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.
Pondering this painful new version of Dorris' life story, some began to suspect that his most audacious work of fiction was his own public image.
A troubling journey
As Erdrich later told authorities, it was while driving two of her biological daughters back to Minneapolis from a family gathering last Thanksgiving in her hometown of Wahpeton, N.D. that she learned the full extent of Dorris' alleged abuse.
She had abruptly moved out of their home in October 1995. By the end of last year, her celebrated marriage to Dorris had sundered. She had hired an attorney and was moving toward a divorce. Dorris was despondent during her absence, according to friends, and his mood worsened as each reconciliation attempt failed. He suffered from insomnia and began drinking heavily.
Although Erdrich knew him to be subject to suicidal depressions and outbursts of violence against their children, she shared custody of the three girls.
It was in health class that one of their daughters saw a "good touch, bad touch" video that prompted her to speak out during the drive home from Thanksgiving. She said her father had touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable, Erdrich later told authorities. The daughter later informed authorities that her father's disturbing behavior had been going on for about three months.
When she returned to Minneapolis, Erdrich did not question Dorris about the accusation. She told him that his problem was alcohol and demanded that he seek therapy, so in hopes that Erdrich might take him back, he told friends, he entered Hazelden on Dec. 4 for alcoholism treatment.
Erdrich reported her daughter's story to Minnetonka psychotherapist James Fearing, who on Dec. 8 notified child-protection authorities, as required by state law. Within a week, Minneapolis police began their investigation.
Michael Anthony Dorris was born in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 30, 1945. He was the only child of an ethnically mixed union: Irish and Swiss descent on his mother's side and Modoc Indian, French and English on his father's.
His father, Army Lt. Jim Leonard Dorris, who was stationed in Germany, died in a Jeep accident in December 1946 near the Austrian border. Mary Burkhardt Dorris, a practicing Catholic, never remarried. She used part of her late husband's insurance money to help buy a small house that she and Michael shared with her sister Marion and their mother.
Aunt Marion stepped into the void left when Michael's father died. She pitched baseballs to her nephew and read him children's books, took him horseback riding and sat by his sickbed. Michael sent her a card every Father's Day.
By his own account, Michael was "a very lonely kid." According to University of Chicago Prof. Lavonne Ruoff, an authority on American Indian literature who had a close relationship with Dorris since 1971, he felt that "being raised by three women was difficult, as loving and even worshiping as they were."
Ruoff said Dorris expressed his youthful alienation in semiautobiographical passages in "Cloud Chamber." "I felt so isolated," he wrote, in the voice of a character growing up in virtually identical circumstances to those of Dorris' childhood; "so gagged, so stifled in the limited range of emotions they sanctioned, so wrapped in protective plastic."
Dorris often felt marginalized because of his mixed background: "I was either the wrong color or the wrong attitude, the wrong accent or the wrong religion, wherever I happened to land," he later recalled. "What attachments beyond my family I formed were to books." He fell in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" novels, whose encounters between settlers and Indians sparked his curiosity about his Indian ancestry. That fascination grew when Michael was sent away to spend summers with relatives on reservations in Washington and Montana.
Michael felt like an outsider on those visits. At powwows, he was self-conscious about his curly brown hair, green eyes and pale complexion. Yet, listening to his relatives reminisce about his father helped Michael fill what he called "the baffling, enduring blankness of a missing parent."
Since he clearly possessed extraordinary potential, it was decided that Michael would become the first Dorris to attend college. The family economized to send him to the best parochial schools it could afford. He repaid the group investment by studying diligently.
The Christmas before he turned 14, his gift was "much more than I'd hoped for -- a secondhand office typewriter, tall and shiny black," he recalled in a 1987 memoir. Writing was a cornerstone of his life even then. He felt "lonely and hopelessly weird," he wrote. "Everyone I knew seemed to be part of groups that were closed to me."
Beginning in seventh grade, however, he amassed far-flung acquaintances through the International Friendship League, a pen-pal club. The world map above his bed bristled with colored pushpins, and throughout high school, stacks of mail from overseas confirmed that "I had more friends than anyone I knew, and I was secure in their affections."
In 1963, Dorris entered Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he made his first serious effort at creative writing. Stung when a classmate compared his efforts to the comic strip "Mary Worth," Dorris didn't write another word of fiction for 15 years.
Dorris graduated with honors, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1967, proceeding to graduate study at Yale University in theater history. It was during this period that his mother confided that his father's fatal auto accident in Germany probably was a suicide.
That news "hit him hard," said Suzann Harjo, director of the Morning Star Institute, an Indian cultural organization, and a friend of Dorris' since college. "With any kind of suicide, you're angry at the person who commits suicide, because they left you," she said. "And you weren't enough -- good enough, smart enough, tall enough, whatever -- to keep them around, to help them. That's how it hit him."
Dorris' reaction contributed to his decision to leave theater studies for cultural anthropology and research American Indian life, Harjo said. He wanted "to gain disciplinary tools to better recover truth from shards of the past," she said.
A different 'truth'
Sometimes the truth wasn't good enough. In 1989, with his writing career well established, Dorris read a poignant essay on National Public Radio about his father's war experiences. He implied that his father had died in battle rather than by his own hand after the war was over.
Dorris told NPR's listeners, "My father, a career army officer, was 27 when he was killed, and as a result, I can't help but take war personally. . . . His willingness to die for his country may have contributed in some small part to the fall of the Nazis, but more in the way of a pawn exchanged for its counterpart, a pair of lives eliminated with the result that there were two fewer people to engage in combat. . . . The fact of my father's death . . . obliged me to empathize with the child of every serviceperson killed in an armed engagement."
Many in Dorris' circle knew that his father sustained his only serious wartime wound at a ballgame when a fellow soldier, excited over a home run, accidentally shot him in the leg. None of Dorris' friends challenged him on the deception, which he later repeated in published essays, but some friends later said it troubled them.
"I could never understand that," said his friend Bob Edwards, host of NPR's "Morning Edition," who was not involved in Dorris' misleading broadcast. "He shouldn't have done it. I was always telling him he should write about the way his father came through the war without a scratch and then took his life. That was a hell of a story."
Said Harjo, "He presented it as their family wanted it to be."
A 19th-century Plains Indian male was expected to pass out of adolescence by entering the woods and experiencing a vision that would explain his role in the world. Dorris was familiar with the lore of such vision quests and employed strikingly similar terms to describe a life-altering experience in 1970.
He was conducting his first anthropological fieldwork in remote Tyonek, Alaska, studying the effects of offshore oil drilling on native life. His poor grasp of the local language, the desolate location and his status as an outsider left him feeling isolated in the tight-knit community. He "reached bottom" in his solitude, he recalled in "The Broken Cord," and decided "to do something about my loneliness."
He "imagined vaguely" that he might someday marry, although at 25 he had no prospects. In any event, marriage wasn't his main goal. "I wanted a baby," he realized -- an American Indian child -- and he wanted it immediately. "The message was so certain, so unwavering, that I never once questioned it."
Adoption officials did question his desire to be a single parent. Although his Ivy League credentials were impressive, it was all but unheard of 25 years ago for a bachelor to adopt. Conscious as always of others' appraisals of him, he strove to create a good impression "as though I were being observed through one-way mirrors."
In 1971, Dorris' application was approved. Shortly after becoming an assistant professor of anthropology at Franconia College in New Hampshire, Dorris adopted a 3-year-old Sioux boy he named Reynold Abel. His caseworker warned that Abel was retarded, but Dorris felt he could nurture the boy to recovery.
Dartmouth hired Dorris to run its new Native American Studies program in 1972. The college was founded "for the education of Indian youth and others," according to its 1769 charter, but had graduated only a handful of Indians among thousands of others. In 1972 it began recruiting Indian students, including a Turtle Mountain Chippewa named Karen Louise Erdrich.
Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minn., and grew up in Wahpeton, N.D. Like Dorris, she came from an ethnically mixed marriage: Her father was of German descent, her mother Chippewa. She was more thoroughly grounded in Indian life than Dorris had been. Her grandfather had been tribal chairman, and both her parents taught at the town's Bureau of Indian Affairs school.
High school classmate Gerald Vipond remembers Karen, as she was then called, as a "genuine, warm, exceptional woman" highly regarded but "not too proud to hang out with a chess nerd," as he called himself. She seemed destined to achieve important things. Vipond, now a high school counselor, recalled taking her for a drive one evening when she announced, "I think I want to be a famous writer."
Erdrich and Dorris met in the fall of 1972 on the day they began their Dartmouth careers, she as an undergraduate, he as an anthropology instructor and head of the Indian studies program. By her junior year, Erdrich had an impressive reputation on campus and beyond, receiving the American Academy of Poets Prize.
During his first years at Dartmouth, Dorris basked in Abel's affection and enjoyed most of the daily housekeeping routine. He told friends that his responsibilities as father and academic made dating impractical, yet he wanted a larger family. In 1974 he adopted a 2-year-old Sioux boy whom he christened Jeffrey Sava, and the following year, a 2-month-old Sioux girl he named Madeline Hannah.
Dorris and his children settled in a cabin outside Cornish, N.H., a Yankee farming town known for respecting residents' privacy: Reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger has lived there undisturbed for decades.
Dorris gradually found himself besieged by the demands of balancing family and career. In "The Broken Cord," Dorris wrote that he would leave Abel and tiny Sava alone "for hours on end" while he sat "reading and taking notes for my lectures."
Abel developed violent seizures at age 4 and required constant attention. Dorris still believed he could bring the boy along, but conceded that he needed help. He persuaded his graduate student Jack Stokely to move in with them as a sitter. Dorris' friend Ruoff recalls the relationship between Dorris and "Uncle Jack" as a long-running squabble, with Dorris complaining that Stokely didn't give the children enough nurturing attention.
Dorris and Erdrich, who shared the background of one-quarter Indian blood and Catholic upbringing, developed a passing acquaintance at Dartmouth, where, as Erdrich told Newsday, she felt at sea among so many people of other backgrounds. After her graduation, they exchanged Christmas cards during her tenure as a poet in the North Dakota schools. They continued to correspond throughout 1980, when Dorris took the children and Stokely to New Zealand on a year's sabbatical.
Soon they were exchanging weekly letters. He sent along manuscripts of the fiction he had begun writing, and she reciprocated.
After the year abroad, Dorris and Stokely parted company. Dorris eagerly returned to Dartmouth, where Erdrich would soon begin her appointment as a writer-in-residence.
A sad inheritance
Thanks to optimistic reports by his teachers, Abel entered fourth grade at 10. But he had no real grasp of the schoolwork and failed to connect with his classmates. In eight years at school, he never received a call or an invitation to play.
Dorris did not understand the permanent, irreversible nature of Abel's affliction until 1982, when he learned about a little-known condition called fetal alcohol syndrome. While he was in the womb, Abel had suffered incurable mental retardation caused by the alcohol in his mother's bloodstream. (In years to come, Dorris occasionally suggested that Sava and Madeline suffered from a milder form of the condition called fetal alcohol effect.) Nonetheless, Dorris insisted that Abel could improve if father and son made the necessary effort.
"I don't think it was an ideal marriage. What was amazing to me was that they lasted as long as they did. The stress was just constant. Louise said that she was looking at her diary once and realized that over a four-year period, there was not one day without some kind of emergency or crisis over the kids."
Lavonne Ruoff, who has known Dorris since 1971.
Ruoff, who had adopted an American Indian daughter with the syndrome years earlier, recalled Dorris' exasperation as he tried to teach his elder son the multiplication tables. "He said, 'I know he could get it if he'd concentrate.' I said, 'That's just what he can't do.' "
While facing seemingly insoluble problems at home, Dorris was under pressure at Dartmouth, which demanded a constant production of academic papers. He worked obsessively. He taught extra courses. He made himself available as a mentor to any student who sought him out -- a practice he continued throughout his life, offering encouragement to scores of aspiring writers and even strangers who turned to him for advice. He lobbied successfully to boost Indian enrollment and retire Dartmouth's demeaning unofficial mascot, a caricature of an Indian warrior.
Dorris' immersion in his work stemmed in part from his desire to present himself in the best light. "One crucial thing to understand about Michael is that image was, if not everything, then of utmost importance," his friend Mark Anthony Rolo told Salon. Dorris "spent an inordinate amount of energy -- you could see it as an obsession -- on keeping up what some have called his facade," Rolo said.
Bonnie Wallace agreed: "He had to present himself well, as a professional and in the part of the loving husband."
In "The Broken Cord," Dorris detailed his elaborate preparations for meetings with social workers, tribal elders or anyone else who might pass judgment on him.
For a meeting with a New England child psychologist, he chose his wardrobe as if for a play. "The effect I sought was 'professional colleague,' and so I did myself up as I imagined an urban psychologist might dress" in a navy blazer and paisley necktie chosen "to produce a mild, vaguely upscale and pedantic impression."
For a trip to his friend Bea Medicine's home on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, he grew his hair to his shoulders and costumed himself in traditional powwow shirts and vests, but was careful "not to self-advertise with too much turquoise or beadwork."
Although he played many roles, Dorris often seemed ill at ease in them. When Medicine's mother welcomed Dorris into her tribal family, he felt "presumptuous, embarrassed, isolated. No vest or polka-dot shirt, no long-grown hair or academic knowledge gave me rights here. I was a dry pond, a hollow bowl, a person who could be anyone because I was no one."
He was someone on campus, however. By 1979, he was a full professor and chair of the Native American Studies program. But money was tight and his nerves were on edge. Ruoff said that she saw her friend "explode" that winter when two of the children lost their mittens.
Managing the home became more difficult by the day. Abel couldn't focus on any household task for long, so the burden fell to his younger brother. Sava set the dinner table, then took the dirty dishes to the sink. If baby Madeline cried while their father was busy, Sava was responsible for soothing her. Years later, in an angry letter to his parents, Sava accused Dorris of erupting in fury if he fumbled his chores, beating him or locking him in the basement for a week.
Ruoff spoke of an occasion when she baby-sat for Dorris' adopted children. Madeline was crying before nap time. As she recalled it, Sava ran anxiously to her side and said, "We never let the baby cry. We never let the baby cry."
The family gets married
Dorris' correspondence with Erdrich was his closest brush with courtship as he approached his mid-30s. He described his desire to marry her in terms like those he had used for his vision of fatherhood.
"We had never been out on a date, had never said a non-oblique word of affection to each other. I knew her better through her fiction than through any real time spent together," he wrote in "The Broken Cord." "All I could think of was to propose marriage."
But he proceeded cautiously: "I didn't want her to decide I was crazy, didn't want to scare her off." The handsome, articulate professor and the would-be writer talked late into the nights, sticking to impersonal topics, he recalled in his memoir. Gradually, they became so comfortable together that, within six months, matrimony seemed inevitable.
In October 1981, Erdrich not only married Dorris, she also married his children: In a willow grove near the 18th-century farmhouse that Dorris had bought near Cornish, they were playfully pronounced husband, wife and family by the same judge who handled Erdrich's formal adoption of the three children a year later.
"I don't think it was an ideal marriage," said Ruoff. "What was amazing to me was that they lasted as long as they did. The stress was just constant. Louise said that she was looking at her diary once and realized that over a four-year period, there was not one day without some kind of emergency or crisis over the kids."
The adopted children's special needs accounted for only part of the problem. As soon as they were married, Erdrich later told authorities, she realized that Dorris was deeply depressive, and often infuriated to the point of kicking and punching the adopted children.
If they ate too fast, Abel wrote in "The Broken Cord," Dorris would step up behind them and squeeze their cheeks until the food spurted across the table. When, as a kindergartner, Madeline lost a gold earring on the sprawling lawn, she told authorities, Dorris forced her to search the grounds all day, threatening that unless she found it, she would never play outdoors again. She told authorities her father sometimes spanked her until palm-shaped welts appeared on her buttocks. Afterward, he would sometimes apologize, or tell the children that they had misunderstood or exaggerated what really happened. Erdrich told authorities that he never struck her, only the children.
In public, Dorris concealed his emotions, Erdrich told reporters after his death, and as long as they stayed together, she protected his secrets. She may have felt sympathy for his emotional state. As she has noted in published essays, she also knew the "private hell" of depression.
"From the beginning, in living with Abel, anger has been inextricable from love, and I've been as helpless before one as before the other," she wrote in her introduction to "The Broken Cord." She told authorities she initially believed that the blame for Dorris' outbursts lay with the adopted children, whose special needs she felt pushed her husband to his wits' end. She never filed a police report about the child beatings she said she had witnessed.