Michael Dorris: Lessons in Anguish and Drink

I’ve spent the day researching the life of Michael Dorris: reading him, reading about him. And the dark, frantic moral of his story seems to be simply that some lives are unlivable. This is not a comforting thought.

He was an extraordinary writer. No matter what his myriad sins, this man had a way on the page that was gentle and lucid and lyrical. I’ve no doubt it inspired other people to be better than they were, even if he, the writer, was hiding a self so sinister he eventually killed himself (in 1997) rather than be revealed as the Hyde that he was: nocturnally — when he was out of the public eye — an unspeakably monstrous man.

In addition to being an essayist, a novelist, and a scholar, Dorris was the author of a 1990 memoir called The Broken Cord, which is among the loveliest, most heartbreaking books I have ever read. More important, he more than anyone was responsible for publicizing the scourge of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) particularly in Native American populations, and for calling on legislators to enact laws that would make it illegal for a pregnant woman to cripple her unborn child by drinking.

In his 1992 testimony to the Centers for Disease Control, Dorris said:

Unlike so many good people — scientists and social workers and politicians — who have chosen out of the kindness of their hearts and the dictates of their social consciences to become knowledgeable about fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect, to work with their victims, to demand prevention, I was dragged to the subject blindfolded, kicking and screaming. I’m the worst kind of expert, a grudging, reluctant witness, an embittered amateur, and, above all else: a failure. A parent.

I’m a living, breathing encyclopedia of what hasn’t worked in curing or reversing the damage to one child prenatally exposed to too much alcohol. Certain drugs termporarily curbed my son’s seizures and hyperactivity but almost certainly had dampening effects on his learning ability and personality development. Fifteen years of special education — isolation in a classroom, repetitive instruction, hands-on learning — maximized his potential but didn’ t give him a normal IQ. Psychological counseling — introspective techniques, group therapy — had no positive results, and may even have encouraged his ongoing confusion between what is real and what’s imagined.

Brain surgery hasn’t worked.
Anger hasn’t worked.
Patience hasn’t worked.

Love hasn’t worked.

(from Paper Trail, Harper Collins, 1994)

I read this and several other of Dorris’s essays last night, not out of literary or professional curiosity but because I was trying to figure out the motivations of the man.

His words ring true to me, despite everything I know. Despite the allegations by Hennepin County investigators that Dorris abused (sexually and physically) four of his five living children before taking his own life in a New Hampshire hotel room. He was a man who had lost a child — his older son, Abel, whom he’d adopted at the age of three then tended and coached for 20 years — and appeared, for all his egregious sins to be entirely shattered. Grief-stricken, not just because his grown son was hit by a car and killed. But because his life, while he’d had it, had been such an unholy mess.

Dorris reportedly bullied, hit, kicked, and screamed at his children. He probably — though we in the public will never now know — sexually violated his young girls. He tortured the son afflicted with FAS whom he believed (or said he believed) could pay attention if only he tried. Dorris’s conduct was, in the strictest sense of the word, unforgivable. But at the same time, he seemed genuinely bewildered and undone by his inability to help his child.

Today, desperate to understand and learn from the mistakes of those who’ve gone before, I actually contacted Colin Covert, the terrific writer who covered the Michael Dorris story back in ’97 and went on to become the Star Tribune‘s film critic.

An excerpt from Covert’s landmark investigative piece "The anguished life of Michael Dorris":


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.

"What I want to know is, what was your gut feeling at the time, as you
investigated?" I wrote to Covert. "Was Dorris guilty? Was he victimized? Was it a combination of the two?
He seemed — in his writing — to have been wrecked by his own inability
to cure his adopted children. Was this simply hubris turned ugly? Or was it a
father’s grief so dark that it took him over and made him do terrible things?"

I signed my name, then added a postscript. "I am the parent of a profoundly disabled child and I find that as he grows
older — and becomes more intractably impaired — some of the people around him have begun to behave in odd and hurtful
ways. That’s why I ask these unanswerable questions. . . ."

Here’s what I did not say: One family member no longer speaks to me — or to my two younger children — because she faults me for my 19-year-old son’s worsening struggle with autism. And a caregiver my son once loved and counted on has become punishing, hostile, and sporadically cruel, probably because he cannot deal with the fact that his attention did not constitute a cure.

Frustration, fear, and hopelessness seems to have driven these once caring people completely insane. And I am afraid of going over the edge with them. I read Dorris, in part, to remind me. To hold me back from being so jaded that I, too, am useless.

Covert must have sensed some of this in my e-mail. He wrote back immediately, advising me to re-read the piece and draw my own conclusions. Then he added a postscript of his own. "I wish you all the strength in the universe. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers tonight."

It’s amazing to me how much that sentence — coming from a virtual stranger — matters. Tomorrow, there will be a meeting at which we will, hopefully, begin to determine my son’s future. And I will try once again to rally faith that despite all the uncertainty and cynicism surrounding him, he has one to face.

It is ironic, I admit, but I opened a bottle I’d been saving — a 1996 Lyeth Meritage — to help me figure this out tonight. Bottled the year before Dorris died, this is a red table wine that’s aged and acquired a bite, like an old man with a wicked tongue. It’s sour upon first sip, cherry and apple cider and vinegar and, yes, piss. But the finish is smooth and knowing, as the Atlantic surf receding, a definitive end to a wine that’s lived long enough to know how to exit. I like it because it matches my mood, which is both determined and resigned.

It is tempting, as a writer, to act as Dorris did: to use words in order to appear collected and enviable. He did this to his — and his family’s — detriment, I think. Said Mark Anthony Rollo, editor of an Indian newspaper called The Circle: "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."

I decided tonight, after a couple glasses of the Meritage, that it is better to be open, flawed and unsure, rather than covert and vain. Even as a writer, even in print. It is wrong — and dangerous — to put forth a front of heroism while living an addled life.

Perhaps that is the lesson of Michael Dorris. If, indeed, one exists.