Here’s a distressing bit of news: Sherman Alexie, whose most famous novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has been admired in this space, and whose efforts at inclusiveness in a major short story contest a couple of years ago came back to bite him in the ass, has cancelled his latest book tour because of depression and the belief that his late mother is haunting him.
It’s best if you read the details for yourself. Whether Alexie’s mother is truly haunting him, I do not know; but if a man really thinks he’s being followed, he’s being followed, quite apart from the objective evidence. Even if she’s not a ghost, it’s clear that Lillian Alexie haunts her son in the most vulnerable place for all of us: the imagination and the memory.
I hate dominators: the people who deliberately, maliciously try to control the lives of others because they are utterly convinced they’re better than other people. Alexie’s mother sounds like she was one of those. If so, she was by no means the first in literary or biographical history. Edmund Gosse chronicled his personal travails in Father and Son from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jill Ker Conway had to overcome the deep emotional scars left by a tyrannical mother, as she recounts in The Road From Coorain, volume one of a wonderful autobiography (volume two is called True North). Warren Buffet’s lifelong deference to women is rooted in the emotional abuse he suffered from his mother as he was growing up, the details of which may be found in Alice Schroeder’s biography of the investor.
Alexie is a gifted writer, and I hope the time away from business will allow him to recover his best sense of himself. Whatever the truth of spirits who are claimed to walk the earth may be, the memory of those persons, living and dead, who did us harm as we ourselves tried to live is quite real. Yes, the memory is real, as real as a punch in the gut or the slash of a razor blade. Those memories have to be dealt with and put in their proper place, or we cannot go on living. Our mothers and fathers have every right to be our parents. They do not have the right to try to live through us the lives they wish they could have lived, or the right to impose upon us the lives they think their sons and daughters ought to be living. If we give them that right in our hearts, we shall become ghosts ourselves, shadows of what we could be, no matter how many years we are granted to live.