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Not long ago, Sherman Alexie, among the most prominent Native American writers in America, lost his mother. He’d lost his father years before, but it was his mother who filled every room of the home, crowded out everything else even after he’d moved away.

Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, is a scorching indictment of his mother’s abuse. Countless times I wanted to look away from what Alexie earnestly determined to show me. The raw emotion on just about every page made me think he should have waited five years to say what he does throughout. It hurts to read that book.

For three long years, Alexie and his mother, an all-night quilter with a vicious, carping tongue, turned to silence and didn’t speak a word to each other. Today, he claims he doesn’t remember why, nor does he remember how the silence was finally broken. What he claims not to be able to forget is sitting beside her in a car in perfect silence–time and time and time again, saying absolutely nothing.

There were times (plural) when I thought I’d had enough of the memoir, moments in abundance when I would have preferred him simply to have gone into a woods or open field and howled.

But he has reasons for screaming. As a child, he was sick, subject to seizures, a runt in a warrior culture. His father was hardly there, never had a job, drank for a living. His mother, among the last Native speakers in the Spokane tribal community, was, to others, as great a hero as a horror. By any measure, she was not a good mother.

Alexie is gifted with words, has performed beautifully and thoughtfully for a largely white readership. Sherman Alexie is not so much in his Native world as he is of it; and that uneasy positioning creates a tightrope that makes life treacherous. The sub-title of the memoir is telling: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.” What’s inside the man seemed to me to be soft, but he wishes it wasn’t, so he rages–at everything, at his mother, at the rez that raised him, at the holy hell he came from, and the white world he lives in as “an urban Indian.”

All that having been said, at the end of this year I’m sure I’ll find it difficult to name a single title that affected me as deeply and taught me as much as You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. I wish I could say I liked the book. It was, throughout, painful. I wanted to read it to know something of what it is like to grow up the way Alexie did, and that’s exactly what I learned, in sadness and in awe.

Last week, the publisher that was about to release the paperback announced the book wasn’t going to be on the shelf. The evidence is there and it’s clear: Sherman Alexie, National Book Award winner, exploited his considerable talent by abusing young women who respected him, especially Native young women, most specifically, young Native women writers. And he did it by presuming what all powerful abusing men do–that their power and success in business or media or sports or politics or art means they can power their penises where they will.

“Me too” says there will be no more of that behavior, as men as wildly different as Garrison Keillor and Bill O’Reilly—and now Sherman Alexie–have discovered, having their piggish behavior outed.

For all the soul-rending anger and guilt in You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, I can’t help think Alexie left a gaping hole in that memoir so wide you could pull half a court room through. How can he howl about himself or his mother being victims when he merrily victimized others himself, once the crowds left his readings or book-signings?

I was undecided about You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me when I finished it, profoundly moved by some sections, and heart sick about others. It persistently went where I thought it didn’t need to, but who am I to judge—me, the child of wonderful, loving, Christian, white parents?

But right now I don’t know what to do with that book, don’t know what to think about Lake Woebegone either.  Thank goodness, Alexie’s searing memoir is not on my shelf. It’s on my Kindle, which means it’s out there somewhere in the cloud, somewhere, thankfully, where at least I don’t have to see it.

It’s touched all of us really–Me-too, I mean. I probably don’t have a right to say it, but I will: “me too.”

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

3 Comments

  • Thanks for writing in a raw way about your experience reading the memoir. I heard an NPR story and interview with him a while back and I remember crying when he talked about the death of his mother. It shook me enough to think reading the book would not be wise for me personally.

    I hadn’t heard about the allegations against him but for most acts of abuse the word “merrily” doesn’t fit for me. I think the deep brokenness of someone who has themselves been abused and then goes on to abuse others does not usually manifest in a joyful cheerful way (though the “without regard for consequences” part of the definition fits).

    I’m curious about your last line, “I probably don’t have a right to say it.” Men seem to be much more reticent to acknowledge (both to themselves and to others) the ways they have been exploited, most often as young boys/teens. It can be a powerful step of healing to share one’s story and hear someone else say, “Yes, I see your pain, your confusion. What was done to you was wrong.”

    Thanks again for this reflection. I appreciated the emotional work of it.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh man.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    In an odd coincidence, I heard the NPR interview referenced in an early comment, which made me interested in reading some of his work. In the last week I read his semi-autobiographical National Book Award winning novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and it is a fantastically funny and wise book. Because I loved that book so much, I googled him Wednesday night and was very sad to read all about the horrific abusive of young writers. And then here you are, writing about it today. I felt the same thing you identify – I loved this book and now am repulsed by the author. I don’t know how to feel about the art of people whose work I’ve enjoyed – people like Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey, and now Sherman Alexie. Would love to hear the collective wisdom of the 12’s readers.

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