The scene Shea Tuttle describes in the introduction of her great new book is so familiar that it could be any one of us as a child. Curled up on a couch wrapped in a holey Afghan watching a television show alone. And then the magic as a performer reaches through that screen and across that space and connects in a way that made us feel, not entertained, but involved and known.
In truth, there are very few television personalities who can achieve this kind of connection, but Fred Rogers did that for Tuttle and millions of American children. He made her feel “completely seen, completely loved.”
Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers is Tuttle’s inquiry, born of love, to try and uncover something about the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the long-running PBS children’s program that, for many of us, became as much a part of our childhood furniture as the couches on which we curled up to watch. Yet, despite hundreds of episodes produced over five decades, Tuttle admits that the man himself was something of a mystery. He was at once serious and whimsical, gentle and moved by anger, privileged and yet drawn to those who were excluded or outcast.
He was also motivated by a deep and abiding faith, which was also a bit hard to put your finger on because he found it difficult to talk about. As Tuttle shows, however, that faith found its way into everything he did. It wasn’t just in overt markers such as his ordination as a Presbyterian minister or the prayer he said each time he headed to the set: “Let some word that is heard be yours.” It was in the themes of his show and his message of unconditional acceptance, something that was bedrock to his understanding of what it means to be a neighbor.
One of Tuttle’s main projects is to illuminate those things that were quietly persistent in Rogers’ work. In most of the chapters she is alternating between a retelling of Rogers’ life and reflections on how his faith was being formed or revealed. We follow Rogers from his days growing up as a child teased as Fat Freddy to his unexpected friendship in high school with a football star to his transformative encounter with the phenomenon of television in 1951. There is his love of music and puppets, his fruitful partnership with Josie Carey on The Children’s Corner—an early foray into children’s programming, a traumatic hospital experience with his young son, and finally his emergence as the Mister Rogers we came to love.
Tuttle, like her subject, never uses a heavy hand to tell her story. She doesn’t turn away from episodes that show a more difficult side of Rogers, but she’s generous in providing understanding and context. She also pulls back from hagiography, which is rampant in discussions of such a beloved figure. As she notes in discussing Rogers’ sometimes uncomfortable (for him) highlighting of diversity on his show, he was “ahead of his time, but he wasn’t that far ahead.”
It’s also worth noting Tuttle’s generosity in crediting her sources. She realizes that she is treading on what is quickly becoming well-trod soil and she opens a window to other writers that the interested reader might seek out. But she does it in a way that doesn’t distract from her own clear insights into the enduring legacy of Rogers and his program.
The first two sections cover the bulk of Rogers’ life, but it was the third section that I found most intriguing. Having set the table with the biography, Tuttle uses the last five chapters to look at Rogers through different lenses. Thankfully, she resists the temptation to linger with Rogers as a cultural force. Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and countless other parodies have mined the Neighborhood for commentary, usually with Rogers portrayed as a hopelessly naïve and plastic caricature.
Tuttle knows that there is more to learn from Rogers’ way of being. Far from being a pollyanna, Rogers was usually focused on the complex and even dark feelings that children have. Tuttle explores how the puppets of his make-believe world reflected different parts of himself, from the controlling but bumbling King Friday to the self-doubting Daniel Striped Tiger. He allowed those parts of himself, even the Lady Elaine Fairchilde troublemaker part, to touch similar places in the lives of children.
Rogers’ complexity was also seen in his personal relationships. Tuttle shares stories of his relationships with co-stars like François Clemmons and Carey in which his openness sometimes coexisted with more conservative tendencies. He advised Clemmons, who was gay, to keep his sexuality under wraps, common advice for the 1970s. He once lightly disparaged Carey as a secretary who was elevated to host The Children’s Corner, ignoring her acting background. And yet his compassion and ability to form deep connections comes through time and again.
In the end, it’s clear that Rogers has many more dimensions than we generally allow him. But all of Tuttle’s exploration does not rob us of the deep goodness we sensed in him from our childhood couches; we just have more capacity to see the depth. Part of that capacity is in seeing the faith that formed and motivated Rogers. His neighborhood is a reflection, not only of the small town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania that birthed him, but also of the kingdom yet to come where God’s love in Christ reigns supreme. And in that neighborhood, he “discipled millions of people into the work—the hard, sometimes monotonous, always soul-expanding work—of neighborly love.”
Tuttle has done a great service in re-presenting a figure so familiar to so many Americans. She has highlighted what is important about Fred Rogers while increasing our ways to appreciate who he was. She has done so in a way that makes him more human and more valuable, avoiding the dreaded trap of nostalgia. Exactly As You Are is a gift and an invitation to a better neighborhood for everyone.
I received an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.