On September 21st, 2021 at 10:42 pm, I received a text from a friend.
“Do you want to see the new Tammy Faye movie sometime?”
I had no idea who or what that was, so I Googled it and immediately texted back, “Yes!”
Who was Tammy Faye?
The movie in question was the 2021 biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield. It purported to show famed televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in a new light after she crashed alongside her money-hungry husband Jim Bakker in the 80s.
Jim’s story wasn’t unusual for preachers of his kind. He begged viewers for money to pay off debts, he often misappropriated funds, he promised viewers things he could not deliver, and of course he sexually assaulted a woman and used the ministry’s funds to cover it up. These scandals brought down the couple’s entire ministry, PTL. But did Tammy deserve what she got? Was she as guilty as Jim?
Anyone who knows the name Jim Bakker knows that it is synonymous with “religious grifter,” and anyone who knows Tammy Faye knows her to be Jim’s overly-emotional, overly-made-up ex-wife who cried at the drop of a hat and always had mascara running down her cheeks.
Well, the first thing you should know is that that never happened. Tammy knew better than to wear non-waterproof mascara. She may have cried, but the makeup stayed right where it was meant to.
This 2021 movie shifted those perceptions. Tammy was not the greedy, preaching bloodsucker that her husband Jim was. After she and Jim split, Tammy showed her true colors as a very caring, nonjudgmental, emotive, and loving woman. She showed compassion to the LGBTQ+ community when no one else in her Christian circle would dare to. Her 1985 interview with openly gay pastor and AIDS patient Steve Pieters on Tammy’s own show led Tammy to find herself welcomed with open arms into the gay community.
When you see Tammy in this way, uncontaminated by Jim, she really shines. It’s impossible not to see it. She’s sweet, she’s funny, and her singing always puts me in a good mood. Here’s one of the many positive things that Jen of Fundie Fridays on YouTube has said about Tammy:
In case you’ve been living under a rock and you’re new here, you don’t know who Tammy Faye is, she was a televangelist who openly embraced gay people when it was very controversial. She went through a lot of scandals, had a lot of bad things happen to her, yet she always remained positive and she was just one of the most bubbly, loving Christians that anybody has ever seen, so, I love talking about her, and I’m very excited to get into this with you.Fundie Fridays, THE TAMMY FAYE EPISODE
Tammy, the progressive icon
The narrative about Tammy that I’ve seen developing in the left-leaning, nonreligious world recently is that Tammy was a good person who mistakenly ended up with the unpalatable preacher Jim Bakker. Jim always wanted to expand the Bakkers’ empire when Tammy would have preferred to keep it reigned in. Tammy eventually left Jim and was finally free to be who she really was, without his influence. She denounced him and his evil ways, and she became an icon in the gay community.
This was how I viewed Tammy after watching the Jessica Chastain biopic. But was she really the progressive icon that we think she is today?
I recommend watching the Fundie Fridays video “THE TAMMY FAYE EPISODE” in addition to reading my post. In it, Jen is as blunt as can be:
When I hear the stories of these events, it doesn’t really sound like anybody was in the right, honestly. Televangelists are generally scummy, and I acknowledge that that does include Tammy, but she’s my favorite, so she can do no wrong. This episode is in no way objective and is absolutely biased in her favor, and I will not be taking any questions.Fundie Fridays, THE TAMMY FAYE EPISODE
I can’t fault Jen for being biased when she clearly came out and said she was. I’m sure that if there was a Tammy Faye fan club today, Jen would be the leader.
Hopefully, this post can act as a counterbalance to that video. Not that I am going to be intentionally biased against Tammy; I want to be as unbiased as possible. And I know that it’s not going to be easy to do. Just watch her sing with her daughter and tell me you don’t feel something. I dare you.
After sharing a clip of Tammy singing, Jen said in her video, “If Tammy can make a jaded atheist like me feel something, she was doing her job right.” I’m right there with her.
Was Tammy complicit in Jim’s financial crimes?
I realized that our narrative about Tammy is flawed when I read her 1997 memoir Tammy: Telling It My Way in January. I was surprised to see that other than gentle critiques that a spouse would usually have, Tammy didn’t really have anything bad to say about Jim, even though she had divorced him years before writing the book. Most of the book was her defending Jim and his actions—yes, even those actions. Oh yeah, we’ll get there.
I was not around in the 80s. The text exchange I shared above was the first I ever heard of Tammy, and this video that I watched the next day was my first time learning about her. I didn’t get to witness the rise and fall of the Bakkers’ empire, Praise the Lord Ministries and Heritage USA. I’d bet that if you did get to see it happen, then you would agree that Tammy seemed pretty okay with it. I don’t want to play into the traditional narrative that Tammy cared about nothing in this world except for material possessions and makeup, but she wasn’t refusing to shop with money she hadn’t earned, either.
One of the most relevant questions here is, did Tammy know what Jim was doing?
After watching the 2021 movie and even after watching the Fundie Fridays videos, I didn’t have a good idea of the exact nature of Jim Bakker’s wrongdoings. By far the best and most detailed source I’ve found for this is John Wigger’s 2017 book PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire. I read it after Tammy’s memoir, so I went in feeling cautious that it would be biased against the couple. It turned out to be incredible, well-researched, and as unbiased as I think it could be.
PTL the book had so many details of Jim’s financial problems, many of which were taken directly from the lawsuit against him. Possibly Jim’s most famous business-related crime was his overselling of hotel rooms on the Heritage USA grounds as a way of raising money. Here is most of what Tammy had to say about this in her memoir:
In order to finance [the Heritage Grand Hotel], Jim created an innovative plan, which seemed quite feasible at the time. It was a basic vacation-resort time-share concept, the very model upon which many such similar programs are built today. His idea was simple. He started a special lifetime-partnership club. Everyone who donated $1,000 to help the ministry got a special gift: Once a year they could stay four days and three nights at the hotel. But the government accused Jim of “overselling” those partnerships. In other words, if everyone decided to come at the same time, there wouldn’t be enough rooms for all of them. In my opinion, this was exaggerated.
. . .
When we were there, no one had ever been turned away from the existing hotels at Heritage USA. They might have had to accept alternate dates, as everyone could not come for Christmas, but we did have more than enough openings for them to visit another time of the year. And to most of the partners this was perfectly acceptable. The partners were told time and time again that if they wanted a special time, such as Christmas, they must make their reservations months in advance. So all partners were aware of this. They would arrange their vacations accordingly. We never dreamed it was a problem.Tammy Faye Messner, Tammy: Telling It My Way, pp. 256-257
In PTL the book, John Wigger spends so much more time talking about these partnerships that I cannot fit it all. (I’m going to just have to do what I always do and tell you to read the book for yourself!)
Jim built this Heritage Grand Hotel amidst an explosion of popularity for the theme park and everything that came with it. They had built so much (the list takes up half a page in the book), and had so many visitors, and therefore had so much money. And as he often did, Jim awoke once in the middle of the night and decided he had to build a hotel to put all these people in.
Complete financial chaos
PTL did have a lot of money, but not enough for this. Wigger explains,
PTL’s finances were stable but there was no room for new major projects. . . . PTL’s income was $4 million a month and its operating expenses were $3 million a month, excluding capital expenditure. . . . “I strongly encourage that we stop further construction until we can pay as we have money available,” [PTL’s finance director] wrote to Bakker a month later.John Wigger, PTL, p. 169
Wigger explains exactly how dire PTL’s finances were at this time and how far in debt they were.
More debt was the last thing PTL needed. It was at exactly this moment that Bakker decided to launch his biggest construction project ever, the $25 million Partner Center and Grand Hotel.
How to pay for such a massive project? . . . The plan was to offer 25,000 lifetime partnerships in the Heritage Grand Hotel for $1,000 each. In return for this contribution, each lifetime partner would be guaranteed four days and three nights a year free in the Grand Hotel for life. The partnerships would generate $25 million, enough to completely pay for construction of the new complex under the original estimates.
. . .
[PTL’s lawyer] worried that the partnership program contained securities violations under the South Carolina Time Share Act and recommended holding off sending it out until these issues could be resolved. Bakker and Dortch sent it anyway. They had already begun construction, and this was the only fundraising plan they had.John Wigger, PTL, p. 169-170
They were able to raise the money—though not in Jim’s original timeframe goal—but since “PTL also continued to aggressively buy land” and owed money on so many projects, the $25 million barely helped.
The more than $25 million the partnership program raised by July fell short of what was needed to build the Grand Hotel and Partner Center for two reasons. First, the cost of the project steadily rose. As early as February 1984, when the foundation was just going in, Bakker admitted that the complex would cost at least $30 million. The final price tag rose to $35 million by the time it was finally done. Second, Bakker used about half of the money raised for the hotel to make up for shortfalls in PTL’s monthly budget and to launch new projects. In the end, only 52.8 percent of the money raised through Grand partnerships was actually spent on the hotel complex.John Wigger, PTL, p. 172
And that’s just why the partnerships were a bad idea, not even why “the government” accused Jim of “overselling.” Soon after this, by the way, Jim would break ground on the five-acre waterpark that would end up costing the ministry $13 million. To help pay for that—and the original hotel—Jim would also announce construction of the new Heritage Grand Towers hotel. Wigger compares Jim’s trick of “launch[ing] a new project and us[ing] the funds raised for the new project to pay for old debts” to “getting a new credit card to make payments on an old card that was maxed out.” This habit would get worse and worse for the next three years until PTL came crashing down in 1987.
One-hundred and four percent
At one point, “Bakker had sold enough partnerships to fill every room in the Grand every night. But it was still not enough.” When Jim opened opportunities to donate and become a lifetime partner for the third time in a year, one of PTL’s computer programmers, Hollis Rule, wrote to his boss on September 3rd, 1985 “that the total number of paid partnerships was . . . 104.1 percent occupancy for the Grand and 31.3 percent for the unfinished Towers.”
When the hotel manager started his job and saw this he panicked. He told Richard Dortch, PTL’s vice president, about the 104 percent occupancy which did not even include normal paying hotel guests. Dortch reassured him that not every lifetime partner would come every year—but many of them did. The partners weren’t able to make reservations and many were furious. Wigger reports that “PTL eventually paid more than $7.3 million in refunds.”
Unlike what Tammy said, everyone did not have to come at once for it to be impossible. In order to stay open to make money from regular guests, the hotel couldn’t dedicate more than 60 percent of rooms to these pre-paid partners.
PTL was hemorrhaging money. Their finance director stated that their income was half of what they needed to continue at the pace they were going. They were behind on payroll, “television time, product costs, travel expenses, mortgage and lease payments on real estate, maintenance, advertising, road construction, loans on vehicles and equipment, operating supplies, utility bills, insurance bills, medical bills, et cetera.” Two months after receiving this information, PTL’s board gave Jim a $200,000 bonus and Tammy a $100,000 bonus. All the while, they were still on the brink of disaster.
On the brink of a miracle
When it came to raising money, Jim and Tammy had two modes: panicking or blessed. Things had to always be dire enough to need immediate contributions, but the ministry had to be well-off enough that people would agree to work with them.
Just before receiving these bonuses, PTL ran the “Brink of a Miracle” telethon in October. This was extremely jarring for me to read, because I recognized Brink of a Miracle as the title of a great Tammy Faye song. It’s undeniably moving just like everything she sings. It can be so easy to forget that this is the story behind Tammy’s inspirational music.
No one was on the brink of a miracle. PTL was on the brink of disaster because Jim and his team refused to listen to financial advice. I think that the comparison of Jim’s horrible planning (and Tammy’s defense of his actions in her book) with this beautiful song that Tammy sang to solicit money because of that horrible planning is the pinnacle of the contradiction I feel when I think about who Tammy Faye really was.
Did Tammy know how bad it was?
If I could justify Tammy’s justification of Jim’s actions here, it would be because she did not know how deep in debt they were at this time. Obviously she knew when she wrote the book because she had sat through the whole trial. But how hard would it be to believe that Tammy had effectively been brainwashed by Jim? Throughout her book, Tammy presents the Charlotte Observer, the IRS, and the judge at Jim’s trial as their enemies who wanted to watch them suffer. And in his own book, Wigger provides many examples of times that Jim has referred to these same groups as the devil. The Bakkers thought the media and the government were out to get them.
So even when Tammy was in the courtroom in the early 90s, hearing maybe for the first time and maybe not, just how bad PTL’s finances were, of course she thought that the government was exaggerating and accusing them of things. Even in the mid 90s when she was writing her memoir, after having divorced Jim, she still clung to this idea of him as an agent of good, doing the Lord’s work, hated by the world for it. You can decide if you think that’s a good enough excuse for her standing up for Jim all those years.
God wants me to be rich
Finally—well, “finally” in regards to this section—Tammy spent far more time trying to excuse her and Jim’s extravagant lifestyle than she did trying to excuse Jim’s mismanagement. (“Our ‘Extravagant’ Lifestyle” is the name of the entire chapter in her book.)
The funny thing is that our partners knew exactly how we lived, where we lived, what kind of cars we drove. They knew everything about us because we shared our lives with them on television. . . . If there was going to be outrage over our “extravagant” lifestyle, it would seem apparent to me that it would have arisen at the grass-roots level. But it never did.Tammy Faye Messner, Tammy: Telling It My Way, p. 144
I take issue with this because it wasn’t her gullible Pentecostal audience that they hurt the most, it was the people they owed money to. They were barely able to afford to pay their own employees, and they had all of the debts that I listed previously. And they, on the other hand, were able to live this luxurious multi-million dollar lifestyle? That doesn’t sit right with me.
Tammy does apologize and show regret for taking such huge bonuses because they were clearly “excessive and unnecessary,” but I still do not know if she understands that, at least as Wigger presents it, they were wrong because PTL was in such a bad place money-wise that they were begging for money at the same time that she was being given these bonuses. My problem is not just that she got them at all.
Tammy thinks that we are mad at her because “in people’s minds ministers are not supposed to live well—no matter how hard they work.” She defends her lifestyle with Bible references, saying “that God wants us to prosper. That God wants us to have life and have it more abundantly. That if we give to Him, He will give back to us pressed down, shaken together, and running over. To me that does not speak of living meagerly. And it certainly does not say ‘except for ministers.'”
It would have so much better if she had just apologized. I think that this biblical justification just made everything worse.
How progressive was Tammy, actually?
I want to take a short break from the Bakker’s scandals to point out some of Tammy’s beliefs from her memoir that I found alarming if not surprising. In the book, Tammy does admit that “privately, we were Republicans.” Much of the internet dialogue about her seems to imply that she did a 360 upon leaving Jim and televangelism, but I’m not so sure. She did not, for example, follow that note with, “But now I’m a Democrat.”
Other than the excessive bonuses and a few other obvious mistakes, Tammy does not express much in her memoir that she regrets past actions, that she’s changed her beliefs, or that she even disagrees with Jim’s behavior. I was disappointed to see a couple of bad, very non-progressive takes in her memoir.
The Heritage House
Jim constructed a beautiful home for unwed mothers called the Heritage House. He built it so that women who were planning to have abortions would go ahead and have their babies instead. Counseling was provided for those who wanted to keep their babies, and adoption services for those who chose not to. The women lived there throughout their pregnancy and were given jobs at Heritage USA that provided them with spending money. I thought it was a remarkable plan. Many, many babies were saved from death as a result of Heritage House.Tammy Faye Messner, Tammy: Telling It My Way, pp. 138-139
This passage was part of a section in which Tammy was trying to defend the ministry’s excessive solicitations by saying that they did a lot of good, as well. The Heritage House was one of PTL’s philanthropic enterprises, along with a home for disabled youth (which only ever housed one disabled child and his family), a home for unhoused men, and a camp for “troubled teens”.
If you have read Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade or my review of it, you know that homes for unwed mothers are not as great as Tammy might have thought. At least for the women whose stories Fessler documented, they were often treated with no respect and given no choices as to whether or not they would keep their children.
Hopefully, the Heritage House was better than many of the maternity homes of the fifties and sixties. I hope that women really were given the choice at least between adopting and keeping their children. But coercing women seeking abortions to have their babies is manipulative. It does not help the women, only the ego and savior complex of the person doing the “saving.”
The Christian savior complex
For the women in Fessler’s book, their pregnancies destroyed many of their relationships with their families, especially with their mothers. They would be shipped away to these homes because their pregnancies would ruin their family’s reputation and it would be shameful for them to be seen pregnant. They would be ripped out of school or work, friendships and romantic relationships.
If abortion was an option, they could opt to continue living a normal life and have children when they were ready (or not at all). Adoption might sound like an ideal option for women who want this, but it isn’t. As one woman in Fessler’s book said, “You hear about people’s lives being touched by adoption. It’s no damn touch. I mean, that just drives me nuts. You’re smashed by adoption. I mean, it alters the mothers’ lives forever.”
Christian ministries with philanthropic branches like this sound like a great thing, but it is their way of taking the welfare of the less fortunate into their own hands instead of the government’s. They can decide, for example, to provide care only for straight or cis people, or only to Christians or only to white people. Rich Christians like Jerry Falwell famously are so against socialized healthcare and welfare that they provide their own services. It sounds like a noble thing to do, but it is a way of monopolizing social services and having a disproportionate amount of power over people who have no choice but to seek his help.
(trigger warning: sexual assault)
If you’re familiar with Jim Bakker and his scandals, then this is the section that you have been waiting for. I saved it for last because it is an absolute mess and it is by far the most infuriating part of the Bakkers’ story for more reasons than one.
Telling it Tammy’s way
The Jessica Hahn scandal was one of the last elements of the Bakkers’ story that I heard due to it not being mentioned in The Eyes of Tammy Faye except once in a montage of headlines.
Therefore, the first account that I got of the “incident” was through Tammy’s memoir. She explained that in December 1980, Jim was in Clearwater, Florida to do a telethon with fellow Assemblies of God pastor John Wesley Fletcher. Jim was with their daughter, but Tammy wasn’t there. Their marriage was very rocky at the time and they had recently stopped living together. Tammy had had a romantic—but not sexual—affair not long before, and Jim was furious. Tammy writes,
One of Jim’s friends, a reverend named John Wesley Fletcher, knew that we were having a lot of problems. I don’t know why Fletcher decided to act when he did, but at that telethon he told Jim, “I think it’s time you put Tammy in her place. You need to show her, prove to her that you’re the boss and that you’re a desirable man. Jim, you can have anyone you want. You have power, money, and fame. Any girl would be glad to have you.” Fletcher looked around and bent a little closer toward Jim. “In fact I know one who is just dying to meet you. I just talked to her, and she says that she will fly in from New York and meet with you while you’re here. Trust me, she’s very discreet.”
Jim mulled the proposition over. “John, I don’t know. It would be wrong before God. And I have my daughter here. And a telethon to worry about. And I haven’t been with another woman in twenty years.”
“Well, maybe it’s about time you were.”
“What would happen if Tam found out? She would divorce me.”
“Oh come on, Jim, she isn’t going to find out. And this girl is good, really good. I’ve had her myself. She’s like a steel trap—know what I mean? She hasn’t had two kids.” By this time Fletcher had the little wheels in Jim’s mind spinning. “Why don’t you let me fly her down. I’ll pay for the trip myself. She can be here by this evening. In fact, I’ve already talked to her. She’s packed and ready to go to the airport at a moment’s notice. Come on, Jim, prove that you’re a man.”
Fletcher continued to goad him and chide him until finally Jim said, “John, I won’t promise you anything, but I will meet her and say hello.”Tammy Faye Messner, Tammy: Telling It My Way, pp. 106-107
After more goading, Fletcher convinced Bakker to bring Hahn up to his room.
Before he knew what was happening, Jim was standing there in the hotel lobby in his swimming trunks, meeting the girl who would forever change his life. “Jim Bakker, meet Jessica Hahn,” crowed Fletcher. When the introduction was completed, Hahn followed Jim back to his room. Her first words upon entering were “And what can I do for you?”
Hahn was wearing a short black dress, black nylons, a black garter belt, and black panties. Jim stood there frozen. “Come on, let me rub your back,” she said. With that, Jim went over to the bed and lay facedown as she began to rub him all over. “I heard from John that you and Tammy are having marriage problems. I bet I can make you forget her… Oh, Jim, I have always wanted to meet you. I have always thought you were so fantastic. I couldn’t wait to get here. You have such a wonderful body, Jim. You are such a sexy man… I know how to do things to your body that you will never forget. Tammy doesn’t satisfy you, does she, Jim? She has never satisfied you, has she? When I am finished with you, you will never want her again!” But even with all her expert kneading, Jim was very tense. His body wasn’t responding the way she wanted, at least not yet. “Come on, Jim, loosen up. I came all the way from New York to see you. You aren’t going to disappoint me now, are you?”
Years later Jim told me that nothing would have happened between him and Jessica had she not been so skillful. He said that he was not drawn to her physically in any way, nor did he remember her to be even good-looking. What took place that day was only sex. And not very satisfying sex at that. Jim confessed that he didn’t even know how he was able to have relations at all, he was in such a troubled state of mind. But Jessica was a professional. She knew what she was doing. She knew what to wear, what to say, and all the right moves. She was no virgin. Jim can attest to that.
After they finished, Jim said, “Jessica, I have to go. I have a telethon to do, and Tammy Sue [my daughter] is waiting for me to go eat with her.”
“Well, Jim, just remember,” Jessica cooed, “I will always be here for you. If you ever need me, all you have to do is call me in New York and I’ll fly anywhere to meet you.” Jim told me that afterward he felt filthy and couldn’t wait to take a shower. Determined to wash this experience away from his body and mind forever, Jim got beneath the hot, steady stream of water. He scrubbed himself over and over, not missing a single inch, until his flesh was raw. Jim never saw Hahn again.Tammy Faye Messner, Tammy: Telling It My Way, pp. 107-108
Keep in mind that this was the first account of the scene that I ever knew. I was shocked. Even Jim’s wife attested that he was innocent. And reading it this way, if anyone raped anyone, it was Jessica that raped Jim.
Telling it Jim’s way
Obviously, Jim was the source of Tammy’s story. She certainly did not get her information from Jessica Hahn, the only other person there. So it is a bit odd that Jim does not even tell the story the same way in his own 1996 memoir (if a memoir can be 632 pages long), I Was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond. Here’s his version.
I was clueless, and I was exhausted. All my attempts to woo Tammy back from her mystery lover and make her happy proved futile. I did not know what else to do.
One day during a casual conversation with John Wesley Fletcher, I flippantly said that I ought to have an affair to make Tammy jealous. “I have tried everything else to win Tammy Faye back. Just think, I could say to Tammy Faye, ‘I had an affair, too, Baby.’ I’d be fighting fire with fire!”
“Really?” he asked. “Do you think that would help?”
“Well, you know how jealous Tammy Faye is. She would go nuts if she thought that I was even attracted to another woman.”
“Hmmm,” Fletcher answered thoughtfully.
Over the next few weeks, Fletcher and I occasionally joked about my having an affair to make Tammy Faye jealous.
. . .
I cannot say that I was surprised when John showed up in Florida with a woman in tow. I followed him inside the hotel, up the elevator, and down the hallway to room 538. I knew it was wrong; my conscience screamed at me every step of the way. But I stupidly determined to make my wife jealous and get back at her, and that is the truth. It was an adulterous act of the first degree. I stifled the screaming voice in my head and heart and stepped inside the room.Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong, p. 19
Guilty, maybe. Reluctant? Not really. Jim is already not the victim that he must have told Tammy he was, which she relayed in her account.
. . . I did not rape Jessica Hahn. Foolish and sinful as it was, the sexual encounter for which we are both now infamous was completely consensual.
As I said, I knew I was wrong the moment I entered the hotel room. I should have run out of that place. Nobody forced me into the room or to stay once I was there. Yet I rationalized the situation: I was feeling rejected by my wife; I knew that Tammy Faye was seeing another man; I was wondering whether I was much of a man at all. Suddenly, I felt as though
I were an adolescent boy who had to prove he was a man by having sex. I willfully crossed the line and went through with it.
At first, I was so nervous and afraid I could not even function sexually. I knew that what I was doing went directly against everything I believed is a Christian; I had never cheated on my wife in all our years of marriage. Jessica Hahn, however, seemed quite comfortable with the situation. When she recognized my problem, she aroused me to the point where I simply abandoned myself to the moment. We did not make love; we had sex.
. . .
I disrobed and immediately stepped into the shower, turning the water on as hot as I could stand it. I never felt so dirty in all my life. Maybe if I make the water hotter, it will wash it all away, I thought.Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong, p. 20-21
Telling it Jessica’s way
If you are still wondering if I am committed to getting to the bottom of this: yes, I did buy on eBay the infamous November 1987 issue of Playboy in which Jessica Hahn tells all.
The Playboy interview reads,
SCHEER: OK, Bakker’s talking to you?
HAHN: Yes, Jim Bakker is talking to me—about Tammy. He’s saying that emotionally, she belittles him. And he’s saying that sexually, he is unhappy with her. And I would stand in a court of law to prove that this is the truth—he did say, “Tammy Faye is too big and cannot satisfy me.” He said he could not feel her. Those were his words. He denies that, calls me a liar. And Tammy’s a human being and I don’t like saying this, but I’m telling you, he said that. Hook me up to a machine.
So he’s saying this, and I gave John [Fletcher] one of these looks. John Fletcher says, “Jim, tell Jessica. Maybe she can help.” Then Bakker gets all serious and quiet, like he does on TV when he cries. He says, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” That’s how Jim Bakker began. I’m thinking, I’m gonna fall off my chair; and, by now, I didn’t care about being embarrassed, because I felt awful, and I was thinking, This can’t be, I’m not hearing this.
But I knew I was. I knew—I knew as I’m sitting here—I heard that. I also know that if John told me, “Jessica. Go over there. Get on the balcony and jump.” I would have done that. This is the kind of place I was at with these men. As God is in heaven, I would have done it. I got to a place where he began to talk and I just gave up trying to respond. I wasn’t feeling good and I didn’t care that I wasn’t feeling good. It was like it didn’t matter.Playboy, November 1987, pp. 89, 178
There are many versions of what happened in this hotel room. It’s been reported that Jessica was Jim’s secretary. She wasn’t. In his book, Jim denies that they drank wine together. They didn’t; Fletcher had given Jessica wine before Jim got there. Jim says he met Jessica in the lobby; Jessica says she first saw him in the hotel room. In some accounts, Jim says that he had a hard time “performing” or that he couldn’t at all. Jessica explains that he did indeed finish twice, and it was only upon trying to do so a third time that he couldn’t and became frustrated with himself. Jim would later tell Jerry Falwell that it lasted 15 minutes, but Jessica swears that Jim was with her for at least an hour and a half. In 2011, however, she, too, would say it was 15 minutes.
HAHN: . . . All I know is that I was cold. I jumped up and tried to get to the shower. I mean, I nearly crawled to get in the shower.
I… it hurt. The water hurt my skin. It hurt me. I was so cold. I was in the bathroom. I got sick.
SCHEER: You threw up?
HAHN: Yes. I brushed my teeth. I felt dirty. I took a shower and I put the water on really hot. It hurt my skin, not because of the heat, but the water hurt my body. You know, if somebody touched me, it hurt.
So I was in the shower. I couldn’t even stand up. I was sick. I looked in the mirror and I got scared. My eyes were red, I had blotches, and all over my arms and my neck and my chest were marks. My throat was real sore. Everything hurt. Everything.
So I get out of the shower and I put on my robe. I get back in bed—in the other bed that was untouched—to get warm. I had my robe on. I don’t know what happened with the door. But John had a key. So John walks in—I don’t know, 15 minutes later. He begins to tell me about Jim. I was so sick…Playboy, November 1987, p. 183
Jessica pled with Fletcher, who was a pastor from her home church whom she trusted, to get her out of there. He told her how happy Jim was and that she had saved PTL.
So I said, “John, could you just leave me alone—let me be.” He says, “No!” And I never, never in my life saw a man’s face change like I saw his. It scared the hell out of me. His face was so demonic. It was horrible.
He… he… he… first of all, he took the blanket off me. He tore my robe off and he threw me on the floor. And he said to me, “You’re not gonna just give this to Jim Bakker! You’re not going to remember Jim Bakker! You’re going to remember me!”
. . .
And he’s heavy—on top of me. My back is pressed against the carpet. I’m freezing and I feel my back burning. My shoulders feel like they’re going to break and I’m in agony.
. . .
And I just got to a place where I said to myself, “Jessica, you’re going to die if you don’t shut up.” That’s how I felt.Playboy, November 1987, p. 174
The interview goes into even more graphic detail that I could barely read, let alone share. If you really want to read it, eBay has a lot of copies for not that much money. After telling the tale, Jessica finally speaks her mind on why she hasn’t pressed charges and what this afternoon seven years prior had done to her life.
SCHEER: The idea of charging them with a crime never entered your mind?
HAHN: No. Not then. There is a Scripture that says, “Touch not Mine anointed.” To me, that meant if I dared accuse a man of God of any wrongdoing, God would just curse me. And I was petrified, because I thought, These men are God’s anointed. God chose them. And who am I to go against God? Who am I to say that these men are wrong? I was afraid of being struck down. So I was battling with that.
There is also a Scripture that says, God’s way is not our way. And I thought, Maybe this is God’s way of doing it. Even though I feel this is wrong, who am I to judge?
GOLSON: Aren’t there Scriptures condemning the kind of violence these men committed?
HAHN: I couldn’t find a Scripture for that. I just believed that they were God’s chosen—that I should be privileged to be in their company and a position to help them, as they put it.Playboy, November 1987, p. 188
They just laughed about it. They bragged about it on television. They did things that people are in jail 15 and 20 years for—at least! And they walk away—without any scars, without facing the public. Because the public always looks down on a woman.
. . .
I’m supposed to be quiet and I’m tired of being quiet. And it’s the last time I’m ever going to be quiet, because I’m fed up! Those preachers used me, and they have not stopped. I was raped—I’ll say it—and for seven years, I have been abused.Playboy, November 1987, p. 190
The two interviewers even had the audacity to say that they don’t think they can run the story alongside the topless pictures.
Relax, guys. I know what I’m doing. I want this on the record. I fought a long time to feel like a woman and feel good about myself. And I’m almost there. And I don’t see these pictures as being filthy. I see what they did as being filthy. I think a woman or man should be looked at as something beautiful. I think that if somebody looks at somebody to admire her, or whatever, there is no crime in that and that’s not wrong.
. . .
I am not playing a game. I’m saying to myself—and that’s who I decided is most important, for the first time—I’m saying, “I am not a slave to these men for the rest of my life.” And, to me, that is my step in life. To do this in Playboy—which is probably the most ironic, the most farfetched idea for somebody who is a church secretary—is probably unbelievable to people. But it is a step for me, because why on God’s earth should I let Jim and John run the rest of my life—run my mind and run my body—when they tossed it about and couldn’t have cared less what they were doing to me?
Isn’t it ironic? In the Christian world, when a person is struggling, he can turn to the church and things are OK. I was in the church and things got screwed up, and then I did this and got OK. It is ironic—the order of things.
GOLSON: And you’re not afraid Jim Bakker and his kind will point to your pictures and say, “There—see?”
HAHN: Good, let the man look, let him look and let him point. I’m doing this for Jessica and not Jim Bakker. I refuse to live the rest of my life with that on my mind. I want to say that I did this for me.
To those who understand, no explanation is necessary. To those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.Playboy, November 1987, p. 198
Well, look and point they did—of course. And no one was as prepared to do so as Tammy was.
Not long after our daughter left, Playboy magazine came out with nude photos of Jessica Hahn plus an interview with her. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars she got for doing that spread, but it showed me what kind of a girl she was. And it showed other people too. I mean, she didn’t even have boobs. She was just this skinny little nothing girl. In one way I was relieved because she was not even pretty. She was not who I thought Jim would ever be turned on to.
Still, I was so embarrassed for Jim. But even more embarrassed for myself. In the article, Hahn said horrible things about me. She alleged that Jim revealed to her I had never satisfied him. Jim cried like a baby and swore over and over on a Bible that he never said any of those things, he never once mentioned me or anything about our relationship.Tammy Faye Messner, Tammy: Telling It My Way, p. 235
Throughout my time researching and writing this post, I have not been able to stop hearing this quote over and over in my head. “I mean, she didn’t even have boobs. She was just this skinny little nothing girl.” I think that this body-shaming of a rape victim is probably the most awful thing I’ve seen come from Tammy across everything I’ve watched or read about her.
Even when Jim expressed that he regretted “the Jessica Hahn encounter,” it was never, ever because he was sorry for what he did to her. He was only ever sorry because he had sinned against Tammy. I assume that even then, sinning against Tammy only mattered to him because it could, and later did, cost him his ministry and his millions. When he told Tammy, it didn’t even cost him their marriage. She only left him later because of the pain that they went through when PTL fell and Jim was in prison.
The telephone game
I’ve mulled over why this story would change as it has. Jim did not tell Tammy about it until seven years after it had happened, even though his initial reason for doing it in the first place was to make Tammy jealous.
There are many reasons—which should go without saying—why I believe Jessica’s account of what happened. One of those reasons is that she’s the one telling the story, directly, first-hand, without anything to lose, in 1987 when the story broke.
Tammy’s memoir was released in 1997, but her account must have been based on what Jim told her when he confessed his sins to her in 1987. So she would have the earlier version, told to her before the story was well-known and before the Playboy interview was published. In this version of the story, Jim was reluctant to meet Jessica. John Fletcher persuaded Jim to see Jessica, and Jessica persuaded him to have sex with her, using her “skillful” and “professional” moves. Jim scrubbed his skin raw in the shower afterwards, which is a common reaction to rape.
In Jim’s 1996 memoir, which is the latest account of the three given that it would be coming from his memoir as he is writing, the story had changed a little. Jim was more at fault now. He had not had to be persuaded by Jessica; he willfully had sex with her to prove something to himself and to Tammy. He was mad at Tammy for her emotional affair and wanted to get back at her. I assume that since his memoir is titled I Was Wrong, the book has more of a repentant tone in which he actually admits his wrongdoings post-prison. (No, I did not read Jim’s entire 632-page memoir.)
I don’t know if Tammy read Jim’s memoir, or if it had even come out in time for her to read it before writing her own. I don’t think she did. It’s disappointing that Tammy’s version of the story still paints Jessica as the rapist and villain.
This brings me to a view of Tammy as, yes, a jealous wife, but more than that, as someone who is driven by emotions. I don’t think she ever saw Jim for who he really was, even after she had moved on and married Roe Messner. I’m not sure that she would ever allow herself to. In her book, she blamed a whole list of people for PTL’s downfall, but never Jim. Jim was never malicious, just anxious, gullible, and misguided. She thought that his only flaw was that he would allow people to take advantage of him—including Jerry Falwell and Jessica Hahn.
Even after everything, it can be hard not to like Tammy. How I feel about her now is very complicated. She lived for ten years following the publication of her book, and in those years she was free of Jim. She dedicated her life to her children and grandchildren, to her husband Roe, and to welcoming the gay community in her arms. No one will ever know if she really changed her mind and realized that she had been brainwashed by Jim.
Likewise, even though Jessica Hahn knows that she was wronged, she still has a hard time facing what happened so long ago. In the 2017 book PTL, John Wigger says that Hahn told him, “I can’t call it rape. I just can’t. Everybody else does, and it bothers me for some reason.” She had called it that in her interview 30 years prior, but she must have changed her mind in that time and started seeing Jim as less guilty than he was.
Also in 2017, Hahn told the Charlotte Observer that she and Tammy Faye had reconciled over the phone shortly before Tammy died in 2007.
“She had the biggest heart,” Hahn remembered. “She goes, ‘Jessica, if I were with you right now, I’d hug you.’ And I just died inside. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what she had to go through.’”
Hahn said she had always looked up to Tammy Faye, for her love of family and even for her looks.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be her,” Hahn said. “I really grew up with the Bakkers (on TV), thinking, ‘I’d love to be in that family. They’re always singing and happy.’ I loved her. I loved her makeup, the stupid makeup. That’s what we did in church: We wore a lot of makeup and big hair.”
Hahn said she felt guilty when she talked with Jim Bakker’s one-time wife during her last days.
“I felt so ashamed – how dare I?” Hahn said. “Today, I look at families … and (say) ‘What I wouldn’t do to start over and have a family and have children and do everything right and not get involved with all these men and all these stupid fantasies.’”Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer
Hahn’s warped sense of guilt aside, I truly hope that maybe Tammy did change in the end. She had always been an easygoing person who could make anyone smile, and she was so easy to love. For years she lived in Jim Bakker’s shadow, never able to stop him from constantly moving too fast and taking everything so seriously. I think that it was her protectiveness and maybe even possessiveness towards Jim that unduly influenced her feelings and actions.
There is one way that I have to agree with the modern view on Tammy: she was happier, freer, and kinder when she was able to think for herself, without Jim Bakker by her side. I’m glad that she could live out her years on her own terms, surrounded by the people that she loved.