The anguished life of Michael Dorris

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 2, 1997 - 11:00 PM

In the final, tortured months of his life, Michael Dorris lived one life by day and another at night.

From January through March, his daylight hours were devoted to a nationwide tour promoting his latest novel. But deep into the night, he made anguished calls to his closest friends, distraught over impending charges in a Hennepin County investigation of alleged criminal sexual child abuse.

To all outward appearances, the best-selling Minneapolis author lived an exemplary success story. He rose from poverty to international prominence through charisma, talent and tenacity. He founded Dartmouth's Native American Studies program and became one of the first bachelors in the nation to adopt children.

He worked on behalf of humanitarian causes, championing Save the Children and UNESCO. He focused public attention on fetal alcohol syndrome with his memoir "The Broken Cord," which described his trials raising his adopted son Abel, who had been brain-damaged by his mother's drinking during pregnancy. Abel, who never learned to cross the street in accordance with traffic signals, died in 1991, at 23, after a car struck him.

Dorris' writing, including such modern classics as "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," was widely praised. His marriage to writer Louise Erdrich, whose own rise to acclaim he had shrewdly managed, was a legendary love story of contemporary literature, publicly reinforced with lyrical book dedications that read like valentines.

But his ostensibly idyllic marriage disintegrated, as did his public image as an ideal father. Beginning in December, Dorris' 22-year-old adopted daughter and two of his three biological daughters gave authorities graphic testimony recounting dozens of individual incidents of alleged offensive sexual contact, sometimes supporting one another's charges as witnesses. They also told authorities that they had suffered dozens of separate episodes of physical abuse at their father's hands. The day he learned of his daughters' accusations, he called his friend Douglas Foster, former editor of Mother Jones magazine and said, "My life is over."

Dorris, 52, registered at a cheap New Hampshire motel under an assumed name and killed himself by swallowing three bottles of over-the-counter sleeping pills, drinking several ounces of vodka and fastening a plastic bag over his head. His body was found April 11, the same day he was to have been honored at the 25th anniversary of the Native American Studies program that he had founded at Dartmouth, and the same day he was to have been charged by the Hennepin County attorney's office with criminal sexual child abuse.

His suicide ended the investigation but left many questions unanswered. In its aftermath, each onlooker found a different plot and moral in the author's life. Some read it as a modern Book of Job, a chronicle of undeserved suffering. Others saw a crime drama cut short before justice could triumph. For many of Dorris' admirers, it was a mystery that left them groping for explanations.

Friends and admirers could not reconcile the abuse accusations with the man they knew, even if they knew him only through his compassionate prose. Some who knew that Dorris' marriage was collapsing suggested that the allegations might have been related to his impending divorce from Erdrich.

"He didn't know how to fight the accusations without making things worse," Foster told the Associated Press after Dorris' suicide.

Others were more critical. Longtime family friend Bonnie Wallace, scholarship director of northern Minnesota's Fond du Lac band of Chippewa, called Dorris' public image a "tangled web" that had begun to unravel.

Family friend Mark Anthony Rolo, editor of the Minneapolis-based Indian newspaper the Circle, remarked in the online literary magazine Salon: "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."

Erdrich, 42, never publicly broke ranks with Dorris while he was alive. After his death, however, she described troubled sides of her husband that even his best friends never saw. For years, she told the news media, he had hidden his chronic depressions, showing the world "only the third floor of a building with a very deep basement." Speaking to authorities earlier, she had gone further, calling him a charming manipulator who "can convince people of anything he wants." He had attempted suicide several times, she said.

Since Dorris' death, a new account of his life has begun to surface. It is based on interviews with the couple's friends, neighbors and professional peers; court, police and child-protection records in the Twin Cities, New Hampshire and Colorado; two lawsuits filed against Dorris' estate and Erdrich by their adopted daughter, Madeline, and Dorris' memoirs. (Except where noted, quotes attributed to the late author are from his published nonfiction. Although Erdrich refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, a letter from her to the Star Tribune accompanies this article.)

Four of the couple's five living children, who range in age from 8 to 24, have told authorities that Dorris sexually assaulted them or physically abused them or both. According to their statements to authorities prior to Dorris' death, when they failed to meet his expectations he would explode into rages. He kicked one daughter down a flight of stairs, choked another, and frequently struck them, according to their statements, leaving them with bruises, bloody noses and cut lips.

Dorris stabbed one of his daughters with a fork, bloodying her hand, because she didn't hold her silverware correctly, she told authorities. On another occasion, the girl said, she needed medical attention after he deliberately crushed her fingers in the kitchen door of their Mount Curve mansion.

In statements to authorities, Erdrich confirmed that for years, she knew her husband "beat, hit, kicked, verbally and emotionally abused" their children. He once became so angry, she said, that he grabbed one of their daughters by the hair and ripped a clump from her scalp. She said such physical abuse occurred several times a month, yet she failed to report it until the final months of their 15-year marriage.

Dorris became famous for novels, nonfiction and children's books characterized by what one critic called "a gentleness and compassion that are the very essence of humane letters." The new information characterizing him as a secretly abusive father preoccupied with shaping his reputation casts shadows on the credibility of his often autobiographical work.

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