Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Of Beads and a Crystal Vase: An Exploration of Language into Darkness, of Michael Dorris's the Broken Cord and Cloud Chamber

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Of Beads and a Crystal Vase: An Exploration of Language into Darkness, of Michael Dorris's the Broken Cord and Cloud Chamber

Article excerpt


Events take place -- from language into light and from light into darkness. In 1995 Michael Dorris's study of fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord (1989), was made into a movie for television. It starred Jimmie Smits as Michael Dorris. It was shot in Toronto with the academic scenes made on campus at the University of Toronto. Dorris's book had earned rave reviews for its pioneering study of fetal alcohol syndrome (it was a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner in the same year). However, the book also was a thinly-disguised autobiography of Dorris and his family, which included Louise Erdrich, the Native American writer. After the book appeared, Dorris went to Hollywood and sold the rights for the television movie. In so doing, he publicly exposed himself and his family and thereby set in train a series of events which went from language into light--from the language of the book into the light of the movie. Concomitantly, this trail led him into a family and personal situation which led from light in to darkness--into the death of his son, the separation and break-up of his marriage to Louise Erdrich, and eventually his suicide in 1997. The movie led directly to a downward spiral in his life from light into darkness. These events can be traced by examining the circumstances of the film as well as the language of Dorris's works in The Broken Cord and his Cloud Chamber, his last novel, published early in 1997, just a few months before he committed suicide. The events took place and showed that Michael Dorris was not who he said he was.


Dorris's The Broken Cord outlined his search to discover the reasons for his son Adam's fetal alcohol syndrome, which was a result of the drinking of his mother, a Lakota Sioux, during her pregnancy before he was born in 1968. There is no doubt that the publication of this book was a significant event in drawing national recognition of the syndrome and we have much to thank Dorris for the writing of it. And we do gain insights into the effects on their family in both the "Foreword" to the book written by Erdrich and chapter 15, "The Adam Dorris Story by Adam Dorris," in which the sensitive Adam portrays what it was like to grow up with these physical and mental impairments. One could also argue that Dorris went way too far, and compounded his own and his family's troubles by using and publicizing them. He crossed the line of no return when he sold the rights for a made-for-TV movie to Hollywood immediately after the book was well received, and thereby exposed himself and his family to disastrous public scrut iny.

The movie deal was made by Dorris, who was a relentless self-promoter, Erdrich, and his family in Hollywood. The same day he signed the movie contract, his son committed suicide. Dorris never recovered from that event and what he had done. He sank into depression, drank heavily, and lost his marriage and his family over the course of the next seven years.

Often movies contort and distort the truth of historical events. The language of the text is lost in the process of light--of the making of the movie. In this case, the opposite is true. Light changed the language into truth and into darkness. The movie itself is ironically closer to the truth of Michael Dorris's life than his book. The movie presents Dorris accurately as promoter, control freak, and abusive father and husband. Whatever one thinks of Jimmie Smits as an actor, David Norwell (the irony in the name is not lost on the viewer) is closer to Dorris than Dorris portrayed himself in his own works. Sadly, Dorris is seen as someone who, like the references in his Broken Cord, (1) and Cloud Chamber, is the "little engine that could," on a relentless search for material wealth and corporate acceptance. In this personal search, through his son's education and behavior, in the movie he sacrifices his relationship with his son and his family in the name of progress. …

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