Nov 03 2007

Published by

Michael Dorris, a Messenger of Hope

From the March 1997 issue of the Iceberg, a newsletter on fetal alcohol syndrome, Volume 7, #1. Mr. Dorris committed suicide just after this article was published.

In 1989 a messenger was sent to help many people hear and understand the words "fetal alcohol syndrome." The messenger did not chose his role. He was a reluctant clarion who would be forever changed by the earthshaking events in his life -- events that he was compelled to transform into prose that spoke so deeply to so many.

Michael Dorris is a writer of great talent who also happens to be a father children with fetal alcohol syndrome. His book, The Broken Cord, shared his pain, bewilderment and the sharpness of his love for his son Abel, his first experience with FAS.

Dorris was in Seattle in September 1996 as part of an international conference on fetal alcohol syndrome and he shared is thoughts, words and very soul with an audience who clearly felt they owed him much. His reaction to each person who came up and thanked him, in his own words, was unworthiness that was a shock to many of his admirers. He felt the pain of every parent and wore his pain openly. That the love of a parent of a child with FAS can be so gouging and life changing was made visible by Dorris.

After his book was published, Dorris unwittingly became the symbol of parents of children with FAS/FAE. "For seven years I have opened the letters from strangers who are not strangers. I speak for these parents. If you can't help their children, make sure it never happens again."

After the death of his son Abel, in a pedestrian accident, Dorris withdrew from the activist circles of FAS to deal with his loss, and to continue to parent through the struggles of his other adopted children with FAS. "He (Abel) was lovable, sweet...full of life..."

The conference was Dorris' first public FAS appearance since Abel's death. In an interview midway through the conference, Dorris was struggling with a fate he felt was somehow thrust upon him -- to write another book on FAS. He expressed his personal desire to be exclusively a fiction writer, yet pulled by the incredible obligation to give voice to the feelings, people and issues surrounding FAS. His book is expected out the fall of 1997. "Who is going to tell the hard truth? The vast majority of victims are not children, but adults." He was at the conference to gather the words and thoughts of other families touched by FAS.

When asked what compels him to stay publicaly involved, Dorris wondered alout if, "we are each an unwilling participant -- or are we all volunteers? We fall into our fates, or leap unknown into them and then we do our best to figure them out," he said. Once involved, it is hard to quite. "This engages our emotions, our impulse to put out the fire before the forest is fully engulfed." In all that he has done in the FAS field, he noted that it all comes back to family. In his most recent novel, Cloud Chamber, (Scribner) one of his characters, 15-year-old Rayona, summed it up. "And now I know the big secret: being a family is a voluntary duty." Dorris has clearly volunteered.

Dorris talked about the needs he sees in the FAS arena, and coined the term "Post-Vention." "We need to shake up society, we cannot stick our heads in the sand," he said. "We must define FAS as an issue that cuts across every age, gender and culture." There are thousands of peopled damaged by alcohol walking around in our society." If he had the "magic resource wand," Dorris said he would establish rural residential centers, with repetitive work, "non-stop cartoon channel," no drugs and alcohol, and where people with FAS/E could enjoy each other's company and have normal children. "I would pay lots of money to the caregivers. I would help fund productive, vocational work."

Surrounded by parents like himself, Dorris showed himself as a man in great pain, a man whose life still deals with phantoms of guilt at not being able to "fix" his child. A self-described type A personality, Dorris expressed the conflict of "the child I expected him (Abel) to be vs. the parent he needed me to be." Guilt. Obligation. Pain. Passion. A man who could be a messenger of hope at one moment, and a dark horseman the next. Some parents at the conference were confused by his despair. Others understood that to have hope, one has to know despair. "Predestination is too mild a word for the progression from too small, irrisistable to the struggle to learn, to tell them (parents)... things generally get worse with the passage of time." But Dorris drew strength in his convictions that life is a river and you must both flow with it and swim ?as hard as you can.? And his humor has helped sustain him.

During the conference, the idea of being a messenger sprang up again and again. In some native traditions, children with FAS are seen as messengers to us to take care of our children and our society. I asked Dorris if Abel was a messenger to him and that he, in his talent of crafting words into true communication, was carrying on Abel's work. He did not reply. At that moment, yet another clump of people came to pay homage to a man who so clearly is a true hero, yet who seems unable to believe how loved and appreciated he is to these thousands of people -- strangers -- whose lives have been changed by his words.

In the fetal alcohol community there is a current, a conviction, that runs deeply through each person. But rarely is that current translated into the elusive medium of words, and then ripple through the broader community so that others may have a glimpse, a shiver of understanding. Michael Dorris is a vital connection. Not only are his words an important currency, but his pain, his generosity of spirit and his soul, help move things forward. The price he has had to pay is clearly too high. And that price is, in the end, not the point. The point is through his love for his children, Michael Dorris has opened many doors, including some with a legacy of children born free from alcohol related birth defects. For in opening the dark corridors and bringing light, Dorris has not only provided solace, he has inspired prevention. This is a gift of love so great that if he were to write not one more word on FAS, nor speak, nor share his spirit, the world can already be counted a better place for his existence.

From all of your nameless disciples, Michael, let that love heal your pain in some small way. You have not failed your children and you have saved many more.