Monday, December 2, 2013

Close Encounters of the Religious Kind: My Early Association with Paul and Jan Crouch and with TBN

My twin brother has finished the first of two Guinnesses with which he is ringing in the start of our twentieth year and is opening his second stout or ale or whatever category into which Guinness properly belongs. (Paul, where are you? I need a refresher course!). I have chosen this moment to ask my brother to stroll down memory lane to an era when the two of us spent more time than any child probably should spend in front of a TV featuring Paul and Jan Crouch and their Trinity Broadcasting Network cohorts. Matthew and I were slightly odd children (I probably more than he) but even we weren't so bizarre as to have chosen to watch Trinity Broadcasting Network's programming over Blue's Clues or whatever else PBS had to offer. Rather, it's our mother we have to thank for our early exposure to some of the most comically freakish television footage ever produced.

My mom holds doctorates in psychology and music, and before we came alone had most recently worked as an educational psychologist for a school district. Once we were born, she was committed to staying home with us until we entered kindergarten. She said later that she found staying at home with preschoolers to be such a mind-numbing experience that she would have seriously considered handing over her entire paycheck to anyone who would agree to come into our house and remain there with Matthew and me while she worked at her former job, but a situation that had hit the news in our local area caused her to rethink that option. A woman who hired her services out as a nanny had  nearly killed one of her charges by over-medicating the child with Dimetapp [cough and cold medication]so that the kid would sleep for most of the day. This deeply disturbed my mother.  If she'd had no alternative but to work outside of our home, she said, she would have had no choice but to find the best nanny she could and to try to monitor the person as closely as possible, but cash flow by then wasn't a major issue for our family.  My dad earned enough money as a physician to easily support us, and my parents had banked my mom's entire salary for several years. My mother felt that it would have been unconscionable for her to risk having someone abuse either of us just because spending her days with babies and toddlers made her want to drink Liquid Plumber or to stick silverware in light sockets to amuse herself.  She did the noble thing and stayed home,  allowing the two of us to, in effect, anesthetize her brain.

To keep herself  somewhat connected with the adult world and more or less sane (I qualify this statement because no one  in my family hs an honest claim to 100% sanity), my mom turned the TV on for a couple of hours each day. She tried to keep it to a two-hour minimum, as she had strong feelings regarding the negative impact of excessive television on developing brains, but she rationalized that an essentially sound-of-mind mother who watched an hour or two of TV a day was less harmful to  children than would be a shrieking maniac. One day, as she was holding a croupy me while channel-surfing, she says, she happened upon TBN's Praise the Lord.  She found the TBN fare to be more addictive than either heroin or chocolate.

Some of my earliest memories are of stacking brightly colored Megablocks atop each other as my mom sat on the floor with my brother and me, with Paul, Jan, and the other zealots-for-hire prattling on in the background. My mom would grab the remote to turn up the volume if anyone spoke in tongues or did anything bizarre enough to be considered out of the ordinary, although it was all so bizarre to us Catholics that isolating any one act as being sufficiently bizarre to warrant being considered out of the ordinary was a cognitively demanding task.

Much of what we saw on TBN was musical, or in some cases  decidedly un-musical, programming.   I recall watching a male singer with gray hair maybe an inch-and-a-half long that stuck straight out from his head and was trimmed so perfectly evenly that it didn't look real. I apparently observed aloud that he looked as though he had cut a silver teddy bear, removed the stuffing, and had placed the butt on the top of his head, because that's what my baby book says that I said.  I recently came across a posted video of that singer -- Roger MacDuff -- and I shared that same comment. Some truths are so profound as to transcend the age level of whomever is sharing them. It was a salient point, whether made by two-year-old or a nineteen-year-old.

Some of the musicians were not all that bad. My mom particularly liked one couple -- Dean and Mary Brown -- who sang together, sometimes while Mary played the piano. This was before auto-tuning was available, and a musician's pitch was only as good as his or her ear and voice allowed it to be. Dean and Mary were actual musicians.

Nancy Harmon was another singer, and a most interesting one. She had what my mom said was a decent voice, though it was at least an octave lower than that of the average female. She seemed to perform only songs she herself had composed, which limited her repertoire to less-than-mediocre songs.  Her skill at composing did not match her singing ability. At that ate, she might just as well have had a lousy voice to match the lousy songs she sang. She surrounded herself with a chorus of young singers in possession of far less talent than that possessed by Ms. Harmon. If memory serves me correctly,  there was some murmuring about her sexuality among the TBN community. In one episode she very nearly went after her accusers right through the television screen. It gave me nightmares, which caused my dad to beg my mom not to watch her program ("The Love Special")anymore, so we didn't. I haven't a clue what she's doing today, if she even still exists, but she'd probably give me nightmares if I watched her even now.

 Other musicians seemed to have been bypassed by The Talent Fairy. There was the grating Betty Jean Robinson, the douchy Steve Brock, and a pack of others who jumble together in my mind. It's probably best if I leave them that way. If anyone was sick or afflicted,  Benny Hinn could be called upon to heal whatever ailed the person. They were all minor players, anyway. The stars of this operation were the members of the Crouch family.

Paul Crouch was a southern preacher -- as smooth-talking as a snake oil salesman -- a prototypical sort who probably would have wiled away his days handling snakes or drinking arsenic as evidence of his faith had he been born a generation earlier. His ticket to fame -- or infamy, if you prefer -- was surely his pink-haired wife, Janice Wendell Bethany Crouch, known to viewers simply as "Jan." While Jan's hair is probably more famous than is she herself,  Jan was a personality independent of her hair -- a  crowd pleaser and a favorite of the station's viewers. I remember an episode in one of the network's fall or spring Praise-a-thons,  when Paul was speaking and needed Jan to reinforce a point he was attempting to make. Paul looked down, however,  and saw that Jan was not available to assist him, as  she was having some sort of personal Holy Spirit manifestation. "That Jan," Paul said, shaking his head. "She's lost in the Spirit." I recall asking my mom what "lost in the Spirit" meant. Her reply was something along the lines of "I'll tell as soon as I figure it out myself."

Paul and Jan had two sons, Paul, Jr., and Matthew. (Now I'm reading of a supposed third son, Andrew; where did he come from and why isn't he in any of the pictures if he indeed exists?)_Both Paul Jr. and  Matthew were married and had children. Matthew's sons were regularly paraded in front of the cameras. I always wondered why the other grandchildren didn't figure so prominently in the public TBN persona.

My brother's first word [after "Mama"] was "Jesus," but he didn't quite say it the way a typical northern California baby would pronounce the name of the Man from Galilee. It sounded more like JAY-zuss, and, in retrospect, should have been our father's first clue as to what was airing on our TV during the day while he was working.

My father's actual first inkling that we were being subjected to religious indoctrination beyond what anything his lifetime of Catholicism and Mormonism had prepared him for was actually a rather outrageous telephone bill. This was in the very early years of cell phone usage, where cell phone plans that would make calling one's out-of-town relatives multiple times in a weekday a particularly economical practice were not yet common. If my mom saw anything Earth-shattering or truly consequential on TBN, she felt the need to discuss it with someone other than a precocious toddler girl or the girl's babbling halfwit twin. All of my mom's local acquaintances worked. Instead, she telephoned her sister on the dairy located half-a-state away or her good friend from the central California town where she grew up.  My dad, who didn't ordinarily pay much attention to household finances, happened to look over her shoulder one evening as she paid the monthly phone bill. "Holy shit, Erin!" he bellowed.  (And this was in the days of our pre-kindergarten years when my dad somewhat censored himself around the house -- back when he spared us the full amplitude of his vocabulary.) "Have you been calling Russia three times a week?" My mom eventually resorted to using pre-paid phone cards to cover her daytime long- distance habit just to keep peace in the house. Her overall expenditures were never anywhere near a level that should have merited concern from her spouse; it was the mere shock of seeing a mid-three-figure monthly phone bill that sent my dad into the exosphere.

My mom watched TBN before the Internet evolved to the extent that it and its instant and in-depth information now pervades our culture. What my mom knew about the Crouches and everyone else on TBN was what she saw on the TV screen in front of her. And she found that interesting. Had she known at that time that Jan supposedly had an affair with the 1954 Mr. Universe which allegedly culminated in the conception and birth of Matthew Crouch, that Paul Crouch supposedly had same-sex attraction and relationships,  that Jan bought a $100,000 motor home to for the sole purpose of keeping her two Maltese/Poodle mix dogs comfortable on the road, that  Matthew and Laurie Crouch reportedly had a TBN-owned home renovated so that it could serve as a giant closet for their both expensive and expansive wardrobes, that Matthew Crouch allegedly brandished a gun and threatened his niece with it when she spoke of going public with some of the family's dirty laundry . . . The list goes on far too long to be exhaustively detailed in a single blog. Anyway, my point here is that if my mom was so thoroughly entranced by what little she actually saw, it's a damned good thing she didn't know of the rest of the story at the time, because she probably would not have been able to pry herself away from the TV for long enough to potty train us. Matthew would possibly still be in Huggies or Pull-ups. (I would have figured out the particulars of potty-training with or without my mom's input, but Matthew is another story.) Sometimes people are better off not knowing all things.

Eventually kindergarten came for us, and with it,  my mother's stay-at-home mom sentence was commuted, and she reentered the workforce.  As addictions go, her dependency upon all things TBN was broken without the need for a 12-step program or weekly support group meetings, and she, like the rest of us, spent little time or energy wondering about  the latest developments of Paul and Jan and their various sidekicks. Still, sometimes i google them, wondering what will be the next exciting chapter in this ultimate reality show of a network.  Who needs soap operas, Survivor,  American IdolDancing With the Stars, or any of the Kardashians when we have TBN?


  1. I went through a serious TBN phase about ten years ago. Roger McDuff and Paula White are the two stars of that time. Every once in awhile, I watch it now, but since Paul and Jan are no longer on as much, it isn't as entertaining.

  2. I'd hate to know exactly how many times my family has been on Benny Hinn's "prayer" list. I love my grandmother, but something about that channel just pushes me over the edge.

    1. It's over-the-edge programming, all right.