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I love David Sedaris, but his mental health joke in Baltimore was small and lazy | GUEST COMMENTARY

Author David Sedaris, shown here in a 2017 photo, performed Saturday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Author David Sedaris, shown here in a 2017 photo, performed Saturday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (Ingrid Christie / Courtesy of Li / BSMG)

Last weekend, a friend and I attended a David Sedaris reading at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Upon entering, we were given slips of paper to write what we wanted inscribed on our books at a post-performance signing, likely to save time for the author, among the greatest of contemporary humorists. His humor was dark and deep, clearly born out of personal pain.

After reading his essays, he introduced some short diary entries, which might become future fodder. He told a joke about a mentally ill man, who said something to him along the lines of, “I’m mentally ill, and it takes up my whole day.” This joke was apropos of nothing. It was a one off, for a laugh. And laugh the audience did as he said it slowly: “It … takes … up … myyy wwwhhhooolllle daaayyyy.” The crowd roared.

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I can’t say I remember much of his act after that, but I broke out my book-signing slip and wrote:

Schizophrenia killed my son. Mental illness jokes are small and lazy.

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When the show was over, we lined up for the signing. Accompanied by the Meyerhoff staff, Mr. Sedaris stopped directly in front of me. With a smile on his face, he asked, “What book do you have? Who are you with? Come with me! I always pick someone out of the line to come with me.”

Knowing I was holding that note, I hesitated. As we followed him, he asked, affably, “What’s your name?”

Then we got to his table. I handed him my book and said, “I wrote you a note.” Great!” he said. He put it in his pocket.

Then I said, “I really got in line to tell you that schizophrenia killed my son. Mental illness jokes aren’t funny. My friend’s son suffers from mental illness, too.”

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“What joke?” he asked. “What did I say?”

He handed me my book and started to sign hers. My friend repeated, “Mental illness jokes aren’t funny.”

He stuck to his script. “What did I say?”

She told him, “You told a joke about what the mentally [ill] guy said to you.”

He said, “Well, that’s what he said to me. Why can’t I say what he said to me?”

“You didn’t have to repeat it for a laugh,” she said.

What’s wrong with making a mentally ill person sound like a slow-witted idiot?

Everything.

Jokes about mentally ill people are all too pervasive in our culture. Why are we making fun of people who get sick through no fault of their own, who struggle every day, who put up with massive indignities and public contempt, and who get up the next day to do it again? Why are they ridiculed?

A good humorist, and Mr. Sedaris is a great one, does more than go for the easy laugh. Humor should enlighten and inform; that’s not what happened here. Equally painful was the audience reaction. Given that one in four people struggles with some form of a mental illness — including Mr. Sedaris’ own sister Tiffany, who died by suicide — I’m sure that my friend and I weren’t the only ones left squirming in our chairs.

The audience bears a responsibility, too, especially since Mr. Sedaris workshops his writings by reading them aloud. If we, as an audience, don’t laugh, he’ll stop sharing the story.

Once while my son, Zac, was still alive, he looked at me, clear-eyed and sorrowfully, and asked, “Mom, what if this is all I ever am?” My son was a patient at Johns Hopkins for seven long years. He had impeccable medical care, and he still died at age 23.

Now, I run a weekly support group meeting for families whose children have been stricken, families who are watching their beloved children disappear into disease. Their children lose everything you can lose, including every dream they ever had. Their parents lose all that, too. And, yes, it’s a full-time job to manage.

It felt like my son plucked me out of that line. I mean, what are the chances? Maybe later when David Sedaris was winding down in his hotel, he took the slip of paper from his jacket and read my message:

Schizophrenia killed my son. Mental illness jokes are small and lazy.

Will he take it to heart and strike the joke as he leaves for 70 other cities to promote his latest book? Or did we just fuel the fire, only to find that he has mined this for material for a diary entry and future talk?

Laura Pogliano (lpoglian@gmail.com) is the Maryland State lead and support group facilitator for the Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance.

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