The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss.

And loss.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?

 

 

Bad Feminist? Good Feminist? Anti-Feminist?

Bad Feminist book cover“You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”  Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Where do I begin? It’s hard to know because Roxane Gay covers so much ground in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is unmistakable: hilarious, informed, opinionated, eloquent, vulnerable.

What a great read for a book club, especially if your club is diverse in terms of race, gender, political persuasion, and economic status. (Or are book clubs of such diversity scarce?) Oh, the discussions you’ll have.

Roxane Gay is a black woman, a feminist (a darn good one), a Ph.D and professor, a single woman of a certain weight, a liberal, a fan of reality TV and rap music, a best-selling novelist and author. She’s tired, because she does all these things – Roxane admits as much, but as one of those driven people she says she can’t stop.

She writes about all of this and more in her essays. Occasionally she leans toward the shrill, but mostly not – Roxane is very good at getting you to think while entertaining you at the same time. For certain, you won’t always agree with her, but you’ll have plenty to mull over.

Her writing is so, so timely in light of the discussions we’re having in this country about race. Roxane recounts movingly what it’s like to be the only female black professor in her academic department. She dissects her reactions to movies such as The Help and other depictions of race and racism in entertainment, discussions I found nuanced and enlightening, and sometimes difficult to take as I recognized myself in some of the attitudes she highlights.

I had chosen not to see The Help when it was released a few years ago, because I’d read an opinion piece by a black woman who said all the women in the movie who are racist are nasty, while all the women who are not racist are likable–when in fact it had been her experience that many people who were racist were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Roxane highlights these and other kinds of stereotypical and overly-simplistic portrayals in a number of popular TV shows and movies.

As for feminism, Roxane writes honestly about personal trauma that in part has shaped her views. (I won’t go into that here, to avoid spoilers.) She addresses the sad state of affairs for women in the US, where women of reproductive age are finding it harder to obtain contraception, where politicians make outrageous statements about rape and other matters they don’t seem to understand. (Such as the infamous, women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a lot of flak for criticizing feminism.  Yet look at what is happening in the tech world, with apparent widespread discrimination against women who are coming up in their careers. One would think things would be better for younger women but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I have to admit that at one time I would not have considered myself a feminist, though not anymore, especially given that I’m startled by how much ground women have lost in this country. Being of a certain age, I’ve come to respect much more than I did what the first and second wave feminists accomplished for all of us. I’ve been concerned, too, when I’ve not heard more of an outcry from younger women over recent trends. So it’s a relief to read Roxane Gay’s take on all this.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from her essays:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

And,

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

And,

“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Did I say I think you should read Bad Feminist?

Have you read Bad Feminist? What did you think?

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

The Empathy Exams

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world – anywhere, anytime, ever.”    Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

 

At work when I need a break, I go for coffee in the atrium of the medical school. On the way, I pass by the learning labs, where occasionally I see people–young, middle-aged, and older, male and female–sitting in the hallway, waiting for their turn to go in.

They have a twinkle in their eye as though they know something you don’t. They’re psyched, as if prepared to give a performance. That’s because they’re medical actors, hired so medical students can practice their empathic patient interviewing and diagnostic skills.

The Empathy Exams book coverIn The Empathy Exams, author Leslie Jamison explains what a medical actor does. She knows because she’s been one herself:

“My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies….

Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us–not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocol. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real estate and graphic design firms…

My specialty case is Stephanie Phillips, a twenty-three-year-old who suffers from something called conversion disorder. She is grieving the death of her brother, and her grief has sublimated into seizures. Her disorder is news to me. I didn’t know you could convulse from sadness. She’s not supposed to know either. She’s not supposed to think the seizures have anything to do with what she’s lost.”

These are the first paragraphs of the first essay in The Empathy Exams, and they intrigued me for a number of reasons: Leslie’s compelling voice; her take on the ironies and subtleties of medical acting; and because I, too, had been nonplussed when, as a medical librarian, I learned about conversion disorder.

A couple of years ago an “outbreak” of conversion disorder (known as mass psychogenic illness) among a dozen or more high school girls in a nearby upstate New York town captured the attention of media around the world.  One after another, the girls succumbed to uncontrollable tics and verbal outbursts. They were besieged with requests for interviews. Their physicians advised them to avoid social media so the frenzy wouldn’t cause their symptoms to get worse. Some people thought the girls were faking their illness. Erin Brockovich (with lawsuits in mind) suspected environmental poisoning. At the medical center where I work, I was asked to track the news coverage. Neurologists wanted to see if there was a correlation between spikes in media attention and exacerbation of the girls’ symptoms.

No environmental cause was ever found. Eventually, most of the girls recovered. One journalist wrote a well researched investigative piece that pointed out the girls came from troubled families in a town devastated by unemployment. Many of the girls had recently experienced significant domestic trauma. Perhaps this trauma triggered their conversion disorder.

In her essays, Leslie is concerned about physical and emotional pain, what it means to empathize with those who suffer, how difficult this can be, and why it is important to have our pain acknowledged by others, given the fact that we’re so often quick to accuse people of succumbing to victimhood. I often think about this when I read reviews dismissive of memoirs as self-indulgent. I wonder if I’m playing the victim when I write about some of my own experiences. Ours is not an empathic culture.

Leslie writes about her own pain and that of others in various walks of life: those suffering from “phantom” illnesses; a man in federal prison for a minor crime; ultra-marathoners who push their bodies beyond reason; three teen-age boys accused of murder on the thinnest of evidence.

As I read, I began to think of the girls with conversion disorder in a more nuanced way and, yes, with greater emapthy. The media stories had reduced the girls to caricatures. Leslie’s essays got me thinking the girls hadn’t had their fair share of empathy (or good fortune) in their personal lives and certainly not during the sensationalistic coverage of their illness.

I’d just about finished reading The Empathy Exams when I read a New York Times article about the alleged rape of a college freshman, Anna, by two football players. After what seems to have been a staggeringly incompetent college “investigation,” the football players were cleared. Anna left school after she was harassed for making accusations against members of the football team, but she plans to return this fall. She doesn’t want to be defeated, and she wants to help other women on campus.

I couldn’t get this story out of my mind.  I mulled it over when I went to work out at our community center. The story has unleashed a firestorm, with accusations back and forth: between Anna and the football players, as well as among college officials, the district attorney’s office, and Anna’s legal counsel. Many of the kids–the football players, the fraternity members, the girls who went to the party – were drunk to the point of oblivion. (Anna, herself, was so drunk she doesn’t remember being raped – hence, some of the controversy – though others witnessed it and did nothing. One of Anna’s friends did help her, and other friends decided to call the police.) How can this self-destructive partying be fun for anyone, and why are students driven to do it?

If you believe the unbelievable numbers cited in this story–that 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted–it does seem as though we are not paying attention to something important. That perhaps we need to start listening to a certain segment of the population, and listening with empathy.

After I finished exercising, I sat in the lounge overlooking the pool, watching moms and dads swimming with their children. I pulled out Leslie’s essays and read the final one, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Leslie seemed to be speaking about Anna.

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world–anywhere, anytime, ever….

Sure, some news is bigger news than other news….But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.

I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out of date…masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore.”

Leslie has much more to say, and her essays are far richer than I’ve captured here. I won’t share her most important insights, as much would be lost in the translation.

She’s a remarkable new writer.

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