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Analytic Flicks – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Last Sunday evening friends of the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center assembled to discuss the movie about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” directed by Morgan Neville. CPC faculty member and child psychoanalyst Joanne Naegele led the discussion. If you have something you would like to  say about the movie or Joanne’s remarks, we invite you to comment below.

Ms. Naegele’s Introductory Remarks:

When I first saw the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” it blew me away. I had read A.O.Scott’s review  in the New York Times and I was curious. I did not grow up with Fred Rogers.  He came after my childhood, when I was an adult. But, of course, I knew about Mr. Rogers.

The first broadcast was in 1968 on Station WQED-TV, in Pittsburgh.  Thereafter small children were glued to the long-running PBS Program “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” focused on the total acceptance they felt looking at the face of Mr. Rogers, listening to his songs, seeing his puppets, especially Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and loving the ordinariness of Mr. Rogers’ routine: strolling in, going to the closet, taking off his jacket, putting on a sweater, changing from his loafers into his tennis shoes, feeding his fish and singing.

When Academy Award-winning film-maker Morgan Neville began work on a documentary about Fred Rogers a couple of years ago, he said he needed to try to figure out who Fred Rogers was as a man.  Where did Mr. Rogers end and Fred Rogers begin?  As it turns out they were one and the same genuine human being. Fred Rogers was a classically trained musician, a composer who could relax by playing the piano. He could express his feelings by putting feelings to music. He was a puppeteer, an ordained Presbyterian minister, devoted husband to Joanne, father of two boys, John and James who as adults are in this movie, making comments. In his career he won a Peabody award, four Emmys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to him in 2002 by George W. Bush for his work with a national audience to educate children.

I had not previously known that Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. He was a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963. When he heard about television, before he had even seen a television, he thought television and reaching the inner life of children might be his ministry. A creative man he was, someone who thought out-of-the box!  Born Fred McFeely Rogers, March 20, 1928 in Latrobe, Pa. he died February 27, 2003 of stomach cancer, a month short of his 75th birthday. He recorded 895 episodes of his show, “Won’t you be my Neighbor.” These taped episodes are available at his foundation now named Fred Rogers Productions.  The Fred Rogers Company was founded in 1971 and it was the nonprofit producer of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood for PBS.

I did not know how carefully he prepared for each program.  Each program had a theme important in the life of children—there was a week on death, on assassination when Bobby Kennedy was killed, on divorce, on the Vietnam war, on prejudice which he introduced by his white feet and Officer Francois Clemmons’ brown feet being in a kiddy pool together. They cooled off their feet in the same tiny pool. They shared a towel to wipe off their feet. This was at a time when integration in swimming pools was a “no-no,” and swimming pools were being drained if a black person went in it, to cleanse it for the “white” folks. The message could not have been clearer: tolerance, acceptance, every person is a person who deserves respect because they exist. He even tackled the question of his tiger puppet, Daniel, who sang, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake.” It was beautiful dialogue and singing, that allowed for not only reassurance  but for the persistence of doubt and ambivalence—just as these episodes played out in the inner life of Fred Rogers. (David Brooks in the New York Times identifies that the tiger puppet stood in for Rogers’ inner child.)  These conflicts play out in the real lives of our patients, who take lifetimes to come to terms with them. In the world of Mr. Rogers, problems are not “whitewashed” but worked out patiently, conscientiously and it takes time.

His message was children have deep feelings just the way everyone does.  “Won’t you be my neighbor” translated into an invitation for someone to be close to, to let each child know that they are loved and are capable of loving.

Why was I so moved by this documentary?  As a psychoanalyst for the past fifty years, getting trained first as a child psychoanalyst then moving to include adult psychoanalytic patients as well, I work on these very issues with individual patients. I help teach and train the next generation of analysts. It is endlessly interesting and challenging.  I have a lifetime of clinical experience of people confronting their life experiences with adoption, death (think of Erna Furman’s book A Child’s Parent Dies), identity issues,  (“Who am I? Was I a mistake?”) challenges in loving their own newborn child, (think of Selma Fraiberg’s paper, “Ghosts in the Nursery.”), fears which cause undo restrictions, anxieties. I have come to value the importance of stuffed animals and the use young children make of them to tell us how they are. (See Winnicott, 1953, “Transitional Objects & Transitional Phenomena- A Study of the First Not-Me Possession”) I would like to hear of parallel experiences from those who work clinically with patients.

Lastly, how did Fred Rogers get to be Fred Rogers?  One part of it is that he remembered, with affect, his feelings about his early childhood experiences. Revealed in this documentary is the history that Fred was often ill as a child, and spent lonely hours in his bed.  But he made the blankets of his bed into mountains and with his play figures and puppets he had imaginary adventures. This translates for him, into a life’s work talking to children, valuing each child as he wished he had been valued.  This translates into Daniel the striped tiger, a people-loving creature who lived inside of a cuckoo clock. This translates into King Friday XIII, and the little trolley that went around the neighborhood and Rogers’ testimony in 1969 to John O. Pastore, Chairman of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. He gave an example of how he works directly with children…Rogers makes feelings “mentionable and manageable”  and he gave him an example of a question a child asked him:  “What do you do with the mad that you feel…when you feel so mad you could bite.’’  He goes on to say that you can stop.  You can take control.…” This was when they wanted to cut ten million dollars from public television. And in just six minutes of testimony by Fred Rogers, he got the twenty million dollars restored to Public Television.

This completes Joanne’s remarks. If you enjoyed the discussion we would love to hear from you. Click on “leave a comment.”

 

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