Garrison Keillor during a performance with the Seattle Symphony
The list continues to grow.
Pixar's John Lasseter. NBC's Matt Lauer. And now, just minutes ago, Garrison Keillor.
Add them to the shameful snowball of probable sexual harassers whose careers in the media have been endangered, if not ended, by allegations of inappropriate conduct around co-workers and employees. Lauer lost his job with the Today Show yesterday. Last night, I saw Lasseter's name in the credits of a movie that moved and amazed me--Coco--and found the wonder I'd felt at its craftsmanship and humanity tainted by thoughts about how he'd abused his power to make unwelcome advances. And today, eating lunch in a hospital cafeteria (as I write this, Amy is having bi-lateral knee replacement surgery), the headline about Keillor popped up in my news feed: he'd been fired by Minnesota Public Radio, a powerhouse of thoughtful audio content whose reputation rests almost entirely on the four decades during which it was the base for Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, on charges that have not been made public, though he has issued a statement about having a gesture of support misinterpreted by a coworker. I doubt MPR, or any responsible employer, would have taken such extreme action on something as easily open to interpretation as what he described, so I expect there's much more to the story than that.
But back to the snowball. For the first time in over a year, headlines and news feeds are not being dominated by news of the Molester In Chief. Instead, we're seeing accusations of conduct like that the President now denies he ever engaged in leveled against male celebrities and politicians, many of them icons of the liberal intelligentsia. The severity of the behavior in question runs the gamut from indecent exposure and unwanted flirtation to pedophilia and sexual assault, and the responses of the accused have ranged from blanket denial to seemingly heartfelt remorse. What they all have in common is the generation and power of the man in question: all of them I'm aware of are middle-aged and older; and all are, in one way or another, figures of authority, persons who, at any time prior to the last month, would have been accorded a sizable presumption of innocence.
But we live in a different time now. Donald Trump may have been the last prominent American man to be accorded the benefit of the doubt by the people from whom he derived his power--in his case, the core voters who gave him just enough margin in the right states to become President, despite losing the popular vote by millions. Harvey Weinstein was not accorded that benefit. Nor was Al Franken, whose admitted missteps pale in comparison to those committed with impunity by comedians just a few years older than he is. Roy Moore may, yet, win a special election for U.S. Senator despite the preponderance of evidence that, as a younger man, he preyed about teenaged girls to the extent that he was banned from the shopping mall that was his favorite hunting ground.
I won't shed any tears if Roy Moore goes down to defeat for the error of his ways--though I wish Alabama voters had rejected him for his abominable views and the professional misconduct he engaged in as a judge long before these allegations were made public. I don't carry if Harvey Weinstein rots in a jail cell for the rest of his life. I'm upset about Louis CK who, while his humor at times made me squirm, I found, for the most part, to be a perceptive and sympathetic voice. I'm much more saddened by Al Franken's fall from grace: I've been a fan of his since my college days.
But Garrison Keillor? Let it not be so! Why, the next thing you'll be telling me is Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.
Oh, right. That really is a thing.
It's been three years since I wrote about the Cosby allegations, and how shattering I found them. Cosby and Keillor were models for me, voices I first encountered in my youth, who shaped my identity as a preacher and performer. Both specialized in a kind of confessional storytelling, drawing on their own experiences to spin out long form pieces about growing up, parenting, and being a man in modern America that were simultaneously hilarious and melancholy. Their style was so casual, natural, and conversational that it felt at times like I was being personally addressed by them. When, in my second year of seminary, I began to shape my identity as a preacher, I drew on their examples, crafting a style that was intimate, personal, and, when it was humorous, only at my own expense. One of the highest honors I ever received was to have one of my sermons compared to "News from Lake Wobegon," Keillor's signature form. Beginning in 2000, I began a professional transition from ministry to music education. As with preaching, I early on chose to be a storyteller rather than a book reader; and I'm well aware that the techniques I use whenever I tell a story to children are modeled on Bill Cosby's delivery of stories like "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast" and "Natural Childbirth."
It's excruciating, then, to learn of accusations against these idols. I find myself wondering whether, in the quest to immerse a congregation in whatever story I was telling, I crossed an emotional line. In fact, when some colleagues came to evaluate my preaching prior to my ordination as an elder, one of them told me, "What you do is powerful. Please use it for good." For the remaining five years of my career, I backed away from some of the more personal illustrations I'd been using. That caution carried over into my classroom storytelling: I only tell fictional stories now, never about myself.
That's beside the point, though, which is simply this: professional mentors, people I looked up to for their artistry and virtuosity, were not, in fact, as open, vulnerable, and humanistic as their stage personae suggested. I know this is an often-played trope in the arts--it played out last night in the plot of Coco, for instance--but it's still just as shattering every time it happens. It hurts when we find out a hero is actually a cad, because this is someone we want to be like. I want to tell the stories that make people laugh and cry, that inspire them to become better people themselves. That's what Cosby and Keillor used to do for me. I wanted to be more like them.
But that's exactly where I find hope in these revelations: I'm not like them in these ways. You might be thinking, "Of course you're not! There aren't any crowds paying exorbitant amounts of money to see you perform!" But that's not what I'm getting at. Since my earliest memories, I have striven to be something better than a cad. I have aspired to being a good Scout, trustworthy in all my dealings, respectful of others, generous in judgment, loyal to my loved ones, cautious in taking risks, asking permission before making advances on anyone I hope to be romantic with. It hasn't paid off in fame or fortune, but I have at least been rewarded with a life I can look back on with few regrets.
Yes, I did say "few." There have been relationships that ended badly, times when I was passionately convinced I was in the right about something that was far more nuanced than I could admit, times I fought for a cause I later realized was not worthy of my attention. Those are moments and times in my life that will haunt me to my last breath.
But aspirationally, I'm on the right heading to have taken the good from my clay-footed mentors--not just Cosby and Keillor, but many others not as well-known, but significant contributors to my professional identities--and have not needed to discard it upon learning there was a sordid hidden life beneath the brilliance I so admired. Realizing this, I can go on doing the things they taught me to do while drawing lines around the behaviors I abhor. It's not as hard as it sounds: that in each of these people that I aspire to is a public face. The fact that their misbehavior has taken so long to be revealed is proof that it was saved for their private lives. For all my disappointment at learning that the private did not measure up to the public, I think I knew this all along. It's not as if I knew any of these people as a friend: their public face was the only face I saw, so modeling myself on it kept me from the abuses they committed in the shadows.
There is still tragedy in the relationship I have with these publicly admirable cads: once I learn of who they are in private, I can never enjoy their performances in quite the same way again. I haven't watched a Cosby episode or routine in years. I won't be playing the Garrison Keillor CD I got for Christmas last year anytime soon. And even being reminded in the end credits that John Lasseter was involved in Coco as executive producer tainted my experience of that lovely film.
It's been understood for generations that great art can come from monstrous people. Beethoven was, by all accounts, a horrible person to be around, but the music he created is nothing short of transformative. He was not alone in that apparent mismatch: as long as there has been art, there have been artists whose sublime output belied the ugliness within its creator. In time, we can accept this about the great masters.
It's just a bit early for me to be able to make this distinction with Cosby, Keillor, Franken, Lasseter, Spacey, and any of the other performers and creators who, in this time of sea-changing revelations, will be shown to be far uglier on the inside than their public personae even hinted at.