Remembering Michael Dorris

Friends and colleagues celebrate the writer's life -- and take issue, sometimes angrily, with those who have raised dark questions about it.

Published June 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"Leave-taking, I've decided, is quite beside the point. Memory, though, is not." These were the words of historian Simon Schama, speaking at a memorial service Tuesday evening at New York's Donnell Library for writer Michael Dorris, who killed himself in late April. The service, which followed one held earlier this month at Dartmouth, where Dorris was an adjunct professor of Native American studies, was attended by close to 100 of Dorris' friends, family members and colleagues, and featured a series of testimonials from a range of figures in the publishing and media world.

With his simultaneous acknowledgment of the impossibility of reconciling oneself to an untimely death and his insistence that remembering is a necessary and valuable project, Schama aptly described the mood of the service as a whole. Dorris' friends adopted a tone that might be termed celebratorily mournful, capturing the full weight of Dorris' absence by talking about the pleasure they had taken in his presence.

Even as they remembered their friend, the speakers challenged -- in some cases subtly and in others more explicitly -- the wave of bad press and scandal that followed Dorris' suicide. It's almost certainly true that one memorial service is very much like another. Grief may be always original, but the words we use to express it are not. But this service seemed different, as much a reaffirmation of Dorris and of his friends' faith in him as it was a memorial.

The Michael Dorris who emerged from his friends' recollections was, unsurprisingly, a complicated figure. A committed activist and a serious novelist whose early work, in particular, was well-received critically, Dorris was also a man obsessed with the business of buying and selling books. Bill Shinker, his publisher at HarperCollins, described Dorris as "a dream author" who could, nevertheless, be "maddening as hell to work with." For Shinker, Dorris was at once a "real operator," a man who served as his own agent, publicist and marketing director, and someone who retained "a naive, even childlike quality about him" long after he had become famous.

More tellingly, the speakers at the service stressed Dorris' thirst for human contact, his appetite for conversation and exchange. They described a man who needed people, perhaps, too much. Kate Wimmer, a producer at ABC's "20/20" who met Dorris while producing a segment on fetal alcohol syndrome (the subject of Dorris' book "The Broken Cord"), said of him, "He needed talk the way others of us need food or need air." What Wimmer left unspoken was the question, "What happens to someone who needs talk when the person he most wants to talk to leaves him?" Schama answered that question: "I think in the end he could not imagine a life without the woman he loved best of all." Dorris' wife, Louise Erdrich, left him almost a year before the suicide and had custody of their children.

Schama, the evening's most eloquent and moving speaker, spoke most explicitly to the responsibility he felt for Dorris' decision. "I curse my sluggish obtuseness, my cowardly laziness," he said. While Schama described Dorris as a man of "incredible douceur," he did not shy from the torment that must have racked Dorris at the end of his life. In those last months, Schama said simply, Dorris "was certainly in deep water."

Erdrich did not attend the service, but a letter from her was read. In it she wrote of her attempts to figure out how to speak to "our children" about their father's death, and suggested that each time the story was told it came out differently. "His death," she wrote, "leaves us gasping."

Hovering over the service, of course, was the specter of the barrage of negative stories that filled the pages of the national press in the weeks after Dorris' suicide, stories that included allegations of child abuse, revelations about Erdrich's decision to end their marriage and rumors about other scandals in Dorris' past. ( Salon ran a story about these charges and rumors.) If Dorris' suicide was, as some have suggested, an attempt to spare his family the ordeal of public examination, it obviously failed. But those who spoke on Tuesday were resolute in their insistence that recent press accounts offered only a reductionist and distorted picture of their friend's life. Schama was visibly upset at the idea that Dorris, whom he described as "trying to find the good or at least the saving complexity" in things others had long since abandoned, should have "his innocence called into question." Erdrich, meanwhile, suggested simply that Dorris' existence added up to "much more than the notoriety and confusion of the last few months."

The strongest attack on the media came from Bob Edwards, a reporter for National Public Radio who befriended Dorris after meeting him on an early book tour (curiously enough, Edwards and Dorris had also gone to the same high school). "In the last month, there have been more positive words printed about Timothy McVeigh than about Michael Dorris," Edwards said. He labeled the recent stories "fiction," while blasting "the media buzzards and the lawyer buzzards" who were circling over Dorris' grave. As a counter to "the man the revisionists have invented," he offered a vivid picture of a man invested in the minutiae of the everyday, a man dedicated to his family, a man who "loved everything about being a writer."

One might say that Dorris' suicide stands as mute testimony to the fact that the picture was more complicated than that. But one suspects that enough has been written about Dorris' shadow side. On this day, for his friends, it was a time for remembering something different.

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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Native Americans Suicide