When I first heard the news about Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women—especially of Native women writers—I thought immediately of Bill Clinton. Poor kid from wrong side of tracks with extraordinary smarts fights his way up the white male-dominated American ladder of success. And decides he deserves what those already at the top by dint of birth, family, and place of origin effortlessly have.
But Sherman is Indian, and everything Indian in this country is immediately more complicated. Starting with the name itself—“Indian,” an early European mistake that has been followed by 500 years of them.
Nevertheless, Sherman Alexie, by all accounts and by his own admission, is responsible for demanding sexual favors for career assistance with many women. It’s a charge that has become so routine in recent months that we barely flinch as we go on to the next accusations, the next TV expose, the next admission of guilt.
But Sherman Alexie is not Bill Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s long-ago carefully crafted admissions of extra-marital sexual misconduct and current stunning silence about issues of harassment and assault strike me as huge roadblocks in the national battle for respect and fair treatment of women.
But that is for another day. Sherman has in fact offered some sort of apology, and, if I know Sherman at all through his writings and brief personal contact, he is now in deep and profound self-examination of how he got where he is.
I am NOT excusing anything; I am exploring.
I just finished listening to his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. The story is painful, from the tortured relationship with his parents—mother especially, to athletic and academic successes in a white world he purposefully pursued from a very young age, and on to a sparkling literary career. I say that because there is continuing pain through the successes. Sherman willed his way off the rez when he was very young and different. He excelled at an all-white close-by school in debate and basketball, had white friends and white girlfriends, found his way to college and literary success. There are periodic visits back to family and friends and childhood torturers on the rez—some of the visits around funerals. All of the visits, the phone calls, and the recollections are permeated with stories of Indian tragedies—failures, breakups, and diseases; deaths by alcohol, car crash, and suicide. At one point he recognizes that he is the only one in his grade school cohort to still be alive.
The light in Sherman’s memoir is his wife and child. Which make the charges and admissions of guilt all the more painful. Why would a man with a beautiful, understanding, Indian wife he expresses the deepest love for in his book resort to harassment and sexual demands of other women?
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Sherman came to Fishtrap one time. I got a phone call from Bob Greene, the owner of that fine Moscow, Idaho bookstore, Bookpeople, suggesting that Sherman Alexie was about to explode on the national scene, and if we were going to get him to Wallowa Lake, we should do it now. A story had just been published in Esquire, and two books, The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts and New Skins, had been published by small houses. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was about to come out from a major publisher.
Sherman came, and he delighted. I chided him for not sending a photo, said that I had to cut one off the back cover of one of his books. He laughed and did a quick stick drawing self-portrait in the book in return.
I could not get him back to Fishtrap—he had indeed gone on to major fame, and once, when I saw him in Portland and asked about it, he described an uncomfortable scene in a Wallowa County gas station—he’d been asked to pay for his gas before the attendant would fill the tank. It’s too hard being brown out there, he said.
In many ways, it’s hard being brown anywhere in this country, especially in the current climate that permits overt racism. But Sherman will continue to be a brown American Indian, and in these times when harassment and assault are being openly talked about, he will continue to be known for his abuse.
Can anything good come of it?—he’s one step ahead of Bill Clinton with his acknowledgement and apology. But I am going to expect more from him than from Clinton or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or all the others in the parade of white male aggressors. I am going to look for words from Sherman. Words have been the tools of his trade from reservation grammar school to today. I want to know from him how and why, want an explanation of these terrible infidelities and sexual demands as muddy and clear as Indian humor and Indian resilience are muddy and clear in his movie, Smoke Signals.
I won’t go back and read the old books, but I might have to watch that movie again, remember how much it made me cry even as I laughed. I’m crying for you now, Sherman, and I can wait for the laughs as you spill out the pain that put you into this awful mess. But write it out—maybe show women they’re not to blame, and show white men how to begin making things right.
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