(This essay on Michael Dorris was originally published online on my own blog, and received significant notice in the FAS community and was re-posted in various forums online. Please note that the names of family have been changed in this essay.)


LAST NIGHT, a memorial service for Michael Dorris was held at the New York City public library. Dorris, a prolific writer of prose that carried rare emotional power, committed suicide earlier this year. Yet many of the seats at the memorial service were empty, writes David Streitfield in yesterday’s Washington Post. Dorris committed suicide under a cloud of accusations by two of his adopted children.

Some people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.

I will always remember where I was, and what I did, when I discovered that Michael Dorris was dead.

It is early in the morning on April 10. Enveloped in radio’s peculiar sense of personal revelation, Bob Edwards of NPR tells me that Michael Dorris’ body has been found. They don’t know it is suicide yet; that will come later, in the evening. But in the blue hours of the morning, there is some stress in Bob Edwards’ voice as he reads this news. I stop the car.

[Time Photo of Michael Dorris]


I pace at the side of the freeway. When I get back in the car, I call my mother, who is equally bereaved. We are both crying. And Bob Edwards’ voice continues to be strangely tight, as he reads the same news in the mornings’ repeated radio loops.

I imagine that there was a similar strain last night when Edwards, a friend of Dorris, spoke at the memorial service. After the intervening months, there might be strain for more complicated reasons.

Between April and August, more information about rifts in Dorris’ marriage to poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, and about his often tumultuous relationship with their children has been exhumed.New York magazine recently released a scathing profile of Dorris, detailing many presumed peccadilloes, including exploitation of his children.

Oddly, I feel I know Dorris better than that. I feel I know him in ways that contradict the many half-truths displayed in New York’sshoddy post-mortem. This is partially because of his book The Broken Cord. This profoundly honest book describes his life raising adopted son Abel, who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Michael’s life with Abel was taxing beyond belief. Alcohol in the womb had given Abel severe behavioral and learning disabilities. “I have watched my husband spend months of his life teaching A[bel] to tie his shoes,” wrote Louise Erdrich in the foreword toBroken Cord. Yet when he wrote about it, Dorris gave that life nobility and kindness. Abel later died in an auto accident because he could not remember to look both ways before crossing traffic.

Dorris also adopted two other Native American children, Sava and Madeline.

And I hunger for the book that might have been written about his life with them. Tentatively, Dorris had titled it Matter of Conscience, yet he never completed the work. It may have been impossible for Dorris to sum up his experience with them. Both Sava and Madeline, who are now suing Dorris’ estate for alleged sexual abuse, were early diagnosed with fetal alcohol effect.

Fetal alcohol effect is a much subtler and more insidious after-effect of alcoholism, which often manifests itself in a child’s adolescent and adult behavior. In these lives, alcohol becomes a chemical with a savagely toxic half-life. Sava and Madeline share a history of instability, of pervasive lies, of violence, of suicide attempts, of aggressive behavior, of inappropriate sexual contact.

They share this history with my sister Rochelle, who also happens to be adopted. Rochelle has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol effect.

This is the other way I know Michael Dorris. It is the reason I believe him, despite his suicide.

The Broken Cord helped my mother feel sane once more, which is the reason she was devastated when I told her of his suicide. Fetal alcohol effect, although arbitrary in its impact, often seems to cleanly excise the moral connection between actions and consequences, between rewards and punishments — between right and wrong.

In 1992, Dorris summed up the experience of many fetal-alcohol affected families by noting that over the past four years his family “hadn’t had a single period longer than three consecutive days in all that time when one of our alcohol-impaired children was not in a crisis – health, home, school – that demanded our undivided attention.”

I know marriages that have snapped under the constant tension of living with fetal-alcohol syndrome children, even after they reach adulthood. My parents have suffered through being told that it is their fault that Rochelle cannot pay attention, that Rochelle cannot refrain from cursing others, that Rochelle steals credit cards, doesn’t pay bills, and irrevocably damages other people’s houses and cars, and lives. She does not care about consequences.

It is more than conceivable that one might commit suicide under the twin pressures of a disintegrating marriage and fetal alcohol-effected children. Over the years, Dorris sacrificed himself for his children. After decades, a writer as insightful as Dorris must have seen the destructive potential of such lives as enormously depressing.

In an essay for Hungry Mind, Michael Dorris wrote that life “demands wariness, humility, patience, and the lonely nurturing of a self-image strong enough to stand up to all challengers, whether intentionally malevolent or merely stupid.” Whether malevolent, like alcoholism in all its forms, or merely stupid, like New York magazine, it took an incredible weight of indomitable challengers to finally break Dorris.

Although it’s not necessary to say, I believe in Michael. And I’m looking forward to reading his fourth novel for children, The Window, which will come out in October. According to early reviewers, it is the story of a resilient child who flourishes despite the troubles caused by thoughtless people around him.

        Perhaps this has always been Michael’s last hope for his children.

—   Ned Hayes

A literary update from NedNote.com
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