Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
One of the poems in the book, “Jungian,” displays these sentiments perfectly:
Even as I deny the idea of God,
The idea of God interrogates me.
Even as I pretend that my love
For my mother is conflicted,
It’s my mother who, in my dreams,
Emerges from a door marked “adore”
An image so overtly self-subversive
That it drops me — laughing
And praying — to the floor.
Like so many on the reservation where she lived, Lillian Alexie had a hard life that was touched by abuse and death, including the violent death of one of her daughters. She was a quilter, sewing by hand and selling quilts to people outside the reservation to pay bills. She was a natural storyteller and one of the few remaining individuals of her tribe who could fluently speak their native language; her death also marked a permanent loss of words and history that only she knew.
Aside from obvious embellishments in her storytelling, one could never tell if what Lillian was saying was true. Truths that Alexie took for granted — major things like ancestral lineage — turned out to be false after her death; she’d told different truths to different siblings. In writing this book and learning more about his mother from the stories she told others, he had to reconcile all these different stories, many of which were clearly altered as acts of self-preservation.
That aspect of the book is heartbreaking and fascinating, although from a genealogical standpoint — and speaking as someone who has been trying (and failing) to get my own mother to let me record some of her family stories, and as someone whose grandfather refused to help fill out a family tree for an elementary school class project (“You can end it with me.”) — it would drive me insane.
I also think the medium Alexie chose to deliver the book — 78 essays and 78 poems — works very well, letting him convey a whirlwind of emotions and stories and plot twists that might not have come across so clearly in a straightforward, chronological memoir. There’s one essay in particular where he tells a story over the course of several pages. Later in the book, he tells that same story verbatim but adds new information to the ending, which completely changes the story. It’s touches like that that constantly made me think about the nature of storytelling and memory.
So yes, this is a memoir, and yes, it’s a book about grief and family and devastating life experiences, but it’s also bigger than that. I was already a huge fan of Alexie’s work, but he’s really outdone himself with this one.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir was released today by Little, Brown and Company.