Humorist Garisson Keillor has had to tangle with the American Psychiatric Association before. You can encourage this humorist, inventor of Lake Wobegone, to speak out again, this time about Raymond Sandford of Minnesota.
Update: By coincidence, a Prairie Home Companion ongoing skit for years, before this campaign, has been about a therapy organization that spells out. ELCA is the huge Lutheran Church that oversees Lutheran Social Services that administered Ray’s force shocks. So you can always thank him for his ELCA skit at any time!
You Can Help Let Garrison Keillor Know About Ray Sandford
by David W. Oaks, Director, MindFreedom International
I think about Ray Sandford up there in cold Minnesota getting regular involuntary electroshock, even though he lives out in the community in a basement room in a small assisted living home just north of Minneapolis.
I think about the fact that a social service owned by six Lutheran Church Synods in Minnesota is Ray’s general guardian, but they won’t speak out and oppose his abuse. In fact, they have at times actively blocked his campaign.
And I think of one of my favorite cultural leaders, author and humorist Garrison Keillor.
He has deep connections to Minnesota culturally and geographically, he endorses progressive causes, he has irreverence and intelligence, and he pokes and prods the Lutherans up there in Minnesota in a loving but somewhat critical way.
Then there’s the little-known incident one decade ago where Mr. Keillor tangled with the American Psychiatric Association.
In 1999, Mr. Keillor wrote into one of his monologues about Lake Woebegone (his fictional hometown) an individual experiencing mental and emotional difficulties and differences.
Authorities helped calm the upset Wobegone resident using knock knock jokes.
The portrayal was written with, I think, sensitivity, complexity and compassionate humor. Sure, I might have disagreed with some particular points, but that wasn’t the point of the piece. The point was art.
But of course a psychiatrist, head of a state branch of the American Psychiatric Association, had a knee jerk reaction, passionately opposing Mr. Keillor’s piece, and the APA published this psychiatrist’s letter.
AT BOTTOM of this is that psychiatrist’s letter and, more importantly, Mr. Keillor’s articulate response.
What is it about humor that absolutely bothers some of the industry leaders of the mental health system? There is nothing inherently evil about all humorous references to issues in mental health care. Squashing all humor is a way to squash public discussion, to try to maintain a lock on the topic.
We have to remember that Mr. Keillor does not pretend to be an expert in this field. And yet, his response showed that he views a human being with more complexity than as just a bag of chemicals. He understands there is something wrong when a profession tries to prevent average people from exploring the terrain.
And yes, jokes can help calm some people.
Mr. Keillor said then it would be many years until he spoke out again on mental health.
It’s been a decade.
So I thought, “How about we write to Mr. Keillor to let him know about Ray?”
I have no idea what Mr. Keillor might be able to do about Ray, or if he would want to. That’s his choice. But he ought to know about his neighbor, Ray.
I know, I know, a grassroots activist writing to a celebrity is a bit like throwing a bottle in the ocean and expecting the bottle to land on the top of Mt. Olympus, which I imagine is where celebrities in our fame-loving culture reside.
But in any case, I felt moved to write him. And as I listen to this season’s final show today on my radio, I feel moved to encourage you to write him, too.
If you feel moved to write Garrison Keillor (note double r’s and double l’s in his name) an e-mail about Ray, here’s how:
Then click on POST TO THE HOST.
BELOW is what I wrote, though of course please use your own words.
And again, AT BOTTOM, is that fascinating dialogue from 1999 between Mr. Keillor and a psychiatrist about Lake Wobegon.
20 February 2009
Dear Mr. Garrison Keillor:
I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible.
I want to let you know about the fate of one of your neighbors in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, Ray Sandford.
I hope this gets to you personally, and you read more for three reasons:
- I’ve been listening to you for about two decades. My friend, it’s the first time I’ve asked for you to return the favor!
- For more than three decades I’ve been a community organizer in a difficult field, fighting human rights violations in mental health.
- I direct an independent nonprofit coalition in the field, MindFreedom.
- You can easily check out what I’m saying. For instance, National Public Radio has done a piece about this.
Okay, the nub of the matter is this:
Ray Sandford is a man about my age, in his 50’s, who lives north of Minneapolis in Columbia Heights.
He lives in the basement of a small residence, an assisted living facility, because of his history of mental disabilities.
Ray is under court order to receive involuntary electroshock (electroconvulsive therapy or ECT) over his expressed wishes, regularly, every two or three weeks.
Ray’s had more than three dozen.
His next is scheduled for Wed., 4 March 2009.
The reason I want you to know?
Well, I was going to keep this brief.
But let me just mention a few things:
- Lutheran Social Services of MN is owned by the six Lutheran Synods of ELCA. LSSMN is Ray’s general guardian, but they are *not* really helping. In other words, yes, it’s a Lutheran related matter!
- We both love libraries. My wife works in a library. Here’s how Ray reached us. He was getting his forced shock. So after he recovered a bit, he called a reference librarian at one of your libraries. The librarian helped look up human rights groups, and that’s how he found us, through a confluence of grassroots activism and our secular temple we both love, the library.
- Most relevant, I remember years and years ago that you did a wonderful piece about a Lake Wobegon resident with significant mental and emotional differences and problems. You got flak from the American Psychiatric Association, and you wrote them — as you can do — a beautifully blistering letter that they published in their journal. I remember then thinking, “I’ve got to thank this man, and be in touch some day.”
Well, here I am. I, sir, am proud to say I am one of the Americans who helped lead and organize more nonviolent, creative, independent protests of that industry group in the past three decades, than anyone I know.
Today I talked to a board member about my actually flying from Oregon to Minnesota to help Ray, who I speak to almost every day. It’s especially poignant to get his calls in our office the day before or after one of his forced electroshocks.
And I said this would be brief. What do I want? I mainly want to know, that you know, about this matter. If you could let me know you have personally received this, you’d do this nonviolent warrior’s heart some good.
And of course if your conscience leads you to be creatively maladjusted to what is happening to your neighbor, in your unique way, then so much the better.
More information can be found in our gateway to this topic here:
Thank you once more,
David W. Oaks, Executive Director
1991 Dialogue between psychiatrist and Garrison Keillor about Lake Wobegone episode featuring psychiatric survivor:
August 6, 1999
Bad News From Lake Wobegon?
Noel Drury, M.D., a psychiatrist, recently complained in a letter to Garrison Keillor, National Public Radio’s best known humorist and observer of life in small-town America, about how one of Keillor’s sketches that aired earlier this summer stigmatized the mentally ill.
Dear Mr. Keillor:
I really looked forward to listening in tonight on your broadcast of “Prairie Home Companion” on National Public Radio, especially since it was originating in Butte, in my home state of Montana. And you started out right away at your hayseedy-hip best, and I was having the predictably enjoyable time I have when I listen to your show, until the “Lake Wobegon” segment came on. As that part of your show unfolded, I began to see red, and I’m writing to tell you why.
You described in detail in that segment a character who was a 200-pound woman, seriously mentally ill, off her psychiatric medications, walking down the street in her neighborhood in the nude, with a fishing pole in hand, talking gibberish. Her behavior was quite shocking to her neighbors in the piece, but her behavior and their reactions to it were what was meant to be funny, and apparently was taken as such by the Butte audience, judging from their reaction to your narrative. She liked “knock-knock” jokes, and this was also thought to be funny, in an endearing sort of way.
The key fact that you and your scriptwriters don’t get in allowing this portrayal to air, Mr. Keillor, is that mental illnesses cause anguish and are not funny-if you understand them. They cause anguish to the people suffering from them, to their families and friends, and, in those sad infrequent occasions of destructive acts, to victims and victims’ families. They are decidedly not funny, if you understand them, just like there’s nothing funny about cancer, high blood pressure, or Alzheimer’s disease. It hurts to have a mental illness. Ask Mike Wallace or Tipper Gore.
Mental illnesses are also quite costly in many other ways. But due to such stigmatizing portrayals, especially by a nationally revered person (namely you), the costs are far greater than you might imagine. Your cheap shots at those with mental illnesses have the effect of driving people who desperately need treatment further underground. Can you guess, Mr. Keillor, what the outcomes are when people postpone, refuse, or are refused treatment for their serious mental illness? Next time you walk downtown in any city, you’ll see a little bit of what I mean, although there’s much more to the story, if you’re interested.
The person you described on your show in many ways reminds me of someone who was once my patient. In her lifetime, she had to be hospitalized more than 20 times for her mental illness. She was quite accustomed to the kind of stigmatizing portrayal witnessed on your show-she experienced it all her life-but she didn’t let that drive her away from getting treatment. Her family and neighbors dearly loved her. But just as we were starting to get a handle on better treatment for her illness, with the more advanced treatment approaches we have today, she suddenly died. I think her body just wore out from decades of stress. She is one of the most courageous and determined people I’ve ever known. She could have given Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” lessons. You would have liked her-she had a great sense of humor. It is in her memory I write this letter.
From your position of influence, please help turn back the tide of stigma and ignorance that is drowning millions of Americans, many of whom may be your listeners. It can start with an understanding of the anguish caused by mental illnesses.
NOEL DRURY, M.D.
Dr. Drury is president of the Montana Psychiatric Association.
Garrison Keiller responds:
Dr. Drury refers to a story on “The News From Lake Wobegon” about Mrs. Schrupps, who went off her medications and had a psychotic episode and was taken to the hospital by the town constables, Gary and LeRoy, after she appeared in the nude waving a fishing pole at a backyard picnic and then entered the Lutheran church, where she terrified an organist.
The story was based on a conversation with a former county sheriff who responded to many such calls and who found that the mentally ill responded to ordinary friendly conversation and to the telling of jokes. That was the point of the story, I guess, insofar as it had one.
In the story, Mrs. Schrupps is not belittled or ridiculed; she is depicted as a person doing battle with immense and nameless invisible forces arrayed against her, and she becomes something of a natural force herself, a rampaging fury, though she never harms a soul.
The objects of ridicule, if there are any, are the girls in the identical blue cardigan sweaters practicing [the song] “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” at the picnic, who are horrified by Mrs. Schrupps’s appearance and the arrogant young organist who is rehearsing his recital and whose organ playing Mrs. Schrupps recognizes as the voice of the beast that is after her. She confronts this voice in the choir loft, and then the constables arrive.
They treat her with kindness. They talk to her as one would talk to a friend and put a blanket around her and lead her to the squad car, telling her jokes. Though she is not able to focus on the literal meaning of the jokes, she recognizes them by their cadence as being jokes and being a basic component of sociability in this culture, and she relaxes and allows herself to be cared for.
I felt at the time that there was some wisdom in the deputies’ finding about jokes, some wisdom that mental health professionals might heed, but then came an angry letter from this distinguished leader in the field, who was so distressed as to feel the need to phone news media in the Twin Cities and alert them to the monster in their midst. So I ran his letter by another professional in the field who listens regularly to the show and who replied:
“My own mother was what is referred to as a ‘serious and persistent mentally ill’ person (we in the business refer to these poor folk as just SPMT), and to me, your comments hardly qualify as offensive. To some people, perhaps, but they really need to get a life. In our field, much of what we have to deal with is not very pretty, and we sometimes use humor to relieve stress. But we do, above all, have a profound respect for those we are entrusted to care for, and your story was respectful.”
But I am not a crusader, merely an entertainer, out to amuse people for a couple of hours on Saturday night, and I realize that now our show will be monitored by people who have their angry letter all drafted and are simply waiting to fill in the blanks, and it isn’t worth it to get them cranked up. It really isn’t. They will have to wait many, many years before they ever hear me refer to anyone suffering from mental illness. This is a niggardly solution, and I think that silence and invisibility are the worse stigma, but it is not possible for an American humorist to deal with mental illness today without serious risk to his career. And that’s my last word on the subject, and now I am going to turn my attention to lawn care.