The Broken Cord

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Michael Dorris, an unmarried young anthropologist about to embark on an academic career, decides in 1971 that he wants to become an adoptive father. Despite reservations, after the unavoidable delays caused by red tape, the social agencies accept his application, and he is eventually informed that a three-year- old American Indian boy is available. Undeterred by the information that the boy has been diagnosed as mentally retarded, Dorris unhesitatingly agrees to take the boy, flies from New Hampshire to the adoption agency in Pierre, South Dakota, and collects the smiling, affectionate boy whom he will call Adam.

This is the introduction to what will prove to be the subject of a heartbreaking and frightening book. Adam, smiling and affectionate, winning Dorris’ heart by calling him “Daddy” at first sight, is something other than retarded. He is small for his age; he has serious physical problems, including curvature of the spine and a smaller than normal cranium; his joints are disproportionately large; he is subject to seizures, the first of which very nearly kills him, and he must be given medication to prevent severe recurrences; above all, he is slow to learn and seems almost willfully incapable of retaining what he is taught. By the time Adam is five, he has not yet accepted toilet training or learned to tie his own shoes, and the people who supervise him at day-care centers are as frustrated as his adoptive father by his lack of normal “progress.”

For ten years, during which Dorris became head of the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College, made a career for himself in the academic world, married the brilliant part-Indian novelist Louise Erdrich, and adopted another son and a daughter, he worked with Adam, struggling to teach him and seizing on any sign that Adam had some gifted quality to compensate for his problems. Teachers loved the boy and pretended to see signs of progress. When a psychology class studied Adam’s preschool and reported that he was retarded, Dorris erupted; he met with the head of the school, the professor who supervised the students, and the officials of the school Adam would attend, and he browbeat them into agreeing that Adam was only slow. Of course he would be slow: Dorris knew about Adam’s birth parents only that the mother was a drunk who abandoned Adam and died not long after his birth; his father, also an alcoholic, had a long criminal record and finally was killed. As a three-year-old, Adam had shown scars of mistreatment. Clearly, he had started behind other children. Clearly, also, to Dorris and his teachers, Adam needed only special attention to catch up. He went to school, got sympathetic and devoted attention from selfless special education teachers, and was passed from one grade to the next by teachers who were no more willing than Dorris to admit that more was wrong with Adam than a slow start in life.

The Broken Cord is as much the story of Michael Dorris’ experience as of Adam’s. He describes at length the boy’s problems, but he also makes clear his own difficulties in accepting the evidence of Adam’s affliction. There must be a cause, he believed, and if there was a cause that could be described, there must be a solution:If Adam’s cognitive ability was permanently limited, as every evaluator seemed to agree, I wanted a culprit to accuse, a disease to blame, a named pathology. I had the kind of anger that could be ameliorated only through understanding, that could be accepted only after every stone had been upturned and every lead followed to its conclusion.

The answers were slow to come. It was only in 1982, visiting a Sioux community as an observer, that Dorris saw three boys who looked remarkably like Adam: “They could have been Adam’s twin brothers. They resembled him in every facial feature, in every gesture, in body type.” Dorris was made aware that what they all shared was the tragedy of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Their mothers had drunk alcohol, probably in large amounts, at crucial points during their pregnancies, and the children they bore were condemned to incomplete lives. Dorris had to begin to face the hard knowledge that his son would never live a full life.

The first half of The Broken Cord is almost entirely personal, the story of Dorris and Adam, presenting in vivid detail the father’s frustration and the son’s difficulties. Dorris is a novelist as well as an anthropologist, author of the critically acclaimed A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), and his skill as a writer of fiction is evident in the first eight chapters, with their descriptions of people and incidents. He writes tellingly about his other adoptive children and other aspects of his personal life. In 1981 he married one of his former students, the novelist Louise Erdrich, who...

(The entire section is 1976 words.)