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You Don't Have to Say You Love Me
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Family relationships are never simple. But Sherman Alexie’s bond with his mother Lillian was more complex than most. She plunged her family into chaos with a drinking habit, but shed her addiction when it was on the brink of costing her everything. She survived a violent past, but created an elaborate facade to hide the truth. She selflessly cared for strangers, but was often incapable of showering her children with the affection that they so desperately craved. She wanted a better life for her son, but it was only by leaving her behind that he could hope to achieve it. It’s these contradictions that made Lillian Alexie a beautiful, mercurial, abusive, intelligent, complicated, and very human woman.
When she passed away, the incongruities that defined his mother shook Sherman and his remembrance of her. Grappling with the haunting ghosts of the past in the wake of loss, he responded the only way he knew how: he wrote. The result is a stunning memoir filled with raw, angry, funny, profane, tender memories of a childhood few can imagine, much less survive. An unflinching and unforgettable remembrance, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a powerful, deeply felt account of a complicated relationship.
IN 1972 OR 1973, or maybe in 1974, my mother and father hosted a dangerous New Year’s Eve party at our home in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
We lived in a two-story house—the first floor was a doorless daylight basement while the elevated second floor had front and back doors accessible by fourteen-step staircases. The house was constructed by our tribe using grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more tersely known as HUD. Our family HUD house was new but only half finished when we moved in and remains unfinished, and illogically designed, over forty years later. It was worth $25,000 when it was built, and I think it’s probably worth about the same now. I don’t speak my tribal language, but I’m positive there are no Spokane Indian words for real estate appreciation.
The top floor of our HUD house contains a tiny bathroom with an unusually narrow door and a small windowless kitchen, both included as afterthoughts in deadline sketches hurriedly drawn by a tribal secretary who had no architectural education.
I didn’t grow up in a dream house. I lived in a wooden improvisation.
On the top floor with the kitchen and bathroom, there is also a minuscule bedroom that was shared by my little sisters, identical twins, during childhood. My sisters, Kim and Arlene, never married and nearly fifty years old now, have never lived more than one mile apart, so perhaps they cannot escape their twinly proximity.
Also on the top floor of our HUD house is the master bedroom, where my late father slept alone, and a disproportionately large living room, where my late mother slept on a couch.
My late father, Sherman Alexie, Sr., was a Coeur d’Alene Indian. He was physically graceful and strong, adept at ballroom waltzes, powwow dancing, and basketball. And always smelled of the smoke of one good cigar intermingled with dozens of cheap stogies. As a teenager, he began to resemble the actor Charles Bronson, and that resemblance only increased with age. Introverted, depressed, he spent most of his time solving crossword puzzles while watching TV.
My late mother, Lillian Alexie, crafted legendary quilts and was one of the last fluent speakers of our tribal language. She was small, just under five feet tall when she died. And she was so beautiful and verbose and brilliant she could have played a fictional version of herself in a screwball Hollywood comedy if Hollywood had ever bothered to cast real Indians as fictional Indians.
I don’t know if my parents romantically loved each other. I am positive they platonically loved each other very much.
My mother and father slept separately from the time we moved into that HUD house in the early 1970s until his death from alcoholic kidney failure, in 2003. And then my mother continued to sleep alone on a living room couch—on a series of living room couches—until her death, in 2015. My parents were not a physically affectionate couple. I never saw, heard, or sensed any evidence—other than the existence of us children—that my mother and father had sex at any point during their marriage. If forced to guess at the number of times my parents had been naked and damp together, I would probably say, “Well, they conceived four children together, so let’s say they had sex three times for keeps—the twins only count for one—and four times for kicks.”
My big brother, Arnold, and I each had our own mostly finished basement bedrooms. But he spent much of his time living and traveling with a family of cousins like they were surrogates for his parents and siblings. I love my brother, but he sometimes felt like a stranger in those early years, and I imagine he might say the same about me in our later years. Never married, but in a decade-long relationship with a white woman, he is loud and hilarious and universally beloved in our tribe.
The furnace and laundry rooms, also in the basement, are cement-floored with bare wood stud walls. Dug five feet into the ground, our basement flooded with every serious rainstorm and has smelled of mold, and subsequent disinfectant fluids, from the beginning of time.
My little brother, James, who is also our second cousin, was adopted by my parents when he was a toddler. Fifteen years younger than me, he would eventually take over my bedroom after I went away to college. He was so starved when we got him that he would devour any food or drink in his vicinity, including other people’s meals. While we were distracted, he once drank my father’s sixty-four-ounce Big Gulp of Diet Pepsi in one long pull. He was only three years old. We thought it was funny. We didn’t ponder why a kid would come to us so very thirsty.
James was only five years old when I moved away from the reservation. So I think I have been more like his absent uncle than his big brother.
Smart and handsome and thin and also married to a white woman, James has a master’s degree in business.
Ah, my little brother is my favorite capitalist.
But that inexpertly constructed HUD house was still a spectacular and vital mansion compared to the nineteenth-century one-bedroom house where I spent most of the first seven years of my life. That ancient reservation house didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity when my parents, siblings, and I first moved in, along with an ever-changing group of friends, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I most vividly remember my half sister, Mary. She was thirteen years older than me and seemed more like a maternal figure than a sibling. Even more beautiful than our gorgeous mother, Mary was a charming and random presence in my life. She was profane and silly and dressed like a hippie white girl mimicking a radical Indian. In later years, I would learn that Mary’s randomness and charm—and her eventual death in a house fire—were fueled by her drug and alcohol addictions. I didn’t yet know that romantic heroes—famous and not—are usually aimless nomads in disguise. Mary’s father lived in Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, so she sometimes lived with him and sometimes lived with us and sometimes shacked up with Indian men who reeked of marijuana and beer or with white men who looked like roadies for Led Zeppelin. A mother at fifteen, Mary gave her baby, my niece, to our aunt Inez to raise. My niece is only a few years younger than me, and I still don’t understand why my mother didn’t take her into our home. My parents raised one of our cousins as a son, and my sisters would eventually raise another cousin as a daughter. So why didn’t our niece become our sister? I never asked my parents those questions. But, in writing the first draft of this very paragraph, I realized for the first time that my father, so passive in nearly all ways, might have said no to raising a granddaughter who was not his biological relative. I feel terrible for considering this possibility. Could my father have done such a thing? Could he have been such an alpha lion? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not. So why didn’t my mother raise her granddaughter? I doubt that I’ll ever be able to answer that question. There are family mysteries I cannot solve. There are family mysteries I am unwilling to solve.
Before her death, my mother told me that she liked to sleep alone on a couch in her later years because she’d only slept in crowded beds and bedrooms for most of her younger life. I never would have thought of a lumpy couch as a luxury, but my mother certainly did. Sometimes, when I was little and afraid and screaming from yet another nightmare, I would fitfully sleep on a smaller couch in the HUD house living room near my mother’s larger couch.
Born hydrocephalic, with abnormal amounts of cerebral spinal fluid crushing my brain, I had surgery at five months to insert a shunt and then had it removed when I was two. I suffered seizures until I was seven years old, so I was a kindergartner on phenobarbital. I have alternated between insomnia and hypersomnia my whole life. I begin dreaming immediately upon falling asleep, a condition called shortened REM latency that can be a precursor, indicator, cause, and result of depression. I have always been haunted by nightmares. By ghosts, real or imagined. I have always heard voices, familiar and strange. I was officially diagnosed as bipolar in 2010, but I think my first symptoms appeared when I was a child.
For Christmas in 1976, when I was ten, I received a plastic Guns of Navarone battle play set with Allied and Nazi soldiers, cannon, tanks, and planes. I added my own Indian and U.S. Cavalry toy soldiers and manically played war for twenty-two hours straight. My parents didn’t stop me. They didn’t tell me to go to bed. My mania was accepted. In the context of my family, I wasn’t being odd. Rather, I was behaving like my mother, who would often work on her quilts for even longer sleepless stretches.
I often stayed awake all night reading books and writing stories and playing the board games I invented. If I was especially agitated and lucky, I would have a new graph-paper notebook and I would carefully color in thousands of squares, one by one, until I was calm enough to sleep.
I think I inherited my bipolar disorder from my mother. I believe she was haunted by ghosts, too. I also believe she has become a ghost, either as a supernatural being or as a hallucination caused by my various mental illnesses and medications or as the most current and vivid product of my imagination.
Thing is, I don’t believe in ghosts. But I see them all the time.
“You slept on that living room couch for years,” my mother’s ghost said to me while I was writing this memoir. “You never used your basement bedroom until you were eleven or twelve. I had you sleep close to me because you had those seizures. And I had to keep you safe. And I had to give you medicine in the middle of the night. And because you were always scared.”
“That’s not how I remember sleeping,” I said. “I remember moving into the basement bedroom on my first night.”
“You used to wet your bed,” my mother’s ghost said. “You wet the couch until you were thirteen, I think.”
“I stopped wetting the bed long before that,” I said.
“Do you remember that I would lay down a shower curtain on the couch and then lay down your sheets and blanket?” my mother’s ghost asked.
“That was only in the old house,” I said. “Never in the HUD house.”
“It was in both places,” she said. “You had bladder issues even when you were awake. Do you remember when you drove to Spokane with your cousins for a birthday party? But you were too nervous to go into a house filled with city Indians you didn’t know? So you stayed outside in the car and peed your pants because you were too scared to go to the bathroom in a stranger’s house?”
I lied and said, “I don’t remember that happening.”
“I think you forget things on purpose,” my mother’s ghost said.
I do remember when the white men in gray overalls installed the first indoor toilet in our ancient nineteenth-century house, but I can’t recall when the place was wired for electricity and the first lightbulb was switched on.
When performing for crowds, I like to say, “When I was a kid, I shared an outhouse with sixteen Indians. But I only remember fourteen of them.”
That primitive house was infinitely better than the series of filthy highway motels and filthier downtown hotels in and around Spokane where we’d sometimes stay for days or weeks whenever my parents had extra money, or a temporary job, or needed a sad-ass sabbatical from reservation life.
My parents sold blood for money to buy food.
Poverty was our spirit animal.
Once, when he was only five or six, my big brother told my aunt that he was going to hock all of our furniture to the pawnshop, just like “Mom and Dad always do,” so he could buy Kentucky Fried Chicken.
My aunt, the white one, told me that story. My big brother doesn’t remember it.
He said, “That chicken thing sounds more like something you’d write in a book than something I would say for real.”
I vividly remember moving from that old house into our HUD house only fifty yards away. The front and back stairs were not yet built, so we had to climb a ladder to get into the place. Ludicrous, I know, but it felt magical. I remember a photograph of us four children posing on the ladder. We looked more like mesa-dwelling Hopi Indians than salmon-fishing Spokane Indians.
My little sister doesn’t remember that photograph. She doubts it exists.
“You’re always making up stuff from the past,” she said. “And the stuff you imagine is always better than the stuff that actually happened.”
“That’s just a fancy way of calling me a liar,” I said.
“If the moccasin fits, then wear it,” she said.
I don’t recall the moment when I officially became a storyteller—a talented liar—but here I must quote Simon Ortiz, the Acoma Pueblo writer, who said, “Listen. If it’s fiction, then it better be true.”
Simon, a beautiful storyteller, doesn’t remember ever saying such a thing.
“That sounds like something I might say,” he said to me. “But I don’t know if I have ever said that particular thing.”
I don’t remember when I first learned of the quote. Did I read it in one of Simon’s poems or stories? If so, then why doesn’t Simon remember that he wrote it? Can a writer forget something that he’s written in one of his own books? Yes, of course. I wrote my first novel over two decades ago, and fans often stump me by asking questions about passages that I don’t remember writing. So perhaps I read that quote somewhere else and have mistakenly attributed it to Simon. Or did I hear somebody else quote Simon? My college writing teacher, Alex Kuo, is a big fan of literary-inspired practical jokes and postmodern riddles, so maybe he’s the one who quoted or misquoted Simon.
“Do you know this Simon Ortiz quote about fiction and truth?” I asked Alex. “Did you tell me he said it?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t remember that quote. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t tell you I knew it sometime in the past. I could have invented it. Or maybe you invented the quote and are giving me partial credit for citing the quote while fully crediting Simon for originally inventing the quote.”
“So maybe I’m the one who thought it first?” I said. “And I want to honor you and Simon.”
“Well,” Alex said. “Crediting your thoughts to your mentors sounds more like you’re honoring yourself.”
“That’s funny,” I said. “And sad. Is my ego the source of all my deception and self-deception?”
“Perhaps,” Alex said. “Since you’ve just invented this entire conversation about storytelling and truth that you and I never had, and put it in the first chapter of your memoir, then I’m just going to call you the unreliable narrator of your own life.”
So, okay, maybe I am unreliable to some degree. But, despite what my teachers, parents, friends, siblings, and I say about my storytelling—about my labyrinthine fantasy life—I also know that I have an excellent memory.
To quote a song lyric I vaguely remember from a song and band I can’t fully recall: I remember everything.
I remember that my mother and father hosted a New Year’s Eve party in our HUD house on the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1973. Or 1972 or 1974.
I was only seven years old, but I knew, with a fundamentalist’s fervor, that the party was potentially lethal. Not because of my mother and father’s actions, but because of their inattentions. They were alcoholics who’d get what they laughingly called bottle-blind, as in “I was so bottle-blind that I didn’t even realize I’d driven off the road until I woke up with a pine tree branch sticking through the car windshield about four inches from my nose.” That’s what my father said—or approximately what he said—after his eleventh or nineteenth or twenty-seventh drunken car wreck.
So, yes, my bottle-blind parents invited everybody on the reservation to that dangerous New Year’s Eve party, including two Indian men who were widely believed—who were known—to have committed murders.
One of those murderers, a half-white little guy with a wicked temper and a silly-ass gunfighter’s mustache, had supposedly buried his victim’s body in Manito Park, in Spokane. An anonymous person had called into a secret witness phone line and claimed that my father, while not guilty of the murder, knew where the body was buried. My father had twice been in prison for burglary and forgery, so he was certainly known to the police. They must have taken that anonymous call seriously because they asked my father to come in and answer a few questions. And I still find it strange and hilarious that my father took me, only nine or ten years old, along on that little cold-case adventure.
As my father drove us from the reservation to the police station in Spokane, he told me that he’d only heard the same rumors about the murder as everybody else.
“They could talk to every Indian around here,” my father said. “And we’d all tell the same story.”
My father was a shy and gentle man, even when drunk, so I don’t believe that he was capable of physically hurting anybody. But he was also an alcoholic who was exceedingly loyal to other indigenous folks and deeply suspicious of any authority figure. I knew that my father would protect any Indian against any investigation by white men. My father wouldn’t throw a punch or pull a trigger or name names. Silence was his short bow and quiver of arrows.
I didn’t witness that interview—or maybe I should call it a casual interrogation—and my father never shared any of the details. I just waited for hours in our family car outside the police station as he told the story—or did not tell the story—about his alleged role or nonrole in that murder. He must have been innocent of any wrongdoing because he was free to drive us back to the reservation that day and was never compelled to speak of the incident again.
But I still wonder if there is a body buried in Manito Park. I still wonder if my father knew where to find that body. I know exactly where my dead father is buried. Maybe I’ll interrogate his tombstone the next time I visit that reservation cemetery.
“How many murderers did you know?” I will ask the tombstone again and again.
And the tombstone will never answer. Because the dead have only the voices we give to them.
The other murderer at that New Year’s Eve party was a Vietnam War veteran. Not long after he’d been honorably discharged and returned to the reservation, he and some Indian friends attacked a white man. According to the stories, the war vet kicked that white man’s eye clean out of his head and then dumped him to die in a roadside ditch. Today, some folks say the man survived the beating—and that cold night spent unconscious in the dirt—and moved to another state. Some say the beating wasn’t that bad in the first place. It was just an ordinary fight—as ordinary as a fight can be when it’s five or six Indian men assaulting one white man. Some say the white man did lose his eye but blamed himself for the fight and for his injury. Some say he became a better man because of his missing eye. Yes, some folks have turned that murder story into a mythical tale about redemption. Some folks—some creative storytellers—have changed a violent Indian man into the spiritual teacher of a one-eyed white wanderer.
We all justify our sins, venal or mortal.
There was also a third murderer at that New Year’s Eve party, but that killing would take place a few years later. So maybe I should say there was a future murderer at the party. And that murder would take place in a convenience-store parking lot in Spokane. It would happen in an old car. One of my father’s more distant friends would shoot and kill one of my father’s closest cousins.
He served only five or eight years in prison for the murder and then vanished, either to escape the Indians intent on revenge or because those vengeful Indians had made him vanish.
But no, my little sister fact-checked me and said, “That guy got out of prison and lived in a HUD house on the rez until he died.”
“What?” I said. “He lived in Wellpinit? No way. Did you ever talk to him?”
“He tried to talk to us,” she said. “But I just walked past him.”
“And nobody tried to get revenge on him?”
“No, he was just an outcast. People walked circles around him like he was a disease.”
“That’s all that happened to him?” I asked.
“Killers get away with killing,” she said.
So, yes, I grew up with murderers. But, strangely enough, I wasn’t all that worried about their presence at that New Year’s Eve party. I wasn’t afraid of being killed as much as I was afraid of being sexually abused. I knew there would be five or six party guests who’d sexually molested my friends and cousins. There would be guests who’d raped only adults. And guests who’d raped only children. And opportunists who had and would violate any vulnerable woman, man, or child. I’d been abused by one man. I knew he’d be at the party, so I assumed I’d have to specifically protect myself against him and generally protect myself against all of the other predators.
As an adult, I can look back at the violence on my reservation and logically trace it back to the horrific degradations, sexual and otherwise, committed against my tribe by generations of white American priests, nuns, soldiers, teachers, missionaries, and government officials. The abused can become abusers. It’s a tragic progression. But, as a child, even a very bright child, I had little knowledge of Native American history. We Spokane Indian children weren’t even taught about our own tribal history. I only knew my personal history. And, in my story, the villains were other Spokane Indians. My monsters had brown skin, with dark hair and eyes, and they looked like me.
So, as my mother and father prepared for that New Year’s Eve party, I walked downstairs into my bedroom, reached far under my bed, and pulled out a clear plastic bag heavy with forty metal butter knives. I’d purchased the bag of used knives at Goodwill or Value Village or Salvation Army or some other secondhand store. Or maybe I bought them at Dutch’s Pawnshop in downtown Spokane. I don’t remember. But I do recall that the bag cost me two dollars. That was a significant amount of money for a poor reservation kid. I could have bought at least thirty pieces of penny candy at Irene’s Grocery Store. But, even as a kid, I had more important uses for my money than sweets. I needed knives. And I shoved them, one by one, into the narrow gap between my bedroom door and the jamb. This locked the door in place. It could not be easily opened. That door looked armored with all of those knives. That door looked like a giant wood and metal porcupine, fierce and ready to defend me. But, alas, that door and jamb were actually hollow and thin. The knives were cheap and pliable. I still hoped their combined strength would be enough to keep the door shut against any monsters. Well, truthfully, I knew those knives were not strong enough to keep a dedicated monster from breaking into my room. But those forty knives would be strong enough to make a monster pause and reconsider. Those forty knives would make a monster worry that he was making too much noise as he beat at the door. He’d be scared that the noise would attract the attention of other adults—maybe my parents if they weren’t too bottle-blind—who would then come downstairs to investigate the commotion. Those forty knives might make a monster wonder if I was armed with other, sharper knives. Maybe that monster would decide to search for an easier target. Do you know that old joke about how you don’t have to run faster than a charging grizzly—you just have to run faster than your hiking companions? Well, I was using the same survivor logic. My bedroom fortress didn’t need to be impenetrable. It just needed to be stronger than everybody else’s defenses—stronger than all of the other Indian children who were as vulnerable as or more vulnerable than me.
Self-preservation was my religion.
Above all else, I knew those forty butter knives would delay the monster long enough for me to climb through my basement window and escape into the pine forest behind my house. I’d spent so much time in those woods that I’d memorized them. I could safely run and avoid all the trees, fallen and not. I could leap the small creek and hurdle the glacial boulders. It would not have mattered if the forest was barely lit by moonlight or not illuminated at all. I wasn’t afraid of the dark nearly as much as I was afraid of the monsters who hunted by night and day.
But the monsters didn’t come after me that night. Instead, it was my parents who terrified me the most.
I was still awake at midnight when the party went into full crazy mode, with singing and screaming and cursing and pistols and rifles fired into the night sky. Those reservation Indian parties felt less like celebrations and more like ceremonial preparation for a battle that never quite arrived.
Praise for YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME:
- An Amazon editors' Top 20 books of the year
—Jarry Lee, BuzzFeed, "22 Exciting New Books You Need to Read This Summer"
—James Yeh, New York Times
—Beth Kephart, The Chicago Tribune
—Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe
—Erin Kodicek, Amazon's Omnivoracious Blog
—Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
—Michael Giltz, Huffington Post
—Jane Ciabattari, BBC.com
—Kristin Iversen, Nylon
—Catherine Rubino, Book Reporter
—Paul Constant, The Seattle Review of Books
—Booklist (Starred Review)
"His talent is immense and genuine.... Sherman Alexie is one of the best writers we have."
- The Nation
"Hilarious but poignant...dead-on accurate with regard to modern Indian life."
On Indian Killer:
"A haunting, challenging articulation of the plight and the pride of contemporary Native Americans."
- Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Characters in Mr. Alexie's work are not the usual kind of Indians...They are not tragic victims or noble savages...they listen to Jimi Hendrix and Hank Williams; they dream of being basketball stars...And unlike most Indians in fiction, they are sometimes funny."
--The New York Times
On The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian:
"A Native American equivalent of Angela's Ashes."
--- (starred review), Publishers Weekly
"Sure to resonate and lift spirits of all ages for years to come."
- On Sale
- Nov 12, 2019
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Back Bay Books