I first wrote a review of Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, in August of 2017 on Goodreads. I continue to be mystified by the glowing reviews of this memoir. It seemed to me that Alexie was busy blaming women for what men had done or for what he, himself has failed to do. I have read many books that attack a woman (a character, a mother) in inexplicable way, as if the suffering of women listed purely to advance the needs and character of men in their live. Zoe Boisierre wrote on the Brevity blog about the recent outing of Junot Díaz as a serial abuser. Given recent revelations about Díaz, Alexie, and other authors, I feel vindicated in my distrust.
Recent news of Alexie’s abuse of women (early 2018), confirmation by no less than Joy Harjo that complaints have been ongoing for years, and especially his semi-apology should not surprise anyone. It is clear in his memoir that his perception of suffering is entirely selfish. He reveal no depth of appreciation for the suffering or pain of anyone but himself. Despite his skill as a writer, I never understood the apparent widespread “love” of this book.
“Believe me, believe me, believe me.” Ever since I read a review of Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, the song has been running through my head. You could find it on YouTube, but if Dusty Springfield’s voice doesn’t come right up out of your memory, best to leave it alone. You may find yourself walking in time to the tune for the next few days. Maybe that isn’t so bad. It’s a great old song, but I would be happy to get it out of my head.
There are short vignettes, longer scenes, words cut into lines and stanzas that sometimes are poems and sometimes have other business. Ultimately this book does not reveal wisdom of hindsight or generosity of objectivity or even modest compassion for the woman who sacrificed so much to keep him alive. This is thrashing. This is struggle. This is self defense.
Alexis calls himself an “urban Indian” who left home to attend an elite private high school and never really came home again. As I read, I searched for commonalities. He was raised poor and on a reservation and, while I was raised on a dirt road with open ditches and poverty all around me, my parents chose that house because the schools were good. My father was also an alcoholic. Maybe. But he worked and brought home his paycheck. We always had milk in the house, even if it was powdered. He died. I loved him very much. We have that much in common.
My friend Kathie lent me her ARC and we invited him to talk to my high school students and to read in Cannon Beach based on that book. (We are a largely rural and poor community, those of us who actually live on the north coast of Oregon. He would not have been available a few months later. His speaking fees were astronomical.) Alexie and his bride stopped off for these events on the Oregon coast before completing their journey home after their honeymoon in Hawaii.
Before telling more I should mention that I have read most of his books. I loved Sherman’s first collection of short stories and the ones that followed. I did not love his novels. My friend taught The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has considerable connection to Alexie’s real life, when I was teaching literature I taught his short stories, and this author made my husband cry on that long-ago visit. I bear a grudge concerning that last. I have not forgiven Sherman Alexie any more than he has forgiven his mother. I was not raised in poverty but my husband was. I am not always a kind person, but my husband nearly always is. So I am a skeptic when it comes to Sherman Alexie. I am a fan, but I know enough not to trust him.
The strength in this memoir is the writing itself, which is sometimes brilliant and occasionally even humble when he admits flaws. Too often he is defensive. Mostly he is churning with guilt and anger and not managing any forward movement. He is eager to label himself bipolar. He expresses tremendous guilt and resentment for his estrangement from his mother, for not speaking to her for days and weeks and even years at a time. But he blames her for it. Like many children of bad fathers, he blames his mother. As a woman and a mother myself, I find that bizarre. I take it too personally, you might think. I am a feminist and a class warrior. I am also weary of people who hold their mothers responsible for all the sorrow in their childhood.
Big message here: No ones’s mother is perfect.
She did the best she could.
Alexie’s mother stopped drinking when he was a little child and struggled to support her children and her husband. She also moved onto the living room couch, a move she explains as a step up from memories of being crowded in bed with siblings. At least sleeping on the couch, on a succession of couches, she did not have to share. Alexie accepts and even defends this explanation. I wonder that he never considers the likelihood that she no longer wanted to sleep with her drunken husband, that she did not want to take a chance on another pregnancy? That while she may have still cared for Sherman Senior, she was not willing to sleep with him stinking of “alcohol and vomit and piss and shit”.
Sherman Alexie is an aggressive and angry man. He has suffered in his life, he has suffered terribly, and perhaps that is why he is quick to anger and quick to exact revenge for any real or imagined slight. My impulse is to call his attacks in this book “counting coup” but counting coup is honorable, a show of courage and skill. These attacks are self-justifying, snarky, and often unfair. Sometimes they are not even skillfully written.
I was still young when I first met him, and Alexie was much younger with several books of poetry and only that first collection of fiction when he told my students he wrote prose for the money. If he didn’t need to sell his work he would stick to poetry. That might be the major difference between us.
Like his mother, I am a quilter. My father died in 1986 and my mother died in 2007, a week after graduation from my MFA program. After my mother died I grieved. Everything went dull and even my writing withered for a time. My husband and I had cared for her in her last five years. When she apologized to me: “I was mean to you” I responded with absolute sincerity that she never was. But she was. She did hurt me. She bullied me and criticized and was an imperfect mother. She was also kind and helpful and supportive in most ways. It took some time after her death for me to appreciate that this is the best anyone might hope for.
According to this memoir, Lilian Alexie could be kind and supportive but also verbally combative and abusive. When Alexie’s good friend died his father played hoops with him for hours. When, days later, he was still crying in his room, his mother opened his door and told him to snap out of it. He took his father’s action as proof of love and his mother’s as proof of cruelty. But which one got him out of bed?
Once or twice a year, Lilian would take it into her head to vacuum in the middle of the night. According to Alexie, this was completely inconsiderate, unbearable, and woke everyone in the house. One night, because he was the strong kid willing to stand up to his mother, Alexie got out of bed, grabbed the vacuum and threw it out the door. When I read this vignette, I sided with his mother. Who else ever bothered to vacuum? She is the one who stayed. Alexis ran away and has never really returned. He might at least credit her for her willingness to remain with her family, even if chooses to question her motives.
Immediately after her husband died, Joan Didion wrote her memoir: The Year of Magical Thinking. After a lifetime of journalism and research, Didion did what she had always done. She reported with objectivity and poetry about her experience. The result is truthful and beautiful and a powerful exploration of loss and death.
Alexie has not done so well. He is too angry and guilty, eager to assign blame and to score points on every person who ever hurt his feelings. He is angry at the man who abused him as a child (me too). He wants everyone in the audience to admire and cheer him, not just most. He is also angry at the Indian woman who called him on his claim for being the voice of all Indians. It was a claim he made in my classroom when he was still in his twenties and later speaking on a panel of people about shared issues of people of color. If Sherman Alexie is to be believed, his suffering is the worst, his people have suffered the most, no one else knows the sorrow he has seem. No one but he has the courage to say it. Only he can tell truth. These feelings are not entirely unjustified, but they get in the way. He has been angry for all this time. One of my students was angry that he misquoted Kurt Cobain while claiming Cobain as his. I was put off when he quoted liberally from another Indian author without once naming his source, or even revealing that his rant was not in his own words but the borrowed words of another.
He claims his mother was the last Spokane fluent in the language, but that he never learned a single word of that language. I mentioned that to my husband, who found both claims unlikely. My husband’s parents are both dead too. We are each the oldest in our families. Alexie has cousins, I have none. We have troubled relationships with our siblings. For a while in the 1970s, my husband was one of a handful of fluent speakers of Puget Coast Salish. During a reading he said a name to Sherman Alexie, the name of a Spokane Indian, and my husband pronounced it perfectly. Sherman walked close and demanded, “What did you say?” but my husband would not repeat it. “I have some naked pictures of your mother,” Alexie said. “I would like to see them,” my husband said. His mother had recently died. Two men wounding each other.
I have been paying attention since. Sherman Alexie and I have several mutual friends and acquaintances. Perhaps he is a wonderful father and husband, but he was a neglectful son and he is not a man to tangle with unless you are prepared to bleed. None of us is perfect and most of us have a list of actions we are not proud of, but Alexie might do better to comes to terms with his own failures and his particular cruelty while criticizing his mother for similar behavior.
Like most memoirists, Alexie concedes that his version of events may not parallel versions told by others. Mary Karr warns at the beginning of Liar’s Club that her memories are not the same as her sister’s and mother’s. Mary McCarthy offers a similar disclaimer in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. In his case, Alexie seems to allow for considerable stretchers. His is a memoir of personal convenience, occasionally confessional, but more often on the attack.
Alexie wrote this book and saw it published in the two years following his mother’s death at 78. He also had brain surgery. All of this is too quick. Unlike Didion, he does not have a lifetime habit allowing him to stand apart from his experience in order to tell his story objectively. He does not even try. These are powerful words and considerable rambling, some poetry and some prose broken into lines and stanzas in a pretense of poetry. There is self-justification and enough fury and blame to waste what little insight this brilliant author might otherwise have shared.
Alexie declares himself an “urban Indian” in a way that is defensive and tough. He had a hard life and survived to move away. He has kept himself strong by keeping apart. There is a lot more guilt here. He needs to forgive his mother. More than that, he needs to forgive himself before he can recognize that he owes her more than forgiveness. She let him out.
He claims he is deliberately repetitive. He claims a lot of things here.
If readers take Alexie at his word, they might find a touching if erratic story of a heartbroken son struggling to come to terms with the death of his “complicated” mother. This book was promoted as a memoir about Alexie’s mother, about grief and family and loss and forgiveness. I found it mostly about getting even.
On the last page: “I don’t know how or when / My grieving will end, but I’m always / Relearning how to be human again.” I speak from experience: The grieving does not end, and the year or so after that loss there is almost no sense to it at all.
My advice to readers: Do not read this or his awful novels. Read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian which is a circuit of stories. Read the short stories and the poetry. Let Alexie come back in twenty years and write about his mother. At the least he may find some kindness. Maybe the truth isn’t funny, and Alexie wants that sharp wit like a stick to poke us. Maybe tenderness makes us vulnerable. It requires a difference sort of courage than a streetlight.
[Just saw an on-air interview with Smiley. Who is this person? Salish is not a single language but many. The scene at Haight Ashbury was over by the 70s. Who is this man abruptly stating the obvious, which is clear but pretty much unstated in the book, that Sherman and Lilian had/have a great deal in common? His manner is so tender and humble. When has he ever been tender and humble? I do not even recognize his voice.]