Finding my way through the troubling Sherman Alexie stories

I believe the women who talked to NPR about being sexually harassed by Sherman Alexie. I admire the bravery that it must have taken to speak up against such a powerful man in the literary community. I hope that sharing their stories helps them find some emotional peace, and if there are others out there who have had the same experience as these women — as we've learned in the last six months, there are often more women — I hope that they find inspiration in the courage that these women displayed.

Before we go any further, let's be clear about some of the arguments that devil's advocates are going to bring up in the wake of NPR's report. You'll likely hear some conversation about due process; that, of course, is not the point. There's no trial, here. Alexie is accused of a breach of ethics, of using his power and prestige to intimidate young authors and coax them into sexual acts. It's up to all of us — as moral beings, as keepers of our own ethical codes — to decide how we interpret and respond to those accusations.

Some people will probably argue that calling for an author to "go away" is just a case of "mob mentality." Nobody is calling for Alexie's books to be burned, or for Alexie to be pilloried in town square. We don't expect our authors to be perfect heroes. But we do expect that when we give them a platform, they will use that platform responsibly. We do expect that when we invite them to our readings, or into our minds, they won't use their fame to take advantage of others.

After seeing these reports — reports which, by the way, follow a statement in which Alexie himself confirms that he has "done things that have harmed other people" — it's up to every reader to decide where they stand on Sherman Alexie's literary works. Some, no doubt, will continue to admire him. Others will feel betrayed. There will be as many different responses as there are readers. This is not a mob. This is a large group of readers — of fans — coming to terms with a new reality.

I don't want to make this about me, because it's not. But I think I have to disclose my connections to Alexie, to continue the conversation started by those brave women on NPR yesterday. For as long as I've been working with books in Seattle, Sherman Alexie has been a part of my life. The week after I started working at Elliott Bay Book Company in 2000, I sold books at an Alexie reading at Town Hall. I'd never seen him read before, and I instantly became a fan. I especially liked how generous he was to the booksellers — how he thanked us for our time.

And once I started writing about books, Alexie became a more prominent and personal figure in my life. I helped select Alexie for a Stranger Genius award. I wrote about almost all of his books. I hosted quite a few readings with Alexie and interviewed him several times. I exchanged many emails with him.

I didn't know any of this about Alexie — but then, I suppose it makes sense that I wouldn't have known. Alexie presented himself to me the same way he presented himself onstage: as a married man who sometimes engaged in harmless puppydog crushes on celebrities and women he might notice in passing on the street. I first learned about the charges against Alexie a month ago, after a bookseller sent an email alerting me to the anonymous allegations. Since that time, I've heard both firsthand and secondhand accounts of women who felt victimized by Alexie. Those accounts sound similar to the stories in the NPR report. I believe them, too.

At first, I was shocked to hear the stories. As I've heard more, as I've talked to reporters and read the stories and accounts, I've felt a growing amount of shame.

It makes me sick to my stomach to think that one of my events or reviews might have been the incident that inspired a young woman to reach out to Alexie, only to be harassed by him. It makes me feel even worse to think that someone might have wanted to tell a member of the media about their experiences with Alexie, but that they might have considered that I would not have believed them because I've been so closely affiliated with him over the years.

And so personally, for me as a reader? Until last month, I believed in the Alexie that presented himself onstage. I loved his willingness to stand up to bullies, to acknowledge human frailty, to speak beautiful truths. But based on what I have heard now, I have no stomach for him or for his work anymore. The distance between the personal story presented in his writing and the stories I've heard is too far. I can't read those words anymore without thinking about all the pain they're printed over.

I'm not unique in this. You, reading this, will have to formulate your own response to this news. We as a community will be coming to terms with the story over the next days and weeks and months and years. Seattle is a strong city with a mighty literary community, and our people are compassionate and intelligent and we take care of our own.

I have hope that we can figure out how to learn from this moment — that we can find ways to protect our friends and neighbors from abuses of power; that we will create a community that includes voices, rather than silences them; that we will listen, and be listened to. I believe that if we work together, we can remember our goal as a literary community: to tell stories that make the world a better, more just, more empathetic place.