Having followed Alexie's career practically from the start (his first book of poetry and first book of short stories came out while I was still an English undergrad and were required reading by the time I started graduate school), I went into You Don't Have to Say You Love Me with seriously mixed feelings. The fact that he had been caught up in the #metoo scandals made it difficult for me to even start the book. I was so angry at him for not being the person I expected him to be. The open person he portrayed himself as. But, You Don't Have to Say is still one of his best and most honest works...especially when he tells us that there are parts of himself that he will never reveal in his writing.
I found myself comparing this favorably to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in a couple of ways. Like O'Brien, Alexie grapples with using fiction to bring the reader to a closer understanding of the truth. He also uses the same tool of repeating a phrase or a story for different purposes. While this is a memoir, in typical Alexie fashion, his writing is a mix of poetry, essays and other bits and pieces.
At one point he reflects back on his absence at his father's death. After speaking with his father over the phone he says "Twelve hours later, as I walked through a Seattle toy store with my sons, ages two and six, my sister called to tell me that our father had died. I paid for my sons' new toys, drove us home, and helped them into the house. Then as my wife held our boys, I collapsed to the floor of our living room and wept." His anger and grief over the death of his father, a life-long alcoholic, is a reflection of the anger and grief he feels over the death of his mother, a woman who seemed to have a kind side for everyone but her son.
Through this shared grieving process Alexie still gets in those words that grab us: "At my mother's funeral, my smartest Indian friend-the one who never went to college-corners me to deliver a metaphysical lecture." or "Who are the two funniest human beings who have ever lived? Richard Pryor before he caught himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, and Richard Pryor after he caught himself on fire while freebasing cocaine."
And he tries to understand his mother in the terms of not only being Native American but the violence that was perpetrated upon himself and his mother by other Native Americans, often family. He says three of his cousins "all three grew up to be rapists. Two of them have spent years in prison for their crimes. The third cousin has never been convicted of any felony, though he has raped more people than the other two combined." He describes the fear of family parties and knowing that rapists were allowed into their homes, allowed alone with their sons and daughters. In his poem, "The No," he says "So we must forgive all those/ Who trespass against us? / F*%^ that S#$!. / I'm not some charitable trust. / There are some people I will hate / Even after I'm ashes and dust." It is clear that his mother is not among those and he writes to find his way to forgiveness, even as he enumerates the many things that have been done to his mother, himself, his father, his sisters, and his tribe, that are unforgivable.