David Sedaris: When your heroes (don’t) disappoint

David Sedaris

David Sedaris

By John Moore
Feb. 13, 2013

In January, Denverites were given the rare opportunity to see David Sedaris in process. Perhaps the nation’s foremost comic novelist came to the intimate Galleria Theatre to test out select readings that may (or may not) be included in his forthcoming book, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” due for publication in April.

The audience reaction would, we were promised, help determine the final edits before publication.

My friend Sarah Wells put that to the test. She is a big fan of the NPR contributor, and went to see him perform only expecting to savor this uncommon, close-up look at how Sedaris’ sardonic wit goes from his head to the page.

That’s why, on the evening of Sedaris’ very first performance on Jan. 21, Wells was so mortified that Sedaris chose to tell a story about … genital mutilation.

I’ll let Sarah tell the story from here:

When Your Heroes Disappoint:

I went to see David Sedaris tonight, at a pretty small theater in the Denver Center for Performing Arts. I’ve loved his work for a long time, and have considered him among my favorite writers.

Tonight he was reading parts of a book he’s sending to his publisher at the end of the week. He’s workshopping pieces and testing them out on audiences. I was excited to hear the new stuff.

Sarah Wells

Sarah Wells

One of his pieces was a monologue of a mother standing outside her daughter’s door after forcing her to have her clitoris removed. He made jokes about how much bleeding there would be. He called it a cliterectomy, or something close to that. The mother in his story said that it could have been worse, that she could have had it removed with the rusty lid of a can (to which the audience roared with laughter), and that ultimately the daughter would be saved from so many poor decisions because she wouldn’t be tempted by sex. What a hilarious joke about women and their silly sexual decisions! After he finished the piece, he compared female genital mutilation to testicular surgery.

What. The. F***. No, David Sedaris, women having their clits forcibly removed is not the same as testicular surgery. Maybe it’s the same as having your penis forcibly removed against your will.

I was bothered by this story for the rest of the evening, and decided to wait in the book signing line to tell him what I thought. After about 20 minutes in line I got to the front and said, my voice trembling:

“I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. I’ve grown up with your work. I walked out of the theater and came back in because I need to tell you this. I need to tell you that the piece you wrote about the clitorectomy was insensitive, and borderline offensive. Female genital mutilation is a serious epidemic and I don’t feel you communicated the gravity in your piece. It’s comparable to joking about a mother having her daughter raped as a way to keep her from sexual exploits. I don’t think you treated the subject with the kind of context or seriousness it deserves, and I’m telling you now because I need to say it for all the women who have felt it but didn’t have the guts to tell you.”

“OK,” he said.

“OK,” I said. Then I walked out.

I hope he doesn’t publish the story.

I don’t know — maybe I just didn’t get the joke.

So that reaction did not sound promising. But, just for the heck of it, I sent Sedaris’ local producer, Nancy Rebek, a copy of Wells’ note. Her unexpected but welcome response:

“You need to tell her he took it to heart, and deleted the story from the forthcoming book.”

Well, what do you know?

Good on you, Sarah Wells. Good on you, David Sedaris.

Let’s leave the laughing at genital mutilation to “The Book of Mormon.”