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Tuesday, July 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Writer's Descent -- A Dark Cloud Of Suspicion Hung Over The Final Pages Of Novelist Michael Dorris' Life; Suicide May Have Been His Only Possible Ending

The Washington Post

To be best known for one's saddest story is not the road to notoriety anyone would willingly choose. - from "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Parent's Perspective," a 1992 essay by Michael Dorris

The memorial service was held in the auditorium of a New York City public library, a place filled with the silence of unspoken words. One by one the dead man's friends and colleagues rose to deliver tributes to his life and work.

There was the publisher who remembered what a "lovable pain in the ass" Michael Dorris could be, and the television producer who recalled his hunger to connect, how he needed talk "the way the rest of us need food and air." There was Kathy Bates, the actress, who couldn't leave her movie set but sent a note that was read aloud, vowing to "always miss him." And there was NPR anchor Bob Edwards, who said Michael Dorris was "someone who, when he walked the Earth, left some footprints."

A historian came closest to the dark, discordant truth hanging in the air. Simon Schama declared that Michael Dorris was "a good man and a great writer. I will never be shaken from my belief in those two bedrock truths."

His words echoed defiantly across a nearly deserted room. The event was open to the public, but there were rows and rows of empty chairs. Few people, apparently, wanted to pay public respect to Michael Dorris - novelist, essayist, editor, humanitarian, presumed child rapist.

At the top of his craft

Novelists are no strangers to the despair that breeds suicide, but there are hundreds who would seem more likely prospects than Michael Dorris.

He was 52 and at the top of his profession on April 10 when he checked into a cheap New Hampshire motel under an assumed name, placed a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door and washed some over-the-counter sleeping pills down with vodka. He lay down, placed a plastic bag over his head, and died of asphyxiation.

His second novel, published only three months before, was getting laudatory reviews and had made some regional bestseller lists. He had started a successful second career writing children's books. His account of the brain damage suffered by his adopted son Abel, the result of the mother's drinking during pregnancy, was one of those rare bestsellers that also make a difference. (Jimmy Smits played Dorris in the TV movie.) He was a prominent Native American, and boosted the careers of dozens of younger writers. His marriage, to the Native American novelist Louise Erdrich, was a famously ideal union: They were each other's editor and close collaborator and best friend. He was handsome; she was lovely. It was a romance to admire, to envy.

Those who were puzzled by Dorris' suicide didn't have to wait long. The day after newspapers announced his death, they explained it: This champion of children had been under investigation for sexually abusing at least one of his three biological daughters.

Dorris' friends expressed disbelief but, significantly, his wife did not. In brief comments to reporters, Erdrich confirmed that she and her husband had been divorcing, and said he'd had a long struggle against depression and suicide. She seemed neither surprised nor particularly upset by his death. A few weeks later, Dorris' adopted daughter, Madeline, now 22, sued her father's estate, claiming sexual abuse since she was a child.

Dorris knew he was being investigated. Naively, he hoped his death would prevent anything from leaking out. In his last letter to his mother and aunts, he wrote: "There need be no public explanation. . . . Let them draw their own conclusions."

They did.

Last month, New York magazine attempted the definitive story on The Fall of Michael Dorris. It was corrosive. It said investigators had amassed evidence of "very, very serious physical and sexual abuse" of two of the daughters he had with Erdrich. It said he had repeatedly raped Madeline and that his adopted son Sava would hear her screams from the next room. It said Dorris fondled and physically abused Sava. It said he was an alcoholic, a control freak, a publicity hound, a hypocrite, a liar, a monster. It said he wasn't a particularly good writer. It said he wasn't even a Native American.

It was a story remarkable in the breadth of its denunciation, and it stands now as the closest thing to an official version of Dorris' life and death. Vanity Fair was well into its own piece, but abandoned it as redundant after the New York article appeared. The story of Michael Dorris has acquired an accepted plot line: He killed himself because he was about to be exposed as a pervert.

It may be true; Louise Erdrich's selective silence is ominous. And Dorris' death is surely presumptive evidence against him. How can it not be? Does a man accused of a despicable crime take his life if he is innocent?

As it turns out, yes, he might.

There's a parallel plot line. It's equally compelling. It requires no willing suspension of disbelief. All it requires is going back and reading things in a new light.

The marriage made in heaven

Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich dwelt where fact and fiction are interlaced and sometimes indistinguishable. They wrote essays. They wrote memoirs. They wrote novels. They were adept at creation, and one thing they effortlessly created was the myth of their own everlasting love.

At the time of Dorris' death, the couple had been living apart for more than a year, though many of their acquaintances did not know it. Dorris and Erdrich took pains to minimize their estrangement; officially it was an amicable separation between two people still deeply committed to each other, and to each other's work.

It wasn't true. Their marriage, their storied romance, was coming apart in an excruciating way. And it was rending Dorris apart.

"Once we love," Dorris wrote in an essay, "we are permanently in that love's thrall, caught in its wake, a part of its flow."

Dorris felt that way about Erdrich. If he hadn't, he might still be alive.

The most prominent literary love affair of the last decade took fire, appropriately enough, at a poetry reading. Karen Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris both arrived at Dartmouth College in 1972: He came to found a Native American studies program, she was a student.

She was in one of his classes but they knew each other only casually until 1979, when Erdrich came back to Dartmouth to read from her poetry. Dorris was stunned - "I had never heard anything remotely like it," he said years later - and afterward took her away from a crowd of admirers.

Late that night, Erdrich telephoned her mother, got her out of bed. "You won't believe this," she said. "But I met the man I'm going to marry."

Any woman marrying this teacher would step into a complicated life. In 1971, when he was 26, Dorris had become one of the nation's first single men to adopt a child. Abel was a 3-year-old Sioux, neglected by his alcoholic mother and diagnosed as retarded. But Dorris believed that nurture was more important than nature, and that with the right amount of love and attention Abel would become like every other little boy. He was wrong; the damage wrought by the alcohol was permanent, and Abel had severe learning and behavioral disabilities. He would die in an automobile accident in 1991. In the mid-'70s, Dorris had adopted two more Indian children, Sava and Madeline. Later he came to realize that they, too, had been affected by their birth mothers' drinking while pregnant.

In 1981, Dorris announced to the children that he was going to marry Erdrich. Abel and then the others began to clap. The marriage ceremony was simple, and incorporated the children. The parents promised to be good to the kids, and the kids promised to be nice to the parents.

For a long time, the promises seemed kept. Encouraged and helped by Dorris, Erdrich began writing fiction in a more serious way. "Love Medicine," set on a North Dakota reservation and spanning most of the 20th century, won the National Book Critics Circle Award; it remains the only first novel ever to get that honor.

Other novels quickly followed, confirming that here was a major new talent. The books appeared under Erdrich's name, but everything was collaborative -plots, characterizations, concepts, down to the choice of individual words.

"They were in each other's minds," says Vincent Rocque, Dorris' housemate at Georgetown University. "This wasn't just physical and emotional, it was literary and intellectual. Remember the dueling banjos in `Deliverance'? They had dueling word processors."

Encouraged and helped by Erdrich, Dorris wrote his own novel, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," about three generations of Indian women in Montana. His book about Abel and fetal alcohol syndrome was a bestseller and won its own National Book Critics Circle Award. "The Crown of Columbus," the first book under both their names, received a formidable advance of $1.5 million.

Louise gave birth to a daughter, then a second and a third. The house in New Hampshire overflowed with children. Work poured forth - essays, reviews, anthologies, short stories, novels, poetry. They didn't have to promote their love story; it was obvious to all who saw them, or merely read their dedications. In his "Yellow Raft": "For Louise - Companion through every page, Through every day, Compeer." In her "Tracks": "Michael, The story comes up different every time and has no ending but always begins with you."

Fanatical book collectors sometimes ask a book's dedicatee to sign a particular volume. At a PEN/Faulkner reading in Washington last March, at what turned out to be Dorris' final public appearance, a fan asked him to sign one of his wife's books.

In the past, Dorris had graciously done this. This time, he said he'd rather not. It was a little thing, but it was a clue, a signal. Unknown to all but their very closest friends, the marriage had been in trouble for years. He still loved her - "He was addicted to Louise," says a friend, Ruth Coughlin; "It was an obsession" - but her feelings toward him had diminished.

"There's no one reason, and there's 25,000 reasons," Erdrich explains. She is standing in front of her house in Minneapolis, which is in a posh neighborhood ringing one of the city's prettiest lakes. She is willing to talk about everything but the abuse allegations. Ask anyway, and her only response is a stare.

Her dark hair is loosely swept back, her skin pale, her figure slender. She is 43 but looks years younger. Her voice is always soft, as if she were whispering in your ear. She is talking about falling out of love with Michael Dorris. She will come back to this many times, in subsequent phone conversations.

"There's no explanation for why you stop feeling what you're feeling," Erdrich says. "I would have done anything to get it back. But it's not something you can control. I had every reason to want to be in this ideal relationship, except the reason I couldn't make myself do it."

Friends of Dorris accuse her of resembling her hell-raiser character Lulu in "Love Medicine." "It is true that I've done all the things they say," Lulu confesses. "That's not what gets them. What aggravates them is I've never shed one solitary tear. I'm not sorry."

Says Erdrich: "We were separated for a year. I'm not going to go around and play the role of the bereaved widow. I feel his loss, it's terrible, but what would you expect me to do? Run around and . . . I loved the guy. I wanted to make him happy."

Did he make her happy?

She doesn't answer for the longest time, until she is told that silence is its own answer. "Look at my life. Of course he did. But it was more complicated than `Do I want to be happy?' or `Does someone else make me happy?' I'm not someone who's made happy by someone else's happiness."

So what did she want?

"I wanted an authentic life - where you're connected to family, and feel you have a core of love in your life, and a core of existence . . ."

That's what everyone thought she had.

"That may be what they needed to believe. . . . We're in the era when every marriage touted as ideal turns out to resemble a pathology report."

If Erdrich had left Dorris for someone else, or simply made a clean break, it might have been easier for him. But Sandi Campbell, the couple's secretary for six years, says that "when he would get to the point where he would say, I can't deal with this, I've got to get a life,' she would say she was thinking about coming back, and his hopes would get raised. So he would sit around and wait. That happened more than once."

One night early in 1996, Dorris called Charlotte Quimby, the midwife who delivered the couple's three biological children. He was distraught. He said he had returned from a speaking engagement to find flowers on his bedroom pillow, along with his favorite after-shave, and chocolates, all prettily wrapped and signed "Love, Louise."

"His first reaction was `Omigod, she's had a change of heart, she really does love me,' " Quimby says. "And then he said that under the pillow he had found legal papers about their divorce."

Erdrich says this story is "an absolute fabrication. Michael was not well." Still, she concedes she sometimes left gifts for Dorris during their breakup, little tokens of esteem amid the bitterness. "I can't be responsible for how my gestures of friendship were interpreted, but they were not romantic."

Divorce and its fallout

The Dorris-Erdrich split quickly began to resemble a typical messy divorce, with attendant anger, betrayal, even implications for custody.

The falling-out began in earnest in late 1995, when Erdrich rented a second house, several blocks from the family home in Minneapolis. (The couple and their children moved there in 1993 from Montana, where they had briefly gone after New Hampshire.) She needed a place to work, she said, but increasingly began living in this new house. She told the kids it was temporary and she'd be back in March. But when March came, she declined to return. In fact, she bought the house.

"The girls got angry at her," says Campbell, the secretary. "They felt lied to." Particularly furious, she says, was the eldest daughter, then 12. At one point, the girl threw Erdrich's nightgown out the window, Campbell says, shouting to her mother that she should make up her mind whether she was staying or leaving.

The girls - the middle child was then 11, the youngest 7 - began to miss New Hampshire. They talked about the friends they would see there, the vegetables they would grow.

It was an upsetting time for everyone, yet appearances were kept up. When Erdrich was on her book tour last year, or when Dorris was on his early this year, neither seems to have given the slightest signal to readers or interviewers that things were seriously awry. This went down to the micro-level: According to Campbell, Erdrich would drive over to the family house, stay just long enough to wave to the bus driver as the girls went to school, then go back to her new home.

Beginning last August, Dorris went on a series of trips - to the South Seas for a magazine assignment, to a writers' conference, to a conference on fetal alcohol syndrome.

"The girls didn't want to stay with Louise," says Campbell, adding that the eldest daughter "wanted to stay at my house instead. But they all had to stay with Louise, and once they got under her control they became different people. When she heard about the girls wanting to go back to New Hampshire, I think she perceived it as a threat."

Erdrich loved Minneapolis. Her family was in and near the city. But Dorris hated it. It seemed isolated. He, like the girls, wanted to go back to New Hampshire. It became a point of contention in their divorce, according to friends.

Not true, said Erdrich. In a phone call last week, she denied that either the children or Dorris wanted to return to New Hampshire. She denied that there was any impending custody battle. She denied even that the divorce was acrimonious. "I continued to have affectionate and respectful and honorable feelings toward my children's father," she said. She said she found all the questions about her relationship with her husband to be "creepy."

In November, Dorris returned from his travels. He planned a big Thanksgiving dinner, which Erdrich attended. Dorris re-hung on the wall something he had recently taken down: a painting of Louise at their wedding. But the dinner didn't produce the reconciliation he still wanted. Apparently, Dorris got drunk.

On Dec. 4, Erdrich arrived at the house before dawn with several family friends and an "interventionist." Dorris was told he needed to be examined at the nearby Hazelden treatment center for alcoholism. Dorris had been drinking too much, uncharacteristically. Friends interviewed for this story say that if he was an alcoholic, they were unaware of it. He didn't seem to need a stay in a treatment center.

"I can't understand why you allowed this," actress Carrie Fisher, a close friend, remembers asking Dorris.

"It was 6 in the morning," he replied, "and I was afraid."

It was during his 27 days at Hazelden that Michael Dorris' descent accelerated. Erdrich brought in St. Paul therapist Sandra Hewitt to talk to the children.

Afterward, Hewitt contacted Hennepin County authorities, saying she suspected Dorris of child abuse.

Hewitt's most famous case occurred 14 years ago in Jordan, Minn., where an adult male baby-sitter was arrested and charged with sexually abusing children. He, in turn, told authorities he knew of two child sex abuse rings in the community.

Within a year, two dozen parents had been charged with abusing 100 children, some of whom were removed from their homes by the authorities. The whole case would eventually collapse. The baby-sitter admitted he had lied about the sex rings. Charges were dropped, children returned to their homes. Parents and even other psychologists said that some of the children had been brainwashed by the investigators and therapists.

Hewitt declined to comment, but Erdrich said, "She works to reconcile abusers with their family members. If she has an agenda, it's to restore relationships."

Yet after Hewitt's arrival, Dorris never saw the three girls again.

The investigators tracked down Dorris' two surviving adopted children, now adults and living in Denver. There they struck gold. In separate interviews, Sava and Madeline Dorris eventually described an extensive pattern of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

It's not clear whether the investigators ever understood the degree of enmity between these children and their father - or the children's historical instability and unreliability.

When they reached adolescence, it had become apparent to Dorris and Erdrich that while Abel was partly retarded by fetal alcohol syndrome, Sava and Madeline were both afflicted with a lesser, vaguely understood form of the illness.

In 1992 Dorris wrote that Erdrich had examined her diary for the last four years, and confirmed a distressing pathology: "It turned out that as a family we 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." These included arrests, suicide attempts, violent behavior, expulsion from schools and "inappropriate sexual contact."

"Many of us hear at one time or another the standard advice of the stumped psychological counselor: Let your kids sink to the bottom, then they'll start to work their way back up," Dorris wrote. "Well, we come to discover that in the case of our special children, the bottom is very deep indeed."

For Dorris and Erdrich, the bottom was reached in late 1993. Sava, then 21, wrote them a letter from the Denver jail, where he was being held for assaulting his girlfriend. "I tried to murder Eileen, and yet she escaped," he wrote. "I am greatful (sic) that she got away, as I was completely out of control, as I tortured her for two hours. The strange fact of it all is, is that I enjoyed doing it. . . . I have gone crazy."

The letter goes on for nearly three single-spaced pages, alternating between threats and plaintive comments. "If you think that all is well between us, & that you will get away with what you did to Abel, Madeline & I, you are DEAD wrong . . . you write great but your (sic) crummy parents."

He concluded by demanding $15,000 from Erdrich. "Too much? Go write another (expletive) book, bitch!"

Fear of their son had already made Erdrich, Dorris and their three daughters move secretly from New Hampshire to Montana, and then secretly again to Minneapolis. Now Dorris pressed extortion charges against his son. Two trials resulted in hung juries. The losses deeply shook Dorris' faith in the justice system. There was no third trial. Sava would soon be released from prison.

The next time he was heard from publicly was in the New York magazine story, where he talked about what a monster Michael Dorris was.

The New York story

It is interesting to speculate what Michael Dorris might have done had he been alive at the time Eric Konigsberg published his story in New York magazine. Dorris was a skillful editor - possibly he would have taken out a blue pencil and begun to strike through the obvious, undeniable inaccuracies. It would have taken him some time: The pages, in the end, would have been a blur of blue.

Most of the important charges in the story, relating to the child-abuse allegations, are not verifiable; the story made generous use of unnamed sources. But judging from many of the incidental matters that are checkable, facts large and small, the story was a mountain of misinformation.

The story suggested Dorris was not really a Native American, because the reporter could not find his name on any official records of the Modoc nation. Reality, as always, is more complicated: Dorris' father's mother, who was white, became pregnant by her Indian boyfriend, but, the times being what they were, she could not marry him. She later married a white man named Dorris.

The magazine story said Dorris told friends "his father's truck turned over on an icy mountain road in Switzerland during World War II." Dorris did tell such a story, but with different facts. Not a truck, a Jeep. Not Switzerland, Germany. Not during the war, after it.

The magazine story recounted a scene at Dartmouth in which two alumni, angered by Dorris' attempts to eliminate the use of an Indian as the team's mascot, arrived at his office, opened their coats to reveal T-shirts with the Indian head, gave the old Indian war whoop, "and urinated on his carpet." Almost certainly this last part didn't happen. Years ago, Dorris himself wrote about the incident. No urination. Hard to believe he would have forgotten.

The New York story got names wrong, dates wrong, titles wrong, anecdotes wrong. Anyone can make mistakes, but so many in one story suggests a bewildering inattention to facts. Konigsberg says he stands "quite firmly behind everything I have written."

There is one more misstatement in his story, and this one is no small matter. Dorris' lawyer "discussed with prosecutors the possibility of copping a plea," the story states.

This certainly looks bad. Innocent men aren't supposed to plead guilty, even to a reduced charge. But Dorris' lawyer, Doug Kelley, says there was no such discussion: "I can tell you unequivocally, 100 percent, Michael Dorris never considered entering a plea. Never once."

Vincent Rocque confirms this. He says he urged his friend to at least talk to the government about "some kind of a plea.

"But he was absolutely adamant," Rocque says. "He would not admit to doing things he had not done."

Crimes or misdemeanors?

Was Michael Dorris a brutal father? Did he beat his sons? Did he molest his daughters?

Indisputably, the house was tense at times. The older children were mentally damaged by their prenatal exposure to alcohol. They couldn't learn from experience, which is what Dorris wanted them to do. There is some evidence in his own writings and public statements that Dorris, at wit's end, sometimes hit his children.

Dorris encouraged Abel to write the last chapter of "The Broken Cord" by himself. Abel recounts how Dorris once caught him in a minor transgression and "made me go face first into the wall. And at that moment I ended up with a lump on the head."

During an interview for "The Broken Cord," Dorris acknowledged that "the people who came off sounding the worst, the ones who made the most mistakes, were Louise and I."

And then he laughed.

"I don't know - maybe we should sue ourselves."

Only a couple of years later, his adopted daughter would do the job for them.

Jeffrey Anderson is Madeline Dorris's attorney. In that capacity he is suing Erdrich and the Dorris estate, which is reportedly worth in excess of $2 million. Madeline Dorris charges that her adoptive father "regularly and repeatedly engaged in unpermitted, harmful, and offensive sexual contact" starting from the time she was 5 years old, and that Erdrich either knew about it or should have known about it.

The suit says the abuse was so severe that Madeline repressed it - entirely put it out of her memory - and that only six years ago, when she was 16, did she start to realize she was a victim, which explains why she didn't tell anyone before. It says she was in "fear and terror" of Dorris until his death, which explains why she didn't tell anyone more recently.

Sitting in his sleek office high above Minneapolis, Anderson hands over a file on the case. Inside are some photocopies of pages from Erdrich's 1995 memoir "The Blue Jay's Dance," with certain passages marked because, in Anderson's view, they are clues to tension and violence in the household. From Page 124: "Sometimes we hold hands so hard we leave nail marks in each other's palms."

What were confessions of defeat and helplessness by the couple are now weapons to be used against them. It is every writer's nightmare: that his own words are used to incriminate him.

If Anderson wants to find other incriminating passages, it won't be hard. Dorris often brooded over the quality of his parenting. In a 1996 newspaper article he wrote: "I was driven temporarily mad and may never fully recover enough to completely recall the person I think I used to be. . . . I wish my adopted children to achieve amnesia or, better, to remember the entirety of their lives with me."

Dorris may well have been furious, even violent, with his adopted children. But if he raped Madeline, as Sava now claims, why didn't Sava use this potent fact in his own defense in his 1994 and '95 trials for extortion? It never came up.

In fact, Sava - who didn't respond to a request for an interview for this story - pointedly accused someone else of sexual assault. In his letter to Dorris and Erdrich, he wrote, "I put up with Jack's sexual abuse and so did Madeline."

Sava was referring to Jack Stokely, who lived in the house with Dorris and the children before Dorris married Erdrich in 1981. Dorris apparently had a physical relationship with Stokely, who died in San Francisco of AIDS in 1988.

Persons with close knowledge of the goings-on in the Dorris household flatly disbelieve that Dorris sexually abused his children. Campbell, the secretary, says she never detected any significant tension between the girls and their father. She remembers the girls as doting on Dorris, in a healthy way. "When they came home from school, the first thing they asked is, `Where's Daddy?' They went down and got their hugs and kisses. . . . I do not believe that when I left at night he turned into a monster, and then reverted again when I came back at 8:30 the next morning."

Campbell says she would have been happy to tell this to the child-abuse investigators. She would have said that she never saw Dorris drunk or violent. She would have described him as an involved, loving father. But she was never questioned. She cannot understand it.

"How can you do a complete investigation on a man and not talk to the person who was in his house every day?" she asks.

There is one other potential witness to the events in the house, though she remains publicly silent. Supposedly, Michael Dorris had been sexually abusing his children for years; is it possible that his wife was unaware of it? Had she no inkling? If she had, would she have walked out of the house, and stayed away for a year, leaving her biological children to the predations of her husband?

Since no charges were filed and the records have been sealed, the strength of the state's case remains unknowable. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Kathryn Quaintance refused to comment.

But in one sense, the charges remain alive. Death has not halted the flow of accusations.

Denver public defender Lisa Wayne, who represented Sava at his trials and was another voluble source for the New York magazine story, sees Dorris' death as confirmation of the charges against him. She calls him "completely evil" and says that much of the story remains untold. For instance, "when he was beating these kids in New Hampshire, and we're talking about severe stuff, I don't see how that was hidden from the community. There were other people who knew."

She sees a conspiracy of silence.

Furthermore, she says Erdrich "lived in a very warped world, and he had complete control. I wouldn't be surprised if it came out she was a victim of domestic violence."

She sees spousal abuse.

Finally, "I think someone needs to go pull those reports on Abel. I am suspicious of (Dorris) to the core." After all, she notes, the retarded son's death was in "a hit-and-run."

She suspects murder.

For the record, Abel's death was not a hit-and-run. The driver was a 36-year-old woman who was traveling through a green light and simply didn't see him, police said. In any case, on that night, Dorris was 3,000 miles away. No doubt about it. He was in Hollywood, negotiating the rights to Abel's story.

Divining the truth

A trial can be useful for sorting through some truths. Anderson, Madeline's lawyer, says he will try to get the sealed records in the Minneapolis case to support his client's charges. It is a neat switch; the children in Denver were used last winter to bolster the Minneapolis investigation, and now the reverse is happening.

At the precise moment that Anderson is talking about how terrorized the children were by their parents, Erdrich is at the Minneapolis airport, picking up Madeline.

Mother and daughter go to the Native American center for a poetry reading by Erdrich's sister. During the reception, Madeline, a heavy-set young woman with scars on her arms from her suicide attempts, wanders outside. "I'm here for a visit," she volunteers. "I haven't seen my mother in a long time."

But why is she visiting the woman she is suing for permitting her abuse?

Madeline's eyes narrow. "That's between me and her," she says angrily, walking away.

The final words

Dorris worked on his second and final novel for adults, the immigrant saga "Cloud Chamber," for nearly a decade, but the section dealing with a husband's discovery that his wife has stopped loving him surely reflects the torment of his last two years.

The wife has lost all affection for her spouse. "I despised his pliant love," she says, "spread it upon my breakfast toast and devoured it as he watched." But sometimes, she smiled at him and made promises, and "he was mine once more, settling for less and less. . . . I taught my husband to beg, and I despised him for his weakness."

Mystified and saddened, the husband literally sickens. "Death struck me as the most convenient solution . . ." he says. "My life for some reason was an affront to her, an insult. My death would be an appropriate apology."

This winter, as investigators worked on a case against him and his lawyer developed a defense, Dorris went on tour for "Cloud Chamber." Bathed in public admiration, he could forget his troubles - but only for a moment at a time.

"They think I'm a good guy," he told Campbell in a late-night phone call. "It makes me feel I have a life. But then I come back to the hotel and realize I don't have my wife, I don't have my girls, I don't have anything. How can my professional life be so perfect and my personal life a disaster?"

As the tour drew to a close, his despair peaked. In an e-mail to a friend on March 23, he wrote: "I need this nightmare to be over. I need my daughter to tell the truth and thereby allow me back into the natural flow of my life. . . . I need to see my dog, to write, to think something not connected to this craziness. I am so out of ideas and energy."

During these last weeks, Dorris grew increasingly frenzied in his search for an explanation. One friend remembers the writer restless, "like a caged animal. He got down on the floor, talking about how people can misinterpret things as abuse. `I have thought through everything a million times,' he said. The only thing he could remember was once, while watching television and they were all laughing, and he turned to the eldest daughter and put his hand on her hip and then realized, `I can't do that, she's 12 years old.' "

Dorris was a writer of fiction, and he could see the story around him beginning to take shape. When the charges surfaced, reporters would examine his past and Erdrich's past, and find other, lesser skeletons.

Dorris told friends he was worried that their marriage would be picked apart until nothing remained. Had Erdrich had affairs? What about Dorris' homosexual relationship with Jack Stokely in the 1970s? He was worried that people might question his motives in wanting to raise children as a single father, that they might even challenge the very existence of fetal alcohol syndrome, that all the work he had done would be wasted.

On March 28, Dorris learned that Madeline and Sava had offered damning accusations against him. "There is no good option, no thinkable option," he e-mailed a friend. "Louise has clearly done everything she could to impugn me and intends that I have no contact with my children - for years. Those are the facts. My only possibility for a life is to win a vicious trial - by demolishing my wife and children. It is worse than I imagined."

Whatever he had done or not done, he was about to lose everything, probably even his livelihood. Who buys the books of pedophiles?

His first suicide attempt came hours later, using pills, at his home in New Hampshire. By chance, a friend telephoned, sensed what was going on, and alerted police.

Vincent Rocque went to visit Dorris in the hospital.

"I'm telling him, `Put on your war paint. You have some serious legal problems and the ultimate psychiatric problem - wanting to kill yourself. Get ready to fight,' " says Rocque. "And all he could say was, `Do you believe that Louise hasn't called? She's known since noon, and she hasn't called.' It's like he was powerless in the face of her. He had given Louise a lot of emotional power over himself."

Erdrich says she did call. She says she left a message on an answering machine. "Maybe he never got it," she says.

Two weeks later, Dorris tried suicide again. This time, he used a motel room. This time, no one interrupted.

Like any prolific writer, Dorris left projects in the pipeline. His fourth and final novel for children, "The Window," will be published in October. The first of his fictions not to be dedicated to Erdrich, it is a brief tale about the troubles that parents can cause in a child's life, and how the child can be resilient enough to survive them.

For Dorris, it must have been a fervent last wish, and maybe an impossible one. His three young daughters have been devastated by his death, particularly the eldest. She is said to be inconsolable.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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