That’s one of the questions I’m frequently asked about my new book, Letters from the Closet. I only waited a year after TV icon Fred Rogers passed away to write about our friendship in The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.
Why wait 20 years after the death of the other most important mentor in my life to write about him?
It was because I misunderstood something elemental about my conversion: I knew my sins were washed away but I also thought my past was wiped out, so that anything that happened before that point didn’t matter. I misunderstood what it meant to be a “new creation.”
Telling the story of my relationship with my high school English teacher —and the letters we wrote after high school—meant bringing a huge chunk of my adolescence out of hiding. I didn’t want to acknowledge that person ever existed. But it was time to take his letters from my closet.
The closet imagery was important to understanding our relationship. John, my English teacher, was in the closet. Everyone was in the closet in the late 70s. And they stayed in the closet. There was no ticker-tape parade for coming out of it.
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I was in the closet, too. Or maybe it’s better to say there was a skeleton in my closet; it was me, on my way to becoming one. My secret was that I was a straight-A high school student starving myself to death, mostly to stave off puberty, to ward off sidelong glances and inappropriate comments from men who were old enough to be my father. It’s much harder to be desired by men when you’re shaped like a twelve-year-old boy.
That was it, really; the thing that connected John and me from the very beginning—our secrets. We didn’t know the particular contents of each other’s closets, not at first. Those confessions came later, through our letters. What we did know during my high school years is that the other was play-acting. That neither of us was who we appeared to be.
The truth is we all have closets. We all have secrets. We all have things that make us feel like outcasts. John wrote in a letter: “A teacher is like a book, wasted until he’s read. The student has to do that. You’ve done that.” But that’s true of all of us. We all need to be read. We all need that one person in our lives who really knows us.
When I was transcribing John’s letters, I called my mom to read her an excerpt. She said, “I wish that were me.” I said, “What do you mean? You wish you had received that letter?” She said, “No, I wish it were me who had a relationship with someone like that in my lifetime.” And she’s 79. That’s when I realized it was possible to go through life and feel as if no one really, truly knows you.
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I burned all my journals for Jesus, believing with my whole heart that he, in gratitude for my funeral pyre of rejected words, would sweep me up in his arms, relieve me of responsibility, and make all my sadness go away.
But that’s not the way salvation works. It isn’t a quick fix. Even if it takes place at a certain point in time (say, a twenty-second birthday), it’s a lifelong process. The closet of God is not a cozy trysting place, but a relationship that results in transformation after countless encounters over many years.
My bonfire accomplished nothing. Not having a record of myself during those years didn’t mean they never happened, that they somehow went away. There are still things to be sorted through. There was alcoholism, divorce, anorexia to deal with then. There is pain, death, betrayal to deal with now. There’s more to the process than emancipating skeletons or letting the clutter fall on my head. The closet of God wasn’t glass just so I could see my sins. It was glass so I wouldn’t overlook my scars. Forgiveness is the antidote to one, healing to the other.
The things left in my closet had never been healed because they had never been acknowledged. Not in any real sense. I didn’t think they mattered anymore, now that I was a new creation.
But new creations have old wounds. Even Jesus kept his.
Before writing books, Amy Hollingsworth wrote for various magazines and was a television writer for eight years for CBN. In 2010, Amy was named one of USA Today’s Top 100 People for her influence on pop culture and was featured in the documentary by MTV News VP Benjamin Wagner titled “Mister Rogers & Me.” She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband and children.
Amy is the author of four books, including another letter-writing book, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, about her friendship with television’s Fred Rogers.
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