Dartmouth mourns Dorris suicide

by David Horowitz | 4/17/97 5:00am

The Dartmouth flag flew at half-staff Monday and Tuesday, as the College mourned the death of award-winning author and Adjunct Professor of Native American Studies and Anthropology Michael Anthony Dorris, who committed suicide in a Concord hotel room last Friday.

Dorris, who was 52, was found just before noon on Friday in his room the Brick Tower Inn, apparently having suffocated himself with a plastic bag, Concord Police Lieutenant Paul Murphy told The Dartmouth.

As word of the tragedy spread, those who knew Dorris both within the College and in the outside world reacted with shock and sadness.

College President Emeritus David McLaughlin said the Native American Studies program would not exist today if not for Dorris.

"He was the spirit that brought the program to the surface," McLaughlin told The Dartmouth. Conservative influences attempted to suppress the program and Dorris "defended it against skeptics and critics," he said.

Linda Welch, Native American Studies administrative assistant, said that without Dorris, "I don't know if we would have the Native American programs we have at Dartmouth today."

McLaughlin, who maintained a friendship with Dorris until his death, said of Dorris' involvement in Native American issues, "Michael was a person of causes ... He believed in something and he defended it."

For former Dean of the College Edward Shanahan, who said he last met Dorris at a conference in Concord two or three years ago, news of the professor's suicide was an "absolute shock."

"He was one of the luminaries on the Dartmouth faculty and in the community," he said. "He was key in helping to realize [former College President] John Kemeny's aspiration that Dartmouth be true to its founding mission."

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Charles Rember, Dorris' literary agent and friend of 15 years, said Dorris' death, was "a real kick in the head. It's very sad, it's very painful, and also very surprising."

Earlier this week, new details began to surface regarding the circumstances regarding Dorris' suicide.

Last Thursday, Dorris was released with a pass from the Brattleboro Retreat, a private psychiatric facility.

Murphy said Dorris rented a car in Lebanon the same day and drove to the Brick Tower Inn. He checked into the motel using the assumed name George Fonta, listed fake license plates and a false home address and used cash to pay the $45 guest fee.

Dorris locked his room, blocked the door with two chairs and hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside the door. Officials believe he committed suicide early Friday morning.

He was found just before noon on Friday and identified by his Minnesota drivers license, Murphy said.

Remnants of over-the-counter cold medicine and vodka were also found in the room, although they were not the cause of death, Murphy said.

Around the time hotel employees discovered Dorris' body, police in Brattleboro, Vt. received a call informing them that Dorris was missing and possibly suicidal, Murphy said.

Dorris left a handwritten letter in the room bearing the names and phone numbers of the three people he wanted to be notified of his death.

"I was desperate," Dorris wrote in the letter. "I love my family and my friends and will be peaceful at last."

Published reports said Dorris may have been facing child-sex abuse allegations at the time of his death. A friend of Dorris said the allegations were false and added Dorris committed suicide because he hoped to prevent a "feeding frenzy" by law enforcement officials and the media.

Sources also indicated that Dorris was distraught over his separation from his wife, author and Louise Erdrich '76, and friends said they were in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.

Rember, who indicated he had "no idea anything was wrong," said he knew of Dorris' separation from his wife, but had not noticed any unusual signs of strain or depression.

"Any divorce is a strain ... but it didn't seem to be throwing him," Rember said.

Rember confirmed reports that Dorris had first tried to kill himself on March 28, but had been discovered and stopped. He was hospitalized shortly thereafter for "exhaustion."

Dorris was originally scheduled on April 10 to deliver the keynote address for the conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the College's Native American Studies program that he helped create.

But the College received word earlier this month that Dorris was canceling, citing "physicians orders to rest to recover from exhaustion due to an intense schedule of travel and appearances."

Rember said Dorris had in fact canceled all of his appointments for April, but he just thought Dorris had been overworked and "really needed time off."

"My impression was he had been going at such a pace making appearances, book signings and giving speeches all over the country that he really needed time off," Rember said.

Dorris, who had not taught at Dartmouth since 1988, achieved literary fame after penning the award-winning books "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water" and "The Broken Cord."

"The Broken Cord," his best known work, was named Best Non-Fiction Book of 1989 by the National Book Critics Circle.

The book explored the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome in his adopted Native American child. Dorris is credited as the first single father to adopt a child, when he adopted Reynold Abel Dorris, the biological son of a Sioux women who died of alcohol poisoning, in 1971.

The son, who Dorris named "Adam" in his book, died in 1991 in a car accident in Lebanon

Dorris and Erdrich were an inspired literary duo. In 1991, their jointly penned novel "The Crown of Columbus" was released to wide acclaim.

Dorris' most recent book, "The Cloud Chamber," was released earlier this year.

"Michael was an outstanding writer -- he's not going to be forgotten," Rember said.

Dorris came to Dartmouth in 1972 as the Chair of Native American Studies -- a position he held until 1984. He had been an adjunct professor since 1989.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!