I am writing this from the same place I met Michael Dorris last year, in Idaho beside the Big Wood River, in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains. When we met he was still a highly regarded man, had a number of bestsellers and beautiful children, honors and gratitude heaped upon him for a life of energetic activism. After he killed himself in April, we in the literary world first reacted with an outpouring of sadness and tribute. But within days, the allegations in the media began, and Michael became this season's Old Testament goat.
Maybe it would all have been sort of strangely exhilarating if he had been someone I didn't know or care about; or if he had been a member of the writing community with whom I felt competitive or jealous. But when you've sat by the river with a man and listened to him grieve the end of his marriage, it's ever so slightly harder to get off on his ruin.
Normally, I enjoy a little group Schadenfreude as much as the next narcissist -- I keep remembering the line of an old poem by Charles Bukowski that ended, "Thank God it's you baby, and not me." But a picture keeps coming up on the screen in my mind, of him with his family outdoors in the winter, the older children making angels with their bodies in the snow. I tried to cheer him up that day by the river, with assurances that all was not lost -- he still had these beautiful daughters. Retrospectively -- if the allegations are true -- I must have seemed like Hayley Mills trying to cheer up Robert Maxwell over a bounced check notice from the bank.
Cottonwood fluffs flocked upward through the sunbeams as if hearing a call, and children ran around the edge of the river like little bankers, gathering stones and pebbles, grasses and twigs. He had to have been in a chronic state of dread by then. The jungle drums must have been beating loudly as we sat in the sun. I remember learning that in Sweden they call 4 a.m. the hour of the black dogs, for those who are awake in the dark, and it must have been the hour of the black dogs most of the time for Michael. If the allegations against him are true, his visible life was secretly one of utter ruin. And yet there is all that good he did for all those poor women and children, in all those benighted households that had no voice except for his. Certainly there are times when I could feed off a story like this -- hero to goat, and oh how the mighty have fallen -- I just normally love that kind of thing, because I participate in the human condition. But I sat with Michael beside the river that day, and now I'm so troubled. I am most troubled by all of my feelings of disgust toward him. He is still an innocent man. Maybe he was the human condition in its gravest perspective, but most of his dark stuff is present to a greater or lesser degree in me, too. I wish I were more like Jesus more of the time, but I'm not. I am more often more like the poem by Carl Sandburg on the wilderness within; that deep down inside me there is a wolf, and there is a lion, too. And if there wasn't, would you want to read the stuff I write?
In Idaho this year, the moon rose so full and burned so yellow that it colored the sky green between itself and the snow-capped mountains. This was where I recently started to hear that all sorts of posthumous tributes to Michael were going to be rescinded, this was when I began to feel most troubled. Everyone suddenly seemed to feel, "Well, yeah. We don't dedicate to, bestow upon, endow in the name of," a man said to do what Michael has been accused of. What about all the good he did, too? Has someone without my knowing it pushed the great delete key on his good works, literary and political? God, the mob reaction is terrifying, like the crowds in Julius Caesar roaring their approval for Marc Antony one minute, then just as loudly for Brutus. But this mob is made up of people like me, people who write, media types, and I do not know many of them who are in any position to judge Michael Dorris.
Don't even get me started on the double lives of writers. You want to hear some really bad shit about damage to spouses and children? You want stories of cruelty, infidelity, child abuse and neglect? I mean, thank you for stopping by, but bore me later -- bore me three weeks from now. Start with me, with nice sober Christian princess me, you've got enough material for a nice long magazine article or two.
Now, if what Michael is charged with doing to his kids is true, it's objectively -- whatever that means -- worse than anything I've done. It's experiences they'll never recover from, that burden them with stuff they had the right not to be burdened with. They had the right to expect their dad to protect them from evil, and instead, he may have perpetrated it against them. But he was my friend, and he was bleeding to death: I think back to the day by the river, and I remember Alan Arkin in the movie version of "Catch 22," hearing the frantic voice over the intercom in his bomber.
"Help him," the voice says.
"Help the bombardier."
"I AM the bombardier."
"Then help him."
And each time this conversation starts up again, we find Arkin getting closer and closer to discovering the extent of the tail gunner's wounds. First he finds that it is in fact the tail gunner who needs help, and then that the man has a horrible leg wound. Arkin bandages it with a real sense of tenderness and purpose, but when he is done, he notices a tiny trickle of blood at the top of the soldier's flak suit. You know even before he does that it's going to be bad. It's going to make the leg wound look like child's play. And of course when he finally unzips the flak suit, 20 pounds of viscera pour out.
No one knew to unzip Michael's flak suit. No one knew how badly he was injured, damaged. But now that stuff is spilling out, I see around me -- and sometimes in me -- a mesmerized and almost pornographic response. Such disgusted rejection! And I want to find less poisoned ground to stand on.
Elie Wiesel says there are some events so heinous that the only appropriate response is to stand before them in silence. But this one is so hard to stop talking about. It's so -- juicy. I mean, thank GOD it's you baby and not me. But in this imperfect world, we only know a small part, and knowing that to be true, it ought to leave room for mercy and it ought to leave room for humility, and I would have to say that I am only now beginning to feel angstrom units of either. I've been having a very noisy judgmental opinion for just about everyone involved, except for all those little children making angels in the snow.
This is one thing I know for sure: Feeling contempt and judgment closes the door on my being able to notice the tendrils or tiny green shoots of redemption or grace that would almost certainly spring up out of this man's sorrow. I don't know how that will happen, but it will, it could, it may. If all the answers were in the world, we wouldn't need to have sought God. If we hadn't -- if you ask me -- we would be fucked unto the very Lord. Because then we would be at each other's mercy.
Maybe Michael just ran out of time. I keep thinking that if he'd lived, he would have found a way to rectify some of the damage he's said to have done in the world. But I don't think he believed in God; most of my friends don't. Or rather they seem to feel that if they can't believe in a God who finds you parking spaces, what's the point?
Here's what I think the point is: that there's no sin too grave to be forgiven. Or there's only one, at least according to old Uncle Jesus. It is to have bad intentions, and refuse to have them lifted. It is to have a total resistance to love, it is to come in kicking and shouting, "Screw you! I'm innocent, I'm fine." A manic-depressive Irishman I know put it, "The only unforgivable sin is to avoid God until you're in good enough shape to fool him."
But I don't believe Michael had bad intentions -- I don't think he was as depraved, say, as the Sean Penn character in "Dead Man Walking," who got lucky and did not run out of time. Lots of people find their way out of all that darkness of double lives. I know a lot of drunks and addicts who came into recovery after a lifetime of bad behavior, all self-justification and self-contempt. Believe me, no one came in on the wings of victory. A lot of people like me came in with not much left of us but buttons and hair, believing that everyone would always hold the bad things we'd done against us. I think this must have been how Michael felt. But all the sober drunks and clean addicts and ex-hookers who were there to greet me just said, No heroes here, and no demons; just us people. Just us people who are accepted exactly the way we are, and the one fly in the ointment is that you'll need to be sober to believe it. In the meantime, we welcome you and have no taste for any excuses you may have, nor any patience for bad words said against you.
I'm almost sure that someday we are all going to move into compassion for Michael, as soon as we are done with all this bullshit. I think we will move into a place where we stand silent before this, humbled, saddened, because lives have been lost, the lives of children, some grown. I'm thinking that I may move toward that place now, and wait for the trunks and satchels to arrive. I know that over and over terrible stories change into something beautiful. A little time must pass. Just yesterday up here, for instance, looking at one mountain peak in daylight, I saw something very masculine, American, a craggy snow-covered peak. Hillsides swelled beneath it like a lion's claw ball, but later, in the moonlight that turned the sky so green, I no longer saw it dimensionally, no longer saw its muscles. I saw instead a pristine mountain, delicate and feminine as Fuji, or a deer.