Death of the Writer

Michael Dorris

A writer friend of mine, Tim O’Grady, an Irish-American who is married and lives in Valencia, phoned the other day for one of our regular chats, to talk about what each of us is working at, other authors and new books, the political situation in the North, and when he’ll next be in Ireland.

A few days earlier he had just learnt from his agent that not only had his last book, ‘I Could Read The Sky’, been bought by a German publisher, but that to his surprise it had already been translated without his collaboration. The book, about Irish navvies in London in the 1950s, is full of west-of-Ireland vernacular and slang, and he queried how the translator could have faithfully replicated irony, nuance and tone, without having spoken to him and understood his intentions. The publisher assured his agent that Tim had nothing to worry about: hadn’t the translator, a German woman, spent a few weeks in Ireland at some summer school or writers’ retreat and anytime she had difficulty she asked one of the Irish writers present to explain what this or that meant.

Of course, this worried Tim even more. “What if it was somebody who didn’t like me?” he said. “Or, whose book I’d rubbished! They could have told her anything and I could end up being a laughing stock!”

I told him that that reminded me of a story about a Catholic priest who is sent to evangelise a tribe of North American Indians. He asks an Indian how to say ‘Hello’ in their language and is given the phrase. Every time he uses it the Indians roll around the reservation laughing because what he is actually saying is, “Folks, I smell like dogshit.”

“That’s most comforting, Dan,” replied Tim. I said that it was only a story, after all. But a good story, from a novel by the American writer Michael Dorris.

“Michael Dorris? You know, he’s dead,” said Tim. “Committed suicide.”

I hadn’t heard that news and was taken aback as I had loved his work.

“He killed himself when his wife, Louise Erdrich, said she was going to leave him and that she didn’t love him anymore.” Erdrich is a North American poet and novelist whose books I had also read and loved. We talked some more about this and that but after I put the phone down I couldn’t get Michael Dorris out of my head. He wrote beautiful books and when we love a book it is hard not to also love the writer as a person, almost as a ‘friend’.

More famous writers had drank or drugged themselves to death than taken their lives in outright suicide, though the latter list is long. John Kennedy Toole killed himself because no one would publish his book, ‘The Confederacy of Dunces’, which, after his death, went on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Leo Herlihy, author of ‘Midnight Cowboy’, shot himself in his Los Angeles flat. And the poet, Sylvia Plath, like Dorris suffering from a broken heart, put her head in an oven and gassed herself.

Curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to find out more about Dorris, about a man who couldn’t face life without love, so I did some research. Three years ago, April 1997, he checked into a motel room in Concord, New Hampshire, under an assumed name, placed a plastic bag over his head and suffocated himself. But then I learnt about disturbing revelations that surfaced almost immediately after his death. There was more to the story than my friend Tim was aware. Certainly Dorris’s marriage with Erdrich was on the rocks but at the time of his death he was the subject of a police inquiry following accusations of sexual abuse by two of his adopted children, Jeffrey and Madeline, who are now adults.

Trying to decide the truth of the allegations is complicated by the fact that both adopted children were early diagnosed with fetal alcohol effect, a condition which often manifests itself in unstable and aggressive behaviour and pervasive lying. As long ago as 1993 Dorris and Erdrich accused Jeffrey of threatening them and attempting to extort money from them.

Poor Tim’s wondering if it was his book that is being published in Germany, and not, partly, one discomposed by the ‘Irish Writers Co-op’ holed up in Annamakerrig, pales into insignificance compared to what has happened to the reputation of Michael Dorris in the wake of these allegations which have deeply divided his friends, colleagues and readers across North America. While Erdrich has not condemned him, nor has she acquitted him.

The truth is impossible to establish, yet if it was the case that Dorris was the monster he is now being depicted one’s attitude to his wonderful writings is thrown into confusion. Thomas Mann chose to understand ‘literary creation’ as ‘the tolerable form of impropriety’: that is, the only barriers he crossed were in his imagination. So the question is, I suppose: can a novel, a piece of music, a statue, a painting, be judged on its own merits, separate from its creator and the life he or she led?