Looking for God in Teddy Ruxpin: Brandi Carlile on Faith and Music
The Singer-Songwriter Remembers the Existential Dread of an 80s Childhood
When I returned to the trailer we’d been living in after I was discharged from the hospital, it was 1986.
I was in love with Jesus at that age, but I didn’t love church. I hated the “Vacation Bible School” my aunt and uncle took us to once a week. I always felt that Jesus wasn’t there, and I never wanted to go but I always did. One day in the summer, we were at that church and smelled what our teacher decided was a dead dog, so after repeated prodding from the extremely bored Sunday-school kids, the even more extremely bored young Sunday-school teacher decided to just give up on poor old Jesus and let us look for it.
I remember being utterly terrified because I had convinced myself that the dead dog was actually a woman who’d fallen victim to the “Green River Killer,” the second most prolific serial killer in US history. I had overheard my parents talking about him at home on many occasions. He was the boogeyman if you lived in Seattle at the time, and we happened to live near Pac Highway, right in the heart of his hunting grounds. The era of the Green River Killer haunted many an 80s childhood. I just couldn’t keep myself from looking. No one understood my change of heart, but I begged to go to the Bible school after that and spent all of my recesses walking along the edge of the sticker bushes searching for the corpse of a murdered woman.
Overhearing adult conversations was a theme in my childhood. I was privy to just about everything. My mother would notice that I was listening when she was talking to my dad and try to redirect or even end the discussion, only to be met with my father’s defiant belief that we should hear everything and nothing should be “sugarcoated.” Dad just happened to talk a lot about fascinating things.
I would find out many years later after noticing an uncanny resemblance between my father and serial killer Gary Ridgway in the book The Riverman that my mother was deeply concerned that my father was in fact the Green River Killer for about four years in the late 80s. I’m fighting strange laughter as I write this, which should tell you everything about the dysfunction, humor, drama, and humanity of my childhood.
The year 1986 was also when my baby sister, Tiffany, was born. My mother had to have a C-section. My parents were understandably distracted and maybe missed some of the signs of the serious anxiety that I was starting to show.
I had gone to my grandma Dolores’s house for the afternoon one day, and she accidentally sat me down with my lunch in front of Poltergeist and walked away to continue vacuuming her house. She was horrified when she realized what it was that I was watching, but it was too late. “I just skimmed the channels until I saw a little girl on the TV and walked away!” I remember her frantically telling my mother. By the time she shut down the vacuum and noticed what was on, I had seen plenty.I felt like that girl from The Twilight Zone, lost in another dimension watching myself live like a child but not really feeling like one.
Similarly, Stand by Me took years off my life. I loved that damn film, until the part where they find the body. “The kid wasn’t sick. The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead” ran through my mind like a blade for years. Not because the dead body was gross and scary… it was because it wasn’t. It was just lifeless … over. I didn’t want to believe a kid could die; I needed to know that every kid can be saved by a miracle and it all turns out okay. Otherwise I could die again for real. I still get a chill every time I hear the bass line to “Stand by Me.” I couldn’t stop listening to it when I was a kid.
Nothing disturbed me visually, though, quite as much as the adverts for Night of the Living Dead. They had colorized the film and the ads were always on everyone’s goddamned TV! Why were the 80s so fucking scary for kids?! Bloody Mary and Freddy Krueger. Nightmare.
Profoundly, there was an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Little Girl Lost,” where a six-year-old girl disappears into another dimension through the wall next to her bed. She can see her parents looking for her, but she can’t get back. She was so little and having to come to terms with her aloneness… It’s more sad than scary, but this was a particularly disturbing concept for me because of what I’d just been through. I couldn’t explain it to my parents. I just didn’t have the faculties to articulate my emotional isolation and fear. In fact, I wasn’t able to articulate much at all.
My brain had been through a lot, and I found myself struggling to communicate even for my age level. I went back to the University of Washington for the advanced program one more time, but not again after that. I was apparently not “advanced” anymore. I struggled with what must have been situational dyslexia for most of my childhood. For the most part I grew out of it, but it comes back when I get nervous. I always thought of the yellow-haired girl with meningitis back at the children’s hospital and how much worse it could have been for me.
I clearly remember being able to understand everything and feeling sort of existential in general, but I simply couldn’t explain why I was so worried all the time. It wasn’t so much a daytime problem; I still had a lot of fun… but fear is indelible and playdates aren’t.
I was so scared at night. I often just said I was sick to get the attention I needed, because I couldn’t deal with the complexities in my mind. I would stand in the hallway from the fear of my room, and cry out that I had a sore throat. I had a lot of sore throats, and I still get them when I’m stressed and can’t communicate. I felt like that girl from The Twilight Zone, lost in another dimension watching myself live like a child but not really feeling like one.
The presentation of faith on my father’s side of the family was big, eccentric, and had a vibe to it that can only be described as post-hippie. We traveled together in a big blue culty-looking bus to family reunions and on day trips. Someone was always smoking weed. There was always an underlying thread of faith and humility through everything we did. Church had many meanings to me in those days.
My dad was my favorite person to talk to about Jesus… life, death, heaven, hell, angels, and even demons. The same God that brought me so much comfort in quiet moments could also raise terrifying questions for me. Conversations about God were never enough. I would stop speaking and finish them in my head. My dad didn’t want me to feel so afraid… he wanted me to have faith and feel protected, but sometimes the conversations got too complex and dark. I see so much of that same tendency in my older daughter that I’m really careful not to overestimate her ability to process darkness.
I knew I was supposed to pray when I was scared, and I did. I was always afraid that if I wasn’t doing it right or wasn’t saying the right thing, something bad could happen. I wondered if it was selfish to ask for peace, or to find something lost, or even to ask for a toy I wanted. I would feel guilty if my please-may-I’s and thank-you’s were too light on the latter. I know my dad was concerned about my tendency toward heavy thinking but, again, he didn’t know how to “sugar- coat”… you can’t un-have conversations with a six-year-old about demon possession.
I just wanted God to answer me. For real. I needed real-life assurances.
And those assurances came from the most unlikely source. I still fight a strange embarrassment in telling this story. Honestly, what I’m about to describe makes me feel a tad cringy and self-involved. The thing is, though… it happened. It was a gift. It’s unexplainable and it wouldn’t be right not to talk about it because it’s one of only a few times in my life that the veil has been lifted.
When you know, you know.
I had a Teddy Ruxpin. Teddy was a stuffed animal with an animatronic mouth and a cassette player in the back. These toys were notorious for breaking, but the Teddy lullaby tapes actually had some amazing melodies on them! This might be one of my earliest melodic influences. I found that bear so comforting, and I still look for them sometimes on vintage toy sites like a total nerd.This was a kind of otherworldly sound that we didn’t even have access to.
Because Teddy had an actual cassette player built in, I was given a few other tapes: Sesame Street and a couple kids’ church tapes with Christian cartoon characters mostly singing in goofy voices, teaching lessons, and performing innocent slapstick comedy. I memorized those tapes down to the second. I could impersonate every voice and I knew every word of every segment. When Teddy Ruxpin predictably broke one day, I was devastated. Not so much because of the bear but because those tapes had become my companions. They got me through my nights. Sure, I would lie awake until it was almost light, but at least I wasn’t alone. I had the stories and music.
An auntie came to my rescue by giving me a clunky 80s cassette player to replace Teddy. Do you remember them? They’re motorized, and when you run out of tape, the spring-loaded Play button POPS up with such a vengeance that you’re sure the ribbon must have snapped. I jumped every time… this is why I learned to time it.
Over the next few weeks my routine was the same: I would rewind all the tapes with the light on and dread the moment the player had to be turned off; Mom would press Play and leave the room, leaving me lying in the center of my bed to avoid disappearing into the “wall dimension.” There was the relative peacefulness of listening to the stories and the voices of the playful characters, but beyond the songs and skits I was even more familiar with the dead space. The in-betweens. Silence… counting… and then a wash of relief as the next segment started.
Finally, the last track would come and go. This would start the excruciating countdown. Waiting for the Play button to “jack-in-the- box” up on me. One, two, three, four, four and a hal… SNAP! At which point I would spring into action! Jump out of my bed and run as fast as I could across my room (being careful not to disappear into the floor dimension), flip the tape over, press Play, and leap back into (the center of) my bed.
The next side would start, and I’d be okay for another half hour.
But one night the button didn’t pop up. I counted… and counted again. No pop. I was sure the tape recorder had broken and that I was definitely gonna get a sore throat. After a few deep breaths, I was preparing to run across the floor dimension to inspect my broken Zen machine, when something unusual happened. Real music started playing… not Sesame Street kid music, but big, gorgeous, angelic voices in multiple layers of complex harmony. It sounded like a hundred people or angels (I feel weird saying angels), but the lyrics were about unseen guardians and peace—it was absolutely epic. Finally, a proper use for that overused word! This was epic. My family listened to country music. This was a kind of otherworldly sound that we didn’t even have access to.
When the music ended (and it was long), I got up slowly without any anxiety and rewound the tape. It played again. I could not fathom how beautiful it was. I snuck out and stood in the hallway wanting to wake my parents up, but I lost my nerve. I went calmly back to my room and rewound the tape. It was still there. I was bewildered but I wasn’t scared anymore, and I went to sleep.
I woke up the next morning and ran to the tape recorder and pressed Play. It was still there. So out of place.
I was in love with that piece of music… but I was starting to suspect my parents. I didn’t understand the mechanics of cassette-tape manufacturing and recording, but I knew there was a red button on my player and it said record in bold letters. My parents were obviously trying to trick and embarrass me by putting a beautiful angelic song on my stupid kid tape so they could laugh at my six-year-old ignorance out of spite and cruelty… but I wasn’t falling for it.
Yes. This was the way my mind worked.
All the time.
I played it for my mom, and she was mildly perplexed as to how it got there, if not a tad distracted. Dad too. They didn’t really listen to me or the song and I couldn’t explain it to them like I’m explaining it to you. I remember my mom shuffling out of my room before it was over: “Of course we didn’t put it on there. You probably just hadn’t heard it yet.” My dad was a little better about it, but he didn’t listen to it. He didn’t try to explain it and didn’t seem appalled at the thought that it might have come from somewhere spiritual. They both maintained for years (until I finally stopped asking them) that they had nothing to do with it.
Of course they didn’t. Even if they were so inclined it would have been physically impossible. I’ve had to accept it for what it is and not feel dramatic explaining it.
I was answered. With real music. And it brought me peace. That’s all.
This experience and a few others have also given me a faith that is as impervious to political extremism as it is to the whims of culture.
That tape was my comfort blanket or that one tattered stuffed animal that a child is fundamentally attached to. I must have lost it in one of our moves. I think things disappear when we don’t need them anymore. I listened to that music every night. It was my proof that God is real.
Music is still my proof that God is real.
Excerpted from Broken Horses. Used with the permission of the publisher, Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2021 by Brandi Carlile.
Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from Broken Horses
by Brandi Carlile, read by the author.