April 28, 1997 12:00 PM

THE LEGION OF PEOPLE WHO LOVED Michael Dorris (author of The Broken Cord, a wrenching story about his struggles with adopted son Abel, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome) knew that he was in extremis in the last week of his life. On the brink of a divorce from novelist Louise Erdrich, his wife of 15 years, Dorris, 52, felt bereft. Family was everything to him: While still single, the novelist and child-welfare advocate had adopted three Native American children (including Abel), and he had an uncannily close relationship with Erdrich—his muse, writing partner and mother of daughters Persia, 13, Pallas, 12, and Aza, 8. “Louise and the girls were his life,” says Sandi Campbell, his assistant.

But his life was disintegrating: At 2:30 a.m. on March 29, state police, alerted by a friend, broke into a cottage near the Cornish, N.H., house where the couple had lived for 12 years to find Dorris—who had washed down prescription pills with a half bottle of vodka—”awake but incoherent,” in the words of one trooper. Dorris (an adjunct professor at nearby Dartmouth) was rushed to a hospital, where he was kept for observation. Transferred to the Brattleboro Retreat, a psychiatric hospital in Vermont, he apparently asked for a day pass on Thursday. On Friday a manager at the Brick Tower Motor Inn in Cornish forced open the door of a room to find Dorris’s body on the bed, a plastic bag over his head. The cause of death: asphyxiation. Beside the corpse was a note: “I was desperate…. I love my family and friends and will be peaceful at last.”

But for Dorris’s friends, the horror was not yet over: On April 15 the Hennepin County attorney’s office in Minneapolis—where Erdrich and Dorris had lived since 1993—confirmed that authorities were weighing charges of criminal sexual conduct involving children against him. Dorris “knew about the allegations,” says Campbell, and “though his friends and I told him that we knew he would be exonerated,” he feared that he would never shake the scandal.

Although county authorities declined to supply details, Minneapolis police planned to make their files public after deleting references to the children involved. On April 15, Erdrich filed for a restraining order to keep the case confidential; the next day papers, including The Boston Globe, reported that the allegations against Dorris involved one or more of the couple’s daughters.

With rumors exploding around her, Erdrich, the author of six novels, including The Beet Queen, said little. She moved out of the couple’s home two years ago and kept the girls from visiting Dorris since December but nevertheless declined to comment on the allegations against him. To the Minneapolis Star Tribune, she said, “Michael did a huge amount of good in the world. He also suffered from severe depression.” Erdrich also expressed gratitude to her neighbors in Minneapolis. “I love people here,” she said. “I’ve got hot dishes all over my porch. I do feel that I have a commitment to talk openly, but I don’t feel this is the time.”

Meanwhile, friends rejected the notion that Dorris was capable of sexual abuse. “It’s just inconceivable,” said Lauren Wohl, marketing director of Hyperion Books for Children, which published three of Dorris’s books for young readers. Adds former Detroit News book editor Ruth Coughlin, who was one of Dorris’s best friends: “He believed he was being set up.”

Dorris had been battered by grief since 1991, when Abel, then 23, was killed by a car. In 1994 he and Erdrich, who adopted his Native American children, brought charges against son Jeffrey, claiming that he had tried to extort money from them. (After a mistrial, Jeffrey was acquitted the following year.) Feeling out of place after the family moved from New Hampshire, Dorris was “devastated,” says Coughlin, when his marriage disintegrated. Adds Wohl: “He was very, very unhappy in a way I hope you and I never, never know.”

Last week funeral plans for Dorris remained private, at the family’s request. Though the dark questions about him have not been put to rest, friends assert that their thoughts are with his widow and children now. Says ex-neighbor Barbara Bonner: “We feel profoundly sad for them all.”


MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis, MARK DAGOSTINO in Cornish and LAN N. NGUYEN in New York City

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