Michael Dorris: Biography & Books

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

Michael Dorris, was a highly respected novelist, professor, and social anthropologist. He was especially noted for his gentle and compassionate literary attention to the socially disadvantaged. However, following his tragic suicide in 1997, Dorris' dark side was discovered.

Brilliant, Beautiful and Tragic

In many respects, Michael Dorris' rise and fall bears a similarity to the events of a classic Greek tragedy. Dorris was very accomplished. He was good-looking, charismatic, tenacious, and as an author and college professor, he enjoyed high social standing. At Dartmouth College, Dorris was a prestigious professor of anthropology and chair of the Native American Studies program. He was also involved in UNESCO and Save the Children. Both social and academic circles acclaimed him.

While doing research in Alaska, in 1970, he experienced a personal realization: he wanted a family. So in the early 1970s, he became one of the first single fathers to adopt and raise a child. In his 1989 publication of The Broken Cord: A Family's Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, he describes the anguish and challenges of raising his first adopted son who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Through his work, Dorris drew strong, public attention to the problem of FAS, a set of emotional, mental, and physical disabilities that are the result of prenatal exposure to alcohol.

At first glace, Dorris looks like a typical family man. For 15 years, Dorris was married to acclaimed poet and novelist Louise Erdrich. Before his marriage, Dorris adopted three children as a single parent: Abel, Jeffrey and Madeline. All three were of Sioux heritage. Following their marriage, the couple gave birth to three additional daughters. From an outsider's perspective, Dorris was a devoted father; yet, sometimes people simply are not what they seem.

Michael Dorris was indeed a gifted writer, a brilliant academic, and even to some extent a social reformer, but Dorris' fall came quickly in 1997 when two of his daughters accused him of sexual abuse. When he learned of the accusations, Dorris, under an assumed name, checked into a cheap, New Hampshire motel and killed himself with sleeping pills and vodka. He also fixed a plastic bag over his head just to make certain that he would indeed never wake up.

Childhood and Young Adult Milestones

Michael Dorris was born in 1945 in Louisville Kentucky. In 1946, his father, who was part Modoc Indian, died in a Jeep accident while serving in the US Army in Germany. Michael was not quite two years old. When he was an adult, his mother revealed to him that his father had not died as the result of an accident, but that it was suspected he had killed himself. Suzann Harjo, a college friend of Dorris', described how Dorris processed his father's suicide by saying, 'With any kind of suicide, you're angry at the person who commits suicide, because they left you, 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.'

Michael Dorris was raised in a household that included his mother, who never remarried, his maternal grandmother, and his mother's sister, Marion. Although his family loved and doted on him, Dorris described his childhood as being lonely. In Cloud Chambers, a work that is considered to be semi-autobiographical, Dorris reveals how he often felt left out and out of place as a child and young adult. The book is about a character very much like Dorris who states, 'I felt so isolated, so gagged, so stifled in the limited range of emotions that they sanctioned, so wrapped in protective plastic.'

It may be that Dorris sought solace in writing and academia. In 1963, he began college at Georgetown University. In graduate school, he initially studied theater history but then switched to anthropology.

An Eclectic Literary Legacy

Dorris earned several prestigious awards and prizes during his career both for his writing and for his service to society. His published works varied in range, from academic studies to children's novels. His first two books, Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After (1975) and A Guide to Research on Native American Indians (1988) were studies of Native American tribes, while, Sees Behind Trees and Morning Girl were both written for children.

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