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DM) Why did you choose to write a book about Jimmy Swaggart?
AS) I chose Jimmy Swaggart because the media made me curious. Duringthe Holy Wars in the 1980s when Jim and Tammy Bakker were accused ofbilking their PTL (Praise the Lord) followers (Jim did end up in prison forfraud andconspiracy), Jimmy Swaggart was interviewed often on television for hisperspective on the whole televangelism phenomenon. He appeared to be anintelligent man, a straight-shooter, with a very balanced and healthy take onhis craft. He didn't back down from hard questions or wrap himself inscripture and he was one of the few televangelists who released an auditedfinancial statement to the press. He was well respected by broadcasterslike Ted Koppel and Larry King.
When he was caught with a prostitute, they all acted as if he was acomplete non-entity (except Larry King, who was still respectful but didn'tinterview him again). The media turned on him and branded him a hypocrite.I wondered how someone who rose so high from suchhumble beginnings and brought in $500,000 a day in donations could bejust a shallow flash in the pan. I figured he must be givingpeople something important, and I set out to go behind the headlines tofind out what that something was. I found an incredibly complex, compellingstory of hardship and poverty; meanness; talent; and grit. His cousins areJerry Lee Lewis and country singer Mickey Gilley, who also have remarkablestories. They were all born within a year of each other and grew upside-by-side.
DM) Every life has a story to tell but some people might be criticalof immortalizing people such as Jimmy Swaggart. How do you answer thosecritics?
AS) People who criticize me for immortalizing Jimmy Swaggartmight be the same people who, if they were followers of his, felt angry andbetrayed when it turned out he was hypocritical enough to preach againstfornication while doing it himself. I would say to those followers, "Ifyou think the messenger is the same as the message, you're barking up thewrong tree."
Here is a summary of what I wrote about Jimmy."Jimmy's preaching formula is to dredge up the misery and separation thathis followers feel -- a misery he knows firsthand -- and then give them away out. His critics call it manipulative and exploitative, and it is, butwhat he does is not wrong because of that. We aren't divine -- we are in apainful state of separation; that is why we are mean, selfish, andfoolish, and why we keep making the same mistakes repeatedly. Ourspirits are distracted by desire, like a dog by fleas, and every wakingmoment is taken up with our scratching. Jimmy gives humans one of the manythings they seek, relief. His prayer meetings andshindigs are not bad for people. On the contrary, they are nourishing attheir best, and no worse than any other entertainment at the worst. Thosewho condemn Jimmy Swaggart because he is a hypocrite do not understand thathis ministry emerged from contradiction and is woven from it -- that it camefrom flesh and depends on people's immersion in flesh -- and that neither henor anyone else is capable of raising it higher than its own terms."
DM) Does Swaggart know that you have written about him? Has he mentionedanything to you?
AS) Jimmy and Frances, his wife, are aware that I have been writing thebook. They don't approve of any books about themselves; they want everything inthe past to go away. They have not responded to the book, because it is notyet on the shelves and they probably don't have a copy. I expect they'llhave a negative reaction when they do react, even though Publishers Weeklycalled it "an intelligent and smoothly readable personal history thatchronicles a fascinating slice of Americana," and Library Journal said,"Seaman neither whitewashes nor vilifies Swaggart, instead examining himand seeking explanation for both his tremendous accomplishments and tragicflaws ... this honest evenhanded biography strives for objectivity."
DM) How much influence did Swaggart and his cousins Jerry Lee Lewisand Mickey Leroy Gilley, the country singer, have on each other?
AS) Well, quite a bit. Jerry was kind of the ringleader, doing the mostdaring stuff because his mother would not discipline him, and he got awaywith all kinds of things. One of the forbidden things he did was to sneakover to Haney's Big House at night to listen to the music. Haney's was thebiggest colored dance hall in those parts; they played raunchy tunes aswell as great blues and boogie. Jerry brought that back to the cousins, whoall played piano and learned that boogie rhythm. As I mentioned, Jimmy wasthe pious one, and the others looked up to him.
Mickey was a really likeable, nice kid. He had a reputation for gettinglots of girlfriends and for being prodigiously strong, and fun-loving. Sothey each had their role, and their natural competitiveness made the rolessort of larger than life -- they staked out their territory at a young age.
DM) Do you think Jerry Lee Lewis would have become such a rock and rolllegend if not for the pressure/competition of these other relatives whilegrowing up?
AS) Actually, no. He is a massive talent, to be sure, but part of hiswhole format is the frenetic energy he gives off that comes from, as we sayin Texas, never feeding a hog by itself. You have to feed them together ifyou want to fatten them because even if they're not hungry, they'llcompete for the food. There's no substitute for that and when it happensso young, and so intensely, it becomes part of one's character. It sticks.
DM) Some people attribute the challenge and competition as being thedriving force behind the success between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Isthis similar to what happened with Lewis and Swaggart?
AS) Yes, very similar.
DM) Did you ever meet Jimmy Swaggart?
AS) Not formally. I called numerous times and asked for interviews, butwas refused by both Swaggarts. But of course he knew I was doing the bookand he knew who I was; every time I'd show up in the audience athis church, he would make some comment to the congregation about how thesewriters all think they can say anything they want about a guy, and theynever get it right.
DM) Do you feel that he is a genuinely caring person, or was he doingit alljust to collect money?
AS) Both. He started out dirt poor and could have made plenty ofmoney playing honky-tonk piano like Jerry. But he was genuinely committedto serving God and instead of going for money, he traveled for over adecade in a car, with his wife and son. They raised that kid in the car, asthey traveled from revival to revival so he could preach the Word. Theynever had any nice place to sleep -- usually it was some rat-infestedchurch cellar. They ate bologna sandwiches for supper. Frances tutoredtheir son in the car because they never stayed anywhere long enough for himto go to school. With her 9th grade education, she did well enough that hegraduated from high school and entered Louisiana State University. Whathappened was that Jimmy was such a powerful performer that he startedhaving a lot of success. He then became convinced that television wasprobably the medium for spreading the gospel throughout the world; itsays in the Book of Revelations that when the gospel is spread throughevery land, the Second Coming will occur. Jimmy sincerely felt it was hismandate to help bring that about and, on the way, he and Frances kind ofgot swallowed up by the business end of things and the need to keep onmaking more and more money so they could buy more and more stations and airtime.
DM) You obviously find Jimmy interesting, but do you like Jimmy Swaggart asa person?
AS) I don't know him as a person, but I would probably like him quite abit but at a distance, as most of the people who have gotten near to himhave done. I doubt if I or anyone else could get really close to him,because it seems that Frances has staked out the immediate vicinitypretty thoroughly since their marriage in the early 1950s. He's been herproject, and virtually her property, for many years. Though he is a verystrong and important character, I'm not sure there's really a person inthere in the ordinary sense that you and I mean it, because when someonemarries that young and stays that focused on something for decades anddecades, the expansiveness that constitutes the ordinary breadth of humanexperience kind of gets choked off.
DM) What do you mean?
AS) I mean that he's not been allowed to have the ordinary breadth ofhuman experience. In his own way, he's been very sheltered; first, inchildhood, he was set apart from the other kids, given a mandate to preachand be above worldly cares. Then, in marriage, his nose was kept firmly tothe ministerial grindstone by his wife and he was kept away from thecompany of ordinary people. He moved in a closed and narrowed world, lessexpansive than the world other people live in, with less experience of thatlarger world.