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

Sedaris likens this photo, taken in the Los Angeles County Library Children's Department before they opened, to a <em>Playboy </em>magazine author photo.
Anne Fishbein
Sedaris likens this photo, taken in the Los Angeles County Library Children's Department before they opened, to a <em>Playboy </em>magazine author photo.

Is it possible to love a hateful person? That's the question humorist David Sedaris grapples with when he considers his combative relationship with his late father, Lou.

"It's been the driving force in my life: the animosity, the war that my father and I started when I was young and fought every day of our lives," he says.

Sedaris describes his dad as a mean man who was buried in "layers of rage and disappointment." He stiffed contractors, made sexual remarks to his daughters and, when Sedaris was young, would often shove and hit him. Sedaris always felt like Lou disliked him and wanted him out of his life.

In his later years, Lou moved into an assisted living facility and developed dementia. At that point, Sedaris says, his dad seemed to forget that he was a difficult person. Instead, Sedaris likens his elderly father to a "little cheerful gnome." Nothing bothered him; he no longer criticized everyone and everything.

"I don't know if ... that was his little core finally shining through," Sedaris says. "But I felt so fortunate that I was able to be in the presence of that lovely person."

Lou died in 2021 at the age of 98. Meanwhile, Sedaris is still working to resolve the anger and pain he feels towards his father. He writes about Lou in his new collection of essays, Happy-Go-Lucky.

"It's tricky because you don't want to be a 65 year old man whining that your dad was mean to you. So here I am, 65, and hopefully it's not whining," he says. "I figured there's a lot of people in the same situation that I was in. I hear from them all the time, people who had a difficult parent."


Interview highlights

Happy-Go-Lucky, by David Sedaris
/ Little, Brown
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Little, Brown

On how writing about his father has changed since his death in May 2021

I think what changed was there's a real person and then there's the character of that person. And when you're in a story or an essay, you're the character of who you are. My father was not a good person, but he was a great character. I know plenty of people who are good people, but terrible characters. 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 nut!, Gee, he can be tough sometimes, but it's lovable Lou!" But that's not really who he was. Now that he is dead, I just feel like I can kind of let that aspect of it go.

On the nuance of loving a person who was mean

You can still love a mean person. You can still love a difficult person. Your mind as an adult should be big enough to hold all of these things.

The way I've always made sense of things is to write about it. When my mother died ... 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. And my father said, "I want you to do that when I die." ... 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 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, "People say, oh, I know you're going to miss him terribly." And the fact is, we will. 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, "Well, that's a bad person. We all hate that person now because they're bad." But it's more nuanced than that. You can still love a mean person. You can still love a difficult person. Your mind as an adult should be big enough to hold all of these things. I just could easily just spend the rest of my life trying to sort through the feelings that I had for my dad.

On likening his father to Donald Trump

My father was a perfect preparation for having Donald Trump as president. Just outrageous lies. ... 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, "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 that he had brought from New York State when we moved south in 1964 and I said, "Green Stamps? They're worthless!" "No, I heard you can redeem them in Florida!"

On Sedaris' father hitting him

It was like a Three Stooges cartoon. That's really what it was like. It sounds horrible [today but] back then, everybody got punished by their parents and it was normal to be hit by a parent. ... Like my mother might have slapped me across the face a few times. Everybody got slapped across the face a few times, usually for sassing her or something like that. But with my dad, it was more like just the feeling like this person doesn't like me. This person wants me out of his life. 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.

On his late sister Tiffany's claim that their father sexually abused her, and the difficulty of not knowing what to believe

My understanding 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." 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? 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 never said he raped me." Well, then what are you saying? And then she told someone later that I had sexually abused her. Kids do things, but I don't remember ever doing anything that could be construed as sexual abuse towards her. ...

At the same time, our dad did and said a lot of things that were like, definitely beyond the pale. When my older sister was 17, he tried to get her to go into the woods and pose topless for him. He'd just gotten this Nikon camera, and he said he was gonna take some art photos. "I've got magazines I can show you. It's art. It's not smut." ... The way that he would talk about his daughters, talk about their bodies and stuff like that, it again, it was a different time. But he didn't help his case any, by being creepy in that way.

On the difficult decision to cut off communication with his late sister Tiffany before she died by suicide

It's been interesting, after she died, I've gotten so many letters from people who have had a sibling take their own life. The people who don't understand it are like, "I can't believe you wouldn't 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. Sometimes you just can't do it anymore. Sometimes you just have to." I mean, it sounds very selfish to say, I have to protect myself, but sometimes you do. 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. I always thought Tiffany and I would find our way back to each other and, you know, and then she killed herself.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.