MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The #MeToo movement continues to hit the literary world. Writer Sherman Alexie recently issued a statement after rumors of sexual harassment circulated online. He admitted he had harmed others. He did not give details. But Alexie said, quote, "there are women telling the truth." And he said, to those whom I have hurt, I genuinely apologize. NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with some of the women who have accused Alexie of predatory behavior. And before her report, a heads up - some of you may find details in the women's accusations disturbing.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Sherman Alexie may not be a household name, but he's one of the country's best-known Native American poets and writers with a charismatic personality and a big following. He wrote the screenplay for the film "Smoke Signals," which is based on one of his stories. His young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian" won the National Book Award. In the children's book world...
ANNE URSU: Oh, he's a rock star (laughter).
NEARY: Anne Ursu is a children's book author. After the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story broke, she decided to survey women in her field to see if they, too, had experienced such problems just as many companies, including NPR, have. Ursu's story, which she published in early February on Medium, contributed to the whisper of sexual scandal that was already building around some well-known authors, including Sherman Alexie. Ursu says some of the most popular kids books writers use their power of celebrity to seduce women.
URSU: If you are an aspiring author and you go to a reading of someone who is famous and beloved and whose work you admire and he suddenly takes an interest in you and your work and he thinks you're special and you start emailing and he wants to mentor you - and then suddenly it turned out all he wanted to do was have sex with you.
NEARY: The rumors about Sherman Alexie were already growing louder when about a week ago Seattle-based writer Litsa Dremousis tweeted about him, calling on women to share their stories. NPR, like other news organizations, reached out to her. She said she'd had an affair with Alexie, but they had remained friends until the stories about his sexual behavior surfaced. In his statement, Alexie denounced Dremousis. Before that, NPR had started interviewing the women she referred to us.
JEANINE WALKER: It's a story about power and abuse of power.
NEARY: Jeanine Walker is 1 of 3 women who came forward on the record. In all, 10 women shared their experiences with NPR about Alexie, who is a married man. Most of the women wanted to remain anonymous. But a clear pattern emerged. The women reported behavior ranging from inappropriate comments both in private and in public to flirting that veered suddenly into sexual territory, unwanted sexual advances and consensual sexual relations that ended abruptly. The women said Alexie had traded on his literary celebrity to lure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.
WALKER: Of course I was really excited. I mean, Sherman Alexie - you know, he's interested in my poems.
NEARY: Jeanine Walker, a poet and teacher, was managing a Writers in the Schools program in Seattle when she arranged to have Alexie visit a classroom. Afterwards, Alexie said he had checked out her poetry online and asked her to send him a manuscript. Alexie never got back to Walker on the poems, but they became friendly. Walker says it was strictly platonic. One day they met to play basketball at a court in his office building. Afterwards, Walker says she went to change her clothes in a restroom in his office.
WALKER: When I turned around, he was right behind me and just, like, physically very much in my space and leaned towards me and said, can I kiss you? And I said no and backed away. And he kept moving forward and just was, like, all - you know, was laughing and smiling and kind of sweaty and whatever. And he just said, it's just we're playing basketball. You remind me of the girlfriends I had in high school. And I just said, well, we're not in high school, Sherman.
NEARY: Alexie later apologized, and Walker stayed in touch with him for a while. She sent him her poems again but never got anything but a quick comment and a promise of more to come. She says Alexie is a big deal in her hometown of Seattle.
WALKER: And he's connected to the organization I work for. And if he had never expressed an interest in my poems, I probably wouldn't have pursued spending any time with him. But he did express an interest. And so then when I discovered that interest was actually physical, it just felt very wrong.
NEARY: Erika Wurth was a 22-year-old aspiring writer when she first met Alexie. As a Native American, he was a hero to her. She hoped he might become her mentor. About a year after their first meeting, he suggested she come to one of his readings in Colorado. She went and afterwards walked back to his hotel with him. After chatting in the lobby, she started to leave.
ERIKA WURTH: And he jumps over the coffee table and begins trying to kiss me. And I just went into a state of non-reality. I had almost no sexual experience. I couldn't believe it. And he's like, come to my room.
NEARY: She did and ended up on his bed.
WURTH: He's kind of taking my clothes off and kissing me. And I'm kind of, like, stock-still. I'm trying to convince myself this is OK. It's not working. And eventually he's - you know, I say because I'm kind of scared of this situation, you know, I'm a virgin. But it got really weird because then, you know, he's still kind of trying to work me over, and I'm just stock-still. And I think at that point, in my opinion, he realized, like, if he wanted to have sex with me, he would have to violate me. He'd have to rape me. And he just - he did stop.
NEARY: Wurth says she stayed in touch with Alexie, hoping he would still be her mentor or at least apologize. Several years later, they had a second sexual encounter which also ended badly. Eventually he did give her a positive comment for her first book and a letter of recommendation, which she now thinks was to keep her quiet. Their relationship became contentious, and Wurth cut ties with him, disillusioned by the way he treated her.
WURTH: Never admitting what he'd done, never apologizing - and I just was like, I don't ever want to be around this guy again. I just - he's poisonous. He's not OK.
NEARY: Alexie has enormous influence on the careers of Native American writers, and Erika worries about what he may say about her to others in the business. So does Elissa Washuta. She met Alexie when she was getting ready to publish her first book and was hoping he could help her with it. She went out one night with a group of people that included Alexie. She was chatting with him when...
ELISSA WASHUTA: Seemingly apropos of nothing, Sherman told me that he could have sex with me if he wanted to. But he used a stronger word beginning with F. I couldn't believe that somebody would say something to me like that, this older man who I didn't know, who was much more powerful than me.
NEARY: Washuta worried that other men who were with him who were all part of the local literary scene had heard him. But she didn't have the nerve to say anything about the incident at the time.
WASHUTA: I felt that I really needed his approval and I needed his help in order to get this book off the ground. And so as uncomfortable as I was, I felt that he had so much power that I should probably not make a fuss about this.
NEARY: Eventually Washuta and Alexie became colleagues at the Institute of American Indian Arts. They got along. But during a work trip, she says he tried to lure her to his hotel room. She did not go. Later, they had a disagreement over an essay of hers. Alexie implied she had plagiarized his work, and Washuta became fearful that he would ruin her career. When she got another job, she severed her connection with the institute because Alexie was a powerful member of the faculty.
WASHUTA: I think we did some really good work there. And I'm sure they continue to do really good work there, but I'm not a part of it. And that feels so lonely. I'm incredibly sad about it.
NEARY: As allegations against Alexie began to surface, the institute changed the name of the Sherman Alexie Scholarship to the MFA Alumni Scholarship. Sherman Alexie has not responded to NPR's multiple efforts to contact him. It is clear from his statement that he is angry at Litsa Dremousis, whose tweets prompted these women to come forward. But if he is angry, so are the women, which is why they are willing to talk. Their stories are complicated and messy as much about the power they felt he had over them as they are about sex. And how to change that power dynamic may be where the conversation has to go from here. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "IN THE ANDROGYNOUS DARK")
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