When Joyce Meyer was 12 or 13, her father decided to teach her to drive.
He didn’t do it for her, Meyer said. He never did anything for her.
He did it because he wanted to get her out of the house and away from her mother. He wanted to use her.
Sometimes, they would drive to a cemetery and park the car. He liked cemeteries, she said. They were remote and private.
"Things were a little better in the wintertime," when she was in school, she said, because her father worked nights and they were rarely home together.
"But I hated summers. He would go out and get drunk and take me with him. He’d feed me alcohol ... get me dizzy. And he’d do different things in the back of the car ..."
Meyer, 60 and one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful TV preachers, has repeated these stories often in recent years — in her books and at her conferences. They are stories of a bullied and emotionally starved young woman victimized by an abusive father, a weak mother and a manipulative first husband.
They are stories, she said, that have had lasting, profound effects on her life and on a ministry that reaches around the globe.
"I’m not telling you this to get you to feel sorry for me," she told followers in a crowded church in Tampa, Fla., in September. "I’m telling it to you to show you that people have awful things happen to them."
Still, she said, "I know that my life is more powerful because of what happened to me than it ever would have been if it wouldn’t have happened."
Meyer and the ministry’s attorney, Tom Winters, have asked that reporters not interview Meyer’s parents, threatening legal action against the Post-Dispatch. Meyer said any stress could jeopardize her parents’ fragile health. The parents, both in their 80s and living in south St. Louis County, did not respond to a letter sent by the newspaper to their home.
Nightmares of childhood
Meyer was born Pauline Joyce Hutchison on June 4, 1943.
In her recent book, "Help Me — I’m Married," Meyer recounts how her father went into the armed forces the day after she was born.
When he was discharged three years later, he returned "bitter, angry and addicted to alcohol." Almost from her first conscious memory, she said, he began to abuse her sexually.
In her 1990 audiotape series "Trophies of God’s Grace," Meyer says the abuse began as molestation and worsened as she reached adolescence.
A factory worker and machinist with roots deep in the "back hills" of Kentucky, Meyer’s father saw nothing wrong with what he did, she said. In his family, he told her, "everybody did it, and that’s just the way it was."
He was persistent and demanding, she said. He looked for opportunities whenever and wherever he could find them.
"He might tell me, ‘I’m going down to the basement. Meet me in five minutes,’" she said. "‘I’m going out to the garage. Meet me out there in ten minutes.’"
As early as age 9, she said, she told her mother what her father was doing to her. When her mother confronted him, Meyer said, he denied everything. Her mother chose to believe him.
Meyer wrote in her book "Beauty for Ashes" that one day when she was 14, her mother returned home early from a shopping trip and discovered the two of them together.
Her mother "looked, walked out and came back two hours later, acting as if she had never been there," Meyer said.
Years later, her mother told her that she knew about the abuse but could not bring herself to face it, she said.
Meyer said that her father often beat her mother but that he rarely struck Meyer. He didn’t have to, she said. The threats and the intimidation were enough.
Feeling the power of God
When Meyer was 9, her mother became pregnant with Meyer’s brother.
"I remember so desperately wanting the new baby to be a girl," she wrote in "Beauty for Ashes." "I thought that maybe if there was another female child in the family, I might be left alone, at least part of the time."
That year, Meyer said, she felt the true power of God for the first time.
One night, while visiting relatives out of town, she decided to sneak away to a local church service. She says she was "born again" while there.
"I felt clean, as though I had received an inner bath," she wrote years later.
The next day, she said, she cheated in a game of hide-and-seek, which made her feel that she had betrayed God. By the time she returned to her own home, she said, the peace she had felt had vanished.
"I thought that I had lost Jesus," she said.
As a girl, Meyer recalls, she had a fascination for the spiritual: stories of extrasensory perception, science fiction and horror movies.
She said she was drawn to hypnosis and astrology, "any kind of a carnival."
"I would go by the fortune teller’s booth or the person who was reading the tarot cards ... or I would always want to have somebody look into the crystal ball for me," she said.
Meyer said she routinely stole "about anything I could get my hands on" as a child, including "stuff I didn’t even need." Once, she said, she stole a pair of eyeglasses from a friend’s home.
"She was a woman I loved," Meyer said. "I stole the glasses and took them outside and hid them under a rock."
Even years later, as an adult, she continued to steal, often straight from the cash registers where she worked, she said. She believes now that it was her way to exert some control over a life in which she felt largely powerless.
At 13, she began working in St. Louis dime stores and restaurants so she wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else for what she wanted.
A disastrous first marriage
Meyer attended O’Fallon Technical High School, where, she said, "people constantly came to me for counseling."
"The Flame and Steel," O’Fallon’s yearbook, pictures her with the June clerical department graduating class and says she was trained in bookkeeping. The yearbook lists her activities as girl’s softball, school representative and Honorama, a school honorary for students who excel in scholarship, school service and attendance.
An O’Fallon classmate remembers Meyer as the "sharp tongued" leader of a small but tight "in crowd" of girls who seemed unusually concerned with fashion, hair and makeup.
While he said he is surprised that Meyer became a minister, he is not surprised that she became so successful.
"Getting out in front and leading the parade, that’s where she always wanted to be," said the classmate, who asked not to be identified.
Almost immediately after graduation in 1961, shortly after her 18th birthday, Meyer packed her belongings into her black 1949 Chevrolet and moved out of the family’s red brick, two-story flat in the 3900 block of Wyoming Street.
"As far as I was concerned, I was going to run my own life from that point on," she said.
That year, she married "the first young man who showed an interest in me." He was a fifth-grade dropout and part-time car salesman.
From the beginning, the marriage was a disaster. He worked only sporadically; they moved often. She said she routinely returned home from work to find him gone. He might not return for days, weeks or even months.
She said he sold her typewriter and her class ring and "one night I caught him trying to get my wedding ring off me in the middle of the night." She said she was working as a bookkeeper in charge of her company’s payroll department when her husband persuaded her to steal money by writing phony payroll checks.
"We ran around town and cashed them and then we took off for California," she said. Years later, she said, she returned the stolen money.
At 21, Meyer suffered a miscarriage. The next year, she became pregnant again. During a sweltering St. Louis summer, she came "dangerously close" to losing her mind, she said. Severely depressed over her marriage and the couple’s financial situation, she said, she stopped eating and sleeping and started taking over-the-counter sleeping pills.
Within months of her son’s birth, Meyer decided she could no longer tolerate her husband’s infidelities and trouble with the law. She took her son, anything else she could carry and walked out.
She went to a corner phone booth, telephoned her father and asked whether she could come home. She said he was delighted.
Depressed and confused, Meyer said, she began turning to local bars for "entertainment" and started sleeping with men she barely knew.
Her days, she said, had become a living hell.
"Dear God," she said she prayed, "please let me be happy ... someday."
A gradual path to the ministry
In late 1966, just months after divorcing her husband, Meyer met David Benjamin Meyer as she washed her mother’s car outside her parent’s home. After five dates, they married in St. Louis on Jan. 7, 1967, and he quickly adopted her infant son.
He was, she said, a good and kind man, a hard worker and completely devoted to her. But happiness continued to elude her.
In her book "Knowing God Intimately," published this year, Meyer says she was driving to work one morning in February 1976 when, out of frustration and desperation, she began crying out to God.
She said she heard God call her name. He asked her to be patient, she said.
"From that moment," she said, "I knew with certainty that God was going to do something."
That evening, as she drove home from a beauty shop appointment, God filled her "full of liquid love," she said. That night, at a local bowling alley, she felt almost drunk with the spirit of God.
Soon after, while working as an office manager at Isis foods, she began a regular 6 a.m. Bible class at Miss Hulling’s cafeteria at Eighth and Olive streets.
Initially active in Our Savior Lutheran Church, Meyer and her husband left there in the early 1980s. They joined Life Christian Church, then a small, struggling, 30-member interdenominational storefront church at Tesson Ferry and Green Park roads in South County.
Since then, Life Christian has grown to about 3,000 members, at least in part because of Meyer’s popularity. The church is now housed in a sprawling complex off Gravois Road in Fenton.
Rick Shelton, the pastor, says he liked the Meyer family from their first visit.
Shelton serves on the board of Joyce Meyer Ministries and sometimes travels with the family on the ministry’s private plane to their three-day rallies.
"How to fight the devil"
Soon after the family joined the church, Shelton said, Meyer began holding Bible study classes for women in her home.
Before long, the meetings were moved to the little church and then continued at Life Christian’s new home in a converted IGA grocery in South County. Eventually, he said, 500 women were attending the Thursday morning Bible classes.
"Ladies were coming from all over the metropolitan area," he recalls.
By 1983, Meyer was standing in for Shelton in the Life Christian pulpit. He asked her to appear with him on a daily 15-minute radio program on the old WCBW Christian station. Soon, she had a 15-minute program of her own. Before long, she had purchased time on six other radio stations, from Chicago to Kansas City.
It was while at Life Christian that Meyer began one of the more unusual chapters of her early ministry.
In an audiotape series called "How to Fight the Devil and Win," Meyer recalled how she read a book on freeing people from demons. She saw the book as a revelation from God and began what she called a "deliverance ministry," much of it out of the family’s home on Codorniz Lane in Fenton.
"I had every person, I think, anywhere within 10 miles who had a demon come knocking at my door wanting deliverance," she said. "And I was staying up half the night, almost every night, Dave and I were, casting out devils."
She said she got on people’s backs and rode them "all over the house, with these demons of anger and fear and violence ... you know our kids are back there sleeping and we’re in the living room screaming at demons half the night.
"I mean one woman came to my house, and me and my pastor (Shelton) literally rode her piggyback all over my house.
"She threw up in every towel I had. She spit all over us. Rick had to get his tie off. He had to get his jewelry off. Sweat was pouring off of both of us."
In a recent interview, Meyer said she understands how some people might consider such activity "goofy." She said she is no longer involved in such work.
Founding Life in the Word
Meyer stayed at Life Christian for five years. In her book "A Leader in the Making," published two years ago, Meyer said God told her when it was time to leave.
"The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Take your ministry and go north, south, east and west.’ So I did," she said.
Shelton said he expected great things of Meyer but he had no inkling things would turn out as they have.
"If I were to say I expected anything even remotely close to this, even a small fraction of this, I would be disingenuous," Shelton said. "I am stunned by what has happened."
In August 1985, Meyer and her husband, David, filed papers with the Missouri secretary of state’s office establishing Life in the Word as a nonprofit corporation. By the following May, Life in the Word had received status as a 501 (c) (3) federally tax-exempt corporation.
The early years of the ministry were anything but easy, Meyer has said. Scraping for money, she said, she and her husband usually drove to conferences, often sleeping in their car on "a McDonald’s parking lot" because they couldn’t pay for a motel room.
"We would believe in God literally for our socks and underwear," she said.
Going for it all on TV
Dave Meyer said in an interview in 1999 with the Post-Dispatch that he was in the bathroom in 1993 when God "opened his heart to me" and changed the direction of the ministry.
"I could feel the hurts of the world," he said. "I decided that Joyce’s message should go international on television.
With about two dozen employees, the ministry put together a TV program using video from Meyer’s live conferences. Initially, it was aired on WGN in Chicago and Black Entertainment Network. Within five years, Meyer and her message were on about 600 radio and TV stations, seven cable networks and seven satellite networks.
In November 1998, Meyer made the big time with a cover story in Charisma & Christian Life magazine, one of the nation’s leading publications for followers of the charismatic movement. On its cover, the magazine called Meyer "America’s most popular woman minister."
A year after the article, the ministry moved from its office building in Fenton into a $20 million headquarters nearby.
Trying to heal the past
Despite the enormous success of her ministry and a series of personal victories — Meyer won a battle with breast cancer in the early 1990s and says she repaired difficult relationships with her four children — she has said that possibly her biggest challenge was confronting her own past.
Twice, she said, she went to her father to tell him she had forgiven him for what he had done to her. Twice, she said, he refused to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong.
Still, she said, God continued to push her to heal the relationship.
In November 2000, Meyer and her husband bought a $130,000 house in St. Louis County for her parents and moved them there from the small town in southern Missouri where they had been living.
In the newest version of her book "Beauty for Ashes," Meyer writes that three years after her parents’ return to St. Louis, she and her husband visited them on Thanksgiving.
As they walked through the door, she said, her father began to cry.
"I just need to tell you how sorry I am for what I did to you," she said he told them.
"It’s all right, Daddy," Meyer told him. "I forgive you."
Ten days later, Meyer said, she baptized her father in a simple ceremony at the St. Louis Dream Center on the city’s North Side.
Reporter Bill Smith
Reporter Carolyn Tuft: