The anguished life of Michael Dorris

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 1997 - 5:29 PM

Copyright 1997 Star Tribune
Michael Dorris' suicide in April ended an investigation into allegations of child abuse that shook his public image as a compassionate writer and father. Although many questions remain, a new image is emerging of the complex life and death of this celebrated Minneapolis author. 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.

Although Dorris' writing about his family humbly noted many of
his shortcomings as a parent, it never hinted at violence. But his
son Abel, describing his life in an epilogue to "The Broken Cord,"
cited incidents in which Dorris pushed the retarded boy "face first
into the wall." He said Dorris punished his younger brother by
shutting him alone in his room to cry for hours.

As Dorris' biography began to twist in new directions, some who
considered themselves his confidants acknowledged that there was
much about him they didn't know. Like many others among his
intimates, former Detroit News books editor Ruth Coughlin rarely saw
him in person. "My relationship with Michael over the last 11 years
has been basically over the phone," she said.

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