With his dad gone, David Sedaris turns the chapter on their rocky relationship
‘As long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me,’ said author and comedian
David Sedaris thinks his career success is due in large part to his father's propensity to be tough on him.
"He just never liked me," he said.
Among other topics, the American author and comedian detailed their intensely irritable relationship in his new book Happy-Go-Lucky.
In an interview with CBC Radio's The Sunday Magazine, Sedaris spoke with host Piya Chattopadhyay. Here is a part of their conversation.
A lot has happened in the last few years of your life. Your dad died. Your beach house, the Sea Section, which you've written about in the past, was destroyed in a hurricane. There is also the ongoing pandemic. Hence the title Happy-Go-Lucky. I'm just wondering, David, like when those bad things happen in your life, is there comfort for you that this is fodder for good material?
Well, I think the worst thing that happened to me personally over the past few years is I got a urinary tract infection and women get them all the time. It's usually not a big deal, but if a man over a certain age gets one, then they start testing for cancer. So, I had all these gruesome tests done, and I guess there was some comfort in thinking, well, at least I can write about it. I mean, it turns out I don't have cancer, but those few weeks during the scare, that was pretty bad.
You have said that the way you make sense of things is to write about them, which makes perfect sense.
Yeah, but I would never say that my writing is cathartic in any way, but I would still say that writing about it is the way I make sense of it. That doesn't make sense, really. When you take a step back, you think, "isn't that what cathartic is?" But, in my mind, there's a difference between those two things. Every morning I get up and I look over what I wrote exactly a week ago in my diary. And, sometimes I look and I think, "you're a monster – you were an absolute monster."
The big story in this book of yours is about the death of your dad, Lou Sedaris, who many of us felt like we knew through your stories about him. But we really do get a different picture of him here. Fair?
Very fair. Yeah.
To set us up, I've asked you to share a passage from the book that expresses that. Do you mind reading that for us now?
For years, I'd felt like one of those plane trees I'll forever associate with Paris. The sort that's been brutally pruned since sapling hood 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.
David, am I right to assume that's something you felt you could not write when your father was living?
You know, there's a role you kind of have to play when somebody is alive. You know, there's a very clear moment in my life when I had every right to say to my father, "You know what? That's it. I'm never going to talk to you or see you again." But I didn't want to be that person and I didn't want to do what that does to a family. So, I played the role. But my father and I, we just didn't — he just never liked me.
Well, my mother was crazy about me, so, at least I got it from one parent, and I considered myself super lucky. I had a great mom.
I'm just wondering why. Why not just have walked away?
I guess I just feel that people who are estranged from their parents are damaged in a way that often seems irreparable to me, and maybe that's not fair of me to say. And, I don't know what other people go through. If you've got a parent who obviously sexually abused you or seriously emotionally abused you, it's not my place to say that you should still be in contact with them. But maybe I'm just as damaged and I'm that person. I get on stage and I have a bottomless need for attention and love. There's no feeling at all.
You've said your dad wasn't necessarily a good person, but he was a good character for your writing. Given what you've just said, and how clearly it's impacted you so deeply, would you have rather had it the other way around? I'm assuming you would.
I would not have changed my father for anyone. Like, if you'd said, "Okay, he can be your father or Mr. Rogers can be your father." I think that a lot of who I am came from him. When I was young, I would think, I'll show you. I mean, you can never show them, right? They don't understand. Most parents don't understand what their kids do for a living and vice versa. I thought my father drove a train until I was in high school. He was an engineer at IBM. So, it's a two-way street. But there was something about battling against him that obviously I had that spark, you know? When I was a kid, even then, I wanted attention. I just had to figure out how to get it. I wouldn't have traded what I had. I've profited from it.
Written by Bob Becken. Radio segment produced by Peter Mitton. Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.