Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

I believe in Oprah. I see pictures of her every day. I pay attention to the way she smokes a turkey on Thanksgiving, and to the fact that she still loves bread. Because of Oprah, I tell myself, “The world is right there: take it.”

In the hospital, after my second or third breakdown, I watched OWN as often as I could. There was an evening of programming dedicated to Maya Angelou. I took a risk watching TV, because the nurses considered it a symptom of depression. But I needed to hear Maya speak. She said, “Let me tell so much truth—not facts. Because facts can obscure the truth.”

And I tell the truth as an expedient thing, for the reader and myself. I don’t obscure the truth with the mundane. I don’t build my work on the aesthetic I learned in the MFA classes at school, on suggestions that I slow down, that I remove the poetry and ambiguity from my prose, that I produce competent writing. Long before I graduated with my first degree, I was tired of competent writing. Competent books, with protagonists with names like Siobhán, who live in brownstone apartments and are never gratuitous or explicit or poor. I can’t afford to let white academia drag me into mediocrity.

But it’s hard to articulate how one goes from a server to a camgirl to a master’s student to someone holding a degree in her hands so tightly the paper became wet and she had to throw it away. Because I’ve existed in extremes for much of my life, I’m reticent to write from a middle place, where there is no urgency. I can hear my graduate program’s workshop facilitator, a white man, saying, “Terese, slow down.” He wants the tourist experience. He wants me to curate pain and titillation, and tell what each room looks like, because, without that, my work is not enough. He doesn’t believe that these experiences felt this fast, but they did. He wants to see the struggle, but he doesn’t deserve it.

Camgirl writes a story, and publishes it. It’s about a gluttonous, sexually expressive Native woman—and a white man. It’s about taking the pain of loving him and straddling it.

The dumb Indian becomes a community college instructor. I walk in to apply for a tutoring job, and they tell me I’m overqualified. They tell me I should be a teacher. People back home, on the rez, are proud. They are so proud, and it hurts to shine this bright when the inside still feels dim and dumb.

The dumb Indian is accepted to both MFA programs she applies to. Sherman Alexie is faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and who can resist?

The same hustle I applied to waiting tables and to camming—to contorting my body—I apply it to my work and outrun any expectation I had for myself. This is exceptionalism. The year after graduation, Sherman Alexie is sending me excerpts from his forthcoming memoir as he writes them. I’m completing my own memoir and editing a literary magazine. When I finish the book, it sells immediately. I become the first Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University. I become faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Camgirl makes good. It’s also a love story, because now I have another baby. But I have three kids with three different last names. I’m still rez.

You can write the truth explicitly. Like the cold cracking open a healing wound, the truth can be that way. Nothing is too ugly for this world.

*

When I was a webcam model, a man wanted to fly me to New York. It wasn’t explicitly sexual. He told me he was deeply unhappy at his job.

“That’s familiar,” I said.

He didn’t know what I meant.

“If I was writing this story, they would call your use of my time a cliché. The deeply unhappy man is lonely, and pays a woman to listen to him.”

“Can I fly you here?”

When I considered telling the man my real name, I quit. I still receive notifications from the website, telling me it’s been a while since I’ve earned.

I called myself “Baby.” My sister Viva calls me Baby. “I think I’m going to commit myself again,” I say. “Baby,” she says, every time.

I was packing up my apartment after being evicted—I wanted to leave behind the mattress I was raped on. I remember, before I closed the door behind me, I said, “Baby, do you want a better job? It’s yours.” I wanted fancy dinners, so I worked to buy them for myself. After so many years of hustle—of men telling me I was a “good look,” or that I could be someone underneath them—I told myself I could have it. I gave myself what I wanted. Nobody has given it to me better—and nobody ever will.

*

The man snoring on my couch used to be my lover. He forgets I am pretty. I don’t. He forgets many things, but he cannot forget that I am venerable now. Every day, as my book is rolling out, there is news, and money, compliments from other people. He cannot forget I am venerable because the world won’t let him.

I supplement his lack, buying myself flowers and food and jewelry and clothing. I’ve supplemented his lack by becoming a good partner to myself. It’s left me feeling successful, fulfilled, and lonely.

My husband is not all lack. Sometimes he smells like the parts of my childhood that were good. Like the river. Like sawdust and small animals, even though he is large. He used to play football. I’m familiar with every story of those days. We drive through his old town and see the fields and schools where he played, where someone with a name like Jimmy Wilkins fell through the roof, where his mother was always late to pick him up, where the children pushed themselves to extreme limits, terrified to let big people down. We drive past these monuments, and I’ve learned to start telling the story before he can. Only I add details he never told: Jimmy Wilkins didn’t just walk on the roof and fall through it, but part of my husband’s childhood remains on that roof, waiting for everything to collapse. These elaborations are how I show I care. This is how my people show they love each other.

In couples’ therapy, the man tells me to stop calling bipolar disorder an illness. He tells me to stop nagging, because my husband is trying to quit smoking, and quitting smoking is hard enough. He looks like Terry Richardson, with pleated pants and cashmere sweaters. It’s disconcerting. I don’t like men, mostly. We change therapists.

The next therapist makes us do homework. Love is homework. We have to pick a safe word to use when we begin to feel afraid of what is about to be said. The unsaid is something we fear for different reasons. He fears saying it, and I fear hearing it. The safe word is “Allen,” the name of a boy who wrote a story for my MFA workshop in which he likened breasts to milk jugs, and there was a wench, or a maid, and maybe a dragon. We, the women in the classroom, could not contain ourselves. We could not contain our laughter as he got into his sports car, and out of it, and never said hello. Lechery is not funny; bad writing is.

“I think you neglect me emotionally. I feel like you don’t love me. I want a divorce.”

“Allen.”

*

I want to illustrate a tree so well that someone finds it. It’s the snowball tree in my old yard on Seabird Island, on forty acres of land, surrounded by raspberry bushes and apple trees and overgrown grass. It’s the largest snowball tree I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t see it when I went home last because I was afraid of the wild dogs. The tree is not a metaphor; it’s real. I’d like to be buried there.

At Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Donnelly Rose Eaglestick was mauled to death by a pack of dogs. There was a cull, twenty-five dollars a head. The white people said it wouldn’t solve the problem. What do they know about walking home, scared to be torn apart?

*

I’m in a partial hospitalization program for fifteen days, to prepare myself emotionally for book touring and interviews. In our group therapy, we’re asked to draw a tree.

“Everything about it is a metaphor.”

We must illustrate the roots, which symbolize where we’re from. And if I can’t remember some of it, I can leave some roots missing. The tree I draw wouldn’t be a good map for someone looking for the literal tree I want to be buried near. The tree I draw is all metaphor.

There are the roots of my grandmother, whose root caps are swelling hearts.

The middle roots are absent. I’ve drawn a blue corridor instead. The lack of roots is my father. The space where the roots should be is dark.

The absorbing roots and trunk flare are my mother, my brothers, my sister and her children: they compensate for the blue corridor.

The ground beneath the roots represents my present life. I want to draw something to symbolize the visibility I feel.

“If you want to practice being interviewed, we can help with that,” my publicists say, before I tell them about the fifteen-day program I signed up for, before I tell them I didn’t expect to talk so much, that I wrote the things so that I wouldn’t need to speak them again.

The trunk is supposed to symbolize my skill. I don’t know how to illustrate my skill. I make the trunk thin, but fill it with hearts. The branches are my hopes and dreams.

One side of my tree is a cedar tree and the other is the snowball tree. My mother washed cedar boughs in the river and hung them in our entryways to purify whatever entered and whatever left. The snowball tree was planted by my ancestors.

After group therapy, I go to bed exhausted and wake up in the morning to write a résumé for my friend’s little brother. You should be able to describe the emotional work a prep cook does. You should be able to illustrate what it takes to get to work when you have kids and no car. You should be able to apply for a job with a tree in your hand.

*

Every day they ask you to speak what you are thankful for. Instead of saying “platitudes,” I say “vegetables,” because I feel good when I eat them.

“Your appetite is back?” the counselor asks.

I forget that she monitors me. I feel good knowing someone is monitoring me. If I had said “platitudes,” it would have been out of righteous indignation. It would have been because this whole program is about platitudes: letting go, what we can handle, how time heals, what we deserve, that we’ll be okay. If I had said “platitudes,” I wouldn’t have known someone cared what I was eating.

I am actively trying not to be diagnosed with a personality disorder. I am content with bipolarity and PTSD. I like polarity. I like the feeling of a swinging heart.

*

There are two types of anger, but the counselor doesn’t explicitly name them. Instead, she plays “Dear Mr. Jesus” on YouTube. She wants us to be upset when we hear a little girl singing to Mr. Jesus, asking him to look out for a child from the evening news who was badly beaten by her parents. The little girl prays for Jesus to take the child up to heaven, or spare her life, and then the singer signs off, “My mommy hits me, too.” I’m upset, but mostly at the little girl’s coyness. In creative writing workshop we learned that coy reveals cheapen a story.

The counselor’s point is that one can use anger to do good things. People can be compelled by anger to act righteously. She also says that anger is normal for people recovering from trauma.

We create an illustration of anger. Anger is an iceberg, and all of us together must list a hundred underlying reasons—reasons we become angry. She writes our reasons beneath the iceberg. I want to name the native women who shouldn’t have died the way they did: Cindy Gladue, who died with an eleven-centimeter blunt force injury to her vagina, whose vagina was then cut from her body and preserved so it could be shown to the court—which was unprecedented. Barbara Kentner, who died slowly after a white man threw a trailer hitch at her from his moving vehicle. Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was found wrapped in plastic in the Red River, her child having been cut from her womb. Joey English, who was not yet buried before the man who dismembered her was granted bail, twice. I want to name these women, not to posture but for naming’s sake. In some cultures, you cannot speak the names of your dead. In some cultures, you rest the names of your dead, so you do not call them back to the world of the living. To play along, I tell the counselor to write “injustice,” “bureaucracy,” and “racism” under the iceberg. The white people suggest adding “bad weather” and “being misunderstood.”

The counselor says, “What about you, Terese?” It’s not much of a question, or I’m not sure what she’s asking, but the topic is anger.

I start to cry and I believe I sound like a child. I recall the day my husband drove me to work and we fought. I cried and held my phone and told him that I could not go to work “like this.” He said that I needed to, because he couldn’t stand to speak to me any longer. I got out of the car and walked alone in a neighborhood I did not know. He left the parking lot, and I considered that I could go missing, like so many women I love.

Before him, I gave men mercy. Another man raped me because I cheated on him, and then I went to our counseling appointments to see if we could still make it work. One therapist (a man) said my rapist had a right to look through my phone, and another therapist (a woman) said we could get through it, that the man who raped me was profoundly broken. She suggested that my rapist listen to the song “If I Were a Boy,” by Beyoncé. She suggested, because we had budgeting issues, that we sneak homemade popcorn into movie theaters. I forget why they trivialized the fact that this man raped me. I forget if I mitigated everything that happened, until all we could talk about was saving money. I explain that I cry when I’m angry.

When I get home, I email the old therapy center to ask if they have any record of him admitting that he raped me. I wonder what good it could possibly do to know something I know.

I talk in the group session like a child. “What is it about me?” And I’m really asking.

The women in the group whisper, “It’s not you.”

*

We never show our trees to each other. They sit in a desk. It’s okay because the trees were for ourselves.

The other tree, the real one—it’s waiting for any person to find it. What do words matter if they don’t carry someone to something literal? I believe I write the places I can’t arrive at alone. What good is one more illustration if it doesn’t carry me somewhere? What I wouldn’t give for something literal to come from me, not just words.

Is it too perfect that, where I’m from, when we become women, they plant you a tree? All the women form a circle, and each one says something. The tree is a metaphor and it is growing. If you walk across the tracks from old Haig Highway, down the gravel road to a burned-down house at the end of a circular driveway, you will find the snowball tree, and near Stein Valley there is a whole forest of women’s trees—and where are the women? I need to know that you will look for us. But you don’t give us any credit. You don’t even give us humanity.

*

When I graduate from the partial hospitalization program, I’ll receive a medallion. The people in group will adorn me with compliments and kind wishes. Then I will get on a plane and perform the persona of a successful author—a feature, interviews, a book tour. The medallion will be inside of my jacket pocket, between my fingertips. My hands will smell like a coin, and my nervous laughter will be amplified by a microphone, and women will line up to adorn me with kind wishes, and they’ll tell me they’ve been hurt too, and I’m scared I’ll reach out to hold them and the coin will fall out of my pocket like the secrets I don’t tell. The coin will fall out and I’ll have to admit that I’m a dumb Indian—and maybe that’s what they need to hear. You can’t obscure the truth with the mundane. You can’t illustrate pain for tourists.

Maybe I’ll wear the coin like a talisman, or be in the hospital again.

 *

At the mental health facility, we have a class on humor and the benefits of laughter. A man in recovery looks at me and says, “What do you get when a hooker dies in your hotel room?”

I say, “No.”

The facilitator doesn’t speak.

The man says, “One hour free.”

The same man reaches over me at lunch to get a spoon, and I hold up my hand to guard my breasts. I could tell him that Cindy Gladue’s killer told the court that he paid her sixty dollars for services rendered the night he murdered her, and that she died alone in a bathtub from her injuries. I could tell him that I did things for money, often, and that it didn’t make me less of a human—but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to tell him that I was raped and filmed and that I am someone different now, but the same woman. I don’t want to tell him about the beauty of the women where I’m from, and that there is a forest of trees who are women. I don’t want to tell him anything. I owe him as much as I owe the workshop facilitators, who taught me nothing of craft and everything of whiteness and men.

When the man looks at me in the hallway, he cowers, and I believe he is ashamed. I think it’s because I use words like “effusive,” and because I question the research in our handouts on the benefits of laughter. He believes I am venerable; he thinks I am beyond being cut open in a bathtub and left for dead. He thinks I am not desperate to tell someone to find my tree. He believes I am someone, and I must, too.

Everything I ever wanted, I have taken for myself. But still there is the sinking feeling that I will step into the undertow of everything around me and be lost. There is the sinking feeling that if I don’t illustrate the tree, nobody will ever see me as human.

Terese Mailhot

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band in BC, Canada. Her book Heart Berries: A Memoir was published by Counterpoint Press. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesThe ToastYellow Medicine ReviewThe RumpusBurrow Press Review, and elsewhere. She works as the Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University, and as creative writing faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she also received her MFA. 

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