The honest eulogy Sherman Alexie didn't give his mom
In Sherman Alexie’s deeply personal memoir, “You Don't Have to Say You Love Me,” he tells the story of growing up as the son of Lillian Alexie on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Alexie told KUOW’s Bill Radke that his late mother was one of the spiritual leaders in the tribe — but she was also cruel, manipulative and sometimes violent.
“You wrote that you don't know whether you loved your mother or whether she loved you,” Radke asked. “How do you feel today?”
“At the moment? Of course she loved me,” Alexie said. “Ask me 10 minutes from now.”
Here are other excerpts from their conversation.
Radke: Your memoir, on one level, is about Lillian Alexie. Why don’t you start by just telling us a little about Lillian.
Alexie: [She was] one of the spiritual leaders of the tribe, but she was also — I think — undiagnosed bipolar. She was a chronic liar and manipulator. She was mean and sometimes violent. But she was also the woman who sobered up when I was 7 years old, which saved us.
She's also the woman who was the drug and alcohol treatment counselor for our tribe for many years, who saved the lives of dozens of my fellow tribal members. So she was an incredibly complex, arrogant, opinionated woman who sucked all the energy out of every room she walked into.
You write so beautifully about what I would call acts of love … Why wasn't it those acts that stood out to you the most?
I tried to present the full, complex portrait of her. And I don't spare myself either … She was a bad mother for many, many years. But at some point, as I became an adult, I chose to continue to be a bad son at some point. I was equally responsible for the pain in our relationship, whether that was at age 18 or 28. I don't know. But at some point, I was equally culpable for the things that went wrong inside our relationship.
Why did you let your father off so easy compared to your mother?
Because he was easy to love. He was a gentle person. Calm, quiet, introverted. Inside a warrior culture like my tribe, and in the Native American world, which is so focused on warriors — in the midst of all that, my father was so passive and so gentle. I think to have a masculine presence that was so kind was such an antidote, such a revelation, so refreshing. And it felt so safe for so many people.
So many kids remembered our house as being the safe place to be. And in the book, I call it “my mother's angry sobriety and my father's drunken kindness.” And I think that combo is what made it safe. My mother provided the structure and my father provided the love.
I try to think of love as something you do — as how you come through for somebody. How did you work through that?
Now that's a fascinating question. I mean, that’s just killing me right now, Bill. Because the thing is, when you talk about acts of love, about the act of doing something that's going to protect the child, my mother did that. My mother had the jobs, and my mother provided the money. My mother was predictable. As I say in the book, my mother was industrious. And my father, on the other hand, was a random alcoholic. So when you talk about the very act of proving love — my mother did it time and time again. And my father was completely unreliable.
And yet I spent most of my literary career canonizing him and writing about him and believing that he was the primary source of my storytelling. But in working on this memoir, I've realized that that's not true. That my storytelling, my connection to our past, my intensity, my discipline, my soul, my anger, my rage — everything intense about me that creates the storyteller — is primarily from my mother.
Would you mind reading the eulogy you delivered at your mother's funeral?
Yes. Here it is.
“I said my mother and I had a difficult relationship. We weren't always kind to each other. So it's good to hear how kind she was to some of you. But it hurts too, to hear that she mothered some of you better than she mothered me. And it was also good to hear how mean she was to some of you too. I knew the mean Lillian maybe better than all of you. Maybe even better than my brothers and sisters. My mother was good to people and she was mean to people and sometimes she was good and mean to the same person at the same time. Anyhow that's all I really have to say. I am not a traditional Indian. You all know that. I don't sing or dance or do the ceremonies. I don't pray like other people pray. I just talk. So I'm really going to miss talking to my mother. I am really going to miss her voice.”
You put that in the book. But then you seem really — in the book — very uncomfortable about that.
I didn't tell the truth. I mean, I just glanced off the truth. I looked at the truth with my peripheral vision. I didn't give her the eulogy that was honest and completely accurate, and didn't give her the eulogy she deserved. I mean, this book is that eulogy. I gave the simplest possible version, the gentlest possible version of a eulogy. And it wasn't honest about the heights and depths of knowing Lillian Alexie and being her child. I didn't do that — the extremes. And I spend most of the memoir trying to tell the honest eulogy.
Why do you say not honest in leaving out the extremes?
I didn't talk about the time she threw the can of pop and hit me in the head and knocked me out. I didn't talk about the time she left me on the porch to sleep with the dogs. I didn't talk about the ways in which she quilted for three days straight to finish the quilt so that we would get our electricity back in the middle of winter. I didn't talk about the hours and hours she would spend working with the elders, working with kids, working with drug and alcohol addicts. I didn't risk the judgment of my fellow tribal members in trying to tell the full story of this human being. I failed as a son. I failed as a eulogist. I failed as a human being in that moment.
Such an important part of this book is the connection you make between rape and legacy. Are you are you comfortable revealing the part that played in your family?
Well, just to speak in larger terms, when you're talking about Canada and the United States, when you're talking about the most vulnerable group of people — that is indigenous women — who are subject to the most oppression, the most violence, the most sexual violence — my mother was not spared from any of that. My big sister is the child of a rape. So my mother was raped, and my sister Mary was conceived by that. But also, my mother was conceived by rape.
[My mother’s] rapist, I'm not related to. And my mother's biological father was a rapist too; I also won't reveal his name. It's not the fault of his children and grandchildren. It was his crime. And my mother — in telling her story, in talking about her life — apportioned it to her children. We all have different parts of her life story. Different versions. And I'm the only sibling that she told that she was the biological child of a rape. My sister didn't know that. My brothers didn't know that. She never said that to them. She only said it to me, and she told that to me in my teen years. Looking back, I think it was her damaged way of asking me to be a better man.
I think it was her dysfunctional way of warning me about how Native women are treated and how Native men and non-Native men can treat Native women. I think it was her way of talking about her pain. She knew I was leaving. I was gone from the reservation already. I was going to a white high school, and she knew I was going to live this larger life. And I think it was her way of telling me to honor women. And I also think in some ways it was her way of wanting to be remembered.
You say that rape is our ancestor. You widen it out beyond your family.
The genocide of Native Americans wasn't just about murdering the body, murdering the culture, murdering the language. It was about murdering hope. It was about murder and rape. It was about violence on all levels. And when we talk about colonization, when we talk about boarding schools, when we talk about invading armies on reservations, when we talk about church and business and government, when we talk about the Dakota pipeline even now — what are we talking about but the capitalistic exploitation and violence and murder and rape of the human body, the human soul?
So my mother and her mother, in being raped physically, were also raped spiritually. They had salmon taken away from them by the Grand Coulee Dam. They had their entire history shrunk by being placed on a reservation. And despite all that, their love shone through despite all that. I'm here. My siblings are here. And we're pretty good people.
Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.