She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes: B.D. Hyman Goes from Mommie Dearest to Jesus Dearest
This article originally appeared in The Hook on March 6, 2003.
How do you get from Hollywood to the Angel Network?
Ask B.D. Hyman, local televangelist and daughter of legendary film star Bette Davis. She’s happy to recount the trip.
Just be prepared for detours. As a hard-core fundamentalist, she’s liable to take you down some side streets where you wouldn’t want to run out of gas. But stay on course and you’ll get a fascinating peek into Americana, pious and profane. B. D. Hyman not only delivers scare-’em-straight evangelical messages, but she also penned the New York Times bestseller, My Mother’s Keeper, of the Mommie Dearest genre of famous-family payback.
Hyman says Bette Davis used to claim that if God existed, He worked for her. Davis, the star of Jezebel was infamous for tempestuous behavior on and off the movie set. That the mother-daughter struggle went public isn’t surprising given B.D.’s preparation for a life in show business.
B.D. (short for Barbara Davis) Hyman describes growing up on the back lots of movie studios; riding in the Ben Hur chariot; hanging out with Elvis; and sitting between Frank Sinatra and Jack Kennedy at the 1961 inaugural ball.
Although the child of the two-time Oscar winner turned her back on Hollywood long ago, she clearly calls upon both her performance legacy and her lineage to promote her multi-media ministry.
She is a tall, fashionable woman with big, Texas-style blonde hair and a clear voice with a hint of an aristocratic English accent. Many of her words are spoken in bold type, her well-manicured hands conducting sporadic hyperbole.
Hyman’s answers to questions are frequently expansive and often surprising. When asked how her family came to Charlottesville after a five-year stint in the Bahamas, she says, “Virginia was the last bastion of real fox hunting left in America, and that was what God used to get us here.”
She’s tracking bigger prey now. Rooting out satanic infiltration of contemporary culture, B.D. Hyman warns in her 2002 book, The Rapture, The Tribulation And Beyond, that babies are sacrificed on Halloween; Harry Potter indoctrinates children into the occult; and the Antichrist is promoting his agenda of homosexuality. Aggressively.
As for the coming time of tribulation, B.D. Hyman writes: “People will pray for death but not die. There is no repentance for those who receive the mark of the beast… [just] eternal condemnation and torment in the lake of fire.”
On the other hand, this particular shepherd harbors no worries about the approaching apocalypse. Terrorism doesn’t faze her either.
“I don’t care if there are biological weapons,” says Hyman. “I don’t care if one lands on my roof because I am protected by the blood of Jesus. And so is my family, and so are our partners. Bless God, we have our Holy Ghost Flu Shots.”
She is equally emphatic about the existence of resurrections, the power of speaking in tongues, and her own role as one of the Holy Spirit’s agents.
B.D. and Jeremy Hyman, her formerly Jewish husband of nearly 40 years, live in a tastefully decorated home on a quiet cul de sac not far from Fashion Square Mall. Off a center hallway, in place of a living room, is a religious sanctuary where prayer meetings are held. Her ministry, though, is in the market for something bigger. Currently the prayer line can get stalled when someone collapses after “going out in the spirit.”
While friendly and open, B.D. Hyman is a little intimidating. You get the sense she’s long known how things should be done. When describing her transition to motherhood at 22, she says she was warned to get ready to relinquish her pristine, antique-filled household in exchange for baby-land.
Hardly. When son Ashley was born, he had a well-appointed nursery. “When he came up to spend time with us in the evening, he’d bring one toy with him. And when he left, that toy went back to his room with him,” she recalls.
Before being called to preach full time, B.D. Hyman says, she had a successful art business in which she sold “lots of product.” Some of her paintings adorn the walls. Behind the music stand-lectern hangs a large rendition of a red-robed Jesus atop a white horse, His crucifixion marks visible.
That same picture graces the cover of The Rapture, The Tribulation and Beyond, from which she is teaching on her four-year-old televised outreach. Filmed on a law office-y looking set, the self-produced “Teaching Ministry of B.D. Hyman,” is carried free by direct broadcast satellite Angel One in exchange for her promotion of the Christian-owned and operated network. It airs Wednesdays at 9am and Thursdays at 7:30pm. Public access Channel 13 also broadcasts the show Tuesdays at 8pm and Fridays at 1:30pm.
At teaching’s end, a toll-free order number flashes to help viewers purchase the ministry’s audiocassettes. Titles include “Health, Wealth and Happiness God’s Conditions” and “Curses and the Occult.” For a younger audience, “The Guardian Stories” are advertised as what A.A. Milne would have written– if he had written books for Christian children.
Most offerings run between $20 and $30, plus shipping and handling. How many sell in a year? “I honestly couldn’t tell you,” says B.D. Hyman. “I don’t keep track of it. But a lot a lot. We’re producing tapes all the time. We are printing books in 2,000-3,000 lots, and when they run out, we do the next printing.”
Another painting in B.D. Hyman’s home shows her as a young child with her famous mother on the beach, cloud-like angels hovering above. Contrary to the seemingly idyllic moment on canvas, however, is the preacher’s claim that Bette Davis engaged in a Satanic assault against her family.
Celebrity author Barbara Leaming without the overlay of a fundamentalist’s analysis also describes the actress as a difficult woman given to fits of vitriolic ugliness. In Bette Davis: A Biography, Leaming portrays the domineering star as someone who engaged in an “endless series of irrational, misguided, all too often self-destructive battles.”
B.D. Hyman was born in 1947, the only child of a short-lived union between the 40-year-old actress and third husband, artist William Sherry. Right after the divorce, Davis married her All About Eve co-star, Gary Merrill. Her ex wed the family’s young nanny.
B.D. would have no contact with her father for years.
Both in My Mother’s Keeper and on her ministerial audiotape “From Hollywood to Healing,” B.D. Hyman describes an indulged childhood with mansions, servants, and globe-trotting pet horses who accompanied her on trips.
In order that she not be an only child, the Davis-Merrill household included adopted siblings. “My sister Margot was given to me at a few days old when I was four, and Michael, my brother, at a few days old when I was five.”
The largesse misfired. Little Margot was brain injured and very difficult. When B.D. was seven, her three-year-old sister was sent away to a school for the mentally disabled. She still lives in a residential facility.
The family was further torn. B.D. describes early years punctuated by alcoholic rages, domestic violence, and cruelty directed at her by Merrill. Sometimes she even slept outdoors to hide from him. B.D. Hyman writes that her mother never acknowledged the abuse: “That she left me alone with him at all was a puzzlement; it was as though she truly believed there was no violence.”
According to her daughter’s memoirs, Bette Davis specialized in emotional cruelty. She staged “suicides” as punishment for perceived mistreatment by her children. When B.D. was eight, her mother pretended to take an overdose, locking herself in her bedroom. The distraught child slept outside her door. And the next morning, “…[Mother] looked down at me at with a triumphant expression on her face. ‘I hope that taught you a good lesson,’ she said.”
B.D. Hyman says remorse-driven acts of generosity often followed Davis’ bad behavior.Bette Davis was surrounded by sycophants and was for a long while catered to by her emotionally unstable sister. She began to train her daughter for a role in the entourage. Author Leaming quotes a friend of Davis’ comparing the actress’ spinster role in a 1942 melodrama with her ambitions for her daughter: “Bette’s ideal situation would have been to have B.D. at her beck and call for the rest of her life. Remember Now, Voyager? Bette wanted to make B.D. into an ‘Aunt Charlotte’ to keep her company and do her bidding in her old age.”
“My official adult grooming to follow in Mother’s footsteps began…on my eleventh birthday [when] Mother declared me to be an adult. She actually had a Happy 21st Birthday cake,” Hyman says on the Hollywood tape.
When she was in sixth grade, a full-time tutor replaced school. The precocious girl was soon responsible for organizing press conferences and making travel arrangements. There is no trace of regret when B.D. Hyman talks about this period. “I traveled all over the world. I lived a very adult life. I liked it. I enjoyed it. I had no problem with it.”
B.D.’s precocity included men. Alluding to dating in her 1985 memoir she says, “I was free to do absolutely anything I wanted, particularly if I were willing to recount the engrossing details.” In 1963, a blind date was arranged for her at the Cannes Film Festival. At 29, Jeremy Hyman, a Brit, was the youngest man that B.D. had dated in a year. She was 16. They married seven months later.
She devoted herself to her new role of housewife and hostess. Protesting the notion that she might have been reacting to the volatility of her childhood by crafting a formal home at such a young age, she says, “I wasn’t rebelling against anything! I was just going after what I wanted and what I thought life should be.”
What did other women think of her youth? “When you grow up as the daughter of a megastar, you’re separated from everybody else anyway. No matter where you go, you don’t fit in,” she says.
To B.D. Hyman, marriage meant a natural distancing from her mother and her mother’s career. She believes the actress viewed the marriage as merely a temporary leave of absence from her true function as companion. But the newlywed teenager held her ground, and a long period of wars, both hot and cold, ensued. She writes that the enraged star embarked on a 20-year campaign to retrieve her daughter from that “English bastard,” with whom B.D. eventually had two sons.
The family moved to put physical distance between themselves and Davis, but mom followed, first to New York and then to Connecticut. As much as B.D. Hyman wanted space, though, Davis was still her mother.
She writes of the painful pull of this long-term conflict, “I was a wife and mother who couldn’t… harm her family, and a daughter who could only make her mother happy by permitting her to be cruel to that same family… That should make the choice very simple, but it wasn’t. My mother loved me more than anything else in the world.”
B.D. Hyman ended up with colitis, a prescription for Valium, and a continuing entanglement with her erratic mother.
It was following some particularly unpleasant incidents involving her children that B.D. decided to make the break. Her son Ashley was offered the opportunity to act alongside his grandmother in Family Reunion, a movie about the value of kin. Despite its feel-good message, B.D. Hyman says, the actress was so cruel throughout the three-month location that the 11-year-old begged to leave. Because of the contract, though, she had to tell her child to “tough it out.”
Then, during a visit, Davis became physically abusive towards B.D.’s younger child. “I had to do something,” she says, “because [Mother] was a tremendously destructive force in my children’s lives.” She decided to go public.
While editing the emotionally charged manuscript of My Mother’s Keeper, B.D. Hyman was “born again.” Practicing psychiatrist and ordained minister Tom Milam, who has done research on religious transformations, says, “People who have experienced trauma may be more vulnerable to Christian conversion experiences, and are often quick to want to convert others to their new-found faith.”
Interestingly, B.D. Hyman is quick to distance herself from that interpretation, insisting that she had been completely satisfied with her life prior to her re-birth.
“Most people make a decision for Christ because they are at their wit’s end,” she says. “They’ve come to a place where they are overwhelmed with circumstances, and they cry out to God. My [conversion] wasn’t like that.”
Whether revisiting her painful history catalyzed B.D. Hyman’s new relationship with God, it certainly created ambivalence about the writing project. Davis was in failing health, and My Mother’s Keeper was clearly not penned as a tome of forgiveness.
“I said, ‘Okay Lord, now what do I do? Do you want me to go ahead with this thing?’ Because to pull it– at that point would have meant huge lawsuits, and just a tremendous ordeal. So He made it very clear to me, the Lord did, that this was part of His plan and that this book was to go right ahead.”
And go ahead it did.
My Mother’s Keeper shimmied up 1985 bestseller lists, reaching number four on the New York Times in hardback and going all the way to number one the following year in paperback. Despite the successful sales, B.D. Hyman never agreed to a movie. As a result, there is no cultish following lip-synching to her childhood à la Faye Dunaway fans of Mommie Dearest.
In fact, B.D. Hyman took a lot of heat for her story. Egg throwers met her at some of her speaking engagements, and critics portrayed Davis as Joan Crawford lite. The Washington Post described the rendering as unflattering “but hardly the genuine catalogue of horrors contained in Mommie Dearest.” The reviewer continued, “77-year-old Bette Davis just had recovered from a broken hip, a mastectomy, and a devastating stroke. So much for Christian charity.”
B.D.’s brother, Michael Merrill, now an attorney in Boston, said in a telephone interview that they stopped talking “as a natural consequence of her writing the book.” Does he too consider himself a victim of child abuse? “Absolutely not,” he replies categorically. About whether his sister was mistreated he says, “I have no idea what her problems are. If she thinks she was, that’s fine.” A few years ago he co-founded the Bette Davis Foundation, awarding scholarships to promising actors in honor of his mother.
But it was during the publicity tour for her published uprising that an audience found Hyman. With a flourish, B.D. proclaims, “Thousands and thousands of women all over the country… wrote me or rushed up to me… and said, ‘Until I read your book, I did not know that I could be free, that I wasn’t obligated to put my life on the altar of my mother’s desires’.” (With Jeremy, she wrote a Christian follow-up to her memoirs called Narrow is the Way, and her ministry sells an audiotape about oppressive parents that “exposes the devil’s tactics and has helped countless people break free of bondage and gain control over their own lives.”)
B.D. Hyman says Davis never read My Mother’s Keeper. “She knew what she was. And she assumed that I’d written the whole story, which I had not. I had written enough to paint the picture. And so she went away, and I had what I wanted. She was out of my life,” she says.
However, Bette Davis did read her daughter’s book, according to the actress’ memoir, This ‘N That.
In an open letter, she wrote: “Dear Hyman, I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is. [Your book] is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.”
As for the title of her daughter’s bestseller, Davis wrote, “If my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.”
Subsequently, the Hymans moved to the Bahamas, and Bette Davis very publicly disinherited them. “We were five-minute headlines again,” laughs B.D. about a 1989 post-mortem press release citing her alleged cruelty. Davis’ estate was divided between Michael Merrill and Kathryn Sermak, the actress’ assistant.
“Kathryn became what I was supposed to be,” Leaming quotes Hyman as saying. “She became an extension of Mother. And Mother indeed did call Kathryn her daughter.” B. D. Hyman denies being pained by this surrogacy. “I felt sorry for her,” she says now.
But still Davis loomed. Hyman believes her mother was at least partially responsible for her son Ashley’s long struggle with manic depression. Although the actress was never formally diagnosed with the condition, the preacher says she wouldn’t be surprised if Bette Davis passed the chemical imbalance on as a “generational curse” because she never found Jesus.
While Hyman says Ashley has been delivered of his illness and is now ministering in Staunton, she attributes his condition, like other familial afflictions, to a “satanic assignment.” In her world, traditional medical treatment can offer only palliative help, whereas being “saturated in the Word” provides true cures. The preacher credits her own victory over metastatic cancer to prayer and purposeful living. She also claims that through her personal knowledge, anointing, and prayers, thousands have been cured of chronic illness.
While cautioning her audience to stay on medications until their baffled doctors tell them they can stop, B.D. Hyman declares, “There are people who don’t have heart disease, who don’t have cancer, who don’t have lupus. We have partners in the ministry who were in the final stage of AIDS when… we began standing with them against this thing and praying for their healing. And they listened to tapes and got themselves built up in the Word, and they no longer have AIDS. They don’t even have H.I.V.! They have pure blood.”
But don’t call her a faith healer. B.D. Hyman gets fired up about that. What she is, she says, is “a conduit for the Holy Spirit,” who flows through her flesh into the afflicted.
Ellen Fisher, a local correctional officer who says she suffered from unbearable fibromyalgia, bears witness to that claim.
“I couldn’t sit in the car. I couldn’t stand for clothes to touch me,” says Fisher, adding that B.D. Hyman “prayed with me and then anointed me with oil. Within a few weeks, every single symptom was gone.”
One need not even be present to get results from these sorts of encounters. B.D. Hyman says, “We have many, many hundreds of partners all over the country who are part of this ministry, [and] since there’s no distance in the Spirit when I pray for them over the phone, it’s the same as if they were here and I was laying hands on them.” After a session, the preacher urges partners to listen to her audiotapes for what might be described as a maintenance dose of teachings.
Hyman encourages her partners to “sow into the ministry” saying that they “support the ministry with finances, and we support them with prayers.” She is serious about the necessity of proper tithing. Paying into a “dead church” instead of “harvest ground” can invite Lucifer into one’s bank statement, she claims.
She attributes her family’s own reversal of fortune to past ignorance of the “financial covenant.” On one of her tapes, she recounts how the Hymans arrived in Virginia to buy a horse farm only to have their investments wiped out by Wall Street’s Black Monday.
“Satan stole all of our money,” she says.
Before her art business took off, the couple worked other people’s farms, with B.D. doing piece-work at night, sewing sleeves on wedding dresses. Then she had her fiscal epiphany: God intends His people to have financial prosperity– but His truth has to be “supported by His money.” B.D. Hyman started tithing appropriately. Her paintings sold.
And then she began preaching full time. Her ministry donates to a school and orphanage-building evangelist in Kenya. “It’s just a thrill to see what he’s doing. He is operating in miracles, signs, and wonders. People are coming to Christ left, right, and center. There have been resurrections. You name it, it’s happening,” she enthuses.
From the outside, this strange journey appears to have been difficult. But B.D. Hyman might not agree. She calls herself joyful. February brought a diving holiday in Belize. Husband Jeremy is the operations manager for her ministry. Her older son is a preacher; the other owns a motorcycle customizing shop. Both are nearby.
Bette Davis’ daughter finds being a guide on the narrow road to Salvation rewarding work indeed.