David Sedaris' 'Theft By Finding', Truth or Elaboration, Matters Not
David Sedaris' decades-spanning collection of his diary entries reveals the growth of one of America's most beloved humorists.
Theft By Finding: Diaries (1977-2002)Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Length: 528 pages
Author: David Sedaris
Publication date: 2017-05-30
Having read any Sedaris at all seems to put me in the minority of most people my age, making it hard to commiserate and share my enthusiasm with my peers. After all, my generation is not the one that first met Sedaris through listening to the “Santaland Diaries” on NPR; I ended up stealing Naked (1996) and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) off my parents’ bookshelves before shelling out for the rest of his books.
Having been a fan for such a large portion of my life means that getting my hands on Theft By Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) allows me to consolidate his pre-2002 essays with the real-time diary entries that formed their foundations. It’s almost like putting together one of those crime-show suspect boards in my mind as I draw the connections from kernel to finished story, filling in my mental images of his father, mother, and siblings with increasingly fine detail. Certainly, it wasn’t possible to know Sedaris only from his stories, but I felt as though I’d gleaned every last scrap of knowledge a mere reader could have gotten, and had begun to understand the man with the pen a little bit better.
Reading Alex Heard’s 2007 The New Republic article “This American Lie” in 2013 came as a nasty shock. I’d assumed for years that, with the exception of the first half of Barrel Fever (1994), Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010), and parts of Holidays on Ice (1997), Sedaris was writing nonfiction -- perhaps fudging some dialogue from his childhood here and there for literary purposes, or due to simply not remembering things verbatim, but nonfiction nonetheless. Briefly mentioning writers like James Frey and Stephen Glass, who had attempted to pass off fabrications as facts, yet pointedly refusing to equate Sedaris with their ilk, Heard recounts his research on classic Sedaris essays, speaking with members of his family and other characters mentioned or referenced in previous works. Heard ultimately writes, quite damningly: “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.”
It seems unlikely, though, that Sedaris felt the need to release Theft By Finding as a kind of rebuke to the people who have begun to doubt the veracity of his accounts. After all, it’s been ten years since “This American Lie”, during which time Sedaris not only released several books but also has continued to consolidate his fame and popularity on an international scale. Whether a few critics here and there don’t believe Sedaris is telling the truth seems rather immaterial to the millions of readers, like me, who love him anyway. Releasing a collection of his diaries to the public, which he’s been keeping faithfully for decades, then serves as a kind of test, both to himself and to his audience, and it’s one that he’s under no obligation to provide. For people like Heard, who wrote definitively that “Sedaris exaggerates too much for a writer using the nonfiction label”, the way Sedaris describes situations we’ve read about in previous essays serves to confirm their suspicions.
The most obvious and surprising example in Theft By Finding takes place during Sedaris’ legendary Parisian sojourn, where he and his French class faced a wholly frightening witch of an instructor. When reading about this teacher in Me Talk Pretty One Day, her stabbing people in the eye with pencils and throwing chalk seemed extreme to me, but sometimes people really are unsuited to be teachers. Yet the David Sedaris writing about this teacher while he’s taking her class describes her in a much softer and friendlier way -- more mercurial and insecure than uniformly monstrous.
To a reader like me, who took the French instructor’s behavior from Me Talk Pretty One Day as a representation of the truth, it does feel like a betrayal to know that with this woman, Sedaris has done what Heard castigated him for in “This American Lie”: exaggerated yet another character in his life to the point of being completely unrecognizable. Why would Sedaris provide this kind of opportunity to prove him wrong on paper after so many years of blithely writing off, or downplaying, his fictionalization of the real?
Yet there are indeed indirect challenges to Heard’s claims in Theft By Finding. When I read through these entries the second time, I took care to note his quotidian accounts that were clearly expanded into larger essays. Assuming Sedaris was reporting his own process accurately in “Day In, Day Out” (Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, 2013), we can see that there is often some very large grain of truth to even the wildest of his stories. In that sense, Sedaris has been rather lucky to have been blessed with a distinctively colorful family and a penchant for running into some very odd people.
Maybe the French instructor wasn’t all that bad in reality, but Helen, his colorfully offensive neighbor described in “That’s Amore”, (When You Are Engulfed in Flames, 2008), certainly hasn’t changed much from his original diary entries to the final product. His experience as a pathetically unprepared substitute writing instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago; the ankle-button pants he wore while hitchhiking in the late '70s; his eventual success at quitting drinking -- these events in his life are all present and accounted for, even if they’re dressed up a little bit.
When you’ve been reading the works of an author for a significant amount of time, you begin to develop what honestly does feel an acquaintanceship with them -- or at least, a disturbing familiarity with the author’s life. So tracing Sedaris’ life over the course of Theft By Finding, can become oddly poignant and heartbreaking at times, because we know to a large extent future events diary-David doesn’t. In particular, the way Sedaris describes the downward spiral of his troubled youngest sister Tiffany, who committed suicide in 2013 at age 49, invokes a sickening feeling because we know what happens to her in the end, courtesy of Sedaris' New Yorker essay "Now We Are Five".
We’ve gotten to know Tiffany in bits and pieces in his other books. “Put a Lid on it” (Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), details Sedaris’ attempts to nag Tiffany into taking better care of her own life, and was the closest he -- and she -- likely ever allowed the public to be. We know she had a life of extreme lows and highs, living in an abusive youth facility as a child to becoming a successful baker then having to scavenge through the garbage to make rent, and so it’s the worst kind of tragedy seeing Sedaris write cheerfully about getting high with her in 1981, chalking Tiffany getting beaten up to her having “an adventurous life” in 1986, and then passionlessly writing about her calling him “sobbing[…] saying she can’t leave the house” in 1997. The Tiffany of Sedaris’ essays was isolated from the rest of her family and loath to accept their help, and seeing her fall deeper and deeper into helplessness and despair in real time is horrifying.
Theft By Finding is like reading the first few Sedaris books in miniature. The more caustic descriptions and accounts of the people he meets while hitchhiking in Chicago or in New York will all be recognizable usual suspects. The decision to end this volume in 2002, after Me Talk Pretty but before Dress Your Family is key, though, because it's at this point that we as readers can observe Sedaris having grown up.
The Sedaris who visited a nudist colony in Naked is not the same Sedaris who picks trash off rural English roads decades later in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls; the Sedaris struggling to pay his rent and control his addictions to crystal meth, alcohol, and later cigarettes is not the Sedaris who flies first-class and owns houses in at least two countries, and his writing reflects this transformation both in content and in form. I do hope that Theft By Finding will have a sequel where we can fully examine this development in Sedaris’ life --
and soon, because four to five years between substantial essay collections is far too long to wait.