By Donella Meadows
–April 24, 1997–
On the Sunday after Michael Dorris committed suicide, the news was announced, gently and sadly, in a church here in the valley where he lived.
A bit of the story came out that Sunday morning. Our neighbor, teacher, favorite writer was separated from the woman we knew as the love of his life, the even more celebrated author Louise Erdrich. He was facing a charge that could have cost him all contact with their children. He had attempted suicide a few weeks before. Friends had been talking with him ever since, many times a day, trying to help him find his way back into the light. His desperation had finally outwitted their care and concern.
Our disbelief at this burst of terrible news was expressed perfectly by one of the parishioners, who burst out, “Is this MY Michael Dorris we’re talking about?”
My Michael Dorris. It’s astonishing how many people I’ve talked to in these sorrowful days thought of him like that. Some had never even met him; they had just read his books, especially The Broken Cord, his passionate account of his adopted Native American son, whose nervous system was permanently ravaged by the alcohol his mother drank while she carried her baby. To read that book is not only to share Michael’s outrage about the lot of Native Americans and about fetal alcohol syndrome, it is also to see into his heart and to have a firm sense that it was a heart of compassion and courage.
Since his death those of us whose lives intertwined with his in simple, everyday ways have been pouring out to each other our memories of our Michael Dorris. The animated conversations he got into with the guy who picked up his trash. How as a teacher he so cared about his students that they came alive and never forgot either his aliveness or their own. How he wept one night along with Dartmouth’s great president John Kemeny, when, despite both their best efforts, an ugly incident of Indian-bashing broke out on campus. How he brought Louise, pregnant with her first child, to the midwife and took care to emphasize the preciousness of both the child and the mother. “Remember, she’s a REAL WRITER!”
He asked my help when he was researching environmental problems on Indian reservations. He helped me find my way through the legalities of the publishing world. He called me whenever he especially appreciated one of my columns, a kindness which, coming from a marvelous writer like him, would send me sky-high.
In my memories and the others I’ve been listening to, there was something shining about Michael. He took on great burdens — three adopted Native American children, the fledgling Native American program at Dartmouth, the vast injustice of fetal alcohol syndrome — and he cared about them deeply but carried them gracefully. He was a fighter, but he fought for others. He was incredibly gifted and eventually famous and rich, but his consciousness was centered not on himself but on those around him, above all his wife and children. Aside from a few who were jealous of him, I don’t know a soul who disliked him, and I know many who admired and loved him.
I hope his surviving children come to realize that. Given what I read in People and Newsweek, it will be a miracle if they do. The more the press does its thing, the more we are saying, “Is this OUR Michael Dorris we’re talking about?”
He was always suicidal, they say. This comes as news to us, including those of us who have seen him at other dark times in his life. He was accused of molesting one of his daughters. We find that impossible to reconcile with our Michael Dorris. It could be true, of course — how can we know? — but it could also be false. He was never tried, but now the media have stuck that accusation on him forever. They have even detailed for us, over and over, precisely how he killed himself. I wonder if anyone in the news bureaus considered whether we need to know that, or what that knowledge will do to his daughters, ages 13, 11, and 8, who are bound to read it and who share a playground with schoolmates who have read it.
I suppose we never truly know anyone, even those closest to us. We all map ourselves onto other people, so my Michael Dorris is not the same as anyone else’s and is not the real Michael Dorris. But my experience of him, however filtered and limited, is real — and hard to hold onto in the light of the shallow, cynical picture coming from the media. There it is, reproduced in millions of copies, a heartbreaking picture of Michael, or even more heartbreaking, of Louise and Michael at the peak of their happiness, and an account that fits itself into an all-too-common media bias: if someone is beautiful, talented, rich and famous, they must be hiding some terrible flaw.
All I can think to do in this sad, maddening time is to encourage those of you who didn’t know him to learn of Michael Dorris through his own words, in any of his wonderful books. He is worth knowing. Those who treasured him, it seems to me, need to celebrate out loud and for the record what we knew. Our words and actions concerning him need only to come from our own sense of truth and love. That is where the words and actions of my Michael Dorris came from.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997