Inmate #A-93223: In the San Quentin of My Mind
My father abused women.
This was my first thought when a Native woman contacted me to ask about a prominent Native male writer’s history as a sexual harasser.
My second thought was for the writer’s immediate family, his wife, his children.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s how a father’s sins follow his children like a storm cloud, waiting to burst when they least expect it.
My father was married three times, and during each marriage, he went on alcoholic rampages, yelled and threatened and carried out those threats. He beat his wives and children, belittled them, betrayed their love for him. As a young first-time husband, an older husband in the marriage that produced me, a middle-aged husband on a second try with my mother, and an elderly husband with his last spouse: his age did not matter, or how far he had come in terms of financial stability. In his last marriage, he was so sick that he couldn’t even drink anymore, but his frustration and rage over his physical disabilities – and whatever demons he carried – still haunted him, his wife, his children and step-children.
I’ve written about my experience with my father when he returned from San Quentin after serving an eight-year sentence (Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir). But I have not written about what it’s like to be the “out” child of an abuser. What it’s like when everybody knows.
A few years ago, a colleague asked me, “Why was your father sent to prison?”
Everything stopped. There was a hard, dead beat of silence. My mind raced. I could lie. I could sugar-coat it. I could make a joke out of it. But could I just . . . say it?
I’d written it down, published it even, but I had not said it aloud, in casual conversation, to someone I barely knew. I had only ever said it in private, in confidence, in the safety of friendship or love.
The word came out of my mouth in an ugly gush of shame and reluctance and rebellion. No, I would not keep this secret for him. No, I would not make it my secret. No, I would not bear the sins of my father for him. But yes: it was an awful thing to admit.
“Wow,” my colleague said: “That must have been hard to say.”
I shrugged. It is what it is, I mumbled, or something like that.
I’ve spent most of my life unpacking what it means to be the daughter of a man who has committed crimes against women. My father’s sentence was harsh, in part, because he did not just rape a woman; he beat her, badly (he was also a very dark Indigenous man with a Spanish surname; that didn’t help his cause). I saw his fury first-hand; I knew the terror of being caught out by it, trapped by it, made helpless and dehumanized by it. I cannot imagine having it cut loose on me in a dark parking lot.
As a child, I knew that my daddy was in prison. It was as much a part of my growing-up as knowing where my dark hair, dark eyes and brown skin came from – my Dad. He was incarcerated when I was three years old. I didn’t see him again until I was thirteen. In the interim, he’d spent eight years in a maximum-security prison (then lived in Los Angeles for a few years before I saw him again). Every once in a while, an envelope with intriguing, back-slanting handwriting showed up in our mailbox, even though we moved almost every year. The return address corner of the envelope read Box No. A-93223, Tamal, California 94964. “A-93223” was my father’s inmate number.
I still have a few pieces of that correspondence. Some of the envelopes are addressed to me, “Miss Deborah Ann Miranda” and others to my mother, “Mrs Midgie E. Williamson.” Usually my father sent a cheap card, but sometimes he wrote long rambling letters – front and back of a single piece of unlined paper – in his odd, even hand. In a 1968 letter he talked about sending out job applications, hoping for parole, looking for a place to live: “Santa Monica or W.L.A. for me, Midgie,” (it would be another two years before he actually made parole). My name comes up a lot, though reading the letter now, I suspect not because my father actually regretted missing out on eight years of my life; it was one way my dad could be sure he and his “Midgie” were still connected – “How’s Debby Ann making out? I sure have missed her very much, guess she has forgotten me by now, que no?” – then right back into how bad he felt for angry things he’d said in a previous letter “that hurt your feelings and your husband’s too.”
My dad asked for money, sent along a “Christmas package authorization” form in bright red and green, checking off which of the approved gifts he would prefer. The form lays out rules: packages sent to San Quentin would be accepted no earlier than November 29, no later than December 20; no more than 15 pounds; must be composed only of the approved items (‘NO HOMEMADE FRUITCAKE’). Later, my dad wrote again to complain that he hadn’t even gotten a Christmas card from us – “It sure hurt me not to receive any,” he wrote reproachfully.
In 1968, the year my Dad sent that letter, I was seven years old. I lived with my mom and step-father in the Cedar View Trailer Park in Buckley, Washington. We were broke most of the time, though not as broke as we would be in a few more years when we’d drive from one store to the next searching for the cheapest price for hamburger, and settle on a pack of hotdogs instead. Things happened to me in that trailer park that I am still coming to terms with fifty years later, things that left scars internally and externally. I needed my father; he was in prison. I needed rescuing; he had abandoned me. What would I have told him, if I could have?
An inmate’s children serve their time, too. At times in my life, it seemed as if my father’s inmate number was my permanent address. Aside from missing my father in ways I did not even have language to articulate, there was always that question: “where is your dad?” and then, “what did he do?”
My mother never did tell me about my father’s crime. (The fact that, after his sentencing, she experienced a kind of breakdown, quite literally disappeared for a year into alcohol and grief, speaks volumes about the depth of her wound.) Somehow, I learned my father was imprisoned for rape, but of course, rape meant nothing to me at that time – even though one of my mother’s boyfriends molested me that same year my father wrote asking for money and Christmas presents. Later, after he had moved back in with us when I was thirteen, my Dad asked me, “Do you know what I went to prison for?” and, saying he didn’t want me to hear it from anyone else, “It was rape.” He hastened to add that it wasn’t really rape, the girl had just lied to him about her age, it was statutory rape, and she just didn’t want her brothers to think she “was that kind of girl.”
The real reason my father wanted to be the one to tell me was so he could craft the story his way; slant the truth backwards, like his handwriting, so that it became his story – not the story of the woman he’d attacked.
The woman he had attacked. How much did it cost me to write that, just now? And to remember the scent of my father, the rich darkness of his skin, soft as tanned deer hide against my cheek. The joy of leaping into his arms and knowing he was strong enough to carry me, lift me up, swing me around. The sound of his voice, like flowing caramel. And to think: that same strength meant he was too strong for the woman he attacked to fight off. She heard that same voice as he raped her. She felt that skin against her skin.
Having a father who hurts women changes a child; it colored the way I saw the world as a little girl, before he left, and again as a teenager, after his return. It helped create a silent space inside my body where I learned to hide secrets – not my secrets, but the secrets of men who hurt me. Like a foreign object, my body formed a hard, rancid sack around that space, protected it from discovery, while letting its poison seep out into my sense of self. I was ashamed to tell friends about my father’s crime, thinking they would feel less loyalty to me; thinking they would be afraid of him. In fact, of the small group of solid girlfriends I had in high school, only one of them ever came to visit our trailer. I always went to them. My home didn’t feel safe to me, either.
It’s one thing to know the statistics: More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. We are told that most of those assaults are from non-Indigenous men, but what is it like knowing that your father, the Indian man you adore despite everything, preys on women, wants to dominate them, use whatever power he has to hurt them, demean them, diminish their dignity?
I’m fifty-six years old, and I’m still figuring out how my father’s crimes affected my own identity. After years of therapy, I was still convinced that the mean, self-critical voice in my head was mine, my self-flagellation, until one day my therapist asked me, “Whose voice is that?” and without missing a beat I replied, “My father’s.” I was stunned.
“I fought all my life to keep him out of my head,” I whispered.
“I think he got in,” my therapist said quietly.
Knowing that your father hurts women means you always wonder about that kernel of meanness in your own soul. It means you question your ability to love, to support, the women in your life – girlfriends, wives, daughters. If you are an Indigenous woman, it can make you think that being Indian means nothing but pain.
If you are an Indigenous woman, it might mean believing that you must deserve pain. It might mean wrestling endlessly with your own daughter about her womanhood. It might mean letting men walk all over you because you have learned that is their right.
If you are a man, it means you have no clear path towards forming relationships with the women you love that is not fraught with second-guessing and fear. It might mean excessive loneliness and longing for the very people you have been taught are weak and undeserving.
But most of all, knowing that your father hurts women means shame, and anger, and guilt, and a tear down the middle of your soul; it means knowing what you wish you didn’t know, and never being able to forget it.
In my case, I often think of the horrific patriarchal colonization that was my father’s tribal history in the missions of California: a form of historical trauma that traces directly from Catholic priests teaching Indigenous parents how, and when, to beat their own children as punishment; those same Indigenous parents had never seen or used corporal punishment but were, themselves, punished by the priests if they did not beat their children. Follow that up with generation after generation of poverty, dehumanizing treatment from Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans, erasure of almost everything Indigenous, a culture of shame and pain in which all Indigenous people were devalued and debased, but especially Indigenous women. The only real power many Indigenous men could claim was over women. For some men, misogyny becomes the norm.
Misogyny becomes the norm.
That’s the worst thing about knowing your father hurts women. Knowing that just because your father was hurt by people and events beyond his control doesn’t give him the right to hurt others.
Knowing he should have been better than that, and he wasn’t.
Knowing that it was his decision.
Knowing that this is not ever going to go away, or not matter.
Knowing that what he did is also a part of who you are, who you will be, who you will love. It will be part of your children. It will change the direction of your life. It will require you to be stronger than you think is fair. It will present you with challenges you did not ask for. It will throw obstacles down in front of you. It will make you want to tear your skin off because you inherited that skin from him.
It will make you want to tear your heart out because you can’t stop loving him. Even if you convince yourself that you can stop, you can’t.
It might mean you act like you don’t love yourself.
As I write this tonight, a storm is brewing – on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs, and in mainstream news outlets. That major Native American male writer being named one of the most relentless sexual harassers of Native women writers, as well as women in the film industry, has been lauded and celebrated for his (often uneven) work representing our under-represented culture; he’s won all the big writing awards, movies have been made of his works, and he is in demand as a speaker like no other Native writer, despite his high speaking fee. Early on in his career, he was chosen as the darling of reviewers and, with his charismatic, problematic, but always media-savvy verbosity, to represent . . . well, us. And though it’s true that publishers seem incapable of acknowledging more than one Indigenous writer at a time, a lot of this writer’s success, both financially and as a writer, comes because the man knows how to work a crowd. He is a performer.
I lived in the Seattle area while this man was a rising star. We met a few times at writing events, conferences. But I knew he was volatile, unpredictable, irreverent to the point of cruelty. Back in the old days when we were all on the only Native Lit listserv, he joined under a pseudonym so he could see what we were saying about him. Eventually, during a heated discussion about mixed-blood writers, this man outed himself and told us all what he thought of us – I don’t recall the details, except that he made it clear we were lesser beings. I do recall thinking, or rather feeling, that this was a man to keep clear of. So when we saw one another in person, I asked after his wife, his son, then (when another baby came along) his sons; I steered our conversations toward traffic on I-5, grandparents, sleep deprivation. That was it. He was never inappropriate with me. He also never reached out to me, something most Indigenous writers do frequently with one another – do you have a piece for this anthology I’m editing, nice job on that poem in such-and-such journal, hey I heard somebody has a new reading series you’d be good for – but then he was mind-blowingly famous; he was busy.
Sure, he talked about anal sex during readings, blow jobs, cursed up a storm. He went on long rants that were funny, at first, but devolved into hatchet jobs for some poor target. Significantly, he often said the things about white people, colonization, and anti-Indian sentiments rampant in U.S. culture that needed to be said, that many Indians longed to say but did not dare. We loved him for those moments. His humor almost always pulled his fat out of the fire. But there are other stories, too, that circulated on the down-low: he backed Indigenous women into corners, stalked them by email, demanded sexual contact in exchange for not trashing their writing in public. He rewarded women who adored him with invitations to readings, dinner, book blurbs. And just to complicate things, he did all these things for other women and never made a pass, creating a kind of cognitive dissonance when women compared stories.
I believe the women who are now naming Sherman Alexie as a man who has bullied, threatened, and sexually harassed them. I know these women. I’ve known most of them as long as I’ve known Alexie, and they are strong, honest, loving human beings who have supported me throughout my career as a writer, as a professor, through my life as a mother and grandmother. These are the women who didn’t bat an eyelash when I came out, who sympathized over rough reviews of my writing, shared their own stories of struggle with me; women who create spaces in the literary world for Indigenous women’s voices to live when Indigenous women’s voices are routinely ignored, silenced and maligned.
I believe the women, because they are my community, and have been, before and after whatever small successes I have had. They have little to gain, and everything to lose, by telling their stories.
I know how hard, how painful, it is for an Indigenous woman to “tell” on a powerful Indigenous man who has accepted the privileges of power. On a man who has elevated the literature of our people into mainstream news, classrooms, bookstores.
And I know that, bad as this situation is for those women, and for the field of Native American literature, these men create other victims, too; ripples of violence and grief.
I know that when a father hurts women, his children and his wife take a blow like nothing they’ve ever felt before. Though not guilty of any crime, they’ll face a kind of sentencing anyway. Tonight, as the storm gets ready to break, I am thinking of them, wincing at what is to come. I wish I could say something wise that would make a difference. I wish I didn’t know how much hard work is in front of them. I wish I could say:
Look, nobody gets to choose their parents. We do get to choose how we parent.
Even if the only child we ever parent is ourselves.
My father abused women. I carry that knowledge with me. For a long time, carrying such heavy knowledge made me sick, depressed; it made me abuse myself. Sometimes, it still does – I won’t lie to you, this is a lifelong process. But at least now I use what I’ve learned from that experience: watch out for women and children. Raise a son who values the women in his life, and the tender side of his own soul. If your daughter struggles, stand as a model of strength but do not presume to be her strength. Never underestimate the destructive power of silence.
I don’t know the whole story behind Alexie’s actions. I might never know. Yet it is part of the pattern of an abuser to prevent those he abuses from sharing stories with one another, through threats, pleading hard-luck, asking for another chance. Poverty, a shattering childhood of abuse, the shame of being Indian in a white world, brain damage due to seizures, brain surgery—in many ways, it really does suck to be Sherman Alexie. And yet, life has sucked for many of us in very similar ways, and we've managed to pull ourselves through life, write, and engage with other Indigenous writers without sexually or otherwise harassing those weaker than us.
Native women are finally speaking about the fear that Sherman Alexie, a Native man, instilled in them through sexual harassment. That prison of fear often seems impossible to escape. I know those walls, those guards, those cells. My heart is with the women staging this break-out.
I know that nothing can contain this story now. The women are speaking. I’m listening. Are you?