Michael Dorris; Chronicler of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Writer Michael Dorris, whose book about raising a brain-damaged child, “The Broken Cord,” brought international attention to the problem of fetal alcohol syndrome, has been found dead in a motel room, an apparent suicide, police said Monday.

Concord police said Dorris, 52, an author, anthropologist and founder of Dartmouth College’s Native American Studies Program, apparently suffocated himself Friday with a plastic bag. An autopsy report is pending.

Dorris, who was married to best-selling novelist Louise Erdrich, co-wrote “The Crown of Columbus” with her in 1991 after a publisher agreed to pay the couple $1.5 million on the basis of a five-page outline.


Of Irish, French and American Indian ancestry, Dorris was the author of two novels, including the recently published “Cloud Chamber,” but was best known for “The Broken Cord,” his best-selling 1989 memoir of adopting an American Indian child who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Dorris, who was one of the first unmarried American men to legally adopt a child, told the story of his son Reynold (using a pseudonym in the book), who suffered brain damage as a result of his mother’s heavy drinking. The youth died at 23 in a car accident in 1992.

“You can’t undo the past, you can’t unwish someone’s life, and that’s the real tragedy here,” Dorris told The Times shortly after the book was published. “It was years before we accepted the fact that [Reynold] was not going to change. You never want to accept that about a child, but he was always the little engine that couldn’t get over the mountain, no matter how hard he tried.”

Reflecting later on the youth’s short life, Dorris wrote in an article for the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “He lived for 23 years, endured daily loneliness and confusion and hardship and frustration, and in all that time he never once did anything that was intentionally cruel or hurtful to another living creature.

“He was maddening in his inability to learn from experience, to grasp a larger picture. . . . If only he had been able to learn how to cross the street in accordance with a green light.”

Dorris’ book drew international attention to the dangers children face if their mothers drink during pregnancy, and it led to moves in Congress to issue warnings about the risks.


The Georgetown- and Yale-educated Dorris adopted two other children, and had three more with Erdrich, whom he married in 1981. He had been working on a follow-up book to “The Broken Cord,” titled “Matter of Conscience.”