Rachel Twymon, who as a young girl was a principal subject of Lukas' book on school busing, "Common Ground," keened over this august audience. When she spoke of how Lukas remained in touch with her long after the book was completed--how he had encouraged her to continue with her education--she brought some of the nation's toughest journalists to silent tears.
"I wish you could have called me, Tony," she sobbed into the microphone. "Maybe this time I could have helped you."
Lukas let his pain show, even to virtual strangers. Large and rumpled, with sagging shoulders and black eyes that could look exhausted and fierce at the same time, Lukas bore into people and ideas. But the flaws he forgave in others, he did not seem to be able to allow for himself.
After his death, Judith Gaines, a reporter for the Boston Globe, wrote about interviewing him about "Big Trouble," which uses the 1905 assassination of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg to examine American class warfare.
At one point in the interview, Gaines asked: "I guess what I really want to know is what do you mean by 'class'?"
Lukas looked blank. He seemed unnerved, she wrote, and told her he could not go on with the interview because "I can't believe that I spent seven years on this book and hadn't parsed this sufficiently."
A week later, he was dead.
As Lukas' friends looked for reasons that made sense, some noted that the end of a book project is a particularly vulnerable period for a writer. Handing over the manuscript means losing control and giving a less nurturing world a chance to paw over it, to criticize it.
"There is tremendous uncertainty at this point about the value of what you have written and how it will be received," said Charles Kaiser, a writer and close friend of Lukas. "Nobody who hasn't disappeared from the world for five or seven years can know what this feels like, especially for someone like Tony, who had the highest standards of anyone that we know. Therefore, no matter how magnificent it is, it could never be good enough."
Dissecting a Reputation
The memories of Michael Dorris were far more complicated, and perhaps for that reason far fewer people attended his memorial. Many stayed away from the event, some upset and angry about the possibility that someone they liked and trusted might have abused his own children. "I feel duped" was how one put it. The 100 or so people who gathered at the Donnell Library auditorium sat in small whispering clusters. For all but the closest friends and family, their appearance seemed like an act of duty. For many, the memorial was a chance not only to remember Dorris' talent and humor but also an opportunity to address their confusion or anger about a friend whose secret layers were suddenly the stuff of news.
"In the past few months," said Bob Edwards of National Public Radio, "more positive words have been written about Timothy McVeigh than about Michael Dorris."
Edwards, whose deep voice and slow, easy cadence make every phrase sound weighty, said later that Dorris' suicide made him "angry at everybody, at myself for not stopping him, at the media, even at Michael."
At the memorial, however, he concentrated on the lawyers and the reporters--"buzzards," as he put it, who were picking over his friend's reputation.
Although the Minnesota child abuse case is closed, reporters have written about what was in the file and how close Dorris came to being charged by one of his biological daughters.
His wife, Louise Erdrich, who had separated from Dorris a year ago, did not come to the memorial but sent a letter to be read. It said, in part: "Every day since Michael's death I have tried to think of what to say to our children. We talk and talk and like the stories their father and I wrote together, the explanation comes out different every time. . . . His death leaves us gasping."
She went on to talk about how proud she was of him. "A marriage and a writing life are much more than the notoriety and confusion of the last few months. . . .
"Yes, he was complicated. I wouldn't have married anyone who wasn't.
"Yes he had a shadow side, so do all people of more than one dimension."
Like the others who spoke, historian Simon Schama focused on the knowable part of Dorris:
"So perhaps there are things about the complete Michael I did not know and will never know, but the Michael I did know was, to me and my family, an immense blessing, a source of complete joy and excitement."
Dorris' story seemed superhuman. He launched the Native American studies department at Dartmouth 25 years ago, and it is now a thriving and highly regarded program. He wrote books, 14 in all--nonfiction, novels, children's books. He adopted three children, and when one suffered from acute fetal alcohol syndrome, he wrote "The Broken Cord," which brought world attention to a terrible disorder caused by pregnant mothers who drink. The warning label on a bottle of alcohol is one of his legacies.