You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

five out of five dragons
five out of five dragons

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This is a slightly different kind of review. I can’t review You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me and talk about the writing style and its level of wit or the literary effect of having 78 essays and 78 poems to commemorate the 78 years of his mother’s life. It means too much to me to be stripped of emotion in that way.

Much of this felt like reading my own story. Putting words to things I never thought I could phrase correctly. I’m not an India­­­­­­­­­n. I have some Indian blood, but very little and I know nothing but the most clichéd facts about the culture. For me this memoir was an opening and a closing of wounds about my own family. My mother and I are Bipolar so listening­­­­­ to Alexie’s grief, with his voice filling my ears and my own tears falling to the rhythm this is not a book I will recover from. This is not a book I will ever walk away from. I cried and I cried and I cried. I broke and I broke and I healed and I broke.

“There are family mysteries I cannot solve. There are family mysteries I am unwilling to solve.”

I found myself rewinding so I could listen to the way Alexie used words to portray his pain. This was the rawest form of self-expression coming from someone else’s mouth. It made me feel seen in some way.

Alexie walks that impossible line between loving someone and knowing you can’t forgive them, not all the way. And now I am walking the line between recommending this book to my mother and fearing to do so. I would give it to her and tell her that this is how I feel and this is how I don’t feel because I am afraid that it will hurt you.

Alexie reminded me that I am broken. And that that is not okay, not in any way, but it is possible to live a good life when you are broken, it is possible to grow when shattered. He reminded me that you can love the people who break you and not need to forgive them.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I could write ‘I don’t know’ one million times and publish that as my memoir. And, yes, it would be repetitive, experimental, and more metaphor than history, but it would also be emotionally accurate.” 

It was in listening to him that I realized how warped I am from my life and my world. He spoke of scenarios where horrible things happened and I felt less than pain than in the soft-spoken words he voiced about his mother. I felt fear when he spoke of the torture or the animal cruelty but not disgust, not until later. He spoke of how many people on reservations simply do not react as others might when faced with these kinds of tragedies because they have been raised around this cruelty and their natural instincts regarding it have been dulled.

It is only as an adult that he grows horrified at the memories of terrible acts he witnessed and experienced. I felt this with similar depth. I felt so little when he spoke of the torture of himself and his fellow classmates experiencing agony and fear at the hands of a teacher. Even now I want to curb myself and say abuse rather than torture because I have been taught that only the most extreme of things are torture and because I fear that people as damaged as I will say that it is nothing truly awful when compared with other agonies. Yet who can truly compare agonies?

Before it seems like this book is meant only to rend let me assure you that the fabric always mends. He made me realize how much I’ve healed. Some days I am the vase shattering on the ground and other days I am the same vase in rewind, rising and becoming whole. It is a rare book that can do both.

Regarding Native Americans this reminded me that I want to help, but don’t know how. I am a white woman and I don’t wish for my compassion to be seen as pity or a handout. I want to HELP. I want to contribute and assist with so many of the broken things in the world, but so far no one has a failproof guide on how to do so. The only sure advice I have been given and can share is what one man told me when I asked what I, a White female millennial, and others like me could do. He told me to speak with everyone, to ask each person what I could do, what would help them most and help mend the brokenness that separates us all.

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