Published on December 4th, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein0
“As Complex as Childhood, as Complex as the World”: Author Shea Tuttle on Mister Rogers
As a kid, I sometimes watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on the hand-me-down black-and-white TV upstairs. When Mister Rogers took an object out of a paper bag for purposes of show-and-tell, it made a soothing clicking sound that I tried to approximate years later with an African seed rattle I found in a gift store.
I watched Mister Rogers pour laundry detergent from a plastic bottle into a washing machine, and I was certain that the bottle was red, despite the fact that I was watching on our ancient grayscale screen.
Such was the power of Mister Rogers to create visceral vividness in everyday tasks.
Author and mutha Shea Tuttle is one of several culture-makers to consider the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, joining director Marielle Heller and actor Tom Hanks, whose A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is currently in theaters. Her new book, Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers (Eerdmans), isn’t especially concerned with cardigan sweaters and kindness (which she argues was a mere byproduct of Rogers’ real message). Instead, she investigates the personal and theological influences that shaped Rogers into an unlikely TV star and an enduring moral force.
She spoke with MUTHA about Rogers as muse, parenting guide, and spiritual person.
MUTHA: When did you first realize you wanted to write about Fred Rogers and his faith? What makes his philosophy particularly relevant and needed right now?
SHEA TUTTLE: I have loved Fred Rogers for pretty much my entire life, but I began thinking about writing about him in the spring of 2015. I started that work in earnest about a year later. My training is in the field of religious studies, so I brought the lens of faith with me, but as I got to know more and more about Fred, I realized that it’s a really important lens for who he was. Fred saw everything through a theological lens; faith was a constant for him. So it’s difficult to tell his story in any full way without considering that aspect of who he was.
During the time I was working on my book, it seemed I learned of another Fred Rogers-related project every few months: a full-length biography, a documentary, a feature film, plus many other books. Though he never disappeared from our culture, he’s clearly had a kind of resurgence over the past few years. I think it’d be easy to dismiss this as simple nostalgia–a collective longing for a sweeter, simpler time. But Fred wasn’t ever simple, and I think those of us who watched him when we were children remember his complexity in some deep, perhaps even subconscious, part of ourselves. Rather than being simple, he was as complex as childhood, as complex as the world was in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s when he was hosting us in his television neighborhood, and yes, for sure, as complex as the world is now. I think we miss him for a very complex yet very simple reason: because he loved us. He assured us, gently yet insistently, that we were good and lovable. I can’t think of a message we need–and crave–more than that right now.
M: Fred Rogers seems like that rare famous person who had very kind, loving parents, although his childhood was difficult in other ways (such as being bullied). I’ve heard a theory that people base their conception of God on their relationship with their parent(s). That’s probably more pop pathologizing than I should indulge in, but I’m curious what connections you see between Fred’s family life and his beliefs about self-acceptance and a God who loves everyone “exactly as they are.”
ST: Fred often told the story of being chased home by a group of boys when he was about eight years old. I think little Freddy lived in a tension between the painful rejection he sometimes experienced beyond his home, and the safe, secure love of his parents and grandparents that surrounded him within his home. For Fred, I think this tension was instructive; the difference between what he felt while being chased and what he felt when his parents affirmed him taught him about how he wanted to feel–to be able to access that acceptance even while being in places or with people who might not be so loving. If you carry inside you the knowledge that you are loved exactly as you are, then you can make it through the getting-chased kinds of days. And of course, for Fred, God was the ultimate source of the exactly-as-you-are kind of love.
M: In what ways has Fred helped you as a parent–in terms of understanding and relating to your kids, and/or in terms of being kinder to yourself, which I think many moms (and dads too, but perhaps especially moms) struggle with?
It’s kind of awful to be parenting while also studying Mister Rogers, because invariably, you fail. As a parent, I am often impatient and distracted, two things Fred never was when he was looking into the camera and speaking to me and millions of other children. Still, learning about Fred did affect the way I interact with my children. Most of all, it slowed me down. Fred reminds me, in (at least some of) the frustrating moments, to take a breath and consider what’s happening inside of my kids instead of only focusing on what I want them to do on the outside. He was insistent about the need for grown-ups to work at remembering what it was like to be a child rather than imposing their ideas of what children should do from their grown-up vantage point. So I try.
M: You write about how Mister Rogers’ very deliberate routines–singing songs, changing his shoes, feeding his fish–are a kind of liturgy, and humans are liturgical creatures. That was kind of a revelation for me, and it made perfect sense. There’s the neurological component, which is that repetition is soothing, but I also like to think that constancy reminds us of the constancy of God, or nature, or some great oneness. What kinds of liturgies are important to you as a writer, parent, and human?
ST: Fred Rogers was more disciplined than pretty much anyone I know. I, on the other hand, am sometimes painfully undisciplined. Still, I have been surprised by some of the routines that have become important to me in my life. For instance, though I am something of religious skeptic, I am also pretty deeply committed to religious practice because I think it forms me in important ways. More superficially, I love a cup of hot tea in the morning, watching Stephen Colbert with my spouse, eating potato chips when a writing submission gets rejected, and sitting in the sun with the dog. And telling my kids “I love you” a zillion times a day.
M: What do your children think of Mister Rogers? He seems so timeless, and I think some of his gentleness and positivity has influenced contemporary children’s programming, but he’s also soooooo different from, like, Ryan’s Toy Review.
My kids graciously watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes with me when I was “researching” the book. They loved it. My son (who is now six) seemed to love the pacing and the gentleness. My daughter (now nine) loved it too, though there were moments when she was visibly embarrassed by Mister Rogers’ candor and sincerity–much like many adults can be. Still, some months into research, my kids somehow found their way to an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which they both watched pretty frequently some years back. “Mom,” my daughter said with ardor, “since we’ve watched so much Mister Rogers, watching Daniel Tiger now is so special to me!”
M: You quote Fred as saying “Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.” He was intentional about trying to live the teachings of Jesus without ever proselytizing or even talking explicitly about Christianity very often. I’m curious where and how you see this being modeled in contemporary faith communities–I think many progressive, secular folks still hold scars and stereotypes about “Bible-thumpers.” I also wonder what conversations you’ve had with your kids about faith and the choices they’ll get to make about religion.
Most of the progressive (and even moderate) faith communities I’ve spent time in are filled with people who have virtually no desire to Bible-thump. Those folks participate in faith communities because it’s meaningful to them, and if they invite someone along, it’s because they think it might be meaningful to that person too. My spouse is clergy, and I’ve always participated in our faith communities, so our kids have spent more time at church than I’d sometimes like to admit. We work hard at trying to balance a bit of appropriate reverence with their need to be kids. For instance, we ask them to avoid being loud in church because we don’t want to distract other people, but they often read or play quietly during the service. We try to offer them the tradition in the fullest ways we can, at appropriate developmental levels, which means our theological conversations include unlimited questions and a dash of irreverence.
We talk about other traditions positively, but at the same time, we don’t shy away from giving them our tradition. My spouse once said that saying, “We don’t practice any religion because we want our kids to grow up and make their own choices” is a bit like saying, “We don’t speak any language because we want our kids to grow up and pick their own language.” In other words, we give them a tradition, and that becomes their language and lens for encountering so many other ways of being and believing.
M: This is the Big Question for all writer parents: How do you balance (with the caveat that there’s no such thing) parenting, writing, and earning a living? We know those things can compete in horribly frustrating ways, but are there places where they overlap or feed each other as well?
The short answer is that I don’t. Personally, I work in binges, which usually means I neglect a whole bunch of things in any given moment in order to prioritize something else briefly. It’s a struggle. Our house isn’t clean; we eat too much fast food; our kids don’t get as many baths as they should; my spouse and I look at our screens too much. At the same time, we know that our marriage is better when we each get time to be productive and creative, and we hope that it’s a gift to our kids when we make room for our needs too. Also I try to remember Fred’s belief that play is the work of childhood, and when I ignore my kids long enough, they sometimes do some pretty amazing playing. (They also sometimes kick each other or mix up a frightening “soup” in the backyard, so everything in moderation.)