Friday, May 18, 2012

On David Sedaris, John McIlwraith, and NPR monologues

Posted By on 05.18.12 at 10:32 AM

Humorist exposed
  • Humorist exposed
Back in the 1990s, my brother-in-law John McIlwraith was an occasional commentator for National Public Radio. He specialized in stories about growing up poor in Glasgow, Scotland. I never supposed these stories were entirely true. First of all, they were generally funny, which childhood never is. Second, they were stories of his life and life is not lived as a story, or series of stories. Life is full of random incident, and it is up to memory to invent and impose a narrative. When memory teams up with a first-rate imagination the narrative becomes art.

John's stories were as faithful to the facts as they needed to be. My sister Dixie, his widow, recalls, "Every commentary was fundamentally true. These stories did happen. But not necessarily the way he said. . . Locating and revealing the humour in a memory, which maybe was not so funny at the time, is a healthy collaboration between artist and audience where everyone benefits."

These truisms are now being questioned.The other day the Washington Post reported that humorist David Sedaris's work for National Public Radio "is undergoing new scrutiny."

The stories he tells may not be true enough for these times.

Said the Post's Paul Farhi:

The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true—an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.

Then there’s this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?

Apparently Sedaris has operated under a cloud since 2007, when the New Republic got the goods on him in an article called "This American Lie." Farhi tells us that New Republic reporter Alex Heard "fact-checked Sedaris’s output and found that he had invented characters and concocted important scenes in some pieces." Heard quoted Sedaris introducing his 1997 collection of essays, Naked, with the vow "The events described in this book are real." Then Heard quoted a registered nurse at a North Carolina mental hospital Sedaris recalled working at the summer he was 13. Said the nurse to Heard, "He's lying through his teeth."

I leave it to others to decide for themselves where to draw the line dividing intolerable falsification from allowable flight of fancy and on which side to place Sedaris. But I suggest that journalism's increased vehemence about drawing and enforcing such lines, even against narrators like Sedaris who don't claim to be journalists, reflects serious insecurity. Truth is in short supply. The public seems to expect it less, demand it less, and value it less. Throw out the most blatant nonsense these days and people who would like it to be true will tell themselves that it might be true and soon be certain it is. Yet whenever journalists make a mistake, everyone jumps all over us. So journalism—self-righteously, petulantly, and feeling more than a little sorry for itself—makes a show of policing its ranks.

Reading about David Sedaris brings me immediately to John McIlwraith. I send my sister the Washington Post story and ask what she thinks.

"One of the many ways in which I could drive John crazy was by 'correcting' him when he told a story," Dixie writes. "He never told it exactly the same way twice and because I tend to be literal I would remind him of the 'facts.' And the facts of course depended upon his own sense of a good story."

A day goes by and my sister writes again.

"I was thinking about the liberties John took re his commentaries. He had a piece about seeing the slaughter of a pig. Although some of the minor details may be wrong, from what he told me, horrible as it was, it was totally accurate and he never forgot it.

"Another, which many people commented on, was about the death of his sister and the last time he saw her, 'a tiny blob' waving from a window in a TB sanitarium when they were both children. In fact his sister did not die as a child. She grew up and had two sons . . . However her health, her body, and her life were destroyed by TB both as a child and adult and she likely committed suicide by jumping from a window in front of her nine year old son, David. So the actual story is much more tragic and yet the 'sweeter' version summed up the tragedy in a more palatable and sentimental fashion. (And did not hurt David.)

"A third story, about a Haggis hunt, was purely from John's sense of mischief and imagination.

"I think these stories were among his best. And someone who cannot see the value in the magic of imagination mixed with memoir is an idiot."

And Dixie adds, "I cannot fault NPR. His editor at the time was Margaret Low Smith (now a vp) and she was interested only in time constraints and the quality of the writing. She did occasionally suggest that she assumed all these commentaries were accurate but she, very wisely, never pushed it."

Is it wrong to alter facts to convey a state of mind, yet permissible to alter a state of mind to make facts tolerable? I'm thinking of every humorist who ever turned his own tears into our laughter. The 2001 essay I believe was the last of John's to be broadcast by NPR was called "A Party for an Endangered Organ." The organ was his stomach. It was cancerous, and the doctors were taking it out. John threw his stomach a party the night before, breezily discussed his health and the festivities in a way sure to entertain NPR's audience, then had the operation. John was a slight person to begin with and he had no illusions about what the loss of his stomach would do to him. It did.

NPR didn't air the last essay he offered. This was in 2005. By then a new editor had come along, and perhaps the piece simply lacked enough of John's leavening wit to suit her. It began:

"My father died 30 years ago at age 77. This week I received my inheritance. It was not a fleet of vintage Rolls Royces. I guess he forgot to tell us where he had buried the family fortune. But the doctors have told me that I have inherited my father’s Alzheimer's disease.

"I remember how I listened to my father trading jokes with his long dead brothers and even longer dead parents. I was embarrassed when my father put his legs through the arms holes of his jacket and complained that my mother was playing tricks on him by altering his trousers so he didn’t have a fly anymore. I was distressed by the confusion in his face as I pointed out his mistake. I was horrified to see the humiliation this once brilliant, witty and happy man was forced to endure.

"And I am further horrified to realize that this is the fate that awaits me in the not too distant future . . ."

Here's the rejected manuscript.

It turned out John inadvertently got a big fact wrong. He died a year later of Lewy body disease, which is even crueler to mind and body than Alzheimer's but, mercifully, swifter. The mistake does no harm to the monologue.

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