The story is both personal and political. Author Emily Mendenhall, an anthropologist at Georgetown University, grew up in Okoboji, and her family still lives there. As the events unfolded, Mendenhall was in Okoboji, where she spoke formally with over 100 people and observed a community that rejected public health guidance, revealing deep-seated mistrust in outsiders and strong commitments to local thinking. Unmasked is a fascinating and heartbreaking account of where people put their trust, and how isolationist popular beliefs can be in America's small communities.
This book is the recipient of the 2022 Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize from Vanderbilt University Press for the best book in the area of art or medicine.
Chapter 1: Global Threats
Chapter 2: Locating Okoboji
Chapter 3: Opening Up
Chapter 4: Outbreak
Chapter 5: Business as Usual
Chapter 6: Shame
Chapter 7: Pin Feathers
Chapter 8: Fireworks
Chapter 9: Community Tension
Chapter 10: Vaccine Hesitancy
Chapter 11: School Board
Chapter 12: Contested
Chapter 13: Saturday
Chapter 14: Glitch
Chapter 15: FOMO
This book is about balancing perspective. Although now I’ve lived far from Okoboji as long as I lived there, the community is part of who I am. I have evangelized for these waters all over the world, dropping “OKOBOJI” towels, cups, and t-shirts for mentors, friends, and colleagues. Yet, as my ideas about the world grew bigger, and my experiences deeper, how I conceive a community that gave me so much has changed enormously.
When I left home to attend Davidson College, my unfamiliarity with the way things worked made me realize how little I knew about the world. I had to relearn American and world history because what I had learned growing up had been a heavily edited version. I read people’s stories and histories from the perspectives of those who lived them in courses in literature, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. I also spent months in mentored courses in Nicaragua, Chile, and Zambia, which opened my eyes to the different ways people live in the world, and trained me to truly listen and learn from others in a deeper way than I had ever done before. I realized that people live in very different cultural contexts, even in the United States; many of my classmates came from private schools or wealthy Southern families that were very different from mine. I’m a happy-go-lucky type of person, so I jumped in with both feet. But there were some aspects of Davidson College that made me uneasy (such as blatant differences in how students experienced the college based on race, class, gender, and sexuality). Despite my seeing and experiencing some of these things (re: sexism), as a cisgender white female I also realized how much advantage came with the parts of my person that I could not control (as others also could not).
I am now a medical anthropologist and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where I often tell my students that your twenties are for becoming who you are (listening, learning) and your thirties are for creating (making, sharing). In my twenties I completed two graduate degrees: one in public health and another in anthropology. I spent five years in Chicago, working at Cook County Hospital, learning about how trauma can become embodied in chronic illness from Mexican immigrant women seeking care there. I also spent years living outside the United States, accruing treasured mentors and experiences in India, Kenya, South Africa, and the United Kingdom; these mentors, along with the meaningful work I’ve been privileged to do, have shaped who I am and how I see the world. I bring together these perspectives in my research, in understanding what people struggle with and where (public health) and why and how people struggle with illness differently in one place as opposed to another (anthropology). I have interviewed hundreds of people (mostly women) around the world, trying to understand what makes people sick and why.
Yet, I have never missed an Okoboji summer. Even when my visits were brief, going home was comforting in part because I grew up next door to my British grandmother (my mother’s mother), who showered me with love in her austere and proper way. After her husband died when she was in her early fifties, she returned many times to London to visit her family, while also traveling around the world during the bitterly cold prairie winters in Iowa. She inspired in me a passion for understanding places far away from my home, even when many people around me remained somewhat insular. We stayed very close until she died, just six weeks after my youngest daughter was born. Since she passed away, I have had a difficult time connecting with my home.
But when coronavirus spread throughout the world, and my family became integral to the COVID-19 response in Dickinson County in the Iowa Great Lakes region, my personal and professional life came together. This crisis drew me back to the community.
This book is the story of what happened during one Okoboji summer when a pandemic reached northwest Iowa, forcing the community to face a global challenge. My research and writing about this challenge cannot be divorced from my professional and personal identities. I work and live in a global community of scholars and policymakers who are constantly discussing how people, viruses, histories, and politics are interconnected. I continue to dedicate my professional life to understanding these challenges.
Yet I come from a place that can be frustratingly insular and isolationist, even though it certainly is not an island, bubble, or escape from reality. My family lives there and is deeply embedded in this community—giving hours of their time to community service, investing in the future of the community’s children, and carefully monitoring the waters to ensure future generations can safely live in and on the sacred shores. I recognize and honor the advantages the community has given me—the wealth my family gained by purchasing land before tourism drove up property values, growing up in a tight-knit community where I knew people cared for me, and having a public school system that enabled me to achieve my goals.
But there is still a need to understand and critique the devaluation of life that emerged during the summer when people faced an extraordinary question in the face of a virus: How do we care for each other?