Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndromeby Michael Dorris
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The controversial national bestseller that received unprecedented media attention, sparked the nation's interest in the plight of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and touched a nerve in all of us. Winner of the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award.
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I sat in the lobby of the Pierre airport, waiting. The terminal resembled an oversized department store display case, the kind in which jewelry or cosmetics are arranged--a glass front, neutral colors, brightly lit--except that this one existed in isolation, a rectangular box on the flat, wind-scoured plain of central South Dakota. A draft of air had lifted the wings of the small commuter plane just before we landed, releasing first a collective moan of dread and then the embarrassed laughter of survival among my fellow passengers.
On the ground I got a better look at them: three bureaucrats, dressed in wrinkle-free suits, with business in the state capital; two ranchers sporting their go-to-town buckles--large silver and turquoise affairs that divided barrel chests from thin, booted legs; a harried mother trying to convince a small child with pressure-stopped ears to yawn or swallow; a visiting in-law, met loudly by a woman in curlers and Bermuda shorts.
I felt exhilarated and out of place, a stranger on a mission no one would suspect: within the hour, I was due to become an unmarried father.
The year was 1971 and I was twenty-six years old, ex-would-be hippie, candidate for a Yale doctorate in anthropology, a first-year instructor at a small experimental college in New England. This cloudy afternoon in Pierre was the culmination of a journey I had begun nine months before when, while doing fieldwork in rural Alaska, it occurred to me that I wanted a child, I wanted to be a parent.
I remember precisely the context of this realization. I was living then in a cabin in Tyonek, an Athapaskan-speaking Indian community on the west coast of CookInlet, collecting information about the impact of modernization and oil revenues on the life of this remote fishing village. Much of my time was spent in the study of the local language, linguistically related to Navajo and Apache but distinctly adapted to the subarctic environment. One of its most difficult features for an outsider to grasp was the practice of almost always speaking, and thinking, in a collective plural voice. The word for people, "dene," was used as a kind of "we"--the subject for virtually every predicate requiring a personal pronoun--and therefore any act became, at least in conception, a group experience.
It was my second autumn in Tyonek. I had spent the morning interviewing an elderly woman, Mrs. Nickefor Alexan, the respected expert on subjects ranging from traditional herbal medicine to the do's and don'ts of appropriate courting behavior. In the course of our conversations, I consumed too much tea and my mouth was dry with the acidic taste.
I returned to my house in the afternoon and was uninterrupted as I organized my notes; most adults in the community were busy in their smokehouses, preserving and canning August's catch of fish, and the children, my frequent summer visitors, had returned to school. In a world of "we," I was an "I," with no essential responsibilities or links outside myself.
Periodically, I glanced from my window at the darkening sky. The twenty-four-hour circuit of day and night, upon which most of Western time is based, expands to a full twelve months in the far north. There is light enough to fish any time in the summer, and so the arbitrary schedules of passing salmon runs rather than a wristwatch dictate when dories should put to sea. The darkness is absolute in winter, underlined by forbidding temperatures that sometimes dip fifty degrees below zero. The short fall season, therefore, is a blend of both fatigue and melancholy, of final consolidation of the summer's gains and of preparation for the severity of approaching weather. It is a bridge of contemplation, of taking stock, and there is no occasion more appropriate for that practice than when the turning of the tide corresponds to the setting or rising of the low sun. Then, on the best days, the usually ferocious water is tamed into the stillness of a mirror that reflects the red and violet light of the clouds. Immersed in this experience, renowned among Native peoples of the region as a moment out of ordinary time, the only possible response is surrender.
I rose from the table I used for a desk, and stood at the open front door. My cabin perched on a bank above the beach, high enough so that I seemed entirely surrounded by improbable light, awhirl in the energy of star and sea. The colors above and below merged incoherently, washed into each other and into me. It was not that I had a vision of any sort, but rather that my mind was temporarily cleansed, made ready for new writing; and on that board I read with no ambiguity that I wanted a baby. The message was so certain, so unwavering, that I did not once question it. Instead, when I shut the door, I put aside my work and composed four letters to social welfare agencies, asking if adoption were possible for a single man, and if so, how and when.
Single-parenthood had, for generations, been the practical norm in my family. My grandfathers and father had all died young, leaving widows to raise children alone and through extended family networks. My role models were strong, capable mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, and I saw no compelling reason not to continue the tradition. I imagined vaguely that I would someday 'marry, but there were no immediate prospects. For some women, especially in the 1960s, babies preceded husbands. Why couldn't a child come for me before a wife? Broken Cord. Copyright © by Michael Dorris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Michael Dorris is the author of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, The Broken Cord, Working Men, Morning Girl, and Guests, and co-author with Louise Erdrich of The Crown of Columbus.
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Reading this book brought back many memories of my own daughter, who was adopted in 1994. It took a few years before I realized the impact of alcohol in her life. I laughed and cried as I read Michael's description of Adam's life and how he(Michael) was trying to rationalize why his son was the way he was. Looking back I realize how much I wasn't prepared for my child's challenges but recognize how much she taught me about life and how to deal with her understanding of the world. I have come to learn that my daughter didn't live in my world, but that I lived in her world which I had to make adjustments according to each situation. Safety was and still will always be first. I would encourage all parents to read and learn to appreciate the children you do have that are not impacted with any type of disability. As a former teacher I would always wonder what normal was in today's society.
What an awesome read! This book is a perfect mix of personal testimony, social issue awareness, and nerdy research stuff. If you work with children or adults affected by FAS or FAE, this is MUST READ! This book makes you want to find out more about the family, FAS, FAE, and other current issues that affect the rest of a child's life while in utero.
The Broken Cord by Michael Dorris is a collective memoir of Michael Dorris¿s life, and struggles through adopting a child as a single man. When Michael, a young Native American professor and author, finally decides he wants a child, he is told it may be difficult to adopt because he is a single man, but Michael puts the comments aside and tries anyways, and succeeds. However, when Michael takes his new Native American son home, he starts to notice that his son is a little slower on some things, but he still loves him dearly. When his son Adam, is about four years old, he begins to have seizures and Michael becomes worried, but the doctors all tell him that it is a mental problem, and put Adam on medication. However, the seizures continue and Adam becomes labeled as LD, which means learning disabled. After talking to many professionals, Michael discovers that Adam has FAS, or fetal alcohol syndrome. Michael also decides to adopt two other children, both of Native American descent: Sava, who he names after his old fishing partner in Alaska who has recently passed away, and Madeline. With three children, Michael has his hands full and is very busy, but still finds time to meet a woman and fall in love. In 1981, Michael marries Louise Erdrich, a fellow Native American researcher and author. And together they have two daughters: Pallas, and Persia. Michael continues his research on fetal alcohol syndrome, and looks for a cure to his son¿s horrible disease, but sadly there is no solution, his son will for ever be a handicap.