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Michael Dorris

Compassionate voice for the disadvantaged

Michael Dorris

This page is dedicated to the life of Michael Dorris. Reading his work gave me many hours of pleasure and enlightenment.The world is a much poorer place without him. I grieve his passing. Read A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, or The Broken Cord if you have not encountered him. A conversation with Daniel Bourne about Yellow Raft

His own words from a memoir he was working on before he died.

"I am society, and my life is in threat. I believed I could alter fate. I tried and failed, in process with lapsed patience and with anger, and ultimately because I had no choice but not to give up. 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 tried to save three lives: Maybe I didn't try hard enough. Maybe they were unsaveable. One is gone. One is lost. One is a danger to anyone within his line of sight.

I wish I had reconciled earlier to the impossibility of my goal… I want my life back. I want my peaceful sleep. I want to fear once again only those natural human fears. I wish my adopted children to achieve amnesia, or better, to remember the entirety of their lives with me. I want them to be well."

The words of his friends:


It was late on the night of April 11th 1997 when the phone rang. It was the time of night when those who call usually do so because they need to share something so important or so sad that it cannot wait until another dawn. The news was tragic. Michael Dorris had been found dead in Concord, New Hampshire.

Earlier that day we had been restocking our shelves with some of Michael's historical novels for younger readers--Guests and Sees Behind Trees. Gentle, informative and always life-affirming--like his first book for children, Morning Girl--his stories have always held a special place in our hearts, have touched and will continue to touch the lives of many. Above our own desk is a pre-publication copy of Sees Behind Trees--his own reading copy--that Michael signed and gave us when we saw each other a year ago at a conference for reading teachers. We remember how there, as always, Michael spoke not just of his own work, but of the lasting strengths and the integrity of American Indian cultures. We shook hands then and we told him Wlipamkaani, nidoba. Travel well, my friend. We knew how hard the life of a famous person can be, too often on the road, too often envied as much as praised, too often made distant from others by success.

We could still see the edge of sadness in Michael's face. That sadness had been there since his adopted son Adam had been struck and killed by a car while walking home from his first job. Adam's brief life had inspired Michael's controversial and needful book on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum, The Broken Cord, and the TV movie based on Adam and Michael's story was just being completed when the accident took place.

Before we go further, we should say that we did not know Michael well. Although there was respect and friendship between us, we saw each other only a handful of times. It was more of a link through his good-hearted work, that strong strand he wove into the web of contemporary Native American writing that touches so many of us. Pluck one strand of that web--or break it--and we all feel it. So it is that we feel the loss of his life, a life filled with energy and accomplishment, but a life we now know to have been far too short. It was wrong that his life ended this way.

Ironically, this weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Michael's founding of the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth, an anniversary marked by a conference which was to have begun with a keynote speech he was to have given. There was so much light in the life of Michael Dorris, so much hope that others gained from him. He was a man who cared and the caring spirit of his work remains.

We think of his family and we pray for them, for his wife, Louise, and for the children who will no longer be able to hold their father's hand or hear his voice carried on the wind of breath. We worry that their own lives might be touched more deeply by something done in a moment of despair and depression than by all of the good that Michael brought into the world with him and shared with such goodness and grace. Hold on to that good, believe in that goodness.

There will be those, friends and family, those whose love for Michael goes beyond his breath, who will always ask why, who may wonder what they might have done to prevent this, who may feel sorrow or guilt or anger. We cannot measure or take away their pain. Only love and time and forgiveness can do that. Remember what our grandparents taught us. The end of a life may come in a heartbeat, but the drum of that heart sounded for a long long time before its final beat. Remember how much music it brought to our lives, how its echoes will last. --Joseph Bruchac

Michael Dorris, an award-winning author of French Modoc and Irish ancestry, received an undergraduate degree in Michael DorrisEnglish with honours from Georgetown University and a graduate degree in anthropology from Yale. He founded the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College, where he taught for fifteen years.

Dorris's previous novels include the critically acclaimed A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, which has sold more than 500,000 copies, and the bestseller, The Crown of Columbus, co-authored with Louise Erdrich.

His non-fiction books include, The Broken Cord, named Best Non-Fiction of the Year by the National Book Critics Circle and focused national attention on a much misunderstood disorder, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Dorris is also the author of three novels for young adults: Morning Girl, winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Guests, and Sees Behind Trees. Other Books and Anthologies featuring the work of Dorris include: A Circle of Nations, Voices and Visions of American Indians, Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories, Growing up Native American: An Anthology, The Lightning Within: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Fiction
Photo: Carol Francavilla AP file

An Elegy: Believing in Michael Dorris

July 29, 1997

Last night, a memorial service for Michael Dorris was held at the New York City public library. Dorris, a prolific writer of prose that carried rare emotional power, committed suicide earlier this year. Yet many of the seats at the memorial service were empty, writes David Streitfield in yesterday's Washington Post. Dorris committed suicide under a cloud of accusations by two of his adopted children.

Some people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.

I will always remember where I was, and what I did, when I discovered that Michael Dorris was dead.

It is early in the morning on April 10. Enveloped in radio's peculiar sense of personal revelation, Bob Edwards of NPR tells me that Michael Dorris' body has been found. They don't know it is suicide yet; that will come later, in the evening. But in the blue hours of the morning, there is some stress in Bob Edwards' voice as he reads this news. I stop the car.

I pace at the side of the freeway. When I get back in the car, I call my mother, who is equally bereaved. We are both crying. And Bob Edwards' voice continues to be strangely tight, as he reads the same news in the mornings' repeated radio loops. I imagine that there was a similar strain last night when Edwards, a friend of Dorris, spoke at the memorial service. After the intervening months, there might be strain for more complicated reasons. Between April and August, more information about rifts in Dorris' marriage to poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, and about his often tumultuous relationship with their children has been exhumed. New York magazine recently released a scathing profile of Dorris, detailing many presumed peccadilloes, including exploitation of his children.

Oddly, I feel I know Dorris better than that. I feel I know him in ways that contradict the many half-truths displayed in New York's shoddy post-mortem. This is partially because of his book The Broken Cord. This profoundly honest book describes his life raising adopted son Abel, who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. Michael's life with Abel was taxing beyond belief. Alcohol in the womb had given Abel severe behavioral and learning disabilities. "I have watched my husband spend months of his life teaching A[bel] to tie his shoes," wrote Louise Erdrich in the foreword to Broken Cord. Yet when he wrote about it, Dorris gave that life nobility and kindness. Abel later died in an auto accident because he could not remember to look both ways before crossing traffic.

Dorris also adopted two other Native American children, Sava and Madeline.

And I hunger for the book that might have been written about his life with them. Tentatively, Dorris had titled it Matter of Conscience, yet he never completed the work. It may have been impossible for Dorris to sum up his experience with them. Both Sava and Madeline, who are now suing Dorris' estate for alleged sexual abuse, were early diagnosed with fetal alcohol effect.

Fetal alcohol effect is a much subtler and more insidious after-effect of alcoholism, which often manifests itself in a child's adolescent and adult behavior. In these lives, alcohol becomes a chemical with a savagely toxic half-life. Sava and Madeline share a history of instability, of pervasive lies, of violence, of suicide attempts, of aggressive behavior, of inappropriate sexual contact. They share this history with my sister Rochelle, who also happens to be adopted. Rochelle has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol effect.

This is the other way I know Michael Dorris. It is the reason I believe him, despite his suicide.

The Broken Cord helped my mother feel sane once more, which is the reason she was devastated when I told her of his suicide. Fetal alcohol effect, although arbitrary in its impact, often seems to cleanly excise the moral connection between actions and consequences, between rewards and punishments -- between right and wrong.

In 1992, Dorris summed up the experience of many fetal-alcohol affected families by noting that over the past four years his family "hadn't had a single period longer than three consecutive days in all that time when one of our alcohol-impaired children was not in a crisis - health, home, school - that demanded our undivided attention."

I know marriages that have snapped under the constant tension of living with fetal-alcohol syndrome children, even after they reach adulthood. My parents have suffered through being told that it is their fault that Rochelle cannot pay attention, that Rochelle cannot refrain from cursing others, that Rochelle steals credit cards, doesn't pay bills, and irrevocably damages other people's houses and cars, and lives. She does not care about consequences.

It is more than conceivable that one might commit suicide under the twin pressures of a disintegrating marriage and fetal alcohol-effected children. Over the years, Dorris sacrificed himself for his children. After decades, a writer as insightful as Dorris must have seen the destructive potential of such lives as enormously depressing.

In an essay for Hungry Mind, Michael Dorris wrote that life "demands wariness, humility, patience, and the lonely nurturing of a self-image strong enough to stand up to all challengers, whether intentionally malevolent or merely stupid." Whether malevolent, like alcoholism in all its forms, or merely stupid, like New York magazine, it took an incredible weight of indomitable challengers to finally break Dorris.

Although it's not necessary to say, I believe in Michael. And I'm looking forward to reading his fourth novel for children, The Window, which will come out in October. According to early reviewers, it is the story of a resilient child who flourishes despite the troubles caused by thoughtless people around him.

Perhaps this has always been Michael's last hope for his children. -- Ned Hayes

There is a kind of soulless reporting that defames the dead. I had previously posted a few reports, but have dropped them. Jeffrey Anderson who is suing Dorris' estate on behalf of his FAE daughter Madeline would certainly be near the top of our Bad Lawyers list if we lived in Minnesota! The smarmy social worker(s) who incited Madeline and Jeffrey to make the allegations are beneath contempt and if I knew their names I'd print them. Dorris's contribution to making this planet a better place is a story screaming to be told. And by telling his story, many could see the example of a true hero.

Meanwhile, the combined forces of corrupt police, greedy social workers, ambitious prosecuters and gullible courts continue to victimise innocent people by acting on uncorroborated charges suborned by unscrupulous officials from hapless children who are encouraged to lie their eyes out and are protected by court gag orders. We know about Michael Dorris's suicide. We do not know the full extent of suicides and ruined lives resulting from this still-widespread practice. But we do know of some. We pledge ourselves to seek justice on their behalf.

More background

From people who knew him:
The Global Citizen: A Letter of many thanks…

From those who did not know him:
A Broken Life by Josie Rawson in Salon

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Publisher: Sheila Steele 1943-2006

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