As soon as the last word of my story’s punchline left my lips, David Sedaris erupted in a fit of laughter. Eyelids clenched, mouth agape, he cackled at the ceiling of the posh lobby abutting the colossal hall where he had just performed a near-sold-out show.
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A surge of satisfaction washed over me. I had just put Sedaris, a master humorist, on the other side of the laughs after he had held a couple thousand people rapt in their seats. But my joy turned to panic when Sedaris pulled out a notebook and pen and began writing down everything I had just told him, repeating it back to me—as if talking to himself, looking right through me—to get the tone and wording right.
Alarm bells went off in my head. My heartbeat went haywire. Like a switch, my reptilian brain flipped on, commanding me to choose, right then and there, whether I would fight, flee, or freeze at the thought of Sedaris turning me into one of his freaks before my eyes. I am an early-career writer—my stories are all I have! And this one was, um, personal. But with Sedaris done with me and people waiting in line behind me to get his autograph, I only had a few seconds to decide what to do.
You’re never safe around a writer, they say. The digital age exacerbates the hazards of this adage, where every living breath seems captive and commodified online. But Sedaris has been at this since before the internet, siphoning up experiences (and making them his own, so to speak), ready to turn anything into material. I just hadn’t quite understood what that looked like as I watched him wield his notebook like an eager bookie who’d found his latest chump.
I hadn’t read much by the famed entertainer at all before his tour stop in Tucson, Arizona, just before the pandemic. One afternoon, I sat in my university library room co-working with a then–love interest, who revealed herself as a longtime Sedaris enthusiast by citing books of his that I had never heard of.
I told her I had just noticed a posting about an upcoming local tour stop. She eagerly looked up tickets and slumped in her chair upon learning the student-forbidding price: $80. I offered to look up Sedaris’ publicist and see about writing a review of the show. The scheme was our ticket in.
The show was mostly marvelous. Sedaris had the 2,000 of us licking the palm of his hand. Looking around, the cavernous hall was packed, mainly with straight, white, over-50-somethings, bedecked in Patagonia wear on a wintry Sonoran night.
In one of the funniest sketches of the evening, Sedaris narrated the sorry circumstances of people who mistake him for a proctologist, presumably because his first- and middle-name initials form the title “D.R. Sedaris.” These hapless woebegones, blushing for shame from their anal curiosities, tried to fib Sedaris about the conditions under which they stuck objects up their anuses. One person, he claimed, said they fell on an aerosol spray can (leaving out, unexplained, how the can was spread with Vaseline). Another used a peppercorn grinder, and yet another a lightbulb. Sedaris got his shock and awe from the audience, right up to the squeamish climax: a frozen glass dildo that didn’t survive the rapid temperature change from freezer to rectum and shattered inside its unfortunate host.
I blurted out: “Your anal insertions stories gave me flashbacks to childhood!”
After the show, my date wanted to wait in the meet-and-greet line leading to the lobby to shake Sedaris’ hand. For longer than the duration of his show, Sedaris sat alone at a wide table, ignoring a bag of tortilla chips but picking at a whole rotisserie chicken between guests. When it was our turn, I stood next to my date while she and Sedaris traded banter over her refusal of his small, hotel-size bottle of lotion he attempted to bestow on her as a pity gift after he learned we didn’t have any books to get autographed like everyone else in line; we just wanted to pay our respects. My date told him she’d rather have the tortilla chips he was not eating.
“Take them,” he beamed, giving her the whole bag. “I like you,” he said as he pointed at her. “You’re very frank!”
Then he turned to me, alertly leaning forward in his chair. Did he expect me to entertain him now? I hadn’t planned on saying anything to him, except possibly nodding in gratitude when my date was done and ready to leave. But then a distant memory popped in mind. I blurted out: “Your anal insertions stories gave me flashbacks to childhood!”
Sedaris’ facial expression dropped. He looked horrified. Who knows where he thought I was going with my story? Rape. Incest. Molestation? Not quite.
On cue, I proceeded to recount being around 12, with my anal insert of choice differing from every other hapless adult protagonist of his collection. You see, when I was 12, frozen hot dogs were a household favorite all to myself. And what else was an anal-curious kid to do? I couldn’t exactly go to an adult sex store or wait for my birthday to ask my parents for a dildo as a gift.
“What!?” Sedaris said, collapsing backward in his chair. “You stuck a frozen hot dog up your butt?!”
“It wasn’t pleasant,” I said, conceding his point. I didn’t tell Sedaris that my household dildo repertoire discreetly included whatever phallic food items I could find in the fridge. Besides hot dogs, carrots were the other main choice, with occasional futile attempts to insert a cucumber or the handle of a bathroom plunger. (No one seemed to miss the produce I kept tossing out.)
Sedaris was intrigued. “Why would you use a frozen hot dog?” he said.
I now believe this was a rhetorical question, but in the moment, I stepped back into my 12-year-old life. His question confused me; I wanted to set him straight.
“Because a frozen one is solid,” I said, raising my pitch to an assertive, instructive tone: “You can’t stick a flaccid one up there.”
Sedaris’ cackling guffaw was volcanic, punctuated by a series of coughs. I thought he might choke. He jerked his thumb toward the archways at the lobby exit. “You should go check yourself into a mental asylum,” he said. Then he whipped out the notebook, zigzagging his writing hand into it. He’d found a hot bet that couldn’t lose.
I stared, startled by his bizarre comment about asylums (which I later learned is a frequent topic in his written work) and fixated on the notebook as his pen scratched at it. I thought to myself: Wait, what’s going on here? If he’s going to use my story, why isn’t he asking my name? Did I just become one of his faceless caricatures, entertainment for the Patagonia-clad theatergoers who, from the profits of these shows, pay Sedaris’ bills? But then I froze. I walked away, horrified for both of us.
I woke up the next morning with a start. Could I tell Sedaris … not to tell people about my childhood hot dogs? Although I recounted this story discreetly to Sedaris on a misguided whim, I did feel some ownership over the secret of how I masturbated as a child. Would he really just assume that it was his to tell?
You might remember that I said I wasn’t particularly familiar with Sedaris before that night.
If I had been, I might have known the whole Sedaris gimmick. I might have read his 2002 piece for Esquire, “Repeat After Me,” in which Sedaris writes, “I swear to my family I won’t tell their secrets, but they know my word is no better than that of my sister’s parrot.” Like the time his sister Lisa confessed a traumatic incident that “began with a quick trip to the grocery store and ended, unexpectedly, with a wounded animal stuffed into a pillowcase and held to the tailpipe of her car.” When Lisa reached the end of her story and Sedaris started to laugh, she started sobbing. Sedaris takes us through what happened next:
I instinctively reached for the notebook I keep in my pocket, and she grabbed my hand to stop me. “If you ever,” she said, “ever repeat that story, I’ll never talk to you again.” … My immediate goal was simply to change her mind. “Oh, come on,” I said. “The story’s really funny, and, I mean, it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it.”
Perhaps that’s what he might have said to me, were I not frozen like a lizard and asked him not to use my story. He might’ve told me, assuming I’m not a writer, that it’s not like I’m going to do anything with it.
The kind of writer that Sedaris embodies seems motivated by a compulsive, self-righteous duty to act as a one-man literary extraction industry, indivisible, to serve one’s own greater glory. If he doesn’t repeat these stories, then they’ll be lost forever or not exist at all, like how some metaphysicists perceive a tree falling in a forest with nobody around to hear it.
It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Sedaris ends his Esquire essay by reflecting on the costs of breaking his promise not to keep secret his sister’s anguished tale:
She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. Our conversations now start with the words, “You have to swear you will never repeat this.” I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word is no better than Henry’s [Lisa’s parrot].
The essay ends with Sedaris sitting in front of his sister’s parrot late one night, “repeating slowly and clearly the words, ‘Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.’ ” Sedaris summarizes it as “an act of contrition, of sorts, in the form of a funny story.”
Ultimately, whether speaking up or staying silent, my and Lisa’s fate were the same. Sedaris did repeat my story, just as he repeated Lisa’s.
I got confirmation of this days later from Sedaris’ tour publicist, who relished the story firsthand while on the job. “Funny enough,” he wrote me in an email, “we were at the show here in Chicago and he did mention the hot dog story. Quite the funny addition!” Slate confirmed this with someone at the same show as well.
In our era of Bad Art Friends and viral short stories cribbed from real life, I realize Sedaris’ transgression here—if you even consider it one—might not seem huge. I’m the one who told him the story, and I probably should have known better (though, again, I did not at the time). But it still felt more than a little icky to me that a 12-year-old sticking frozen hot dogs up their butt had become fodder for a naughty night of upper-middle-class guffaws, the testimony of a Sedaris-ian lost soul disappearing into the minds of an adoring crowd. It also seemed unethical to me, frankly, and something I wouldn’t do as a writer without permission. I am now repeating the story here under my real name. But it is mine to tell, isn’t it? I suppose, as the recent debates about authorial responsibility have shown, it depends who you ask.
I decided to ask Sedaris. Did he think everything anyone ever told him became his? Did he think he should credit where he gets his stories? He responded promptly.
I am now repeating the story here under my real name. But it is mine to tell, isn’t it?
“Perhaps when I pulled out my notebook you might have said, ‘Please don’t repeat that to anyone.’ Had you done so, I would have respected your wishes,” he wrote.
Fair enough, except: Shouldn’t he have been asking me? He seemed to anticipate that question and went on to make a claim I instantly doubted: “At book signings, people tell me things specifically hoping I’ll repeat them, or at least put them in my diary. I’ve run into folks I’ve written about, and so far no one has complained.”
Besides, he wrote, “I don’t always know that I’m going to repeat something that someone told me. I had my hair cut yesterday by a 20-year-old Russian barber who talked about his grandmother. Should I have gotten his name and contact information should I decide to mention him in an essay ten years down the line?”
Sedaris concluded with the familiar fault lines of these debates: “What if I weren’t a writer? Would I be allowed to repeat a story at a cocktail party? Are comedians allowed to repeat things on stage? How far do the ethics reach? Did my repeating your story ‘steal’ it from you? Did it mean you couldn’t write about it in the future?”
I supposed it didn’t, because I am now. I followed up and said I preferred to reframe the question by asking not how far do the ethics reach, but how far the nonfiction writer reaches to obtain at least some form of consent from the sources that wittingly or unwittingly help construct the writer’s stories. Sedaris didn’t respond to that or other questions.
I’ve seen many fellow journalists take the Sedaris approach, assuming anything a source tells them is fair game unless the source explicitly says at the time that this or that is “off the record.” To me, it’s one issue to quote someone on or off the record. It’s another issue entirely to take a story that isn’t yours—using the source’s wording or unique expression—and to profit from it, publish it, or publicize it without permission. It’s fair to say Sedaris sees things differently.
As it happens, I am a teenage sexual assault survivor (that’s another story). Sedaris appearing to be compulsively attracted to my story in this way felt like a violation of a certain order, aside from these unspoken literary “rules,” perhaps specifically because of the intimate nature of the tale. He couldn’t have known that. He probably didn’t notice how I froze in that moment, how I wanted to tell him to stop writing but couldn’t. He did what he does, and I just stood there. At any rate, he wasn’t really looking at me anymore once he grabbed his notebook. He had moved on to the next venture.
In the time since we had this exchange, Sedaris released a book, sparked a few minicontroversies online, and used his press tour to air his bemusement at annoying letters from his readers. Another leg of his live shows launched this month, with more than two dozen locations scheduled before Thanksgiving.
I have no idea if my hot dogs are still part of the material, but if you attend a stop, now you know where Sedaris finds his weirdos: all around him, whether they’re willing or not.