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  • Writer's pictureMichael Simms

On the Spectrum with Garrison Keillor

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

I have a mild version of Asperger’s syndrome — also known as “high functioning autism.”

A photograph of writer Garrison Keillor.
Garrison Keillor

Psychologists view Asperger’s not as a disease or disorder or neurosis, but rather as a common personality type. Although characteristics vary a great deal, people with Asperger’s tend to have problems with personal relationships because they, that is, we, tend to miss the visual and aural clues with which people signal their attitudes during conversation. We don’t intuitively see social boundaries, so we often offend people. We tend to be poor employees and not very good at marriage — thank God I’m married to Eva who is a psychologist, so she “gets” me.

In my case, I have a tendency to say things to people without understanding that what I’m saying is inappropriate or tactless or, in terms of my own career, simply stupid. Many of my friends and family members through the years have gotten angry at me for things I’ve said, and my tactlessness has at times caused problems in my relationships with poets I’m publishing. Pointing out that a poet’s drinking is the cause of his declining abilities; telling a celebrated poet that some of the poems in his new manuscript are not very good; suggesting to a college administrator, my boss at the time, that people know when she’s lying — these are just a few conversational missteps that I can now see were offensive, but at the time seemed the right things to say because they were true. Duh.

Fortunately, Asperger’s comes with compensatory talents; in fact, people with this tendency often have above average intelligence and an extraordinary ability to focus on a project over a period of years. Sometimes Asperger’s is called “the super-geek syndrome” because so many computer programmers have it. Also, you may have wondered about those weird guys (it’s more common in men than women) who spend twenty years building a mansion out of crushed beer cans or shivering night after night on a Scottish lake in order to photograph the Loch Ness monster. Yep. I could see myself taking on either of those projects.

Despite my problems in getting along with people, Asperger’s makes me an effective editor and entrepreneur. My unremunerated obsession with building Autumn House Press, Coal Hill Review, and Vox Populi would not have been possible for a “normal” person. My bluntness about a manuscript’s strength and weakness and my obsessive re-writing of other people’s work — although some writers find these habits offensive — are often appreciated by poets. I’ve also been able to make money as a real estate and stock market investor because I’m not distracted by the noise of other people’s opinions.

When I started Autumn House Press (AHP) in 1998, Garrison Keillor was one of the first well-known literary figures to encourage my efforts. He picked up a number of AHP poems for his national radio broadcast The Writer’s Almanac. He was instrumental in bringing the work of Jo McDougall, George Bilgere, and Sue Ellen Thompson to a national audience – which helped establish their reputations and gave AHP a boost in sales. He also picked up two of my own poems. (Yay!) He loves to support independent presses from the heartland, and his tastes in poetry lean toward the romantic – Mary Oliver and James Wright are two of his favorite poets — so as editorial colleagues, we were a good match. I dealt mainly with his permissions editor, meeting Keillor only once briefly at a book signing, but he and I exchanged a few informal notes in which he was unfailingly courteous and encouraging.

Besides being a champion of accessible poetry and independent presses, Keillor was also an important literary advocate, bringing poetry into the mainstream of American popular culture, weaving poets into his nostalgic vision (some would say fantasy) of small-town America. His views became an influential part of a national conversation in the 1990’s about the reasons for the loss of a popular audience for American poetry. (Remember thosearticles in The Atlantic about the “death of American poetry?”) Dana Gioia, Ted Kooser, Keillor, and others argued that the modern and post-modern poets had lost touch with the traditional role of poets — using clear language and well-established forms to bring depth and meaning to the lives of ordinary people. According to this argument, poetry had become an intellectual game played by academics, and it was up to us to save it. I think that Gioia, Kooser, and Keillor were right to a certain degree, and their views helped to move poetry to the place where it is now – engaged, accessible, political, and increasingly popular. Poetry as an insider’s game seems to have run its course.

But putting aside for a moment my admiration for and gratitude to Keillor, it needs to be said that by most accounts, he is a difficult man. In 2017, charges of sexual harassment against him became public. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) did an investigation and in January, 2018 claimed that Keillor had fostered a work environment that left some women feeling mistreated, sexualized, or belittled. He was fired from MPR, and his work for them, comprising 40 years of archives of Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac, was taken off the website. No one, not even Keillor, was allowed access to the archives.

After a few months, the scandal began to dissipate. The woman who charged Keillor with sexual harassment withdrew her claims without any payments being made to her. Other women he worked with came to his defense, and as details of Keillor’s behavior were revealed in the media, it became clear that he was not a rapist, or even a groper, but merely a bad boss. He belittled employees, men and women, for small mistakes. He was often moody, aloof and unresponsive. There were several instances over a 20 year period of Keillor making sexually inappropriate comments to employees, but they were not criminal in nature, just imaginatively creepy. For example, he wrote a limerick for Molly Hilgenberg and placed it on a white board behind the sales counter where she worked. Here’s the poem, for which Hilgenberg said Keillor later apologized:

A beauty who goes to Macalester ―

O, her face, her limbs, her ballast, her

Tiny blue kilt

And the way she is built

Could make a petrified phallus stir.

Questions were raised about the way that MPR’s top management had dealt with Keillor’s shortcomings. He was a brilliant performer, but a terrible boss. Why were his mistakes as a manager tolerated for so many years?

The answer, of course, is that he was a cash cow for MPR, bringing in millions of dollars in donations, sponsorships, and distribution fees, so for decades the top management looked the other way, and when #Metoo happened, the management panicked, fired him, violated their contract with him, blocked access to his intellectual property, and embarrassed him publicly. Then, realizing that they had over-reacted, the management back-pedaled. A few months after Keillor was fired, the Executive Director of MPR made a vague public apology to him; he wasawarded a cash settlement; access to his intellectual property was restored; and in exchange he promised not to sue MPR for defamation of character or breach of contract.

Clearly, the management of MPR mishandled the situation at every stage, but those of us who’ve admired Keillor’s work have to ask: what the hell was he thinking?

I believe that Keillor’s inappropriate behavior through the years was caused by his autism. Keillor has been very open about being on the spectrum. For example, he spoke about his experiences as an autistic person in his keynote address at the 19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference in 2014. His inability to make eye contact, his crippling shyness, his uncertainty of how to deal with women, his misinterpretation of social situations, his highly inappropriate remarks to just about everyone — are common traits of people with this condition. Also, his rich inner life, being able to create an entire world, the small town of Lake Wobegone, peopled by characters who themselves have rich inner lives and complicated relationships — his genius, if you want to call it that, also comes from his autism. This complicated man with his mix of talents and confusions got caught up in a national movement of women who were holding men accountable for generations of abuse. In Keillor’s case, it would have been better for everyone — and certainly less expensive for MPR — to have hired a therapist for Keillor when the problems first became apparent, rather than waiting until a crisis arose, and then publicly shaming him.

Among American poets, opinion about Keillor is divided. There are people like me who admire Keillor and feel grateful for what he has done for American poetry. Then there are others who believe that the sexual harassment charges should have been pursued more aggressively. And there are also critics who point out that he has often been dismissive of poets whose aesthetic is different than his own.

Take, for example, remarks Keillor made about the work of Marianne Moore, an icon of 20thcentury poetry. In the introduction to an anthology of poetry which he edited, he writes, “Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. A nice lady, but definitely a plodder.” As a fan of Moore’s work, I find this characterization offensive, as have many of his readers. But I’m also puzzled by his attack on this much-admired poet. In the 1990s, Keillor read no less than eight of Moore’s poems on The Writer’s Almanac, so he must have admired her work at one time; why attack her later? The only explanation I can think of is that he thought it was funny to describe her in this way, and it’s typical of people on the spectrum to make jokes that are offensive, and then be genuinely surprised at the response.

Despite his gifts as a story-teller and his admirable service to the field of poetry, Keillor has sometimes failed to keep in mind the principle that I, as someone who is also on the autism spectrum, often fail to remember: our relationships with the people who are helping us are far more important than the mansions we are building out of crushed beer cans.


Copyright 2019 Michael Simms

Michael Simms is the founder of Vox Populi, Coal Hill Review, and Autumn House Press.

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