I take my wig off today to Tammy Faye who died this weekend from cancer. The story of the rise and fall of her ministry, tied as it was to her former husband Jim Bakker, is one I’ve often used over the years as a case-study for women who attend my leadership seminars. Whenever I want to talk to women about what it means to live in a man’s shadow, why it’s important to own your own gifts as a woman, and what it takes to rebuild your ministry and career after a divorce or public downfall, I have turned to the example of Tammy Faye. For those of you who only know her as the cherubic faced, mascara clad other half of the couple at the heart of the PTL scandal, go out and buy the fascinating documentary of her rise and climb back into the spotlight, Through the Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Love her or hate her that Tammy Faye was one gutsy broad. What otherwise vain woman do you know knowing that her death was only hours away, looking ghoulishly emaciated and barely able to talk, would ask to show her face on national television? But that’s what Tammy Faye did. After battling cancer for 11 years and eventually losing, she asked her friend Larry King last week for the opportunity to appear on his show to say goodbye to her fans and friends one last time. She would die a few days later. To see the clip last Thursday of her appearance on “Larry King Live” was to cringe. Dressed in red, Tammy Faye was barely recognizable but for her signature darkly made up eyes, make-up which for years had made her the butt of jokes on late night talk shows. But you had to admire Tammy Faye as she looked into the camera and struggled gallantly to speak and to swallow for the last time before everyone. She was hours away from dying and knew it. But Tammy Faye was determined to go out on her own terms. She was down to only 65 pounds, which King rightly said had to be at the moment all heart.
The initials PTL (”Praise the Lord” ministry) have come to stand for all that was wrong with televangelism, namely scandals of the sex and money kind. Jim Bakker’s transgression with former church secretary Jessica Hahn ended in scandal and a prison sentence, the end of the $100 million dollar empire he and his wife had built together, as well as the end, ostensibly, of Tammy Faye’s career in the spotlight. But the woman was resilient, even if she was also a bit sad. To watch the documentary of her struggle to resurrect herself from her husband’s ruins and reinvent herself is both heartening and heartbreaking. You have to admire the woman’s determination to extract herself from her ex-husband’s shadow and build a life for herself based on her own talents; you have to admire her resilience and indomitable faith in God despite one rejection after another; and finally you have to admire her refusal to show bitterness toward those she felt ultimately responsible for PTL’s demise (namely Jerry Falwell). You would be wise to recognize also Tammy Faye’s life as a cautionary tale to every woman who’s ever devoted herself to her husband’s vision –in the name of the Lord.
I can’t say that I admired Tammy Faye. I didn’t. But I did and do have a lot of respect for the woman – despite all the shaking of the head I did whenever I saw her on television. I always stopped whatever I was doing around the house to observe her. Behind the pounds of make-up, the frothy, air-brain image of Christian faith and femininity she frequently exuded, there was something about Tammy Faye that I recognized. Even in her last interview there on “Larry King Live” where she sat a shell of her former self. Decimated by inoperable cancer. Confident that she was going straight to heaven upon death. Caricature of a caricature. “I know that woman,” I would say everytime I saw her. I’ve seen her before. That woman hiding behind the mask. That will. That steely determination. That fire. The insatiable need to be loved. That simple faith.