Garrison Keillor was part of the soundtrack of Leah Robberts-Mosser's young life.
At first, her parents picked the radio stations. But Robberts-Mosser quickly took to A Prairie Home Companion, which by that time had hit its stride as a song-and-story show with a nationwide audience.
She loved the whole thing, but especially his "Lake Wobegon" stories, set in a fictionalized town of Minnesota Lutherans with "above average" children. They felt to Robberts-Mosser like "sermons about ordinary people and extraordinary moments," not unlike the ones Robberts-Mosser now tells as lead pastor of the Community United Church of Christ in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois.
Robberts-Mosser admired Garrison Keillor. In a way, she still does.
"That is the complicating thing about this experience I had," Robberts-Mosser says. "He does really good work."
On Wednesday this week, Keillor was fired from Minnesota Public Radio for "improper behavior," joining a growing line of media icons to be pushed out for past misdeeds. On Thursday, the Washington Post announced it was discontinuing a regular opinion column from Keillor; his last published effort was a defense of the also-accused DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
In a baffling email to the Star Tribune, Keillor explained that he had "waited fifty years for the honor" of being fired. He cited a single, innocent incident as the cause of his firing, and gave a description which is not easily followed:
"I put my hand on a woman's bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches."
The woman "recoiled," Keillor says, and he apologized, first in person, then by email, adding that the two remained "friendly right up until her lawyer called."
Keillor later conceded to MPR that two separate employees had "raised questions" about his conduct; a spokesperson for the station said one had filed a "formal complaint" which covered "multiple allegations related to Keillor's behavior."
Some fans of the show have continued to defend Keillor. Not Leah Robberts-Mosser. She's not surprised.
About a decade ago, Robberts-Mosser and her husband went to see Keillor perform at a one-man show in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They'd been invited by friends of theirs, who had tickets not only to the show, but to an "after-glow" meet-and-greet backstage.
To Robberts-Mosser, this was a big moment, meeting one of her childhood idols. She thought about and rehearsed what she wanted to tell him. She wanted it to be meaningful.
She recalls the show as Keillor "doing his thing, telling stories," with lots of music, too. Afterward, Robberts-Mosser and her husband stood in a receiving line backstage, as select audience members got their chance to meet Keillor. At last, it was her chance.
"Hello, young people!" Keillor greeted them, as Robberts-Mosser recalls.
She began what she'd rehearsed: "Hello, Mr. Keillor, my name is Leah, and I'm a pastor--"
"You are a pastor?!" Keillor cut her off.
Robberts-Mosser was wearing a v-neck dress and a denim jacket. Without warning, she says, Keillor grabbed the lapels on the jacket and forced it closed, covering her cleavage. In his theatrical attempt to cover Robberts-Mosser's breasts, Keillor had in fact got his hands on them.
"I was shocked, and also angry, and also embarrassed," Robberts-Mosser recalls. "I fumbled through the rest of what I was going to say."
The moment was nearly as upsetting for her husband, David Robberts-Mosser, who'd also grown up listening to Keillor, and passed many hours listening to A Prairie Home Companion when he lived alone in northern Michigan, working a "miserable job" at a foundry. David had bought Keillor's books for himself, and given them away to others as gifts.
"I was stunned," says David Robberts-Mosser, who now serves as pastor at Trinity United Church in Westville, Illinois. (The two met in seminary school.) "Here's a guy I idolized, shaming my wife for her appearance, objectifying her."
David Robberts-Mosser had also worked up something he wanted to tell Keillor, but after this moment, his mind went blank. David "stammered something out," and the two walked away.
At first, he recalls, they tried to "frame" the incident charitably, as merely an "awkward" encounter with a celebrity. The more they thought about it, the more upset it made them. As Leah Robberts-Mosser wrote on Facebook Wednesday, Keillor's little backstage performance was a thinly veiled one.
"You don't touch a woman's top in order to help her cover herself. Bullshit. You touch a woman's top and make a big hullabaloo about so you can get away with touching her tits."
Not long after this encounter, Robberts-Mosser recalls being in her kitchen. Maybe she was preparing dinner, or washing dishes just after it. She flipped on the radio, and there was Garrison Keillor's voice, which had been a part of her life for decades. She couldn't do it.
"I thought, 'Oh, I can't listen to your voice anymore. You made me feel really bad about something I ought not feel ashamed about.'"
David stopped listening, too: "It's just not the same."
Through the years, Leah Robberts-Mosser has told this story to a number of friends, most of whom reacted with shock. Judging by replies to her Facebook post, these days, fewer people are stunned to learn of troubling allegations against a respected figure.
Robberts-Mosser says what happened to her is "way low on the spectrum" of harassment and abuse some women have suffered, and come forward to talk about. But that doesn't excuse it.
"Even my kindergartner will tell you, you're supposed to keep your hands to yourself," she says.
Robberts-Mosser has been "fairly outspoken" from the pulpit about the social backlash against misogyny and sexual harassment.
"The bigger narrative, I think, is about power and control," she says. "The individual storylines are about sex, and people's bodies. But the whole story is about the misuse of power."
Attempts to reach Keillor for this story, including through MPR, his St. Paul bookstore, and two attorneys who have represented Keillor in the past, have proven unsuccessful. After the news broke, Keillor's website -- which previously featured a "contact" page -- was effectively dismantled, leaving only a statement from Keillor addressing his fall from grace.
"I am deeply grateful for all the years I had doing "A Prairie Home Companion" and "The Writer's Almanac", the summer tours, the outdoor shows at Tanglewood and Wolf Trap, the friendships of musicians and actors, the saga of Lake Wobegon, the songs and sketches, Guy Noir, Dusty & Lefty, the sheer pleasure of standing in the warmth of that audience. A person could not hope for more than what I was given. I've been fired over a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard. Most stories are. It's some sort of poetic irony to be knocked off the air by a story, having told so many of them myself, but I'm 75 and don't have any interest in arguing about this. And I cannot in conscience bring danger to a great organization I've worked hard for since 1969. I am sorry for all the poets whose work I won't be reading on the radio and sorry for the people who will lose work on account of this. But my profound feeling is that of gratitude, especially to my wife Jenny, and for this painful experience that has brought us even closer together."
Says Leah Robberts-Mosser: "People can misread cues. But you have to take responsibility for that. This is an opportunity to keep talking about it. Men who have made mistakes can help the situation by taking responsibility. Or they can shirk it by being smug about it. That’s not going to help anybody."
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