Tammy Faye Messner was anything but subtle and nuanced, at least in most of her public appearances, so to hope for nuance in her obituaries may be too much to ask. Still, I’ve yet to find a story about her life and death that comes even close to capturing the spirit of this remarkably strong woman.
In the late 1980s, after the scandals at Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL network, Tammy Faye was widely derided for her thickly applied makeup, her on-air weeping and her insistent belief that PTL’s collapse was the fault of the big bad media and her brethren in the TV evangelism fold who coveted PTL’s satellite channel.
But in the 20 years since then, largely thanks to Tammy Faye’s developing a following among gays and lesbians, another character emerged. This character wore the same makeup, cried just as readily as ever and still mourned the loss of PTL. She also embraced her status as a camp figure, readily accepted the love and sympathy of her new admirers and showered them with her own inimitable style of unconditional love.
No obituary does her as much justice as the films The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) and Tammy Faye: Death Defying (2005) and the Sundance Channel series One Punk Under God (2006). In One Punk Under God, Tammy Faye’s ex-husband speaks of her with quiet wonder and compares her to the Unsinkable Molly Brown.
This week’s obituaries covered the well-known valleys of the PTL years, and most at least mentioned her camp status in passing. What no obituary seemed able to describe was how Tammy Faye’s story ultimately was one of redemption and, even amid her copious tears, thanking God in all things.
My friend Darrell Grizzle drew a shoutout from Slate for his tribute to Tammy Faye, which includes links to the best of what mainstream media obituaries had to offer. I think the definitive obituary for Tammy Faye would be by Mark Steyn, if he were still writing in that genre for The Atlantic.
Otherwise, I commend the final episode of One Punk Under God (available on iTunes for $1.99). One of the closing images, of Jay Bakker sitting on the front steps of his mother’s former home near Charlotte, says it all.