On Thursday, Sherman Alexie acknowledged in a statement the sexual harassment allegations against him, though he called some of the stories from women “outright falsehoods.” Now, three women have come forward on the record to describe complicated power dynamics between themselves and Alexie—dynamics that they say he abused.
NPR interviewed Jeanine Walker, Erika Wurth, and Elissa Washuta, as well as seven other women who remained anonymous. Each named woman said they had working relationships with Alexie during which, they claimed, he would suddenly turn aggressively sexual.
Walker is a poet and teacher who invited Alexie to visit her classroom in Seattle, where she runs a Writers in the Schools program. They became friendly, she said, and Alexie promised to read Walker’s poems and give her notes. In one incident, they made plans to play basketball near Alexie’s office and Walker went to change in his restroom. She claimed she turned to find him right behind her:
“... And [he] leaned toward me and said, ‘Can I kiss you?’ I said no and backed away, and he kept moving forward and was like, laughing and smiling and sweaty and whatever, and he 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.’ “
Walker said he eventually apologized, but the experience “felt very wrong,” as Walker had believed Alexie’s interest in discussing her work was sincere, and she wouldn’t have otherwise agreed to spend time with him. She said he sent her one quick note about her poems with a promise to add more, but never did.
Wurth was only 22 when she met Alexie; she is also Native American, and told NPR she’d hoped he’d become her mentor. According to Wurth, he invited her to a reading in Colorado, then afterwards back to his hotel. They spoke in the lobby, but as she was leaving, she said, he suddenly started to try and kiss her. At the time, Wurth had no sexual experience, and said she went into a state of “non-reality.” Alexie invited her to his hotel room and she went:
“He’s kind of taking my clothes off and kissing me,” she remembers. “And I’m kind of like stock still, trying to convince myself this is OK. It’s not working, and eventually I say, because I am kind of scared of this situation, ‘I’m a virgin.’ But it got really weird, because then he’s still trying to work me over, and I’m just stock still, and I think at that point, in my opinion, he realized that if he wanted to have sex with me he would have to violate me, he’d have to rape me. And he did stop.”
They stayed in touch, and she said that several years later had a sexual encounter that “ended badly.” Alexie wrote her a letter of recommendation and a blurb for her first book, but Wurth has since come to question his intentions. She now wonders if he wanted to keep her quiet about their encounters, and said she had always hoped for an apology. They eventually fought over email, and Wurth cut off contact with him, saying he is “poisonous.”
Close to publishing her first book, Wushuta also wanted to reach out to Alexie, who has a huge influence over the careers of Native writers. She told NPR she was spending the night out with a group of people that included the author, when he suddenly told her he could have sex with her if he wanted to:
“But he used a stronger word, beginning with F. You know, he had not said it quietly, he had not whispered it. It seemed that the men we were talking to could have heard it. 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.”
Washuta said she felt she had to laugh it off or risk making herself a target. Later, when the two were working together at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she said he invited her to his hotel room during a work trip. After Alexie accused Washuta of plagiarizing his work, she resigned, fearing he would work to end her career.
Read the full report here.