An American author and scholar, he is best known for his memoir, The Broken Cord, and for his novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. He was the 1989 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction.
He studied English, Classics, and anthropology at Georgetown University and Yale University and later taught at Dartmouth College.
After being accused of sexual abuse by two of his daughters, he committed suicide at the age of fifty-two.
He married fellow writer, Louise Erdrich, in 1981. His memoir, The Broken Cord, details the challenges of raising his adopted son, Reynold Abel, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
His autobiographical work, The Broken Cord, was made into a television movie starring Jimmy Smits.