Let us speak then of the dead. It's something we seem to do more and more of. The last time I spoke of the dead, I was speaking of Chris Benoit, and of the conflicted feelings I had as a man I respected and enjoyed as an entertainer had turned out or turned into a monster. This time, I speak of someone we all knew, once upon a time, was a shallow, bad and hypocritical person, and who I speak well of now as a kind and decent woman who, in the end, meant what she said.
A person I, and most of the people who know anything about the last twenty years of her life, mourn now the way we mourn any person who is essentially decent, kind and open, and who did her best to spread a message that on balance was a good and decent one -- far more so than many of the others of her kind and era did.
I speak, of course, of Tamara Faye LaValley, who was known professionally as Tammy Faye or Tammy Faye Messner at the end of her life, and who millions remembered (and mocked) as Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker.
I was a child in the 70's and 80's, living in rural Maine along the Northern Canadian border. I have never needed a Saturday Night Live sketch to tell me who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I had the PTL Club. And if it seems weird that I had watched it, you don't understand what television used to be like, especially in Northern Maine. Until the cable came, our television universe was CHSJ (the New Brunswick Television System) on Channel 6, WAGM on Channel 8, three French channels (two of which barely came in) after that, and MPBN (the PBS affiliate) on Channel 11. Period.
WAGM, in particular, was our gateway into the world. It was primarily a CBS affiliate, but officially it was an affiliate of all three networks. They would (usually) show CBS shows when they were supposed to air, and shows on ABC or NBC would show up at odd times -- the 7 o'clock hour, for example. Or on weekends. But despite this plethora of programming, there was never enough programming to fill the dial. Old, bad movies would play here and there, after Captain Kangaroo and the game shows and the soap operas. And weekends? Saturday morning was the CBS cartoon lineup, and then there was a long void all day. Sunday mornings there were various religious shows, then various crap, then they would pull in ABC's Wide World of Sports.
Why did I watch it? I was a kid living in the middle of nowhere. I had Canadian television, French television I couldn't understand, Public Television, and whatever cheap crap WAGM threw at me. You're damn right I watched it. All of it. I watched Jim McKay excitedly present ice barrel jumping. I must have seen every episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I watched Hee Haw. I watched It's The Law, Front Page Challenge and The Beachcombers on CHSJ. I watched To Tell The Truth and What's My Line, in the days when Soupy Sales was the high point of those shows. The high point.
And I watched The P-T-L Club.
My parents didn't. They had better things to do, and who could blame them? I don't know if my sister watched it or not, but I don't know how she could have avoided it -- she was even more of a child of the 70's than I was. But I did. I was young, and let's be blunt. This show was amazing. It had music (not like Lawrence Welk, another show I watched out of the 'there's nothing else to do' theory, but more exciting music), it had shouting and gesticulation and sobbing -- let's be blunt. It was a freak show. A spectacle. And kids love spectacle.
And it had Tammy Faye Bakker.
Tammy Faye Bakker seemed too over the top to be real. So heavily made up she seemed greasepainted, always laughing or sobbing at what seemed like near hysteria (for many years, mascara pouring down her face from tears was practically her trademark and calling card), she seemed like a clown. A literal clown. Especially when a kid like me was watching -- I knew from clowns, and I knew television wasn't real. And there was no way that freak was real.
But it wasn't just kids like me watching the show. There had been religious programming for a long, long time, but it was P-T-L (for PRAISE THE LORD! shouted enthusiastically) that inaugurated the television crusade. Billy Graham had been the closest we'd had to a public crusader and evangelist, as once a year WAGM would give over the To Tell The Truth/What's My Line block to him for a week of shouting and praying, but this was something else. This was up close and personal and in your face. Witnessing. Testifying. Exhorting!
And, as you all know, begging. Begging for money. Money to show your faith. Money to continue the faith. Every Church in America "passed the plate" and churchgoers understood that's what kept the church going and enabled them to help the poor and needy (this was a given in these somewhat simpler days -- churches helped the needy. It was most of what they did with their time in between sermons. At least, that's what people assumed back in the day). Well, they were passing the plate to America, and they expected to see it fill fast, brothers and sisters!
And they were a monumental success. They were the vanguard of a boom, informing and being informed by ministries and ministers like Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (Expect a Miracle!), and later on Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others of their ilk. They were so successful they launched a theme park. A theme park for Jesus. Heritage U.S.A. was another huge success, bringing in crowds of people to ride rides and have good family fun and obey Jesus.
Meanwhile, a few years later, cable done come to my town, bringing with it NBC and ABC on a regular feed, plus what was then called Superstation WTBS, and -- for a glorious twelve hours a day -- a mysterious and exciting new pay cable service called Home Box Office. And with these new, dramatic options, The P-T-L Club followed Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk into the department of "never watched, because damn, man. I have a life." WLBZ -- the NBC affiliate -- in particular held my attention. They still produced most of their own post-soap opera television. Sure, it was crappy movies just like WAGM had been, but they were slightly better crappy movies and they were introduced and presented by Eddie Driscoll, who rocked so hard you could measure him seismically. So I hadn't seen The P-T-L Club for quite some time when scandal rocked it. Jim Bakker had allegedly drugged and raped a church secretary, the ministry had paid her hush money and covered it up, and donations were going to support a lavish, decadent lifestyle for the Bakkers. (As a side-note, Jimmy Swaggart was the man who "broke" the story of Jim Bakker's transgressions, as well as another minster name of Marvin Gorman. This led Gorman to hire a private investigator to investigate this man who was purging "cancers in the body of Christ." That led to Swaggart's own habit of prostitutes coming out and his own fall from grace. I digress, but it's always fun to remember that taking joy in and promoting the fall of your rivals is a good way to fall yourself.)
Bakker's actions were reprehensible, and Tammy Faye was pulled in for the ride. It was just too easy to include her. She seemed at best incredibly naive -- and at this point, no one was ready to believe she could be anything but as venal as the rest of the defrocked. The P-T-L Club had preached prosperity theology and the Bakkers had lived a good life. Too good a life, as it turned out, as financial improprieties came to light and the IRS came a-calling. Jim Bakker went to prison. The pair got divorced. And Tammy Faye Bakker became a footnote and a joke. Just another scandal. Just another flim flam artist.
The thing is? She meant it.
She really did. Oh, she wasn't pure and innocent of all the goings on. There were rumors of prescription medicine and addiction. There was a clear opulent lifestyle she embraced. This is not to exonerate Tammy Faye Messner of the choices she made.
But when she said that God loved you? And loved me? And loved everyone? She meant that. She meant it with all her heart. And she felt that included everyone. The rich and the poor. Criminals and the innocent. The healthy and the sick. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, people of all creeds and races. Everyone. During the heyday of The P-T-L Club in the eighties, when AIDS was mysterious and homosexuality denounced by most evangelists as dirty and sinful -- with the implication that HIV was a divine judgement against them -- Tammy Faye Bakker had gay men and women on her show. She had AIDS victims appear. She exhorted her audience to pray for these people -- not to abandon their sinful lives, but to be healed of their illness, like any Christian should pray for any sick person.
After her divorce and remarriage, Tammy Faye slowly began to emerge. Her message was the same, even as she embraced her (admittedly freakish) public image. She launched a (secular) talk show with openly gay (and HIV positive) actor Jim J. Bullock. She appeared on programs and documentaries. (One notable documentary brought her back to Heritage U.S.A., long abandoned and falling apart. She broke into tears at the sight of it, wishing she could just spend some time painting things and making it look a little nicer).
And then she got sick. She got cancer. Colon cancer. She left the talk show, and worked on fighting it -- and seemed to win. It went into remission, and she stuck to the edges of popular culture. She traded on her image -- in a move almost stunning in its self-understanding, she appeared as a recurring guest star on The Drew Carey Show as the mother of an overweight, heavily made up caricature of a character named Mimi Bobek. And most famously (or infamously), she appeared on a season of VH-1's freakshow of the has-beens The Surreal Life, appearing alongside porn star Ron Jeremy and Vanilla Ice, among others.
And a whole new generation of people -- and an old generation of skeptics -- discovered they really liked this woman. She was honestly, truly kind to everyone. She was unafraid to espouse unpopular opinions but those opinions weren't ever exclusionary or mean spirited. She declined to accompany her castmates to see a psychic or attend a nudist resort, but she didn't condemn them for their choices. Co-star and Baywatch babe Traci Bingham described the experience of knowing her and hearing her speak on the show as life altering.
And then she got sick again.
She was seen undergoing treatments on her son's documentary series, One Punk Under God. She needed oxygen and had to stop making appearances for the most part. In telephone interviews, she described her hospice care and told people to never live their lives in fear but only feel hope. On July 19, she and her husband Ron Messner appeared on Larry King Live, and she was almost shockingly thin -- the woman parodied and known for being heavyset having dipped below seventy pounds, the skin loose on her skeletal body. It was known she was dying, but her appearance was hopeful and full of faith. From the transcript:
KING: Now you've always been so upbeat, the feeling of god being with you. Does that remain?
T.F. MESSNER: That remains consistent. I talk to God every single day. And I say, God, my life is in your hands and I trust you with me.
KING: We have an e-mail from Renee in Strongsville, Ohio: "I admire you for your unshakeable faith. Do you believe when you leave this Earth, you're going to go to a better place?"
T.F. MESSNER: I believe when I leave this earth -- because I love the Lord -- I am going straight to Heaven.
That was the tone. That, and excitement over having gained five pounds, and really looking forward to biting into a burger, which she had been craving. And expressing love and thanks to everyone who had spoken for her. She mentioned the gay community, who had "opened their arms to her" when the bad times had come and who she would always be thankful to. And she said she was mostly unafraid, thanks to her faith, but that she was afraid for her children and the sadness they would feel if she died. But that she continued to have hope.
That was July 19. On July 20, she was dead.
And with her dies a little bit of my childhood. And with her dies what might be the shining bright spot in the midst of a darkness that had spread over Christianity in the 80's, with cynicism and hypocrisy and avarice and scandal. In the decades since all that happened, Swaggart's been found with another prostitute (and unlike his first time, he flatly told his congregation that God told him it was none of their business) and said that if any gay man looked at him with lust, he'd kill him. And Jerry Falwell, who presided over the fall and the end of the P-T-L Club, though having brought a certain humor to his ministry, also brought intolerance and hatred and ignorance. Pat Robertson recently apparently called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez in God's name.
Tammy Faye? Just wanted everyone to love each other and accept each other and live without fear and in faith.
I'm not a Christian, but I suspect Tammy Faye -- though she would certainly have witnessed to me -- would have accepted me and been charitable and kind to me and assumed only the best and only had hope for me.
If there is a Heaven, I am confident Tamara Faye LaValley is in it. Very likely singing. And Earth is a slightly brighter place for her having lived, and a slightly sadder place for her having passed.
And that, in the end, is exactly what I think she would have hoped for.