You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a memoir about Sherman Alexie’s mother Lillian, his childhood, and Native American history; it’s about grief, anger, and forgiveness; it’s about victims of abuse, their bullies, and fighting back as a point of honor. It’s about the specific lives of Lillian Alexie and her son, and the general experience of Native Americans in white America. Ultimately, in order to try to understand the mother who both gave him so much and hurt him so much, Alexie has to try to make sense of the world Lillian lived in but rarely discussed with him.
From the beginning of this memoir, Alexie is clear that he had a difficult relationship with his mother, now deceased, and is struggling to forgive her for the pain she caused him.
She was wildly intelligent, arrogant, opinionated, intimidating, and generous with her time and spirit. She was a contradictory person. She was, all by herself, an entire tribe of contradictions.
He writes this memoir with pain, sorrow, and anger that are palpable. His mother drove him crazy; she was a “talented liar” (storyteller), and she was unafraid of being brutally honest, sometimes physically violent, with anyone, even with her own son. And Alexie is a lot like her. Part of him is angry with Lillian for the lies she told, the pain she caused, the many things she never said. And part of him tries to understand why a person would be that way, and so he digs into the past to imagine how Lillian became Lillian.
Both of Alexie’s parents were Native Americans who grew up on reservations and knew their native language before English. Alexie, his siblings, his extended family grew up on reservations as well — places of poverty and violence and powwows and basketball. Alcoholism and sexual abuse were commonplace. Some of Alexie’s earliest recollections have to do with his parents’ intoxication and the dangers that flowed from that. Yet Lillian, when Alexie was about 7, had a jarring realization of what she was doing, stopped drinking and stayed sober for the rest of her life. Alexie says this is the first time Lillian saved his life. Lillian is the parent who kept the family going — she worked at various jobs, sewed quilts for money, and made sure that bills got paid (sometimes late), and the kids were fed and clothed. She was dependable but cruel while Alexie’s father was loving but undependable. He drank too much, when to jail several times, and often was not there for the children, but Alexie never doubted his father’s love.
In case the reader suspects that Alexie is overstating or misrepresenting his mother’s true nature, he provides evidence that on the reservation Lillian had a reputation for cruelty as well — she didn’t hesitate to say exactly what she thought of people to their faces. People feared her. She also was a counselor and helped a number of families who were dealing with drug addiction. How did Lillian become such a mix of contradictions? Alexie pulls fragments out of her past to try to figure this out, and I find the best explanations come forth in Alexie’s poetry:
She was female, poor, indigenous, bright,
Commodified, hunted, and tape-measured.
She survived one hundred deaths before she
But was never thrilled by her endangered life.
Native Americans have been abused by whites since whites came to the Americas. I would hope that that is common knowledge — land taken, families ripped apart, children forced into institutions where the “Indianness” was beaten (and raped) out of them. This isn’t something that happened in the past; it happens today. A couple of abandoned uranium mines sit near the reservation in Wellpinit. The government hasn’t done anything to clean them up, and so the people there are breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, playing in contaminated dirt. Lillian Alexie died from cancer. When she was just a child, the government built the Grand Coulee Dam, which pretty much destroyed the wild salmon which were sacred to the Salish people. Alexie writes that the dam murdered the tribe’s history both scientifically and spiritually. The white teachers sent to teach at reservation schools were often abusive toward the Native American children. Alexie writes of his own abuse at the hands of such a teacher. After attending a meeting of indigenous men who were raped by white priests, coaches, teachers, etc. Alexie writes,
When people consider the meaning of genocide, they might think only of corpses being pushed into mass graves. But a person can be genocided — can have every connection to his past severed — and live to be an old man whose rib cage is a haunted house build around his heart.
In addition to abuse at the hands of whites, Alexie also writes about the harm that Indians do to each other. As noted, rape and sexual abuse are too common on reservations. Lillian once told Alexie that she was the product of rape, but she told a different story to her daughter — that she herself had been raped and that Alexie’s older half-sister was the result. Which is true? Both? Neither? Given the prevalence of rape among Native Americans, Alexie believes both to be true. It is entirely possible that within a tribe, even if it’s a small community, rape, particularly perpetrated by “culturally significant” native men, would have gone unpunished and the victims would be expected to maintain silence about it. Classism exists on the reservation as well. While indigenous populations are poor, even within a tribe there can be class division, where better off Indians bully and look down upon those who are poorer. Alexie describes it thusly,
…living on an Indian reservation was like living inside an Edith Wharton novel — a place where good and bad manners were weaponized.
Alexie suffered such bullying based on class (and, he thinks, based on his acne) on his reservation, and it was one of the factors that led him to ask his parents to send him to the white school in Reardan. What must Lillian have suffered in her life? She was described as a rebellious teen, but what outlets did she have for that? When Alexei approached his parents in junior high to ask that they allow him to leave the reservation school for in Reardan, he knew his father would say yes but was surprised when his mother did, too. Alexei says this is the second time she saved his life. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that she agreed though. Perhaps she knew, as Alexei did, that he had to leave in order to live. Lillian never taught her children their native language Salish. She told her son that English would be his best weapon, which has certainly proven to be true. Lillian was one of the last fluent speakers of Salish, and the passages of this memoir that deal with that are painfully sad to read both for the loss to the community and for the reasons Lillian may have chosen not to pass it on to her kids.
In the end, Alexie doesn’t say explicitly whether or not he has forgiven his mother, but his love for her seems to have deepened and expanded with the writing of this book. The poem “Physics” begins with this:
I want to reverse this earth
And give birth to my mother
Because I do not believe
That she was ever adored.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a deeply moving book, and I’ve really only touched briefly on a few of the themes it covers. Alexie goes into detail about writers and truth/lies, his own experiences as an indigenous man in a white world, his brain surgery (both funny and frightening to read), his bullies, and his experience at the all white high school. I read recently that he was postponing his book tour due to his depression. You can read this story about it. I sincerely hope Sherman Alexie is fully well — physically, emotionally, spiritually — soon.