Jesse Thistle, FROM THE ASHES

Jesse Thistle, FROM THE ASHES

Professor and author Jesse Thistle joins Zibby to talk about his bestselling memoir, From the Ashes. Jesse shares how different the overwhelmingly positive reception of his life story has been from the way he used to be perceived, how he believes indigenous people can begin to heal centuries of generational trauma, and what he plans to do next. Jesse also asks listeners to do two simple things in his honor: “Go buy a homeless person or someone down on their luck a meal. Ask them their name.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jesse. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jesse Thistle: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

Zibby: Your story is sensational and moving and amazing. When my daughter didn’t want to go to school this morning, I was telling her all about your book and your story and the turnup and the beer in the fridge and the foster home. It’s just unbelievable, the stuff as a young child you had to — and the stuff in your mom’s pages and the bed from the Macy’s catalog, oh, my gosh. Jesse, I can’t believe your life. I truly can’t believe it. It’s unbelievable.

Jesse: Yeah, I’m lucky. Really, it’s the life of a lot of indigenous people in Canada. I’m just one of thousands. I have to be humble and know that my life might seem extreme to you, but to other indigenous peoples, they recognize and see a lot of their uncles or their aunties or grandparents’ story in mine.

Zibby: Still, the fact that there’s a lot of pain doesn’t make any one person’s pain any less. Obviously, you’re not the only one. Do you attribute your history mostly to that, to being an indigenous people of Canada? It could be more of a drug addiction story or the effect of drugs or the effect of young parents who aren’t — it could be a lot of factors. When you look back, what do you attribute it mostly to?

Jesse: I inherited a very traumatic history from my, what are called Michif or Métis. We’re mixed-blooded people that had our own political consciousness and fought against imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have that trauma. They stole everything from us. They stole our land. They murdered the bison. Then they put us onto what are called road allowances. They are public strips of land that we had to squat on because they wouldn’t treat with us. They didn’t give us treaty. Because we were such a martial force, they wanted to destroy our nation. That’s what they did. You’re seeing a glimpse of that at the beginning of the story. I’m on the road allowance with my grandparents. They’re trying to explain it to me, but I don’t really understand. I wrote it that way because that’s how I looked at it as a kid. It wasn’t until I came years later and looked at my history of my mom’s people that I understood, hey, this trauma’s been bequeathed to me. I’m not talking about epigenetically. I’m talking about, socialization over time became dysfunctional. Misogyny, alcoholism, addictions, abuse, all these things are responses to massive stress over time. Then they pass it.

Some of the literature I draw off of is actually second-generation Holocaust survivor families. They talk about, that’s who started this. Native people have just taken those theories and applied them to their lives and say, hey, this is actually true for us too. That’s one vein. Then if you look at my father’s life, he’s really the catalyst for when everything goes wrong. He was a white dude. He had ancestral Algonquin roots, but he knew himself as a white guy. Really, the early, what’s called ACE, adverse childhood experiences, that happened in foster care, that happened with abuse and whatnot was because of his decision. He was an addict. Now I’m doing my dissertation. I started tracing back his lines. I saw, holy cow, he comes from Gaelic people that were displaced in Cape Breton. They were displaced in what’s called the Highland Clearances back in Scotland. That trauma reverberated through time to my father. All these things are converging and who I am. I know what happened to me. With that comes a clarity, an acceptance of history. To change it, it’s up to me. Those are all the competing narratives. All the other things that you mentioned too, addictions play into it, family dysfunction, toxic masculinity. All these things are a part of my story. That’s real life. It’s not one vein. It’s multiple. They converge and crisscross all through the story.

Zibby: Your story is so inspirational because you’ve pulled yourself through and out and over and everything. Yet there seems something very depressing about the idea that so many people have inherited — think about everyone’s past history. If everybody feels the inherited trauma of their people who have been displaced, the mass amounts of suffering, it’s almost hard to grasp that we could all just function with all of this heaviness. What you said about the Holocaust, I’ve been fascinated with that for years. In fact, way back in college, and now I’m pretty old, but I took a whole class on, what is like to be the child of a Holocaust survivor? What is that like? What do those people write about? How do the grandchildren function? It’s something I’ve been personally very invested in and obsessed with over time. Now inherited trauma has become a buzzword of sorts now that people have identified this as a thing that happens. How do we collectively — this is kind of a giant question. I don’t know that it has an answer. With all of that out there, how can we change it? How can we disrupt that narrative and make it so that — yes, we are here where we are, but how can other people, and entire groups of people, try to overcome this? It sounds maybe overly simplistic, but it just seems very depressing.

Jesse: These are some interesting questions that arise when we’re talking about trauma. We’re like, well, how come indigenous people can’t heal from this trauma where two or three generations out, Jewish populations seem to be recovering? What’s the difference? I look at work done by a Lakota Sioux scholar. Her name is Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. She talks about how trauma needs to be witnessed and understood by the mainstream so that the people that suffered the trauma can grieve publicly. They can come together. It makes meaning of their suffering. It’s valid. It has a purpose. Instead of it being a victim narrative, then it becomes a survivor narrative. We survived this, not, we were victim of colonialism. This hasn’t happened for indigenous people. It has happened, certainly, for Jewish people. Look at all the plethora of movies about the families and the books that have been written about the Holocaust. This hasn’t happened for indigenous people.

When I lecture about this, I give an example. Canada, here, World War I was really, really traumatic for our country. We lost a whole generation of young men. It was senseless. They were sent to the slaughter, basically, for the British Empire. In the years after the war, the country was reeling. They couldn’t make sense of it. To publicly grieve, they created something called Remembrance Day. This is what they’re doing. That’s what it is. We’re saying, oh, they died for this reason, collectively for our freedom. They sacrificed. The families actually have some sort of sense out of what they’ve gone through. I say for my people, especially the Michif or the Métis, people don’t even know that we exist, so how can they know about our trauma and what happened to us and help us publicly grieve? There is no public witnessing then. By and large, this is just starting to happen for indigenous people. Up here in Canada, we just found a bunch of bodies and graves that indigenous people were talking about for years at residential schools. If the country’s just now coming to realize this, we’re just at the beginning of the public grieving. We’re just gathering our truths right now to share them. It’s a long process. This is going to be generations, I believe. I’m part of the early conversations towards this public grieving and healing.

Zibby: Don’t you feel this enormous responsibility?

Jesse: No. I kind of do, but I kind of don’t too because I just don’t care, really. I just had an opportunity to share my life. Other people are making something of it that — maybe it means something more to them. For me, I was just sharing my truth to get it off of my back, basically, and so I could live and function and so people could understand my brother or my brothers who have mental health challenges. They’re suffering from trauma. Without this book, it just looks like they’re aggressive and mean online. That’s not who they are. They’re just suffering from what happened to us. In that respect, it is a great responsibility because I’m representative of my family and my people and myself. In the same token, I can’t care what people think about my life. For some people, it will be shocking. Some people, it’ll tear away their façade of what they think a just society is or what our institutions are there for and who they protect. You see all the different institutions I come in contact with. None of them had my back. I almost died. We’re supposed to be Canada the benevolent. That just didn’t exist for an indigenous person in my era. It’s a great responsibility, but I can’t care too much about it. That would shut me down right from the beginning. It’s too great of a weight to carry.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry. I know you don’t need my one little empathy. Reading your story, my heart just absolutely broke for you and thinking about your brothers. After some of the things, it’s like, of course, how can you not grow up without serious effects on yourself? How can these experiences not damage the person? What do you need to then overcome these things? Why do you think you are here having written this book? Now your career and all of this, why you? Why could you do this? Why can everyone not do this? What did you find deep inside you or whatever? Is it your makeup? I’m always fascinated with what makes one person able to survive something horrific, whereas the next person suffers in totally different ways from it.

Jesse: This keeps me up at night. I have survivor’s guilt. Why did I survive? I get emails every three or four months of someone from my past who’s died. They used to be a lot more frequent. They’re getting thinner and thinner. That’s because no one’s left. I’m one of the last ones. I don’t know. It was luck. There’s no other way that I can say that. I could try to want to claim responsibility, but it was the way that the court system plucked me from jail when I was sober for the first time in a while. I knew the opportunity. I took it. That was me, by chance, by reference of a friend, calling this place and getting in there. You ever hear that song “Lucky Man”? It’s the same group that did “Bittersweet Symphony.” I put that on in the morning. I listen to that because I know it was by chance alone that I survived. I’m no better. It wasn’t a bootstrap. I didn’t pull myself up by my boots. Really, what happened was once that court plucked me out of the system, an institution wrapped around me for the first time. They started building relationships back up. In those relationships, I met my wife. I found pride. I found education. I theorize in a lot of my work that I do, the opposite of addiction and homelessness is not sobriety and being put in a house. It’s love. That’s why I wore this shirt. Home is love.

Zibby: Home or hope? Home?

Jesse: Home. Home is love. It’s that simple. Everybody knows that. This is not a revelation. What I’m talking about is I believe in what’s called relationships first alongside housing first. We need housing. No doubt. We also need those relationships of love and trust and community that wrap around us that give us meaning. I was lucky to find that. I can’t say that I was searching for that. I knew to take advantage of it because my life had been so desolate before that.

Zibby: Wow. How has your life changed since writing this book and it becoming a number-one international best seller and all this stuff? Suddenly, your private pain and your experience is now so out there. How has life changed for you?

Jesse: It’s incredible. It’s gone global. Like you said, it’s gone right around the world. Each country picks out something different. In America, they focused on race. It’s all on my race and being indigenous. North America’s actually like that. In Europe, it’s more about recovery, in England. Continental Europe, it was more about, here’s someone that was homeless that became a professor. In Asia, South Asia, it was more about the adoption story for some reason. They were more interested in connection and stuff like that, especially in Vietnam for some reason. Each country focuses on something different. Like you were saying, there’s all these threads. When you tell your truth, the universals just come to the fore. People will pick. Life is life. They can see themselves in your life. It’s changed in the most unreal way. When I drive to work in the morning or to pick up my morning coffee, I get spotted at the stop sign. That happened to me. We’re talking about five AM where no one should be up. Hey, there, it’s Jesse Thistle. I’m like, oh, shit. I haven’t had my coffee. Sorry, I didn’t mean to swear.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Jesse: I haven’t had my coffee yet, so I have to be friendly. It happened when I was at the spa. There was this group of women that were trying to come over and talk to me. It’s just so weird because you got to contrast that against what I was. I was a homeless addict in and out of jail. People would literally step over top of me while I was trying to catch their attention. Now everybody’s lining up to listen to me. I don’t know how to take that. What I’ve actually done is I’ve just shut down. I’ve receded to myself. I’ve taken care of what’s important in my home because I know that that’s real. All that out there, it’s nice, but it’s really not beneficial to me, in a way. I sound really bad here.

Zibby: No, no, not at all.

Jesse: It’s made my circle much smaller, the people that I trust, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Of course, it makes sense. I think anytime people suddenly change how they feel about you, it just implies that they didn’t really necessarily know you before. Yes, of course, you have to trust the inner circle when all of a sudden it feels like, who knows what people want and what parts of you they want to talk to? It makes total sense.

Jesse: That’s right. It never ends. I’ve got a hundred million cousins now, literally. I’m related to half of Nova Scotia, all of Northern Ontario. The whole of the western provinces somehow are related to me that I didn’t know about. You could’ve helped me when I was on the street. That would’ve been really nice. Now that I’m on the other end of it — anyway, I can’t be bitter if I look — that’s a part of resentment. That gets you sick and keeps you in addiction. I forgive everyone and move forward with a clean slate.

Zibby: Lovely. What was the actual experience of writing this book like for you?

Jesse: It was cool. I sat down to write in August 2018 or ’17. I had it finished by the middle of November. The book took three months to write.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh.

Jesse: What I would do is I’d sit down in the morning. I’d get up at four thirty or five thirty. I’d write for two or three hours. Then I’d send that off to my editor, Laurie Grassi at Simon & Schuster. If it was good, then it came back with some edits and comments and questions. If it was crappy, then it just kind of disappeared into the ether. That was her polite way of saying, this is not good enough for the book. We did that the whole way along. That’s how the book came. Laurie said I’m literally the fastest writer that she’s ever worked with. The book has been on the charts now here in Canada six times or eight times longer than it took to write, which is crazy. It was a stream of consciousness. It just came out of me. When I went to go to edit in the morning, that’s when I knew I was done. That’s when I’d send it off. A lot of the stuff is unedited in the book. That’s just how it came out of me. That’s not to say that Laurie didn’t have a — she was the one who arranged the metanarrative and all that stuff. She did edit it. That’s how the book came about. It was a lovely process. I got to meet three-year-old me, eight-year-old me. I got to relive my first love, the first time I broke a girl’s heart, my rave days back in the nineties. All these things, I got to look back at and see the totality of it and learn I’m not such a bad guy. I just had a lot of bad experiences. I didn’t have the best lot in life or hand in cards.

Zibby: Did you think you were a bad guy?

Jesse: Oh, yeah. My record certainly says so. I’m sure there are a lot of police and judges who probably still think that. There’s one moment in the book where I had the choice, choose that life or choose justice. I chose justice when it mattered most, when nobody else was there. I stood up. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t that bad of a person. We have a political leader here. His name’s Jagmeet Singh. He’s one of the leaders of the party. The person that I stood up for was actually his uncle. He was a young man when that happened. He was with the cab driver the night that he got murdered. The family had begged him not to go out. I didn’t realize this until years later when someone from his NPD contacted me and said, “Man, you did a solid for their family.” Then I started talking with them. When it mattered most, I did do the right thing. I’m no hero either. I think anybody with a brain would’ve done the same thing.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie? This feels very cinematic. Do you want it to be a movie?

Jesse: I don’t know how much I can share here. We’re in negotiations right now. Someone has an option, but the option’s going to run out soon. If anybody knows optioning and moviemaking, it’s a whole long process. It’s very expensive and a lot of different parts in it. We’re hopeful. We’re hoping something happens. Their option runs out at the end of the year here. I don’t know if you can make a movie in that short of time, so if anybody’s interested in the future. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Zibby: We’ll see. What happens now with life? You go on. You’re a professor. Where do you go from here? Where do you go from this moment where your book is just everywhere? Your story is there. You’re trying to live your life. What happens next for you?

Jesse: I’m at a crossroads in my life, actually. I always remember the story of Achilles. I think Minerva came to him. She said, you have the option to go to Troy and achieve immorality, but you will not come back, or you can stay home. No one will ever know who you are. Your legacy will live on through your family. You can’t do both. I’m not going to Troy. I’m going to stay home. I’m going to read. I’m going to be a professor. I’m going to melt back into normalcy and just teach people about indigenous history because that’s really what got me to the ball. I’m not going to step on her toes. That’s what’s most important to me. I’ve been charged by my elders in Saskatchewan to be a knowledge keeper. If it’s all about me, which it has been because of this book which was total accidental, then I lose that really more important community role. That’s my dream. I want to be a father. My wife is pregnant right now. She’s due on December 12th. I want to end that cycle of trauma in my family life. I want to be a good, upstanding provider that my dad wasn’t. I think that’s the best way that I can apply myself. I might not be as famous as I would if I went to Troy, but I think I’ll be happier in the long run, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Do you have an amazing therapist, or is this all coming from you?

Jesse: I don’t know. I have a trauma therapist, but we’ve never talked about what I’ve just talked with you about.

Zibby: Wow. Your approach and your articulation of it, it’s amazing and inspiring. It’s really what’s important in life. This is it, your whole thing about love and home and even this crossroads because what’s left at the end anyway?

Jesse: It’s love, right? It’s love. That’s what you’re going to die with. That’s the only thing that you’re really given in this world. I want to honor that. You honor that by showing that. I could say that. Love is shown by taking my kid to hockey at six AM on Saturdays when I don’t want to go. That’s where the real expression of love is. I want to do that. I want to go canoeing in Algonquin Park with my daughter and do those things. I can’t do that if I’m off at Troy fighting a battle that’s not mine.

Zibby: Yes, amazing, oh, my gosh. What advice would you have for an aspiring author?

Jesse: Just know that writing a memoir is like throwing a hand grenade into Christmas dinner. If you’re going to write a memoir, you’re going to suffer massive damage. Truths will be told. Family members will abandon you, but you’ll have a close retinue of people that come to support you. Those are your real friends. Those are your real family. It’s a great crucible. It cuts away all that crap, all those crap people. Then you’re only left with the good. Be fearless in what you’re telling. Don’t try to make people look bad. Don’t be accusatory on purpose, or angry, because that’ll just shut your reader down. Just tell your truth. Just show it without resentment in your heart. It’s always the most powerful and impactful way to communicate with people.

Zibby: Love it. Wow, Jesse, it’s really been just such an honor to even talk to you. I have so much respect for you. You don’t miss the plot. You get the big picture. This is it. You’ve cut to the heart of life and what’s important. It’s really refreshing to hear. Bravo to you. Not that you need my tiny, little bravo in the chorus of accolades. Your decision to stay inward and stay where your feet are, and after overcoming all this stuff in particular, it’s just really, really awesome.

Jesse: Thank you. Can I ask something of you?

Zibby: Of course. Yeah, sure.

Jesse: Or any of your listeners, if you can. It’s simple. I ask people to do two things for me. Go buy a homeless person or someone down on their luck a meal. Ask them their name. That’s it. Just do that for me. It means a lot to be seen.

Zibby: Amazing. Okay, I will. Thank you, Jesse.

Jesse: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Jesse: Buh-bye.

Jesse Thistle, FROM THE ASHES

FROM THE ASHES by Jesse Thistle

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