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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
In many ways, Dorris and Erdrich made an inspired team. He gave
her the structure she needed to create her work, offered her
encouragement and dealt with the outside world. He became her editor
and in time her co-writer, collaborating on revisions until they
agreed on every word.
Dorris also functioned as Erdrich's manager, an unusual role in
literary writing. When his aunt sent the couple a clipping about the
new Nelson Algren Fiction Award only 12 days before the deadline,
Dorris insisted that Erdrich could complete a story on time, even
though they had houseguests and the children were home on school
holiday. At Dorris' urging, Erdrich barricaded herself behind closed
doors and wrote the story at the kitchen table in two days, with him
approving every page. It won the $5,000 first prize.
Among writers of serious fiction, dual authorship is rare.
Erdrich, who came from a large family, accepted the give and take of
her partnership with Dorris more easily than most artists might. The
couple worked so closely that it was often difficult for them to
explain who had written which part or to decide whose name belonged
on the manuscript as author.
Erdrich's attempts to write novels before her relationship with
Dorris had proven to be ponderous failures. She tried again with
"Love Medicine," the intertwined stories of two North Dakota
reservation families, while Dorris' teaching career was stalled and
the couple's first biological child was on the way.
When an agent rejected it, Dorris decided to sell it himself.
As he told the Wall Street Journal, "I figured that chutzpah and my
monomaniacal devotion would work. And it did. . . . I did everything
but open my shirt down to here and wear chains and call everybody
The novel was the surprise winner of the National Book Critics
Circle Award, the only first novel ever to win that prestigious
prize. The Los Angeles Times prize for fiction followed, and the
book became a bestseller. The couple received phone calls from John
Updike, mail from Philip Roth. They were catapulted into national
prominence and began doing unusual joint interviews in which Dorris
did most of the talking.
" Michael was probably much more prepared for the spotlight than
Louise," said Harjo, who believes that the child-abuse allegations
against Dorris are unfounded. "Much of what he did in his life was
geared toward drawing attention" to causes he believed in, she
A shroud of secrecy
Yet another part of his life, according to his family's later
statements, was hidden from view. Weeks before her father's death,
Madeline gave Hennepin County investigators graphic accounts of
sexual abuse that she said her father had initiated before his
marriage and continued for years afterward.
The girl, who was sent to boarding school when she was 12,
never overcame her fear enough to confront him, she said, and never
felt enough trust in Erdrich to seek her help, since Erdrich ignored
Dorris' alleged physical abuse of the children. "Louise was never
really a mother," she told the investigators.
After Madeline was sent away to school in the mid-1980s,
Dorris and Erdrich confided to their friend Lavonne Ruoff that
Madeline had said her father sexually abused her, but they
attributed the accusation to the effects of her presumed fetal
alcohol exposure, Ruoff said.
Over the next decade, the upbeat Dorris and the quiet, poetic
Erdrich captivated interviewers from PBS to the Village Voice. They
sidestepped questions about their private life with generalities.
"We have such a chaotic home life, as anyone with a number of
children does," Erdrich told the North Dakota Review, a literary
That the couple managed to hide the turmoil of their home life
in the era of tabloids, talk shows and gossip columns can be
explained partly by their persuasive skill and partly by the
delicacy with which many journalists who cover literature treat
their subjects. The story, as publishers, TV producers, newspaper
editors, and the handsome couple were telling it, was an uplifting
tale of success that reached beyond the dusty world of bookstores.
Erdrich was approached to sell Gap clothes and soap, and she was
named one of the world's most beautiful people by People magazine.
No one wanted the charismatic pair to have tarnished personal
"It's phenomenal to me that the papers made them out to be the
perfect couple, the ideal couple," said their friend Bonnie
Erdrich, who had spent more than a decade concealing the
alleged turmoil in their household, put it differently in an
interview after Dorris' death: "Some reporters love writing people's
lives into fairy tales."
In 1985, Dorris and Erdrich won Rockefeller and Guggenheim
grants that enabled them to leave Dartmouth for a sabbatical year in
Northfield, Minn., while their New Hampshire home was being
remodeled. They rented a Victorian house next to Carleton College.
The neighbors found Erdrich amiable, though often absorbed by her
work on her second novel, "The Beet Queen." Dorris, who was writing
his first novel, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," seemed guarded and
"When Michael and Louise came to Northfield, they were very
focused on their writing," recalled next-door neighbor Jennifer
Edwins. "We didn't see a lot of them. People in the neighborhood
really tried to respect their privacy."
Said Barbara Bonner, who lived next door to them on the other
side: "They were very reclusive."
Dorris was less concerned with everyday friendships than with
developing relationships in the publishing world. He mapped out his
strategy as if it were a military campaign, showering phone calls
and letters on influential reviewers and authors and sending book
editors personal Christmas cards.
Gradually, Dorris acquired an ever-expanding circle of literary
acquaintances, none of whom knew him at close range. Such was his
talent for creating long-distance rapport that, on the basis of his
amiable phone calls, novelist Robb Forman Dew asked Dorris and
Erdrich to be her children's guardians before she ever met the
couple face to face.
Bonner, a lover of literature who edited the book "Sacred
Ground" for Milkweed Editions, a Minneapolis small press, decided to
get to know the writers next door. She became a close friend,
hearing from them almost daily. The writers sought her comments on
their manuscripts, and Erdrich thanked her by name for her help and
friendship in the acknowledgments of "The Beet Queen."
But Bonner and her husband became troubled by what she called
Dorris' "strict expectations and control of the children." Bonner
was fond of all the children, especially Sava, "a sharp kid," and
Madeline, whom she described as "slow and sweet and utterly
" Michael was very driven to accomplish the goals of his work,"
Bonner said. That meant that the children often took a back seat to
his writing. "The children were not supposed to interfere."
" Michael called me to stop in one Saturday," Bonner recalled.
"Louise was on tour, as one of them always was. It was cold, it was
February, bitter winter. The house they lived in was a big, barny,
drafty Victorian. Michael was sitting upstairs in his study working
on (his first novel, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.") He was very
excited and wanted me to read the newest draft of a chapter he was
working on. All five children were sitting in little chairs with the
most glum expressions I've seen on children's faces in a cold,
unlighted living room, spiritlessly watching a videotape of a movie
about white and Indian conflict. They were sitting there as if they
were in stratjackets while Michael was upstairs writing his
Although Sava was an "angry, rebellious" eighth-grader, it
remained his responsibility to tend to his young sisters and
retarded brother while his parents were busy, Bonner said. When "The
Broken Cord" appeared, Bonner couldn't bear to read Dorris' account
of himself as a devoted father because it was "so duplicitous." She
called Erdrich "a genius" as a novelist, but like many others who
knew the couple in Northfield, she said, she and her husband worried
about the children's needs.
When Bonner made a gesture of concern to the children, she said
Dorris told her, " `You'll have to choose between the children and
While the couple's priorities troubled the Bonners, Sava and
Madeline later alleged that much more severe problems were hidden in
their Northfield home. Sava wrote a letter to Dorris accusing him of
beatings and emotional cruelty that amounted to "torture," a term
his sister Madeline echoed. Among many accusations, she told
authorities that when she was 10, Dorris once pinned her against a
wall of the Northfield house with his hand choking her throat,
lifted her off the ground and pounded his fist into her stomach
because she had cut her bangs without his permission.
The family splinters
In the next several years Abel was placed in a group home, then
with a family in New Hampshire, eventually finding a part-time job
as a dishwasher. Sava, who began clashing with his parents as an
adolescent, was sent away at 14, to boarding schools and Job Corps
programs. He later said, "I hated both of [his parents] so much that
if [they] had not gotten rid of me, things would have gotten worse."
He left school at 17 and began drifting around the West.
Dorris told Madeline, who struggled in public school, that
leaving the house would be a good opportunity for her to make a new
start. She was sent to boarding schools at 12, and in her late teens
returned to the Rosebud reservation, where her biological mother
With their parental burdens lightened, the writers' dual
careers entered a phase of rich productivity. Erdrich continued her
multigenerational North Dakota tales with "Tracks" in 1988. Dorris'
first novel, 1987's "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," was hailed as one
of the finest first novels of the decade.
Buoyed by the success of "The Broken Cord" in 1989, Dorris quit
teaching at Dartmouth to write full time. He and Erdrich co-wrote
"The Crown of Columbus" in 1991, earning a headline-making $1.5
million advance on the basis of a five-page outline. Reviewers
called the novel a disappointing potboiler, but it sold briskly. The
next year, 30 million people saw the prime-time ABC docudrama of
"The Broken Cord," in which Dorris was portrayed by "L.A. Law" star
Although the couple's literary lives thrived, their family was
in turmoil. When Dorris was in Hollywood working on the TV movie,
Abel died after being hit by a car while he was crossing the street.
In 1991, Dorris and Erdrich quietly moved to Kalispell, Mont., to
elude Sava, who had made threatening demands on them for money.
It was in Montana, in 1992, that Erdrich told Dorris that she
wouldn't tolerate his abuse of the children any longer. The rupture
came after Dorris kicked one of their daughters down a flight of
stairs because she was moving too slowly to go clean the basement.
The girl told authorities that he tried to convince her she had
tripped. According to a mandatory report her counselor made to
authorities, the girl said Dorris had warned her not to tell her
mother. But Erdrich learned what had happened and had a furious
argument with Dorris.
She told authorities that she prepared to initiate a divorce,
obtaining a temporary custody order for their three biological
daughters. (A search of court records in Flathead County, Mont.,
where they resided, produced no order for temporary custody nor any
other domestic-relations matters under the couple's names.) She said
she relented when Dorris moved out of the house for several weeks,
agreed to undergo counseling and promised not to strike the children
The couple returned to the New Hampshire farmhouse in 1993.
While they were abroad on a business trip, Dorris retrieved phone
messages to find that Sava had left more threats. According to
Erdrich's statements to authorities, Dorris said, "We can't go
back." In secrecy, they moved the family to Minneapolis in
September 1993, buying a mansion with an elaborate security system
and asking the news media, in consideration of their safety, not to
divulge their whereabouts. They were being stalked, Dorris told the
Star Tribune in 1994, by a sociopath whom they had taken in as a
A month after they moved to Minneapolis, they received a
forwarded letter from Sava written from the Denver County jail,
where he was in custody after beating his girlfriend. In it, he
accused the couple of physical beatings and emotional cruelty and
declared, "You will pay for what you did."
"Think about what we put up with as helpless children, your
abuse. You beat us senseless, you terrorized us" he wrote. "If you
think . . . you will get away with what you did to Abel, Madeline,
and I, you are dead wrong." Sava threatened to hunt down his
parents and "destroy your lives as you did mine" unless they sent
Dorris personally arranged for Sava's prosecution. Rather than
pressing charges through the usual channels by filing a complaint
with the local police or district attorney, Dorris hired Charles
Truman, a renowned Denver criminal attorney and a nationally
recognized specialist in defending clients accused of sexual assault
on children, to bring the matter to the police. When he learned that
his father had filed charges against him, Sava slit his wrists in
Lisa Wayne, the public defender representing Sava, was
skeptical when she took the case. She idolized Dorris for his
sensitive, socially committed writing, and identified with the
heroine of his novel "Yellow Raft," who, like herself, is part
American Indian and part black. Wayne had defended many suspected
child abusers in the course of her career and couldn't believe
Sava's accusations: "I thought, how could Michael Dorris be
She changed her mind after interviewing Sava and Madeline. They
fit the classic psychological profile of abuse victims, she said,
and the more they described Dorris' personality, the more she felt
he fit the controlling, secretive pattern of a child abuser.
Wayne became convinced that Dorris' motive in arranging Sava's
prosecution was "to shut him up. [Sava] was his worst nightmare: a
smart, articulate kid who wanted to tell the world what he did," she
said. She felt that Dorris' occasional assertions that his surviving
adopted children suffered from fetal alcohol effect were a
smokescreen to discredit them if they ever spoke out against him.
The condition has never been diagnosed in either Sava or Madeline,
Sava went to trial on charges of attempted felony theft in
1994. Despite his famous parents' testimony against him, the jury
deadlocked 6 to 6. The Denver district attorney's office took the
case to trial again the following year. The central question was
whether his letter was a genuine extortion effort or an outburst
from a desperate young man whose wealthy parents had stopped
Sava's emotional letter to his father was compelling to the
jury, said Wayne, who again represented him. "Think about what we
put up with as helpless children," Sava wrote. "You beat us
senseless, you terrorized us. . . . and then Louise comes into the
picture. Instead of stopping his abuse, she kicks in."
Wayne used Dorris' own words against him to devastating effect
in the trial. She noted that Dorris had written that Sava suffered
from fetal alcohol effect, suggesting that his threatening letter
was an impulsive act rather than a calculated plot. Dorris, who two
years earlier had written an article on the condition for the
Medical Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, back-pedaled
awkwardly, dismissing it as a theory "that, in fact, I believe most
doctors do not even subscribe to," and denying any expertise on the
Sava was acquitted on one count; the jury voted 11-1 to acquit
him of the other. In one of the most important presentations of his
life, Dorris had failed to make a good impression.
Jury foreman Michael Hancock said most of the jurors felt that
Dorris and Erdrich lacked credibility and believed that Sava's
letter was a "cry for help." The jury felt Sava had been "cast
aside" by his parents and "never had a chance," Hancock said.
The district attorney's office declined to pursue a third
prosecution. After the trials, their friend Harjo said, Dorris and
Erdrich told her they felt as if they had been convicted. Erdrich,
who according to Wayne had acted "like a Stepford Wife" throughout
the trials, began pulling away from Dorris.
In October 1995, she abruptly left their mansion on Lowry Hill,
acquiring "all new clothes and all new friends," according to Harjo.
Erdrich took a studio several blocks away, sharing custody of the
three younger girls. Long after Erdrich's departure, she and Dorris
perpetuated the appearance that their renowned relationship was
unchanged. "They worked very hard at keeping it under wraps that
Louise had left," Harjo said.
Dorris even kept the news of their breakup from his old
friends. NPR's Bob Edwards, who spoke to Dorris frequently, was
"shocked and amazed" when Dorris finally told him of the separation
many months after the fact.
Erdrich went on tour for several weeks in the spring of 1996
to promote her new novel "Tales of Burning Love." Newsday's
interviewer, surprised to see her without Dorris at her side,
inquired about his absence. Erdrich told the reporter that her
husband was at home minding the children.
In view of Erdrich's public comments after his death that she
had known for more than a decade that Dorris was suicidal, Harjo
found it hard to comprehend why she left their children in his care.
"That doesn't jibe with the kind of mother Louise presented herself
as being," she said.
Bonnie Wallace found Erdrich's actions easier to understand.
"Sometimes you have to get out to save your own life," she said.
A surge of accusations
His daughter's Thanksgiving accusation against Dorris was the
first in a long series of abuse allegations that tumbled forth in
the course of last winter's investigation. Madeline and two of
Dorris' biological daughters independently told authorities similar
stories of repeated, prolonged episodes when he fondled their
buttocks and breasts. One of his biological daughters, echoing
Madeline's accusations, said he accosted her while she was in the
shower. Her sister described feeling so sickened by her father's
offensive efforts to touch her buttocks that she rushed to the
toilet to vomit.
Sandi Campbell, Dorris' assistant for most of the time the
couple lived in Minneapolis, said she never saw Dorris violent or
less than loving toward his daughters. But she verified an incident
that occurred years before the allegations against Dorris
In late 1993, shortly after the family moved to Minneapolis,
an employee in their home found a troubling note written by one of
the couple's daughters, hidden in a bathroom closet. It explicitly
described sexual activity between a girl and a man. Disturbed, the
employee showed the note to a co-worker, who agreed it should be
brought to someone's attention. They passed the note to Campbell,
who said she would handle the matter.
In an interview with the Star Tribune after Dorris' suicide,
Campbell first denied any knowledge of the note, then admitted
receiving it. She characterized it as a message to a boy in the
girl's class, "the kind of thing girls do." At the time the note was
discovered, the child was under 10 years old. Campbell refused to
say what she had done with the note or to whom she had showed it.
The investigation begun by the Hennepin County attorney's
office in December stretched into spring, while Dorris charmed
interviewers, obliged autograph-seekers and sat in on English
classes from coast to coast on the publicity circuit for his novel
"Cloud Chamber." As the likelihood of charges loomed, he prepared to
end his life with typical attention to detail. Claiming exhaustion,
he canceled upcoming spring commitments, including a professorship
at the University of Minnesota.
In the shadow of death
Dorris sent his mother and aunts a suicide note dated Feb. 21.
Its contents read, in part: "The apparent withdrawal of kindness
from me by Louise and the fact that at least for now [two of his
daughters] seem to have been turned against me leaves me isolated
and ragged. . . . Please assure my daughters of my undying love.
What happened was not their fault. They were afraid, confused and
influenced, and they are children," he wrote. "The notoriety of a
trial would permanently hurt the girls, destroy my and Louise's
reputation, and my ability to do in future the work that I love."
On March 1, in the midst of his publicity tour, he drew up a
new will in which he stated that he "intentionally omitted any
provision"for Erdrich from his $2.4 million estate. He likewise
disinherited Sava and Madeline, who were living in poverty. Dorris
included former employees and movie stars with whom he socialized.
The first bequest he stipulated - by far the largest to anyone
outside his family - gave his assistant Sandi Campbell $50,000 and a
On March 13, Assistant County Attorney Kathryn Quaintance
and investigator Paul Stanton traveled to Denver to interview Sava
and Madeline in the presence of attorney Lisa Wayne. According to
Wayne, Sava stated that he had witnessed Dorris sexually abusing
Madeline. Afterward, he told Wayne that his father would kill
himself rather than go to trial, Wayne said.
With the abuse investigation gathering momentum, Dorris
returned to Cornish, N.H., so quietly that the town police later
said no one realized he was there. He moved into a cottage on the
property surrounding the family farmhouse, which had been rented
out. Late on the night of March 28, Dorris began consuming the
contents of what he called "the kit" he had assembled: several
bottles of prescription sleeping pills, vodka and applesauce. Nearby
was a large plastic bag and a rubber band to seal it around his
throat. His friend Douglas Foster called by chance and found Dorris
barely conscious. Foster alerted New Hampshire police, who revived
Dorris and took him to nearby Valley Regional Hospital.
Dorris was placed under close observation in a locked
psychiatric ward of the Brattleboro Retreat, a private hospital in
Vermont that treats patients with psychological and substance-abuse
problems. At first, hospital staff accompanied him even to the
dining room. An associate of Minneapolis lawyer Doug Kelley, who
represented Dorris, assured Hennepin County authorities that Dorris
would not be released until April 15.
But Dorris acted the part of a model patient, and security
restrictions were soon relaxed. Dr. Ira Weiner, who treated Dorris,
said Dorris convinced the staff that his suicidal impulses had
On April 10, Dorris, apparently in good spirits, according to a
police report, persuaded hospital officials to let him make an
unescorted trip to nearby Dartmouth to be honored at a program
celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Native American Studies
program he had founded. The hospital granted him a day pass. He left
at 10 a.m. and was expected to return at 9 p.m.
Instead, Dorris took a taxi to the local Avis office, rented a
car and drove to Concord, N.H. He bought three bottles of Nytol
Maximum Strength Cold and Sleep tablets and a liter of Stolichnaya
Gold vodka. Then he checked into the Brick Tower Motor Inn using an
assumed name and false address and hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on
the door of his room.
The cleaning staff found him the following day, dead of
suffocation, a plastic bag fastened over his head. In his pocket,
Concord police found a memo in Dorris' handwriting concerning "pedo
tests" at the Brattleboro Retreat. On a piece of paper torn from a
shopping bag he left a note saying, "I was desperate" and warning,
"Do Not Rescue or I will sue."
He died the night before the Hennepin County attorney's office
was to charge him with criminal sexual abuse of two of his
biological daughters, according to authorities.
"He should have stayed to face the charges," said family friend
Bonnie Wallace. "I'm really angry that he took his life instead of
taking his lumps."
Eulogies and doubts
After Dorris' death, flags at Dartmouth flew at half-mast. He
was eulogized by friends and mourned by countless readers. Erdrich
did not attend his memorial service at Dartmouth in May or the
tribute organized by friends at New York City's Donnell Library in
June. She had Dorris' remains transported to an undisclosed
location. Her lawyers and those representing his estate took the
rare step of arguing in Hennepin County District Court that the
official files pertaining to his investigation, which usually become
public in such cases, should be sealed. The judge granted their
request in May.
Erdrich moved to heal the rift between her and the adopted
children. She publicly praised Sava - whom she had last seen when
she testified against him in court - as a "caring, courageous"
person. She expressed a desire to provide financially for him and
For Madeline, Erdrich's words were too little, too late. On May
29, she sued Dorris' estate and Erdrich, charging Dorris with
repeated sexual, physical and emotional abuse and Erdrich with
negligence for failing to prevent or report it. She also challenged
Dorris' mental competence to draft a new will while in a state of
In June, 24-year-old Sava, who lived in a Denver group home and
worked as a stadium concessionaire, accepted a "substantial"
financial settlement from Erdrich and decided not to join his
sister's suit, said Madeline's attorney, Jeffrey Anderson of St.
Paul. The mansion on Mount Curve in Minneapolis is up for sale, and
Erdrich has moved to another home in the city.
As for how Dorris and his work will be characterized in
literary and social history, the battle has begun. New York magazine
and the Washington Post have already weighed in with lengthy
stories, the former casting Dorris as a monster, the latter painting
him as a martyr.
"When you commit suicide, you give up the right to your own
truth and cloud everyone else's," said Harjo. "A lot of what the
story will be depends on what Louise will write. From here on,
there's only mythology."
At the time of his death, Dorris was working on a sequel to
"The Broken Cord," a family memoir whose opening may reveal his own
despairing perspective during his final months:
"I intended nothing but good, though I expected to be rewarded
with gratitude and love, and I wound up the center of a target. . .
. I was driven temporarily mad and may never fully recover enough to
completely recall the person I think I used to be. . . . I want my
life back. I want my peaceful sleep. I want to fear once again only
those natural human fears."
" `It's not easy being a young person alone at your age,'
Father Tom says, `When you're different.'
`I'm not different.'
`I mean your dual heritage' he says."
- Michael Dorris, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," (1987)
"In truth, I wanted to be a person so agreeable, so charming,
that it would be emotionally difficult . . . to disappoint me.
Anything for a thumbs-up."
- Michael Dorris, "The Broken Cord" (1989)
"I had spent my life reacting, a silver sphere in a pinball
machine flipped against one brightly lit obstacle after another."
- Michael Dorris and Louise Erdich, "The Crown of Columbus"
"(Mother) became very still, closed her eyes, and took a deep
breath at that memory, but then she shook her head, looked into me
the way only she can do, and said that she used to believe she'd
never forget what he had done; but look, she has."
- Michael Dorris, "Morning Girl" (1992)
"Mama sighs and rises slowly and in stages . . . pulling
herself erect with Papa's headstone as support. . . . In my mind's
eye, I can barely reconstruct the man's appearance."
- Michael Dorris, "Working Men," (1993)
"The grind doesn't get easier and it doesn't go away. (Fetal
alcohol syndrome) victims do not learn from experience, do not get
- Michael Dorris, "Paper Trail" (1994)
"Writing as a mother . . . while nurturing an infant . . . to
look full face at evil seems impossible, and it is difficult to
write of the mean, the murderous that shadows mercy and pleasure and
ardor. But as one matures into a fuller grasp of the meaning of
parenthood, to understand the worst becomes a crucial means of
protecting the innocent.
- Louise Erdrich, "The Blue Jay's Dance," (1995)
Q: What allows some characters in "Love Medicine" to survive
while a character such as June dies?
A: They were not abused as children.
- Louise Erdrich, "Conversations with Louise Erdrich and
Michael Dorris," (1994)
"Loneliness or battle fatigue - those were reasons used to
rationalize my father's accident."
- Michael Dorris, "Cloud Chamber," (1997)