acerbic (and now deceased) seen a naked woman and hesitated just long enough for her to lurch
mom, Sharon Sedaris, decrees that he has to volunteer for a job forward and sink her remaining three teeth into my forearm.
somewhere. Since David is an eerie little guy, he casts his gaze
toward the state mental hospital on the south side of his home- Wow. Call me a skeptic, but that didn’t sound likely. So I
town, Raleigh, North Carolina. “Dorothea Dix Sanitarium,” Se- made some calls, working through a few baffled state employ-
daris informs us, was a bizarre madhouse marked by “a bleak ees until I found Margaret Raynor, a 62-year-old registered
colony of Gothic buildings” and trees whose limbs “resembled nurse who has worked at Dix since 1969. Raynor had never
the palsied fingers of mad scientists tapping against the win- read “Dix Hill” before. I faxed her a copy and then phoned.
dows in search of fresh brains.” What did she think?

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“He’s lying through his teeth!” she said— t this point, I can almost hear and Sedaris started churning out the
loudly—before schooling me on the throngs of NPR listeners saying, pieces for NPR’s “This American Life,” Es-
more obvious factual errors. There’s no Uh oh, is this guy about to give my quire, GQ, and The New Yorker that even-
Gothic anything on Dix Hill. The main man Sedaris the James Frey treatment? tually made him famous.
building, McBryde, is a huge, wide Tus- No. I do think Sedaris exaggerates too As fans know, the stories are largely au-
can Revival structure slathered with much for a writer using the nonfiction tobiographical and often concern funny
stucco. The facility is called Dorothea label. And after spending several weeks occurrences from his years as an odd-jobs
Dix Hospital, not “sanitarium.” There are fact-checking four of his books— desperado. His other great subject
big trees on the grounds, and there was Barrel Fever (1994), Naked is his family—the daily doings of
a volunteer program back in the early (1997), Me Talk Pretty One Sharon, his dad Lou, and the
’70s. But it was carefully organized, a fact Day (2000), and Dress Your sibling Brat Pack of Lisa,
I absorbed when I visited Dix recently, Family in C orduroy and Gretchen, Amy (now a prom-
met Raynor, and leafed through a scrap- Denim (2004)—I’d recom- inent comedian and author
book kept in the hospital library. mend that he issue Oprah in her own right), Tiffany,
Judging by old newspaper clips, Dix Moment apologies to a few and Paul. David’s persona is
was no paradise: In 1972, all of North people, including all the un- Weird Little Gay Guy who
Carolina’s mental hospitals were officially clothed frolickers at the Empire grows up into a catty-but-car-
rebuked because of substandard condi- Haven nudist camp in the sum- ing adult. Though he’s mel-
tions. And there was, evidently, an orga- mer of 1996; platoons of women lowed over time—Dress Your
nized role for young volunteers, including who are stereotyped as harpies, hicks, Family in Corduroy and Denim is
a 16-year-old named Bonnie Brunson or sluts; and the ghost of his mom, who a gentler book than Naked—he’s not
who was featured in a 1973 story in the usually was one-dimensionalized into a shy about letting everybody in his family
Raleigh News and Observer. But her du- sarcasm-dispensing cliché. have it, including himself.
ties—“being with the patients, escorting On the plus side, I was a fan when I It’s all pretty funny, but, like many read-
them to special events, writing letters for started my odd little project, and I still ers, I’ve often wondered if, as advertised,
them”—sounded awfully light compared am—mostly. One benefit of studying Se- it’s all true. The family stories, for the
with Sedaris’s battlefront tales. daris’s work is that I learned more about most part, never struck me as that hard to
Even so, in the end, I decided Kid Se- him, and there’s plenty to like. He’s an believe—the Sedaris kids seem a little
daris probably did volunteer at Dix. outstanding comic stylist who is con- tame, frankly—but every now and then,
Why? Because I called him and asked. sistently entertaining (his 2006 Prince- especially in Naked and Me Talk Pretty
He says he did, and I believe him. Dur- ton graduation speech, published in The One Day, you come across something
ing a long conversation from his tempo- New Yorker last year, is one of the funni- that sounds like a whopper flopping on

 (from Left) Getty Images Entertainment/Bryan Bedder; Getty Images Entertainment/Scott Gries; Getty Images News/Chris Hondros
rary roost in Tokyo—where he has been est things I’ve ever read), and he seems to the deck.
holed up trying to quit smoking, poor be getting better with age. Over the years, as I watched other
guy—Sedaris was admirably open to As a magazine editor and writer, I also nonfiction writers go down in flames—
fielding my most obnoxious admire his work ethic. I edited him Frey, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, the
questions about the hard-to- once at The New York Times Maga- “monkeyfishing” guy at Slate—I won-
believe things I had found zine—a short piece about why he dered why no one had checked on Amer-
in some of his stories. He loved the TV show “COPS”—and ica’s favorite nonfiction imp. So I decided
a d m i tte d th at h e h a d he was a real pro. That’s when I first to do it myself. The trail was long and
pumped up the Dix episode became aware of Sedaris’s improb- fascinating, and it led me to a larger
to tell a funnier yarn and able (but true) backstory, which question: whether “nonfiction” means
that the juicy details with involves an amazing mid-thirties anything when you’re talking about
Clarence didn’t take place. turn-around that only could have humor writers who admit to flubberizing
That seems beyond the happened through discipline. Be- the truth for comic effect.
boundaries of comic exaggera- tween the time he dropped out of Sedaris doesn’t appear to think so, and
tion. It’s fine to use absurdly embel- college in 1977 and became a big he certainly doesn’t see himself as a jour-
lished descriptions for laughs—this is name some 15 years later, Sedaris paid nalist. In interviews, he’s groaned about
an essential tool for any humorist. If I serious dues—performing manual labor as the time Esquire sent him to cover life at
write, “I was so hungover, I threw up my a housecleaner and mover, battling drug ad- a morgue in Phoenix. The problem: He
own skeleton,” you know I’m kidding. It’s diction, diligently filling up journals that be- had to restrict himself to what actually
not fine to pretend—in a long and de- came the basis for his later work, and giving happened. “I couldn’t exaggerate at all,” he
tailed scene—that you performed out- college another try, when, starting in the told an interviewer. “It gave me a whole
landish, dangerous tasks at a mental mid-’80s, he studied creative writing at the new appreciation for people who can hon-
hospital when you didn’t. School of the Art Institute of Chicago. estly tell the truth, because people just
And Sedaris definitely didn’t. When I The hallelujah moment came during the didn’t always say what I wanted them to.”
asked him about his duties at Dix, he said, 1992 holiday season, when Sedaris read a For Sedaris, it’s all about telling “good sto-
in that gentle voice so many people know nonfiction piece on NPR called “Santa- ries.” During our conversation, he told me
and love, “It would have been more like Land Diaries,” which recounted his expe- he wouldn’t care a bit if he found out that
helping set up parties.” That cleared it up. riences working as an elf at Macy’s Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was writ-
Everything in Naked was true, except for Santaland. (Yes, he really was employed at ten by “some guy in Montana who made
the parts that weren’t. Santaland. Bob Rutan, a Macy’s executive the whole thing up,” because the tale he
who worked there when Sedaris was spins is so beautiful.
Alex Heard is the editorial director of   around, remembers him as “an outstand- OK, but last time I checked, you’re
Outside magazine. ing elf.”) Book publishers came calling, supposed to call that fiction. Sedaris hon-

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estly doesn’t see the difference, and his ‘You can hold it right there. I’m not into him, because, without his patience with
audience isn’t complaining. Should that that scene. . . . There were plenty of me as a student, guitar would not be the
be good enough for the rest of us? screwballs like you back in Atlanta, but integral part of my life that it is today.”
me, I don’t swing that way—you got it?’” The same thing happens in “Go Caro-

T
o answer that question, I first Get it? Mancini thinks David wants to lina,” a story in which fifth-grade David is
had to try to figure out what is untrue eat his bologna. It’s not funny, and, if you drafted into a speech-therapy class be-
in Sedaris’s books. My method con- tried this in a work of fiction, your audi- cause he lisps. Sedaris would have you be-
sisted of sniff-testing the oeuvre, looking ence might boo. Oh, wait, Sedaris did try lieve that, by this time, he was already
for stories that seemed checkable (many this in a work of fiction: The Mancini char- flamboyantly gay and that only he and
aren’t), and launching a fleet of e-mails and acter, this time named “Mr. Chatam,” ap- similarly fey lads were compelled to take
idiotic-sounding cold-calls to dig deeper. pears in a Barrel Fever piece, clearly labeled speech therapy. “None of the therapy stu-
In the initial stages—after my early fiction, called “My Manuscript.” (In Barrel dents were girls,” he writes. “They were all
score with “Dix Hill”—I was surprised to Fever, unlike in subsequent books, a clear boys like me who kept movie star scrap-
find that some of the weirder billboard distinction was made between books and made their own curtains.”
events checked out. When Sedaris was at fiction and nonfiction stories.) Chatam Things didn’t unfold that way. Sedaris
college at Kent State in 1976–1977, he re- didn’t make much of an impression on crit- told me so, as did his old principal at
ally did hitchhike from Ohio to North ics, but Mancini sure did. Reviewers took Brooks Elementary School, a retired Ra-
Carolina with a girl in a wheelchair (as de- the story as fact, and they extract- leigh educator named John Mallette.
scribed in “The Incomplete Quad,” from ed meaningful content from this over- Mallette wasn’t angry after reading the
Naked). His account of Raleigh commu- blown midget joke. “No doubt the teacher’s story (which I faxed), just confused. “I
nity-theater peccadilloes circa 1972 (“The response embarrassed him,” J. Peder Zane don’t understand why he thinks we would
Drama Bug,” Naked) was an accurate wrote in a News and Observer overview make decisions about a speech
smackdown. And, though I had limited of Sedaris’s work, “but that is not class based on such factors,” he
success checking the family stories— the central point, which is toler- said. “I’m sorry it seemed that
everybody but David, Lou, and Tiffany ance—the notion that when you way to him.”
declined to talk to me—there was appar- look under the hood, we’re all a You’ll notice that all three
ently an episode in which an unidentified little strange.” In an LA Weekly examples thus far involve Lit-
family member smeared human feces on review, the hardworking non- tle David, but a story like
the household bath towels (“True Detec- fiction humorist Henry Alford “Naked” (which Sedaris re-
tive,” Naked). opined, “We feel for the child ported when he was 39) can be
But some stories collapsed like a shaky Sedaris even as we laugh with just as flimsy. Indeed, though
Jenga tower, including the first two se- him, and if our sympathy . . . is the story’s subject matter is trivial,
lections in Sedaris’s fourth book, Me rooted in the fact that a boy is “Naked” reveals patterns that ap-
Talk Pretty One Day. They both contain being ostracized for being gay, the pear throughout the book, making
outright fabrications, and the fabrica- overall effect is not at all one of politi- all of Naked seem iffy. The problem is
tions matter. Indeed, if Sedaris hadn’t cally correct cant.” the dialogue. Sedaris has never denied
made up significant events and dialogue Too bad none of it happened. Well, one putting words in people’s mouths (“I ex-
in these pieces, he wouldn’t have had thing happened. Sedaris did briefly take aggerate wildly, for the sake of the story.
“nonfiction” stories to tell. guitar lessons from a little person, but he Mostly in dialogue,” he once told the New
In “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities,” made up Mancini’s style, quirks, and Orleans Times-Picayune) but nobody
David is twelve, and his dad, Lou—an speeches, and he invented the moment bothers to ask the crucial follow-up: Do
IBM engineer and grumpy Greek who is when Mancini thought young David was the phony speeches create a distortion?
usually depicted as a tightwad and a stiff— making a pass at him. Sedaris admitted They do in “Naked.” Though Sedaris
forces him to take guitar lessons from a as much during our interview, but I al- doesn’t name the nudist camp he visited or
teacher at a shopping mall near their ready felt sure of it, because I’d found a say what state it was in, it was Empire
home in north Raleigh. The teacher is a man who, like Sedaris, took guitar les- Haven, a woodsy retreat in the Finger
“perfectly formed midget” whom Sedaris sons from Mancini when he was a child. Lakes region of New York. After a long,
fake-names “Mister Mancini.” The former student is 49-year-old L.M. grueling quest, I located Empire Haven’s co-
Sedaris once told an interviewer he ex- (Sam) Hawkins, and he seems quite owner, a woman named Marleen Robinson,
aggerates people “up,” making them bet- credible. He works on the Executive Se- as well as a longtime regular named Mor-
ter than they are. That’s hard to see in curity Branch of the Kentucky State Po- ley Schloss. They said Sedaris’s take barely
Mancini’s case. Sedaris describes him as lice, which means he protects Governor resembled the camp they know, and
a badly dressed cornball with a “high and Ernie Fletcher and his wife, Glenna. The Schloss was particularly offended by Sedar-
strange” voice. Kids in the mall razz him teacher’s name was George Sage, and, is’s stereotyping of nudists as cranks and
(“Go back to Oz, munchkin”), but, lest though I was unable to locate Sage, alive freaks. Robinson was able to identify the
you feel too sympathetic, Mancini’s own or dead, Hawkins says he was an excel- man behind a “Naked” character named
deeds condemn him to scorn. He’s a lent instructor. The lessons worked: To Dusty, whose comic function is to ridicule
lecher (he tells David he should name his this day, Hawkins makes extra money Sedaris about his citified ways. “Oh,” Dusty
guitar after a sexy babe) and a homo- playing jazz guitar on the side, and Se- sputters at one point, “you’re all just so so-
phobe. The story climaxes when David, daris’s depiction of his old mentor both- phisticated sitting in your little cafés and
hoping to show Mancini what he really ers him. “My recollections of the looking up at the Empire State Building
wants to do, tries out his new cabaret act, character represented as Mr. Mancini while the rest of us lie around in haystacks
in which he imitates Billie Holiday sing- are not the same as David Sedaris’s,” he smoking our corncob pipes.”
ing the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle. says. “George Sage was a very serious- “The person he’s talking about doesn’t
Mancini freaks out: “‘Hey, guy,’ he said. minded guitar teacher. I am indebted to have a hostile bone in his body,” Marleen

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told me. “It’s very embellished.” It also sell—but the principle still matters. The the stereo. We looked at his art collection,
sounds contrived. Sedaris is credited editors and radio producers who pack- which is gloomy, and his own amateur
with having an impeccable ear for Amer- aged Sedaris’s earlier work certainly un- paintings, which are not, and I felt the dis-
ican slang, but his characters’ speeches derstood the difference. They knew that, tant vibe of a household where creativity
often seem too good to be true. Once in our time, nonfiction is bankable in blossomed in an unlikely setting.
they start reverberating inside your head, ways that fiction is not. What bugs me is Lou takes hard hits in the stories but
you realize he’s pushing different pedals that they milked the term for all its value, seems unscarred. He wasn’t happy with
on the same instrument: the Sharon Se- while laughing off any of the ethical re- the way David depicted his late mother, Ya
daris grump organ, turned up to eleven. quirements it entails. Ya—that is, as a senile kook who suppos-
Here’s a woman on a bus ride from edly kneaded bread on the kitchen floor—

L
North Carolina to Oregon, hollering ast month , I flew to Raleigh to but, after years of reeducation by the kids
about her baby’s shiftless father: “I said, ‘I conduct a few final interviews in (“They kept telling me, ‘It’s funny, Dad, it’s
got a good mind to call him Cecil Fucking person, including one with 83-year- all right’”), he gets it, and he echoed David
Fuckwad, after his daddy, you ugly fuck- old Lou Sedaris inside the famous fam- about the fiction-nonfiction divide: It’s a
ing fuckwad.’” ily homestead. Lou wasn’t keen on seeing story, it’s funny—so what’s the problem?
And here’s Sharon Sedaris, over drinks, me because I had bluntly informed him, It turned out that my most memorable
discussing David’s nervous tics with his in a letter, that I was interested in Raleigh interview was with a family
teacher from school: “I know exactly whether David’s exaggerations about friend—a woman named Elizabeth Cur-
what you’re talking about. The eyes roll- family members ever amounted to fic- rence Cochran, better known as Libby
ing every which way, it’s like talking to a tion and whether this had caused any Currence when she, like David, graduated
slot machine. Hopefully, one day he’ll pay problems. That went over less than well— from Raleigh’s Sanderson High School in
off, but until then, what do you say we “I’m not sure I like your agenda,” he said 1975. Libby is a sweetheart, and she made
have ourselves another glass of wine?” when I called the first time—so hats off young David sound like a memorable guy.
As Sedaris told me, the Dusty quote is to Lou for granting me an audience. They were in high-school plays together,
partly fabricated and the other two are Most of the kids went into a defensive and, for a couple of years, they were very
made up. So what? Well, it’s one thing for crouch when they got the word. “You’ve close. Not quite boyfriend and girlfriend
a humorist to recreate dialogue that cap- got everybody all upset,” Lou told me. close—that wasn’t in the cards—but, for
tures the general spirit of how a conversa- Sorry, guys, but it’s not like I invented ei- Libby, there was real love involved, and
tion unfolded. It’s another to manufacture ther of these questions. They’ve come up painful heartbreak when their intense pla-
lines like a playwright, a technique that before, and they should, because David tonic friendship finally came to an end.
lets you sidestep a problem that hobbles plays hardball. Among other things, he has Libby describes a friend who was funny
nonfiction writers all the time: Often, written about his sister Lisa getting her first and caring, and who had a soft spot
nothing interesting happens when you re- period on a golf course, depicted Tiffany as for outcasts. She thinks the depiction of
port a story. But that’s exactly what Sedaris a problem child and slob adult, and told us Sharon in David’s “novels” (her term) is
does. When reality sags, he opens the more than we need to know about Paul entertaining but a little off, because Sha-
funny-dialogue nozzle. Sometimes in training his dog to eat another dog’s poop. ron, far from being the full-time grouch
Naked, these rants aren’t just the glue hold- Not surprisingly, the occasional spark has of David’s stories, was a capable mother.
ing his stories together; they are the story. crackled, with Lou once telling the Raleigh “The sarcasm is a little bit her,” Libby said.
No, I’m not equating him with Frey or paper, “They’re really being invaded, you “But she was nurturing, she was warm, she
Blair or Glass. Though his treatment of know, when he writes about them,” and Tif- cooked dinner every night. I thought she
George Sage is inexcusable, most of his fany, a Boston-area artist who makes beau- was a marvelous woman.”
crimes are petty, making him a nonfiction tiful mosaics, telling The Boston Globe in David wrote Libby a number of letters
juvenile delinquent rather than a frogwalk- 2004, “I don’t trust David to have boundar- from college, and you can see his funny
worthy felon. Still, his work is marketed as ies. Our friends, our shrinks, the guy who style taking shape. But the one that caught
nonfiction, and there’s a simple rule asso- gives us our meds—they all think David is my eye wasn’t funny. In the fall of 1976,
ciated with that: Don’t make things up. incredibly violating.” during his year at Kent State, Sedaris went
I imagine Sedaris’s defenders would These days, Tiffany seems more at peace, on some sort of field trip to the Apple
argue that, since it’s just humor, none of although she’d like the wider world to get Creek State Institute, a facility for the men-
this is a big deal. But humor is powerful the message that David sometimes exag- tally retarded in Apple Creek, Ohio. There,
stuff—in Glass’s fabrications, the faked gerates the family for comic effect. “I don’t he saw terrible things that sound like the
humor was often the only thing his sto- walk around my house in my bare feet, raw material for his fabricated scene in
ries had going for them—and writers stamping out cigarettes,” she says, referring “Dix Hill.” “We went to a ward with terribly
reap tangible rewards when they present to “Put a Lid On It,” a story from Dress Your afflicted children,” he wrote Libby. “Chil-
their humor as nonfiction. Things that Family in Corduroy and Denim in which dren lying naked [on] the floor with shit
seem stupid as fiction somehow seem hi- David visits her home and doesn’t like what and mucus in their hair and hands. ... It
larious if they’re perceived to be real. You he sees. What struck me about Tiffany-the- made me sick. These kids will never leave
see this at work with Sedaris’s dueling character versus Tiffany-the-person is that the hospital. ... Nobody even visits them.”
midgets. Chatam, the fictional one, is Sedaris mined her for laughs but left out Strange. In real life, young David felt
contrived and lame. But Mancini, the the best parts—how funny she is in her more sympathy for mental patients than
“real” character, struck readers as comical own right, and how talented and tough. he would later display in Naked. I guess
and deeply moving. For his part, Lou was diplomatic when I being mean was funnier. Libby and I
Whether Sedaris understands the dif- visited him at the tree-shaded family ram- talked about this tendency, and she said,
ference between fiction and nonfiction is bler in Raleigh. A small man with a friendly “David probably sidestepped intimacy
moot at this point—he could label his face, he showed me around the upstairs with humor.” That’s cool by me. Just don’t
next book “hallucinations” and it would portion of his home while jazz played on call it nonfiction. d

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