ast 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
Some people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was
I will always remember where I was, and what I did, when I discovered that
Michael Dorris was dead.
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.
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.
| CAROL FRANCAVILLA AP FILE |
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
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's shoddy 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
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 to Broken
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
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.