Having last year read Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I was very interested to read the true absolutely true diary — Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.
In a plenitude of fashions, I got more than I bargained for. Spokane-Indian author and poet Alexie’s memoir was written in response to the death of his mother, with whom he had a troubled relationship. A quilt of personal essays and poems, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’s pages are filled with grief—for Alexie’s mother, for his impoverished childhood, and for his people.
I wish I’d prepared my emotional hard-hat, because this book is depressing. Alexie doesn’t seem to hold back, discussing his alphabet of mental illnesses; his father’s alcoholism; his rollercoaster relationship with his mother; physical and sexual abuse from other members of his home reservation; and, naturally, racism from all corridors. Alexie approaches his life in retrospect with a mix of fatalism and self-pity. He focuses in on his suffering. On one hand, fair enough. But the reader is at times distanced by the unspoken accusation, “you couldn’t possibly understand,” rather than, “I will help you understand”.
It wasn’t until after I’d read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me that I found out about the recent sexual harassment allegations against Alexie—one of a number of men in the publishing industry who have come under fire. And I wasn’t sure how to feel. Alexie’s supposed tell-all certainly didn’t mention the part where he tried to pressure women who were not his wife into having sex with him.
He does briefly discuss his own experiences of sexual abuse, putting it down to the cycle of violence—those who abused him were themselves abused by abused people, likely all the way back to Colonial times. This cycle of broken people breaking people can be recognised within mistreated indigenous communities the world over.
That was the first thing I thought of when I learned of the allegations. Maybe that’s presumptuous, but You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me never did feel like story of overcoming, like many memoirs (which, lets face it, are often falsely triumphant).
Controversy notwithstanding, my worldview has been shifted and broadened by this book, and its circumstances. There’s no excuse for sexual harassment (or adultery, for that matter), but all the same, I can’t say I regret having read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.