We first “met” Sherman Alexie in 2007 — on the Milestone office answering machine. We had been preparing the press kit for Kent Mackenzie’s Native American film, The Exiles, and our colleague Cindi Rowell had suggested that he might be interested in the project. Dennis googled, found the booking agent for the popular writer, poet, performer, and filmmaker and sent off an email. We were all pretty sure that that our inquiry would fall into a dark bottomless hole.
So imagine our surprise and delight when we checked the messages the next morning and heard Sherman’s voice raving about the film — one he had loved for years! He even enthusiastically described a favorite scene early in the film when Tommy playfully shaves his pal’s sideburns in anticipation of a wild night on the town.
It was the start of a beautiful, albeit long-distance, relationship. Sherman went on to co-present The Exiles with filmmaker Charles Burnett (who turned out to be another one of Sherman’s favorites). We emailed back and forth, from time to time, and strategized about doing a joint film restoration project (which we still hope will happen someday). Meanwhile we continued to read and love Sherman’s great novels, short stories, and poems about being a human being and an Indian (his preferred designation he told us at the time – any use of "American" is an oxymoron).
This June (2017) the not-too-distant Word Bookstore was hosting a book signing with Sherman, so Dennis and I reached out to him in advance by email and them made our way to Jersey City. Meeting him and his wife Diane was a joy. Before going on to speak, Sherman was both excited and very nervous, but also incredibly warm and welcoming. He joked that he was dressed less formally than he usually did on tour, and felt more naked. I replied that seemed appropriate given how revealing the memoir (which I had already read) is.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is Sherman’s struggle to think about, feel, and write about his very challenging, wonderful, and terrible mother. In the book he also writes frankly about his own frightening health problems, which include several brain surgeries (one in 2015), bipolar disease, PTSD, OCD, and as he says, an alphabet of syndromes.
As a writer and a man, Sherman is so, so, so much more than these diagnoses. And his wrenching memoir of how impossibly painful, wonderful, messy, and maddening it can be to love and lose a parent is more than just courageous, it is literally death-defying.
Sherman grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State with two charismatic and hard-drinking parents. After a particularly raucous, drunken house party in the early 1970s, his mother Lillian promised her kids that she would stop drinking. As he writes, “My mother was a liar. She broke many promises over the coming decades. But she kept that greatest of vows. She was sober for the rest of her life. And that’s why I am still alive.”
But living with Lillian was often a test of survival, especially for Sherman, who shared his mother’s intelligence, sharp tongue, and bipolar mood swings. They were, he writes: “roller coasters on parallel tracks.” His memoir is both a love song and an indictment of his glamorous, brilliant, and terrifying parent.
In addition to trying to paint his mercurial mother’s portrait and tell the story of his own traumatic childhood, Sherman is also grieving aloud — and he employs all forms of narrative, including confession, philosophical musings, poetry, ethnography, and reporting on the facts of his mother’s illness, death, and funeral. The book contains 160 chapters; some are 25+ pages long; one is just eight words. Many are funny, all are painful. One is a poem entitled “Genocide.”
Chapter 28: “Eulogize Rhymes with Disguise” is a poem that tells the story of one night that Lillian locked the four-year-old Sherman out of the house for crying for his absent father, who was out on a binge. He writes that he sought shelter and warmth with the family mutts in the doghouse and refused to come in when she called him in “three minutes or three hours later — I don’t know which.” The poem ends:
“…I never stopped
Being afraid of her. I never left
That dark porch. I am still
Sleeping with those dogs.
Yes, I am always cold and curled
Like a question mark
Among those animal bodies.
As I wait for the glorious
Warmth of the rising sun.”
The warmth he awaited — needed, and needs still — was his mother’s difficult and unpredictable love for “the prodigal who yearned and spurned and never returned.”
The dilemma of whether to return home or stay away haunts him. When he was twelve, Sherman asked his parents if he could leave the tribal school to attend a non-Native school in a nearby town. “And my parents, knowing that I was betraying thousands of years of tribal traditions to go live among white people, said, “Yes.” My parents, as wounded and fragile as they were, had the strength and courage to set me free. I think they knew that I would never return, not in body or spirit, but they loved me too much to make me stay.”
In another one-page chapter, “Your Theology or Mine,” Sherman writes that if theists forced him to choose to believe in, “The Word” — he would pick the verb “return.” “Because I am always compelled to return, return, return to my place of birth, to my reservation, to my unfinished childhood home, and ultimately to my mother, my ultimate salmon.”
Sherman’s tribe, the Spokane, long worshipped the beautiful salmon who returned each year to spawn and die. When the Grand Coulee Dam was built, the ancient wild salmon were forever exiled from the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers and the people of the region were, like his parents, left “without salmon, spiritual orphans.”
He writes that “all of us Spokane and Coeur d’Alenes, after the Grand Coulee Dam, have been born into the Clan of Doing Our Best to Re-create and Replicate the Sacred Things that Were Brutally Stolen from Us.” After his mother’s death, he and his brothers and cousins realized none of them even knew the Spokane word for the fish.
“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss. And loss.”
The losses he writes about are generational, historical, familial, personal and unbearable. Torture and rape haunted the Native American residential schools, the reservation where Lillian grew up, Sherman’s own elementary school, his own home. No wonder his dad once told Sherman he drank because of “the pain of being Indian” — and went on to drink himself to death at the age of sixty-four. In Chapter 85, “Litmus Test,” Sherman notes that some people ask him why his dad drank so much, “But some strangers, the ones who know the most about pain, hear my father”s tragic story and they ask, “Damn, why didn’t he drink more?”
Lillian Alexie was a quilter (and a singer, a social worker, an addiction counselor, and a basketball fan). And as his wife Diane told him after reading this memoir, Sherman also patched together squares to make a whole.
As quilts go, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is not much of a comforter. It is, perhaps, a garment for grieving. In my tribe, when you are at the Jewish funeral of a close family member, the rabbi pins a piece of black cloth on you, and then rips it, to signify mourning. The Internet informs me that the practice is called kriah, “the ancient practice of tearing clothes as a tangible expression of grief and anger in the face of death.”
Like Sherman, I am a “middle-aged orphan” (in my case, past middle aged) and I wore black ripped ribbons for my mother in 2003 and my father in 2010. Although I was in over 50 when I became an orphan, I was stunned at how disorienting it was to no longer have parents. And walking in the footsteps of Sherman’s grief, I am reminded of how hard and physically painful it was to move forward from the death of Ida Melnitsky Heller — another powerful brilliant, and (often) disappointing mother. I miss her terribly, but fortunately, not every moment, as I did in the first years after her death — years when I wept on the blacktop after school waiting for our son and reached for the phone to call her every day.
This summer, shortly after we were in the audience for his hilarious, heart-breaking, and (yes, I will use the adjective again) death-defying performance/reading/rant at the bookstore in Jersey City, Sherman Alexie suspended his book tour. He explained that he needed “to take a big step back and do most of my grieving in private.” Dennis and I were saddened, but not really surprised. We could see what a terrible toll his public (and naked) mourning was taking.
One anecdote Sherman told that day at Word Bookstore was about how, in a bout of paranoia, he had stocked up on a year’s worth of survival rations. He told the audience that anyone who could recite an Emily Dickinson poem was invited to Seattle for an all-emergency-food feast. While Sherman was signing our books, I recited a poem I know by heart. It is a fitting end to this blog, I think:
Endow the Living — with the Tears —
You squander on the Dead,
And They were Men and Women — now,
Around Your Fireside —
Instead of Passive Creatures,
Denied the Cherishing
Till They — the Cherishing deny —
With Death's Ethereal Scorn —
I look forward to that feast of dehydrated goodies, and even more to Sherman Alexie’s book.