As someone who spent most of my teens and twenties struggling with depression, it took me a long time to arrive at the realization that I am an optimist. It was a fact that was obscured by my overall misery, as well as an aesthetic that involved a lot of skulls, listening to melancholy music, and reading sad books to make myself cry. My mother asked me to play guitar and sing at a few of her dinner parties, but after a round or two she looked at me hopefully and asked whether I didn’t have anything less bleak in my repertoire. (In case you’re wondering, the answer was no.) I didn’t feel like someone who believed that everything would work out until proven otherwise, but looking back I can see that being optimistic was one of the things that saved my life.
My natural inclination is to give everyone another chance to do better, sometimes to the point where my friends feel the need to remind me how badly certain things have gone in the past. It calls to mind a Dilbert comic that illustrated the definition of stupidity with a dinosaur who keeps rewinding a basketball game thinking “maybe he’ll get it in this time…” Although I do believe my odds are better than that, I worry a little that it makes me the village idiot. I think what I’m doing, though, is choosing to act in a way that offers the possibility of making the world the way I want it to be.
Oddly, one of the things that I associate with optimism and picking yourself up when you fall on your face is Tammy Faye Bakker.
Years ago I went by myself to a midnight screening of the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye at the Inside Out queer film festival. The last ticket in my booklet was basically a wild card–nothing in particular I wanted to spend it on–and I’d heard good things about it so I decided to take a chance. It was absolutely worth it. I especially enjoyed the narration by RuPaul and the way each section was introduced by the hand puppets Tammy Faye used on the children’s show she and Jim Bakker first started out with.
In 1974, after several years hosting a late night talk show called The 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker took over the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina and spent the next 13 years soliciting donations adding up to over $150 million. The funds were supposed to go to the work of the ministry and lifetime memberships at a Christian theme park called Heritage USA, but building the park sucked up more money than they could collect, especially with millions of it going towards things like matching Rolls-Royces and pay-offs to cover up an incident where Jim and another minister drugged and raped a church secretary.
Heritage USA is now a creepy abandoned theme park
In 1987 Jim Bakker was tried for fraud, which he unsuccessfully attempted to weasel out of in various ways from claiming he was hallucinating people transforming into animals and attacking him to insisting that his accounts were off because “the devil got into the computer.” During the trial, the Bakkers handed PTL over to their “friend” Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and all round bigot, who proceeded to shut them out of the ministry and perform a hostile takeover.
I’m impressed at the impact The Eyes of Tammy Faye had on me and that I still remember it so many years later, especially since I had no real interest in Tammy Faye herself. She was such a caricature that it would have been easy to take advantage of that, play the stereotypes for laughs, mock her or be critical of her for her part in her husband’s televangelism fraud, but instead the film just let her show who she was. She believed in the value of kindness, that Jim Bakker was a good man, that Jesus loved gay people as much as everyone else and she should too, and that no matter how good you are you’re going to hell unless you come to Jesus. Whatever preconceptions I went in with or the ways I didn’t agree with her, I came out of it feeling unexpectedly fond of Tammy Faye.
Her trademark exaggerated makeup and Pollyanna-ish style made it difficult for people to take her seriously, but given an opportunity to tell her own story she seemed so sincere and she worked so hard to pick herself up again that it was hard not to empathize and find her appealing. For example, there’s a scene where she’s going on a talk show and they ask her to come without her make-up. She obviously wants to make them happy and do what they’re asking her to but she can’t because her lipstick, eyebrows and eyeliner are all permanently tattooed on. The looks on the faces of the make-up crew for the show when they realize she actually has taken off everything she can and they’re going to have to deal with her signature face as their baseline are priceless.
There are two scenes, though, that really stuck with me and link her with optimism in my mind. One was the last show she and Jim did together before she was emergency air-lifted to rehab at Betty Ford for her addiction to Ativan. They’re on a beach-themed stage that has sand and a real catamaran with water painted on the backdrop. Jim is talking to the audience and Tammy Faye starts wandering around the stage looking vague. He finishes and announces that she is going to sing a song, but she’s made it to the sand and tells him she’s just going to go wading in the “water.” She’s totally serious, she thinks it’s for real.
From their ostentatious spending and the bits and pieces I remembered of the media coverage around the scandal, I had assumed that despite her addiction problem she and Jim had been in it together. Watching that scene makes it clear the scale on which she didn’t know which end was up. She didn’t deny that she should have known better or expect that people should let her off the hook, but she also was out of it enough to legitimately qualify as incapacitated. It made me realize I had once again jumped to conclusions that failed to describe reality. They were arguably reasonable conclusions under the circumstances and I had felt pretty well-justified in my opinion of her, but this documentary reminded me why it’s important to be willing to give everyone a chance, even if it’s Tammy Faye Bakker.
The other scene that I keep coming back to is after the fall-out, when she finally accepted an invitation to come to an event with a church community again. She’d avoided being involved up until then out of shame and a fear that people would be mean to her, but they weren’t. She was talking to the audience about how nervous she was to come back, but that she realized she had been carrying around the corpse of Jerry Falwell on her back and she needed to put it down and walk away, that we all need to do that in our lives. We can’t get up and try again if we’re weighed down by the crappy things that crappy people do to us or by the shame we feel over our own failures.
It was actually quite a moving speech, and I figure if Tammy Faye could come back from everything that went wrong in her life then some level of optimism is warranted.
Alex MacFadyen is glad that thinking Jerry Falwell was his friend is not one of the many mistakes he has made in his lifetime.