Thursday, November 30, 2017

What would happen in Lake Wobegon?

Let me first say: I love Garrison Keillor. Or rather, I love his work. I don’t know him, so cannot love him.

The News from Lake Wobegon made my family laugh till we cried when we were mission workers in Europe. We saw our own people in his gentle lampooning of the foibles of the Minnesotan Sanctified Brethren. He opened a portal for us homesick Manitobans to escape for a while into a world where we didn’t feel like foreigners. He was our prairie home companion. His stories were our stories.

Again: we loved him, but we didn’t know him. It is an odd wonder, so ubiquitous now as to disappear from conscious awareness, this splicing of a human person knowable in the flesh, and that person’s voice, spirit - the Romans would say genius - out into the world via what we call information technology, first through the airwaves as radio, then as television, today as digital traffic on the internet, bringing first the word, then the image of another across the threshold of our homes: disembodied guests, bottled genies we summon with buttons and dials.

And so I read today in my newsfeed a story, copied and pasted hundreds of times over, of a Garrison Keillor scandal. Hodge-podged onto a handful of verifiable facts are a truckload of opinions and feelings. We are all arguing and venting and speculating about what has happened and what should happen with this quirky old geezer caught in a dodgy situation.

I wonder what would happen in Lake Wobegon. The deep nostalgia that Keillor tapped into with the powers of a cypher was our hunger for neighbourhood. For a world where people knew each other. Where there were understandings. And where there was a good narrator. An affectionate, all-knowing voice that saw into the hearts of everyday women and men and loved them. And helped them find their way to a satisfying resolution of their silly troubles. Lord, we miss that.

I don’t know how far Garrison’s hand slid on the back of his female co-worker. I don’t know if, as he says, he just meant to comfort her in a moment of sadness, that he apologized when she recoiled, and they were able to work together as friends until her lawyer called. I know that I want to believe this storyteller. I know I want his more innocent world to be real. He’s always had that effect on me.

What I am pretty sure of is that this is none of my business. It’s not nobody’s business, but it’s not my business. The question for me is, when we discuss a problem like this, what is the shape of the we that is talking? What is its scale? It seems self-evident that a nation-wide scandal is as useless as it is disproportionate to the dilemma between Keillor and his accuser.

That said, I come from a people who have closets littered with skeletons we kept there for centuries by telling ourselves and the world that we could sort this out amongst ourselves. Our victims, most often women and children, by and large did not get a hearing, and our perpetrators, by and large men of authority, were not held to account until our cozy, down-home communities were breached by outsiders, whether with their legal systems, or simply by their ideas, smuggled into our homes via books, via the radio, the TV, the internet.

I would like to imagine a gathering back stage at the Prairie Home Companion, a gathering with food and good coffee and a good outside facilitator. A gathering where things get said that need to get said that haven’t been said for a long time. A gathering where Garrison doesn’t own the microphone, doesn’t direct the show, where his fertile imagination doesn’t seduce everyone with how he wants the story to end. There would be tears. And honesty. And I hope, in the end, but not too soon, there would be laughter. And it would be their tears and their honesty and their laughter. It would be their conversation, not ours.

The genius of creating a fictional neighbourhood like Lake Wobegon was that it allowed an intimacy and an honesty that kept it at a safe distance from the real people in Keillor’s life and the real people in our lives. We laughed because he told all about us without violating our privacy. This made us better able to see our mistakes. I wish Mr. Keillor and his former co-workers a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.


  1. Very nicely said. We're all walking a difficult line these days in response to such news if we're willing to stay engaged in the discernment process. Perhaps more will come out, perhaps not. But I will always be grateful for his gifts.

  2. I thought of you immediately when I heard about this. Beautifully said, Marcus. You have a marvellous gift with words.