The Broken Cord (A Book Review)

The Broken Cord, by Michael Dorris, (affiliate link) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 1989. I’m currently working away on a big goal of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. I chose to tackle The Broken Cord next because of my strong interest in parenting kids who come from hard places. Dorris writes superbly. I found his memoir to be both disturbing and engrossing.

Michael Dorris, a single man in his mid-20s, ached to be a father. Within his family of origin, single parenting was not an unusual occurrence. So, he set out to adopt a child through social services. Ultimately, Dorris would adopt three children, all of Native American heritage. Later, he would marry Louise Erdrich, herself a well-respected author. Dorris and Erdrich would go on to have two biological children together. The Broken Cord tells the story of their unique family. However, the central figure of this account is Adam, Dorris’ first (and eldest) adopted child.

Adam suffered a permanently disabling loss in utero due to his birth mother’s alcohol consumption. In 1971, when Dorris adopted Adam, little was known (even to experts) about fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol effect (FAE). Because of so little knowledge on FAS/FAE, and because of optimistic parental blinders, it would take over a decade for Dorris to come to grips with the reality of Adam’s condition. Dorris and Erdrich ultimately accepted the reality of Adam’s limitations. However, their story is a harrowing account of the devastation maternal drinking causes.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is not reversible.

The Broken Cord was densely written. Dorris recounts the joy of first-time fatherhood, and his long journey to building a family via adoption from social services. He also chronicles the culture of alcohol usage on Native American lands in the US. (As founder of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth, he is well qualified to speak to these trends.) Ultimately, Dorris details the hardships of the daily life in parenting a child who has suffered from FAS. 

Mr. Bean and I have attended a decent amount of training in the area of parenting kids from hard places. However, The Broken Cord shed light on the devastation of FAS and FAE in a profound way. The information I read has left me feeling heavy-hearted, yet also empowered to share with others. So before I close out this review, here are a few new insights that I gained from The Broken Cord.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is 100% preventable.

  • FAS is the diagnosis given to children who have suffered most profoundly from alcohol exposure in utero and from breastfeeding. It is thought that as many of 25% of children born on Native American lands in the US have FAS.
  • While it is difficult to say exactly, it is thought that well over half (and perhaps up to 75%) of children born on Native American lands may suffer from FAE. FAE is still permanent and debilitating, but lacking in some of the most severe medical and psychological issues associated with FAS.
  • The culture of alcohol usage on Native American lands is like quicksand: very difficult to escape, and those who do are often shunned.
  • Most (if not all) babies born with FAS are placed into a foster or adoptive home by the age of 3 because their alcoholic parents are unable to care for them.
  • FAS/FAE occurs most often with mothers who are age 25 and older.
  • People with FAS lack the ability to understand cause and effect. This is by far one of their biggest challenges, and it ultimately hinders their ability to live an independent life.

To close, I will say that this was not a “happy” read. However, it was excellent. In The Broken Cord, Dorris presented a smooth balance of parenting memoir, Native American history, and FAS/FAE research. Highly recommended.

Close Me
Looking for Something?
Post Categories: