Even in adulthood, it seems, all roads lead back to Walt Disney. Pocahontas was first released back in 1995, but Alicia Elliott is still thinking about its dreamy, torqued, colonized narrative. “When we were kids, we were like, “Wow, Pocahontas is so cool! ” Then you grow up and learn the real story,” she told me in late July over boba tea in Toronto. The real story, in part, is that Pocahontas’s name was Matoaka. She was around eleven when she met John Smith. She was taken away from her community, baptized as “Rebecca,” and brought to England, where she soon died. But they don’t tell you that story when you’re Matoaka’s age, watching her painting “with all the colours of the wind” on VHS.
In the first few pages of Elliott’s new book, And Then She Fell, Pocahontas transforms from a two-dimensional character on television into a delusion of the protagonist, Alice; not only does Pocahontas talk to Alice but she’s argumentative, clever, a little sneering, and woefully direct. “You watched this perverted version of my story all the time,” she says to a teenaged Alice. “Knew the words to all the songs. Even ‘Savages.’ I’ll never understand why Native kids sing along to that one.” Naturally, the depiction of Pocahontas by a Mohawk writer from Six Nations living in Canada will diverge significantly from the story that a team of mostly white people made for Disney almost thirty years ago. It’s a blessing.
Elliott is familiar with making sense of complex stories, adjudicating them anew with clear eyes. Her 2019 memoir, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, tracked Elliott’s experiences with trauma, depression, and her identity as the daughter of a white woman and a Haudenosaunee man. Ever since, she has been a mainstay of Canadian media—and a gutsy one. There aren’t a lot of Canadian writers who would boycott the country’s paper of record, as Elliott did over the Globe and Mail ’s denial of the charge of genocide made by the 2016 to 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Now, at thirty-five, Elliott is publishing her first novel. And Then She Fell is propulsive, heart-wrenching, disturbing, creepy, and, as Elliott put it a few times during our interview, “visceral.” In the book, Alice and her (white) husband, Steve, have just moved to a rich neighbourhood in Toronto with their new baby, Dawn. But while Steve is thriving and Dawn seems to refuse her mother entirely, Alice starts to hear voices and see visions—many of which are menacing and terrifying. And a mild spoiler: it’s a deeply sad book too. To read And Then She Fell is, in many ways, to abandon hope and to replace it with something that’s often muddy but always necessary: the truth. (Periodically, the book is also quite funny, like the chapter titled “She Can Pronounce ‘Hors d’Oeuvres’ but Not ‘Haudenosaunee’?”)
I’ve brought Elliott, who lives in Brantford, Ontario, to Christie Pits Park in Toronto, the location of one of Alice’s delusions in the book. When we meet, it’s the thickest part of summer in the city, when the air feels heavy and hostile, but Elliott comes in like spring: beaded strawberry earrings, holographic eyeshadow that matches her sleeveless knit dress. There’s something sweet and startling about her; talking to her is a bit like eating sour candy. When I tell her that her book had one of the saddest endings I’ve read in fiction, she laughs. If I tell you what she said next, it would ruin the entire third act of the book. It’s worth finding out what happens to Alice on your own.
And once you know a bit about Elliott’s personal history, you’ll likely read And Then She Fell and wonder about the similarities between its plot and its author’s life. Like Alice, Elliott is a Mohawk writer living in Ontario. Alice and Elliott are both married to white men. Elliott, too, had a psychotic break in 2020, when she was in Toronto, right as pandemic restrictions began to ease around the city. “It’s funny we met today because today is the three-year anniversary of my sobriety,” she says. “I remember smoking a lot of weed one night, and I had a whole psychotic blackout. I was already manic.”
Elliott writes briefly about her history of psychosis in the reader’s note of the book’s advanced copies: “There are two moments in my life that irrevocably changed it: when I first became pregnant with my son at seventeen, and when I lost my mind at thirty-two.”
More similarities still: Alice’s mental illness seems to be mimicking what happened to her mother years earlier, though the details of her illness are still mostly a mystery to Alice. “My mother has bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. I’ve seen her manic. I’ve seen her in psychosis,” Elliott tells me. “I had thought, prior to that, I had an idea of what it looked like and so it would be fine. Of course, when it happened to me, everything I had assumed was totally wrong. My mother never spoke to me about it. I watched her, but she never said anything.”
Elliott warned me she might cry when talking about her mother or about her own psychosis. She doesn’t; you could see her tears stop in her throat, giving her already doleful eyes a glassy quality. But her voice always stays steady. “I don’t know why I thought I understood.”
We root for Elliott’s Alice—she’s a young mother, with a fussy baby and a benignly irritating white husband, tolerating the ceaseless microaggressions from her wealthy, academia-bound neighbours in a city that doesn’t seem to like her very much. But though we trust her feelings and anxieties, and though her fear is so potent and so real, we can’t trust her details. Alice is hearing voices, seeing visions, and losing her grip on reality; we can’t always rely on her to tell us an objective truth. Pocahontas never talked to her through that television. What she hears and what’s being said aren’t always the same thing.
“I feel like [Alice’s psychosis] was almost a metaphor for how I was feeling with my family. They would tell me one thing and do another. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone,” Elliott says. There is no real antagonist in the book; struggling with your own memory and fearing that no one will believe your account are terrifying enough. “You still have that memory. When you come out of psychosis, you have no way of going back and saying, ‘What happened there?’ There’s no way to confirm these things, these feelings that you feel, these thoughts you have.”
But Alice’s very obvious delusions are presented to the reader alongside something far more realistic, insidious, and hard to name: the manipulative, predictable racism of neo-liberal rich white people in Toronto. “If you’re used to the way that whiteness operates through this lens of passive aggression, especially people who are well off, you’re attuned to that, so you know it’s just as demeaning and dehumanizing as active, overt stuff,” Elliott says.
And Then She Fell sits in the pantheon of great motherhood narratives, but it’s about more than just the single-timeline battle of being a parent. Elliott’s novel is about how matriarchs have to hold the tethers of the past and the future; the juggle of motherhood is in a kind of multiverse. Alice doesn’t just have to reorient herself in reality; she has to make sense of her own family history and stay tied to the potential of the future—for her daughter, her daughter’s daughter, and onward, endlessly. Alice spends much of the book terrified, but nothing seems to terrify her more than her daughter’s rejection: throughout the book, she just won’t latch to breastfeed. “There’s so much physicality in parenting. It is so gross to be a parent in general,” Elliott says. “I felt like I had been lied to by all of these depictions of motherhood. Even the ones that were like ‘motherhood kind of sucks sometimes’ didn’t talk about all the physical stuff.” Alice tries to fit in, make nice, make good, all for her daughter; she doesn’t always succeed.
But narratives change. The stories we tell ourselves change over time, and our understanding of the truth shifts with them. The Disney version of Pocahontas, after all, is a kind of muted feminist love story. “The one thing I did actually like as a kid about Pocahontas was that she didn’t just go with him. She stayed there,” Elliott says. But of course, it’s just a fairy tale, the kind that erased a real, Indigenous woman. “Because of this dearth, this nothingness of representation, we don’t even feel real because we can’t see ourselves. When they give it to us, how hollow it is.”
Elliott’s work, as ever, reminds us that the truth is a bummer. It’s still worth the pursuit. “We got the one princess,” Elliott says. “But at what perversion of the story? At what cost?”