Friday, April 5, 2019

The Rise, Fall & Semi-Resurrection of Tammy Faye Bakker

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Ahh, the 1980s.  When televangelists were flooding the airwaves with low-fi satellite broadcasts & bleeding dry little old ladies with their insincere pleas for cash "donations".  There was no shortage of them:  Peter Popoff, Jimmy Swaggart & perhaps the most (in)famous of all--Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker.

The Bakkers stood out in several ways.  For one, they were the only male/female couple to minister in this way to a television audience.  The industry was mostly dominated by raccoon-eyed men like Jerry Falwell & Billy Graham, whose wives stayed at home & out of public view.  Secondly, their flamboyance was a sight to behold...particularly Tammy's clownish makeup & blinged-out jewelry.  She was frequently the target of late-night comedy shows like Saturday Night Live & SCTV Network.  But the biggest difference was actually meaningful:  they reached out to audiences that were considered pariahs & modern-day lepers--AIDS patients, homosexuals, drug addicts & the homeless.  And they were sincere about it.  Particularly Tammy Faye, who always had a soft spot for gay men (more on that later).

Despite these glimpses of warmth & genuine humanity, the couple ultimately did more harm than good with their PTL Club & Heritage USA amusement park.  They often planned their fundraising "crises" for the 1st of the month, when they knew elderly viewers would be receiving their social security checks.  It's said old ladies would eat cat food just so they could give their money to Jim & Tammy, who lived a disgustingly lavish lifestyle.  People gave up deeds to their land, mink coats, inheritance money & life savings to the cunning couple all in the name of God's abundance.  (See:  Prosperity Gospel).  This would come back to bite Jim & Tammy big time in the end, as would Jim Bakker's rape of a woman named Jessica Hahn.  He also had several alleged sexual trysts with male staff & friends of the PTL Club, which Tammy Faye was well aware of.  He ultimately paid off Hahn in the hopes of keeping her quiet, but word leaked to the press & the rest is history.

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Jim Bakker's epic meltdown during trial
What most people didn't know was that, for the entire time they were on the air, Tammy Faye was addicted to the drug Ativan--a heavy duty benzodiazepine used in hospitals to sedate belligerent patients.  After 17 years of use, she was taking the pills all day everyday & unable to leave the house without them.  She could be seen trailing off during broadcasts, stumbling around & saying things that were just plain odd.  And then she was forced off the meds by a doctor in 1987 & had a horrific withdrawal episode on an airplane in which she hallucinated & attempted to de-plane at 30,000 feet.  Nobody told her where they were taking her or what the plan was, which was incredibly dangerous & cruel.  She went to the Betty Ford Clinic & ultimately got clean but cites it as one of the most difficult times of her life.  I suspect both the years of benzo abuse & the rapid withdrawal did some serious damage to her brain & contributed to her famous unprovoked crying spells.  (I only abused benzos for 10 months & am still not 100% normal even 5 years later).

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Tammy hollering to the Heavens
Shortly after her mental breakdown, the Jessica Hahn story broke in the news & Jim was conned into turning over their ministry to the evil Jerry Falwell, who eventually turned on him & called him a deviant homosexual adulterer in public.  He also referred to Tammy Faye as "a loony whose elevator doesn't go all the way to the top" even as he profited from the very business they'd spent years building.  Talk about kicking someone when they're down.

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Jerry Falwell going down the slide at Heritage USA after taking over PTL Club
Eventually the PTL & Heritage USA empires crumbled financially & Jim Bakker went to prison after a faux-mental breakdown of his own.  Upon release, he told Barbara Walters he was nearly raped twice in prison & was molested as a child, causing him to question his sexuality.  By this time, Tammy had moved on & re-married another PTL member named Roe Messner who would also serve some time in prison later.  Her transformation was far more dramatic than Jim's:  She moved from religious broadcasts to "secular television" & starred on a talk show with a gay man ("The Jim J. & Tammy Faye Show") as well as appearing on Roseanne's daytime talk show and The Surreal Life with the likes of porn king Ron Jeremy.  She even starred in a RuPaul-directed documentary about her life called The Eyes of Tammy Faye which you can watch here.

So what makes this greedy wench worthy of our sympathy?  Her vulnerability & willingness to be real helped a lot.  You can tell she's got some serious issues with her body image for one thing.  She refused to take off the makeup despite being mocked to high hell for it, stating that she felt "ugly" without it.  She even had a lot of it tattooed on before that was really a thing.  This suggests some degree of Body Dysmorphia which is very sad.  She cried at the drop of a hat no matter the occasion, which also points to some major sadness hiding just beneath the surface.  Some claim the crying was a ploy to get sympathy/cash from viewers, but it continued loooong beyond her PTL years & was just a part of her personality.  (Not that it didn't help with the soliciting). 

Tammy Faye's views on the gay community were also very brave & touching coming from an Assembly of God member, especially in an age where AIDS paranoia was causing even doctors & EMTs to refuse to touch sick patients.  So-called "Christians" like Pat Robertson were referring to the disease as God's punishment for unnatural acts & even celebrating it, so it took a lot of courage & empathy for her to go against the grain.  She fought cancer bravely for a decade while being a loving mother to her two children, all without sacrificing her own goals & aspirations.  And she didn't abandon Jim even after his affairs or least for as long as she could manage.  He left the family with $1,000 when he went away.  So she was more than just a gold digger, even if she did like nice things.  (To put it mildly).

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Tammy at 2002 Gay Pride with Lady Bunny & Bruce Vilanch
Tammy Faye's last appearance on TV happened 2 days before she died of lung cancer in 2007.  She weighed only 68 pounds & spoke to Larry King with a labored, breathy rasp about her faith in God.  Regardless of your spiritual or religious views, that takes a helluva lot of courage.  She went out like a soldier--unafraid to show her face even as she was literally dying. 

Today, Jim Bakker has another TV ministry from which he sells doomsday prepper supplies in much the same format as the PTL Club of yore.  He's also got a new wife who could pass for Tammy Faye's half sister.  The same is true of conman Peter Popoff, who I view as even more repugnant than Bakker.  (Popoff would do fake healings on dying people & tell them to throw their prescription meds on the stage because they didn't need them anymore).  Famous skeptic James Randi exposed how his "healings" worked & his ministry quickly went under, but he's back on TV today selling "Miracle Spring Water".  Some of the claims Bakker makes about his own quack products definitely cross the line into false claims about a dietary supplement.  For instance, he claims his Silver Solution "cures any venereal disease."  Wat.

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Jim Bakker today with wife Lori
Is this the best we can do, America?  Religious freedom is one thing, but there's no excuse for conning vulnerable people out of their life savings or government assistance.  This is spiritual abuse at its very worst, and it's happening right under the bright lights of television studios for the whole world to see.  Where is the FDA, FCC or other regulatory agencies?  You want to ban supplements like kratom or CBD but allow these snakeoil salesmen to make false claims about their products while robbing elderly dementia patients after being found guilty of the same crimes already?

Tammy Faye is unique in that she got out of this evil game once she saw it for what it was.  And of course she died a horrible death while Jim Bakker's skeevy ass lives to a ripe old age.  Isn't that always how it goes though?  The good die young while the evil run amok?  It's stories like this that make me wish Hell was real, because Mr. Bakker would've surely secured himself a front row seat.  Sometimes justice doesn't prevail in this lifetime which is what makes thoughts of a rewarding or punishing afterlife so attractive.  Since nobody knows for sure what happens after death, we must do better to bring about justice in THIS one.

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