At the risk of sounding gayer than most people already think I sound (no comment from the peanut gallery), there’s only two books thus far in my life that have made me cry: Gone With the Wind, and now Tammy: Telling It My Way by Tammy Faye Messner. I finished reading it on New Year’s Day and had tears streaming down my face a couple of times towards the end of the book. For anyone who thinks most of those tears she used to cry on PTL back in the day were fake, all I can say is that she had alot to cry about. My fascination with the former Mrs. Bakker came not from years of watching PTL, as I grew up without cable. In fact, I stayed overnight at Heritage USA on the way to or from a mission trip to West Virginia in 1994, and had very little clue of what it even was. My first experience seeing Tammy Faye was–ironically enough–on cable, when she was a cast member of the reality show The Surreal Life in 2004. I remember that in spite of being surrounded by havoc personified (Ron Jeremy, Vanilla Ice, Trishelle from The Real World: Las Vegas), Tammy always took time to read her Bible and pray. She also never judged or condemned anyone on the show, and ended up making friends with most all of the other cast members.
It was while watching this season of The Surreal Life that my roommate at the time told me I had to watch the 2000 documentary on Tammy Faye, entitled The Eyes of Tammy Faye. As thorough and gripping as the documentary was, I still didn’t “get” her; as most Americans with cable back in the 80s thought of her, I took her to be a bit fake, too made up, and unapologetic for swindling innocent, Christian people out of millions of dollars. Once the 2004 season of The Surreal Life wrapped, I didn’t think much more about Tammy Faye.
Fast forward to late 2006, when I moved down to Alpharetta from Nashville: I had to wait a couple of weeks to officially get hired by the hotel, so I spent much of my free time watching the basic cable we had in the house. One of the channels we got was a public access Christian station that seemed to run mostly low-budget shows, which began to fascinate me for some reason. The little bit I’d ever seen of Paul and Jan Crouch turned me off from watching mainstream Christian TV; however, these public access shows seemed more sincere and humble, perhaps because they were so much less polished than TBN fare. I can’t remember exactly when it started airing, but soon I was watching a cooking show out of a Christian station in Greenville, SC called You Can Make It. It “starred” a very backwoods woman named Joanne (who also hosted a separate “prayer partners” show of her own), and a very sickly, emaciated, more-bewigged-than-ever Tammy Faye. At first, I watched the show more like one watches a trainwreck: I was flabbergasted that anyone would let Tammy Faye on TV looking so haggard, namely Tammy Faye herself! But after a few episodes, it became appointment viewing for me. It turns out that that this Joanne lady owned that Christian station in Greenville, and that she’d been friends with Tammy Faye long before the glory days of PTL. Not until my newfound obsession with PTL unfolded these last few weeks did I know this for sure, until I was watching a YouTube video of the PTL New Year’s Eve 1986/87 Celebration at Heritage USA. This was an invite-only, black-tie event for the most generous PTL partners, and who should Jim Bakker call on (among others) to give a short testimony but this Joanne lady! I couldn’t believe my eyes, and all of a sudden I felt bad for thinking she’d taken advantage of poor, sickly Tammy Faye to get ratings for her podunk cooking show. As I’ve been researching this blog, I found out that Joanne Thompson herself died last March at the age of 77. It’s to her credit that she laid out the red carpet (and the bright red kitchen) for Tammy’s final return to Christian TV.
I bought and watched The Eyes of Tammy Faye either right before or after she died in the summer of 2007, and all of a sudden I was able to see Tammy Faye in a new light. Not as a saint–she was kooky, even by my standards! But I saw her as a human being instead of a tabloid figure; a mortal being instead of a makeup queen. I began researching Heritage USA and found tons of pictures on the Internet of the abandoned buildings, most of which had rotted into obscurity after the bankruptcy fiasco of the late 80s. Always a sucker for a lost cause, it made me sad to see such a once-great place in such disrepair, and made me glad to say I’d been there when it was still in good shape. (The one night we stayed there, we stayed in the bunkhouses, which were essentially very nice hotel rooms with a rustic decor, including bunk beds. The main hotel has been restored as a ministry center and retreat space, and the still-unfinished tower is supposed to be converted to senior residences soon.)
When I was in Las Vegas last month, I watched The Eyes of Tammy Faye with my friend Andy, who’d never seen it. We started talking about the pros and cons of the Bakkers, Jerry Falwell, PTL, the whole nine yards. (His perspective is completely different than mine, since he had access to PTL growing up.) I watched more YouTube videos and did more research, and the next thing I knew, I was buying Tammy Faye’s book off Amazon. Keep in mind that I’d never had any interest in hearing her side of the story; after all, isn’t it so much easier (and so much more fun) to go by gossip and hearsay than taking the time to hear one person’s side of of a very complicated story? Ignorance is bliss, as the old saying goes!
I feel like this blog is started to turn into a book of its own, so I’ll keep my synopsis of the book relatively short. For all Tammy’s faults–her semi-affair with “Monster Mash” songwriter Gary Paxton (who produced some of her PTL records), her abuse of prescription medications, her addiction to shopping, her taste for the finer things in life–she was a godly woman. And I sincerely believe that after reading her book: Tammy always had good intentions, but even with good intentions come mixed results, as we can all attest. At the height of PTL’s mid-80s glory days, Tammy and Jim (in her own words) were practically living separate lives. She was selling over $8 million dollars worth of PTL records (all her so-called royalties/profits went right back into PTL’s coffers), and he was raising hundreds of millions of dollars to build and expand Heritage USA. She cautioned him time and time again to slow down, but buildings kept going up and the debt continued to soar. Tammy was taking Ativan to deal with her anxiety, and she was addicted before she knew it. Soon enough, as we all know now, it all came crashing down. All good things must come to an end, as they say. Except in this case, the more that the truth came out, the darker and more sinister PTL was made to look. Allegations of fraud, homosexual affairs on Jim Bakker’s part, and backstabbing by Jerry Falwell were only the tip of the iceberg. In her book, Tammy writes that the most painful thing she heard of Falwell doing after he ousted them was having a huge pit dug on a vacant plot of land at Heritage USA, and having her leftover records and Jim’s leftover books and special edition PTL Bibles bulldozed into the pit, which was then filled in with concrete. (Apparently these items were only available as love offering gifts from PTL, which explains why so few come up for sale on eBay. I’ve never seen one in an antique shop or thrift store.) Indeed, the party was over for Tammy, who had enjoyed having her own talk show on PTL called Tammy’s House Party…
Not only was the party over, but the Bakkers were subjected to a living hell. I’m not going to give my opinion on the downfall of PTL here, as that’s not why I wrote this blog. I will say that as neither one of them even completed Bible college (they were kicked out when they eloped after only a year or two of studies), Jim and Tammy simply did not have the business acumen necessary to run such a large corporation. And that’s what PTL and Heritage USA were: Not just one, but two huge corporations simultaneously bringing in and costing millions of dollars to operate. Add in a murky tax-exempt status due to the religious aspect, and you’ve got a recipe for a disaster. Shockingly, Tammy writes of alot of crying after the downfall of PTL (bad joke, but she really does write about how much she and Jim both cried until they wanted to kill themselves.) As is often the case in life, God used these trials (and the literal grand jury trial of Jim Bakker) to humble Tammy. She realized there was more to life than big homes, fancy cars, and multiple closets filled to the brim with clothes and shoes. (Depending on how one looks at it, this was either very easy or very hard for her, since she came from a very poor home in rural Minnesota.) God had mercy on her and brought her through the toughest times, and even by the time she died from colon cancer in 2007, she was completely at peace.
There’s alot that’s been said about Tammy Faye, both good and bad, and it was not my goal in this blog to dispute any misconceptions about her or to praise her as a flawless role model. She was who she was, for better or for worse, and she told it like it was. But I would like to praise Tammy’s liveliness, hence the title of the blog. She lived life as best she could, and she was willing to make mistakes to get to where she was going. Here’s a great quote from her book that really hit home for me, especially as I read it on New Year’s Day:
“Nine times out of ten, what you think is wrong with you nobody else notices; or if they do, it’s not that important to them, because they’ve got their own insecurities. You’re your own worst critic. Even God isn’t as hard on you as you are on yourself. So let yourself be real, let yourself be vulnerable, let yourself fall flat on your face.”–Tammy Faye Messner
Tammy was also a pretty good singer, at least in my opinion. As none of her songs were released by a mainstream publishing company, they’re not available for download. But I’ve found several of them on YouTube and have been able to convert them to mp3s. One of her biggest hits was “You Can Make It!,” which is where the title of the cooking show came from. In closing, if Tammy Faye could make it, we all can. Here’s a few more pics of her just for fun. Happy 2012, everyone!