A broken life

After the suicide of Michael Dorris, dark questions cloud the reputation of this literary saint.

Published April 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it's been said that suicide ends a life, but never a life's story. In the
days since Michael Dorris killed himself on the night of April 10 in a
motel room in Concord, N.H., plenty has been written about the known
facts of this writer's life: Dorris, 52 at the time of his death, was of
mixed-blood -- part Modoc Indian on his father's side, of European
heritage on his mother's. He was raised by his mother and an aunt after
his father's premature death -- possibly a suicide, according to recent
news reports. In 1972 he founded the Native American Studies Program at
Dartmouth College, where he taught off and on for the past 25 years. He
was married to 42-year-old novelist Louise Erdrich, though they had taken up separate
residences a year ago. Together they'd raised six children, three of whom
were first adopted as infants by Dorris -- he was the first single
American male to adopt a child -- and later, after the couple
married, by Erdrich. His many accolades included a National Book Critics
Circle Award for "The Broken Cord" (1989), an account of the family's
struggles with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Many consider his first novel, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water" (1987), to
be among the finest literary debuts of the late 20th century. That's a
survey version of Dorris' life, the stuff of blurbs and obituaries.

His life's story is something else. In the past few days, his family and
friends -- Dorris' circle was immense -- have come forward and spoken,
in part to set the factual record straight, and in larger part because
now that his life has ended, the battle over his legacy has begun in
earnest. Those who knew him, worked with him, loved him, envied him and
even despised him know at least this much: that a writer is made not only
by talent but also by reputation. And Dorris' is currently at stake.
Few doubt that Dorris
had raw talent and the ability to tame it into compelling narratives.
The larger question now is (as it has been with so many American
writers): How could the author of such remarkable books have come to such
a tragic and tortured end?

By now it's no secret that sexual abuse charges against Dorris were about
to be filed in Hennepin County, Minn., where he'd lived for the past
several years with his family. On Friday, at Erdrich's request, Judge
Delores Orey agreed to temporarily seal all records of that
investigation; the decision will be reviewed again on April 25, at which
time all documents should become public -- or made permanently secret.
There's also a gag order in place that bars all public authorities from
discussing details of the case. Mark Anfinson, a media attorney in
Minneapolis, called the ruling "a classic example of the American justice
system, which responds differently to the influential than it does to the
average citizen," though he added that the circumstances around the
situation are obviously sensitive and involve the privacy of a minor.

What's known so far is this: The investigation was apparently initiated
on Dec. 12, 1996, under required-reporting rules by a psychotherapist
named James Fearing, president of National Counseling Intervention
Services, after a meeting late last year with Erdrich and, possibly, one
of the couple's daughters. It's unknown who leaked word of the case to
the media. Police conducted a search of Dorris' Minneapolis home less
than two weeks before his death; among the items seized was a diary kept by one of his daughters.

Looking to corroborate the abuse accusations, local law enforcement
officials recently traveled to Denver, where in 1994 both Dorris and
Erdrich were plaintiffs in what was originally an extortion and later a
felony theft suit against their adoptive son, Jeffrey Sava Dorris, who had
accused them both of abuse, made threats on their lives and demanded
$15,000 from the couple. (Jeffrey's sister Madeline, who was also
adopted, also lives in Denver. Abel, the couple's oldest adopted child
and the subject of "The Broken Cord," died at age 23 after a hit-and-run
accident in 1991. Dorris' and Erdrich's three biological children,
Persia, Pallas and Aza, are in their pre-teens and teens and live with Erdrich.)
While in Denver, the investigators met with Jeffrey and Madeline, as
well as with several lawyers, including Lisa Wayne of the public
defender's office, who successfully represented Jeffrey in the lawsuit brought against him by his parents. Wayne said last week that "because of my time with
these kids, I feel like this suicide is a confession. Michael Dorris is
talking to us from his grave."

No formal child abuse charges were ever brought against Dorris, and as a result of
his suicide, none ever will be. Further, no official determination has been
made as to whether the accusations were true or false. Still, says
Douglas Kelley, who was representing Dorris in the matter and is now
handling his estate, his client was fully aware of the ramifications of
publicity surrounding the case -- not only regarding his professional
stature but the already tenuous relations among his immediate family.

Dorris also had other legal worries. Though
no divorce papers had been filed by Dorris or Erdrich at the time of the suicide, it's
clear that the estranged couple faced a tense settlement concerning child
custody, property, publishing contracts and royalties. It was a battle for which he was ill-equipped, according to some observers.

Dorris couldn't stand the idea of fighting someone he loved so much, said long-time friend Douglas Foster. "He loved Louise till the day he died. He couldn't fight her. He couldn't stand up for himself."

by all accounts, Dorris was severely depressed during the last months of
his life. He had failed in his attempt to reconcile with Erdrich, his
celebrated collaborator of nearly two decades and, in his words, his
"literary soulmate." Sources close to the family say that a
intervention was attempted with Dorris on or around Thanksgiving, after which
the couple's daughters lived exclusively with their mother. In late
winter and early spring, Dorris canceled several engagements due to
"illness," including a keynote address at the 25th anniversary of the
Dartmouth Native American Studies program he'd originated.

On the night of his first suicide attempt, Good Friday, Dorris spoke with
Foster, the former editor of Mother Jones
magazine, who'd struck up a friendship with Dorris in the 1980s and
had published his work. Foster recalled the
lengthy, long-distance conversation between them, which ended when Dorris
collapsed after overdosing on vodka and prescription
pills at the New Hampshire farmhouse he'd once shared with Erdrich. "I was trying to buck him up. I told him that all his
friends would stand by him during the legal battle," Foster recalled.
Dorris told him, "It's too late for that --
I've decided to take another option." Foster said that Dorris then
"lapsed into unconsciousness while I was still talking to him and he dropped the
phone. I immediately called the New Hampshire State Police and they broke
into his house, rushed him to the hospital and they pumped his stomach.

"Michael said he was completely innocent of the (molesting) charges he feared were coming," continued
Foster, who is now director of school affairs at UC-Berkeley's school of journalism. "He died so that the feeding frenzy which has taken
place the last week wouldn't happen to him and his family. He was
mystified and bewildered in his final months. He was in and out of
suicidal thoughts. He had just started to come to
terms with life after divorce when the second blow fell" -- that of the possible
allegations in Minnesota -- "and it was far more devastating. He called me the day he learned that some type of allegation would be filed against him and he told me, 'My life is over.'

"He felt
helpless to defend himself against these charges without paying an
enormous price. He was worried that the public revelations of the charges
and his fight against them would destroy his family and his reputation --
everything that he had done and built up for the past 30 years.
Everything would be destroyed in the feeding frenzy he knew was coming.
He thought that no matter how much he fought, people would still believe
that where there's smoke there's fire."
Foster added that the experience Dorris and Erdrich had with the legal system when they filed suit against their son in Denver convinced the author that he would never find absolution in the courts. "He had no faith after losing the extortion trial in Denver that the criminal justice system could deal with an intensely personal matter. After his son won the case, Michael ended up feeling that he and Louise had been put on trial."

For his part, Foster finds the child abuse charges against Dorris "inconceivable --
though I know this is what friends often say under these circumstances.
The person I knew wouldn't do anything to harm anyone. At age 52, there
was a boyish, gentle quality about him. I mean, here was a man who in his
suicide note apologizes to the hotel maid for the inconvenience he's
causing her. That such a person who was so magnanimous, gentle, ebullient
and caring would have a dark side ... well, maybe. But I just consider it
highly unlikely."

A few months ago, Dorris wrote an essay for the Minneapolis Star Tribune
about his family's wrenching battle with fetal alcohol syndrome, which afflicted all three of his adopted children. He ended with the following lines, which he said would be the beginning of his
forthcoming memoir, "A Matter of Conscience," a kind of follow-up to "The Broken Cord."
It's an odd, haunting bit of prose,
particularly in light of the events of the last several days:

"I am society, and my life is in threat. I believed I could alter fate.
I tried and failed, in process with lapses of patience and with anger,
and ultimately because I had no choice but not to give up. I intended
nothing but good, though I expected to be rewarded with gratitude and
love, and I wound up the center of a target ... I was driven temporarily
mad and may never fully recover enough to completely recall the person I
think I used to be. I tried to save three lives: Maybe I didn't try hard enough. Maybe they were unsaveable. One is gone. One is lost. One is a danger to anyone within his line of sight. I wish I had reconciled earlier to the impossibility of my goal...I want my life back. I want my peaceful sleep. I
want to fear once again only those natural human fears. I wish my adopted children to achieve amnesia, or better, to remember the entirety of their lives with me. I want them to be well."

Following the publication of "The Broken Cord" in 1989, Dorris won great
respect for his role as the father -- first single, then married -- of
Native American kids suffering from FAS. Abel, the book's subject, had
been adopted at age 3 from a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Not much
was known, medically or anecdotally, at that time about the condition, or
what to expect when parenting a FAS child. Dorris' work put FAS on the
map. It also won him a coveted National Book Critics Circle Award and was subsequently made into an ABC-TV
movie that aired in 1992. The book was dedicated to Erdrich "who shares
this story, who joined me in its living and telling, who made us whole"
and to their "brave son." After Abel's death, friends describe Dorris'
grief as being nearly unbearable.

Some friends say that Dorris went to New Hampshire last month not only for
solitude but to be closer to his son's grave. "That would make sense,"
said Mark Anthony Rolo, editor of the Minneapolis-based Native American
newspaper The Circle and a friend of the family. "Whenever Michael talked
about that boy, he nearly came to tears. He told me that Abel came to him
in dreams. That he visited." Rolo also suggested that for Dorris, the
trip back may have been laced with a desire to return to a time less
volatile, less chaotic -- a period when the author's
marriage to Erdrich was widely characterized as "the literary love story
of the decade." A time, Rolo theorized, when Dorris was still in control,
and could still measure up to his idealized likeness in public.

"One crucial thing to understand about Michael is that image was, if not
everything, then of utmost importance. He carried a great deal of anxiety
with him always -- that he be seen as a nearly sainted father, that his
literary reputation be above tarnish. In the last year, Michael was
terrified that news of his marriage breaking up, of the case in Denver,
of the ugliness around his depression, would ruin his good standing. He
was very disappointed that his new book, 'Cloud Chamber,' didn't do as
well as 'Yellow Raft'; he'd wanted that badly and -- given his immense
ego -- expected that. Add to that these abuse charges.

"He spent an
inordinate amount of energy -- you could see it as an obsession -- on
keeping up what some have called his facade. Near the end, as he was
going down his dark road, he may not have had the strength or the will to
do it anymore. Michael started falling apart, I believe, when the chasm
between his public persona -- which was in a sense fictional -- and his
self in private life just couldn't be reconciled."

That public persona was built over the
course of three decades. Dorris seemed to be a success at nearly
everything he attempted: He graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and
Alpha Sigma Nu in 1967 from Georgetown University, and in 1971 he earned
a master's degree in philosophy from Yale. He won multiple literary
awards, and served on the U.S. Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality in
1992. He published 14 books beginning in 1977, including two that were
co-authored with Erdrich, and over 100 magazine articles and essays. He
taught as a full professor in the Native American Studies Program and the
Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth between 1972 and 1989, and as an
adjunct professor there ever since.

It was at Dartmouth that Dorris and Erdrich first met in the mid-1970s.
She, the oldest of seven children and a registered member of the Turtle
Mountain Chippewa tribe, was one of the first women admitted to the
college. She was also his student, though the couple didn't become
romantically involved until three years later. Dorris was instrumental in
getting Erdrich's first book, "Love Medicine" (1984), published; it too
won a National Book Critics Circle Award. As anyone who's followed their
dual careers knows, the two shared an extraordinarily complex and
prolific working relationship. Over the years, they co-wrote the novel
"The Crown of Columbus," several magazine pieces, and a screen treatment
for director Sidney Pollack. In all, their reputation for literary
collaboration -- to the point of it resembling what they called a Vulcan
"mind-meld" -- was of nearly mythic measure.

In January 1986, while on Rockefeller and Guggenheim grants at Carleton
College in Northfield, Minnesota, Dorris gave a local reporter an inside
look at their partnership. "We sit in different rooms" he said -- his in
front on the second floor, hers in back with room for then 2-year old
Persia and a playpen for 8-month old Pallas in the corner -- "and put
down words on paper, and then after a couple days we exchange manuscripts
and the other person goes to work, suggesting changes and rewordings. And
even before that process we talk out the characters ... Whichever of us
is going to have their name on the book puts down the words."

Foster described the two as being "thoroughly entwined. Every page each
one of them wrote went through the other's computer." It was a working
style both Dorris and Erdrich celebrated, even bragged about, publicly --
one that was romanticized by more than one critic and disparaged by
others who claimed that he wrote her books and vice versa. More to the
point, Foster went on, "It was a uniquely intimate connection, so the
breakup was uniquely painful. It was not only the end of a long-time
marriage with three young children, it was the end of a richly creative
relationship." Even after their separation, the couple continued to read, edit, and critique
each other's work.

While the couple's literary lives were intertwined almost until the end,
their marriage was not the idyllic match presented to the public. Erdrich told the New York Times last week that "Michael was suicidal from the second year of our marriage." She finally left Dorris, Erdrich said, in part because of the emotional burden he placed on her.

There are indications that Erdrich too has been plagued
by suicidal thoughts.
In a 1993 Harper's magazine essay titled "A Woman's Work," she wrote
about how motherhood and depression can often be entangled: "Most days, I
can't get enough distance on myself to define what I am feeling," she
wrote. "I walk through a tunnel from one house to the other. It is dark,
scraped out of the emotional mess of life, as gray and ridged as an
esophagus. I'm being swallowed alive. On those days suicide is an idea
too persistent for comfort. 'There isn't a self to kill,' I think, filled
with melodramatic pity for who I used to be. That person is gone. Yet
once I've established that I have no personal self, killing whatever
remains seems hardly worth the effort. For those dark and stupid days I
have developed a mantra to ward off the radical lack of perspective that
is also called depression."

There were other rifts in the marriage, according to some friends.
"Keep in mind," Rolo
said, "that Michael really hated living in Minnesota, out here in what he
called the sticks, away from the literary hub. Louise, on the other hand,
felt like settling here was a way of coming home. She wanted out of the
limelight, out of that East Coast, high-brow lifestyle. He went for the
glamour, she wanted the privacy. His depression was escalating, and her
desire to move on made a break not only in their marriage but in their
ability to work together. It was almost inconceivable to Michael that the
great public love affair of contemporary literature was going to ruin. He
loved the pure idea of it, and I'm certain that when it started coming
apart, so did his identity."

And now, in the days after his suicide, the struggle to define Dorris' legacy has begun.
"What a shame," said one of Dorris' Native American friends, who asked not to be identified. "Michael's whole life was evidence that the
legacy of oppression, agony, and heartbreak within the Native American
community wasn't enough to silence their stories. And now, the story he
himself was living is silent."

Erdrich has voiced hope that her late husband will be remembered,
despite the abuse allegations, with dignity. "I think that by the time a
year goes by, I think a great deal of healing will have taken place in
all of our lives," she told the New York Times. "All of Michael's children will be able to
embrace one another."

Even those who had bitterly opposed Dorris have tried to view him with charity in recent days. "You know, we're all so human in this," said Lisa Wayne, Jeffrey Sava Dorris' attorney, measuring her
intense personal dislike for Dorris against his sad ending.
"Those of us watching it unfold from the outside have a need to live with
order. Things must make sense. My client has told me that, for him, the
house he grew up in was a house from hell and the Dorris of literary fame
-- the one he himself created in his books -- was pure fiction. Still, he
had many dimensions, some of which I'm sure were truly compassionate,
some of which may have been shameful. We all must make peace with this
death in our own way, and I hope each in the days and months to come will
be as honest about doing that as possible."

Wayne added that Erdrich left an
extensive message on her voice-mail Friday morning, asking for the lawyer's help
in "being a mother to each of my children, in making amends to our son,
and trying to cure the family's terrible pain."

Over the weekend, rumors have been circulating among those close to Erdrich that another bombshell about Dorris' private life is about to drop,
though no one will comment on its nature. If there is indeed another such damaging revelation, Dorris' fears that his legacy would be irreparably tarnished might turn out to be well-founded. But his friends pray this is not the case.

"I hope Michael was wrong," says Foster. "I hope his legacy will not be about his suicide and the disturbing allegations, but about how he spent 30 years building Native American literature and studies; how he identified and promoted talent, not least of whom was Louise Erdrich; how he was a beautiful stylist and writer; and how he almost singlehandedly brought into existence a national movement against fetal alcohol syndrome out of the grief he felt about the damage that had been done to his three adopted children. He was a model of the socially engaged writer."

By Josie Rawson

Josie Rawson is a staff writer for City Pages in Minneapolis.

MORE FROM Josie Rawson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Sexual Abuse Suicide