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Elizabeth McKinney
Intro to Literature 1001-01
Critical Analysis Essay
The role of Senility in Dear John Wayne
Senile: of, relating to, exhibiting, or characteristic of old age
<senile weakness>; especially: exhibiting a loss of cognitive abilities (as
memory) associated with old age.
--Merriam Webster
The perfect example of this definition is Etta Joseph, the main character in
Sherman Alexies Dear John Wayne. Etta has several memory problems throughout
the story. In addition to her poor memory, she changes her opinion on topics, such as
lying, several times throughout her dialogue with Spencer Cox, whom she distrusts.
Both of these, along with her blatant disregard for formalities between strangers,
contribute to the point of her story in relation to the authors. Alexie uses senility through
Etta not only to frazzle Spencer and change his opinion of tribal customs and elders, but
also to show how easy it is to believe a liewhether the lie is intentional or not.
The story is based around an interview between Spencer and Etta. Spencer, a
cultural anthropologist, has decided to interview Etta because she is known to be a
powwow dancer for her tribe. The interview changes direction quickly, however, when
Etta brings up her relationship with the actor John Wayne. They had been in a movie
together when she was eighteen years old, and had an affair during their time on the
movie set. Their affair ended when the movie did, and John Wayne returned home to
his family. After telling her story, Etta finally answers Spencers questions about

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powwow dancing by telling him to talk to her sons, John and Marion, who turned 100 on
the day of the interview.
Spencer begins the interview very politely, despite being obviously flummoxed by
Ettas boldness and lack of formality. He continues his questions in spite of this, but the
reader can see him forcing himself to remain polite several times. On page 195, about a
quarter of the way through the interview, he finally cracks. He questions Etta in a tone
that screams frustration. He insinuates that Etta knew the reason for his interest in her
as an anthropologist when he says Why are you here? Why did you consent to this
interview? What do you have to tell me that could possibly help me with my work?
These questions are brought up not only by Ettas misbehavior, but also by her
avoidance of his questions. When Spencer asks Etta to introduce herself at the
beginning of their dialogue, she refuses, making him go first. He agrees, and answers
his own question thoroughly. Etta still refuses to introduce herself, simply by avoiding
the topic, almost pretending she doesnt realize Spencer wants her to answer him.
A: . . .Its nice to meet you. Q: Yes, its my pleasure. (ten seconds of silence) Q:
And? A: And? Q: Would you like to introduce yourself? A: Yes. (fifteen seconds of
silence) Q: Well, possibly you could do it now? If you please? A: My name is Etta
Joseph . . . (190).
Through all of this and more, Spencer remains calm and polite. He stays placid even
through her constant interruptions and frequent interjections concerning John Wayne.
For example, when Spencer is finally able to start his questions, he asks her about how
the powwow has changed, and continues, but I was wondering how you . . . At this
point, Etta cuts him off: Why are you really here? To the reader, Spencers reasoning

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is obvious. He is a cultural anthropologist who is studying the Spokane Indians, and,

specifically with Etta, powwow dancing. Etta only wants to talk about John Wayne, when
she talks at all. She is obsessed with him, or her memory of him, and, in her senility, she
thinks everyone who talks to her knows of her past with John Wayne but wants the
details. The authors obvious excuse for Ettas attitude towards Spencer and his
powwow questions is that she is senile.
Senility involves losing some of the brains cognitive abilities, including attention
span: the ability to sustain concentration on a particular object, action, or thought
(What are Cognitive Abilities?). Etta cannot focus on powwow dancing because she is
not interested in that. She only wants to talk about John Wayne, so that is all she can
concentrate on. Her short attention span is also evident just after she tells of how she
lost her virginity to John Wayne: Spencer asks, Did you really lose your virginity to John
Wayne? and Etta replies, He was afraid of horses, did you know that? (201).
Etta is constantly rude towards Spencer and seems to have no manners at all,
except when it comes to herself, as she shows in the first part of the interview, when
she makes Spencer answer his question before she does. She even insults Spencer
indirectly through his books. those books started with someones lie. Then some
more lies were piled on top of that, until you had a whole book filled with lies, and then
somebody slapped an Edward Curtis photograph on the cover, and called it good
(193). She also torments Spencer with the knowledge of true Indian life: she states, For
the last one hundred and eighteen years, I have lived in your world, your white world. In
order to survive, to thrive, I have to be white for fifty-seven minutes of every hour . . .
You have no idea, no concept, no possible way of know what happens in those three

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minutes. Spencer tells her that information is what he has been looking for, and asks
her to tell him what she does in those three minutes. She replies, Oh, no, no, no. Those
three minutes belong to us. They are very secret (194).
Ettas failing memory is shown in her memories of actual events, along with her
failure to act as she should in formal situations. One example of this is on page 195,
when Etta asks Spencer if he knows of the movie The Searchers, which he says he
does, mentioning it was released in 1956. Etta disagrees, saying simply, 1952. The
two argue back and forth a few times until Spencer changes the subject. With a little
research, it is very simple to find out that the movie was indeed released in 1956,
proving Spencer right and Etta, basically, forgetful and stubborn.
Yet another representation of senility is Ettas speech, or the cognitive ability
language (What are Cognitive Abilities?). Many of her statements are worded
complexly and can be confusing, or just dont make sense in relation to the previous
statement. On page 193, Spencer tells Etta he is leaving because she is wasting his
time with her immature banter. Her response is Im not lonely. Have a good day. Later
in the interview she states, He showed me the scar. Just behind his right ear. About five
inches long. They hid it with makeup. The horses name was Rooster. He liked me to
kiss it whenever we made love. Spencers reaction to this statement is the same as any
careful readers: John Wayne asked Etta to kiss a horse?! The way Etta breaks up her
sentences, often into fragments, and mixes up her responses is just more evidence
against her having a competent mind, or rather, more evidence pointing towards her
loss of cognitive abilities (Webster).

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Another problem Etta has throughout her interview is deception. When she
introduces herself, she tells Spencer, I am one hundred and eighteen years old and I
am the last of the Spokane Indians (pg. 190). When Spencer shows his incredulity at
the latter half of this statement, Etta admits, Well, actually, Im not. There are thousands
of us. But it sounds more romantic, enit? (190). Her willingness to lie to make herself
sound more exciting and fantastic makes the reader ask just how much of her story
about John Wayne is true and how much did she embellish? After more back and forth
dialogue, Spencer tells Etta a supposed quote from his mother, but when pressed, he
admits his mother never said that. Etta manages to get Spencer to say he is indeed a
liar, even though Its a good lie. Charming even. Attributing one of your faintly amusing
and fairly poetic lines to your own mother (192). Later, after Etta tells Spencer most of
her affair with John Wayne, Spencer asks her This is not a lie, one of those good lies
you were talking about? and Etta replies Spencer, I was fooling you. Theres no such
thing as a good lie (200). If Etta lies about lying, how is the reader supposed to believe
anything she says? A sympathetic reader would assume she just forgot what she meant
by a good lie. Alexie, however, would assume senility is at fault here.
All of these problems with Etta confuse the image Spencer has of the Spokane
Indians. Spencer spends a good portion of the interview struggling to make sense of
why Etta is saying the things she says. Several times he brings up tribal dialogue or
customs, which only confuses Etta and makes her distrust him more. Towards the
beginning of the interview, after Spencer threatens to leave, he comes to the conclusion
Etta is testing him, and says, Okay, wait, I think I understand. We were participating in
a tribal dialogue, werent we? That sort of confrontational banter which solidifies familial

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and tribal ties, werent we? to which Etta responds, What are you talking about?
(193). Spencer has asked Etta to help him with his research on the effects of powwow
dancing on ballroom dancing, and still thinks that is why she agreed to the interview.
Etta, apparently, doesnt give two seconds of thought towards that topic until the very
end of the interview.
Ettas story, on the surface, is a story of a lost love and a lost society. The
authors story is one of how memories can be faked and falsified. When Etta speaks,
her words are full of deceit and her memories, which may or may not be true to her, but
are more likely made up by her subconscious to fill in blanks from the true story. She is
portrayed this way so Alexie can show the reader how easy it is to believe even a lie the
reader tells another.

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Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. Dear John Wayne. New York: Grove. Print.

Michelon, Dr. Pascale. "What Are Cognitive Abilities? | SharpBrains." Brain Fitness and
Cognitive Health Authority: Market Research and Advisory Services | SharpBrains.
SharpBrains, 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 8 Oct. 2011.

"Senile - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and
Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.

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