Russ Taff: I had to replace all that negative stuff with God’s Word, where I said, “I am the righteousness of God. You know, I am His child and I’m not afraid.
John Fuller: On the outside, Russ Taff was a Grammy and Dove award-winning Christian music artist. But for so long, on the inside, he was living a life filled with confusion and damaged emotions. Russ and his wife, Tori, join us today on Focus on the Family. And your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, there are many thousands of people who are among the walking wounded in the culture today, some Christian and some non-Christian, just people. This is what life is. It throws curveballs at us, and it deals us blows. And it usually starts in childhood, things that occur that shape our outlook on life, that shape our emotional responses. Sometimes we call them triggers, whatever they might be. And I think the Lord’s all about helping us deal with that, to get to know who we are deep inside. You know, the Lord says He knows our heart better than we know our heart. It’s sometimes hard to fathom that that can be true. But He does. And so what He wants from us is an abundant life, a loving life. You may not be experiencing the same exact things that Russ and Tori experienced. But put yourself in their shoes with whatever it is that you’ve experienced. The book that we’re talking about is Russ’s story. It’s called I Still Believe: A Memoir of Wreckage, Recovery and Relentless Love.
Jim: And Russ and Tori, welcome to Focus on the Family.
Tori Taff: Thank you.
Russ: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Jim: I love that headline, that title – relentless love, especially. That is kind of the way it works, huh? We go through wreckage. We begin to recover. If we do it out of our own power, it usually doesn’t stick.
Jim: …and then eventually, hopefully, that relentless love that we find in Christ. And that is the story. Thank you for being on Focus on the Family (laughter). It’s like we’re at the end now.
Jim: But Russ, let’s get into it, that dramatic and painful story that God’s given you. You know, many people listening have had trouble in this life. And you come to a fork in the road. You either say, “OK, Lord, how do I roll forward?” or you become bitter and resentful, maybe shake your fist at God. I think both roads, God’s pleased with. I mean, He wants you to be honest in all those things. Describe your childhood – that abusive beginning that you had. How would you characterize it?
Russ: Um, it started with – when I was young. Daddy was a Pentecostal preacher, and he preached a hard Gospel – I mean, a hard Gospel that no one could live up to. He couldn’t do it.
Jim: What do you mean by hard Gospel?
Russ: Clothes, hair, attitude…
Russ: …Rules, rules, rules, rules, rules…
Jim: Kind of legalistic?
Russ: Yes, very – very legalistic. And so, growing up in that environment and then having your dad – and it started when I was 7 that he didn’t show up at church one night. And I went home to find him – we lived about half a block from the church. And I heard this voice in the back bedroom. And he was singing, but it didn’t sound like my dad. And I went back there. And I didn’t know what it was. I’d never seen anybody drunk.
Jim: Oh, uh-huh.
Russ: And, so I went back to the church and got mom and my oldest brother. And when mom walked in, she was like, “Oh, Joe, oh, Joe,” it’s like, “Here we go again. Here we go again. You had seven years of sobriety.” And he never stopped until, you know, until he died. He would always get three months, relapse, a year, relapse. And never could any – and I could see he preached such a hard Gospel, he did not like himself. It was a – he couldn’t live up to it. And I think it would just build, build, build. And it’s like, I’m going to go shut my head off. And the Lord knows how he was raised.
Jim: In that context, so, you know, that starts at 7, where you see this – I mean, basically, the Scripture calls that hypocrisy.
Russ: Right, absolutely.
Jim: I mean, it had to confuse you in terms of, is God real? I mean, if I were that 7-year-old, that’s what I would be asking. “OK, is this real? Or is this – is this a show?”
Tori: And keeping the family secrets was part of the most damaging aspect of it, I think. I think being taught – it wasn’t even focusing on the hypocrisy, as much as it was just, you don’t talk about what happens.
Russ: Well, and that was one of the worst beatings I ever got, was I went to spend the night with one of my little friends who, they went to daddy’s church. And I’d mentioned to him that Mom and Dad had an argument. And my older brother told Mom, and she was waiting for me when I got home. And, I mean, just soon as…
Jim: That you had shared the secret.
Russ: Yes, and – because they’re supposed to be perfect. And, I mean, she was throwing her shoes at me, screaming, and then came over and started punching me in my face with her fists, screaming the whole time, “You don’t tell secrets. You don’t talk to anybody about this family.” And – but then that led into with mama, when I was 11 – you know, you’re dealing with a dad who is preaching, you know, and then he’s – he’s drunk, preaching, then he’s drunk. And there’s a thing called covert incest. And it’s not physical touching, but it’s, like, when…
Russ: Yeah, a spouse takes a child – like a spouse – to talk. And so, it started when I was 11, because she couldn’t talk outside the family, either.
Jim: She needed a release valve.
Russ: And so, she chose me.
Jim: At 11.
Russ: And I would have to sit on the side of the bed, and she would just dump on me.
Jim: What – for people that may be in that situation, they don’t even realize it, describe what that would sound like. What was she saying to you that – that was inappropriate?
Russ: We are – you’re 11 years old and you hear, “We’re probably not going to be able to pay our rent this month.”
Jim: Because dad’s drinking.
Russ: Because dad’s – you know, he can’t work. And – and you kids aren’t going to have lunch money.
Jim: So nothing but fear.
Russ: Oh, she would dump all this fear on me, and then she would feel better and go to bed. And I’m sitting there with all of this stuff, and now what do I do with it? And so you internalize, internalize. And then you put God’s face in the middle of all that. And it’s just chaos.
Jim: Yeah, and that – you lived in that chaos until 17, right? So nothing – the pattern never really changed that whole time.
Jim: Your dad didn’t have an experience where he began to do better for a long period of time. Your mom continued to lean on you emotionally. At 17, you decided to leave the home, right?
Russ: Well, it was my last year of high school. And I left – we left California. That’s where we were living at the time. And we moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, because dad had preached at a church there during the summer, and they said, “We’ll try to help.” And so we moved back there. But he relapsed again. I think he almost had two years, just really trying, and then he just relapsed, and he never came home.
Jim: Did you ever – and I guess this is a little off track – but did you ever have a chance to talk to your dad about why?
Jim: So he passed away.
Russ: He would not go there. He would not go there.
Jim: He wouldn’t open up.
Tori: He tried. He tried.
Jim: Because I – you know, for many people listening, for some – I wouldn’t say many – but they may be in a spot where they’re battling this. They have their demons from their past, but they want to be on fire for the Lord. And it’s constant tug-of-war of good and evil. You know, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “It cuts through the heart of every human being.” Jesus, more importantly, said it, too, that we’re all sinners, saved by grace. Seeing that in your father, how do you get on top of that, so that you don’t have to live in that bondage?
Russ: You don’t know how. It was just always condemnation, condemnation, But I think the most damaging thing that happened to me and my brothers daily – “You’re not worth the bullet to shoot you with. You’re not worth the salt that goes on your bread. You will never amount to anything.” And for me it was, “Why can’t you be more like your cousin?” – who was a great athlete, A student. And so, there’s that daily feed, daily feed.
Jim: So damaging.
Russ: Yeah. And so, at 22 years old, I joined The Imperials. And I come to Nashville, but I’m carrying guilt the whole time, because you’d win a Grammy; “I don’t deserve this.”
Jim: Right, right. It’s never enough.
Jim: Let me – let me get to Tori, before we get to the career, because that is important. But somewhere in between that 17-year-old experience and the 22-year-old experience, you two meet. Tori, why don’t you tell us about that?
Tori: We did.
Jim: And were you aware of this chaos?
Tori: Oh, absolutely not. He covered beautifully. When I met him, I was in high school. He was out of high school at that point. And it was at a church retreat that I was dragged kicking and screaming to (laughter). And he was singing. And – and I just thought he was incredibly interesting and funny.
Russ: I was youth pastor there.
Tori: And I was dating somebody, so I wasn’t interested in that. I just thought – I was mesmerized by him. He was – and funny. Funny goes a long way in my family.
Tori: And so, as we started dating, and then we were engaged – we were engaged for a year -We were already engaged and had the wedding date set, when The Imperials’ opportunity came, so all of a sudden everything changed, and we’re going. But what I saw was a – I knew he loved God, and God was as real to him as I was to him.
Jim: So, you didn’t see any cracks or weaknesses.
Tori: No. No. And he was a human being. I didn’t have him completely on a pedestal. But, the reality of his relationship with God was very solid. And he was moody. He was – and I always – I grew up with a lot of creatives in my family, and I was a writer, and so I…
Jim: You understood it.
Tori: That didn’t throw me. I didn’t see – I didn’t know what all he was hiding.
Jim: So, you get into The Imperials, which was a very, you know, famous Christian group at the time and, you know, making albums, doing concerts, I think literally all over the world, right? I mean, you weren’t just here in the U.S. You’re going to Australia, Europe. And that’s heady stuff. I mean, even for Christians, because I know some of those artists today. And that can be – it’s a difficult schedule. You’re away from your family a lot. There’s a lot of people giving you accolades for how well you sing and all those kinds of things. But you didn’t feel sufficient.
Russ: No, you have a bucket with a hole in it. And you’ve got thousands of people telling how wonderful you are, but you know, you know. You know who you are. And that condemnation consistently reminds you you’re not good enough; you’re not worth it. Sooner or later, people are going to find out that your mom and dad were right, and you’re not worth the bullet to shoot you with. And they’re going to come back and take all these Grammys and – and take out, you know, the Dove Awards and things like that. And so, I took all those years – the 17 years of chaos and trauma – major trauma – and I shoved it over here and acted like it didn’t happen. And I’m this born-again believer singing the Gospel. And I was, you know, preaching the Gospel.
And can I backtrack just a little bit? And you jump in here anytime you want. But Jesus and I had a connection when I was 12, when mama started dumping on me. And I had heard that Jesus was a friend, and you could talk to Him. I don’t know who, you know…
Jim: Gave you that idea.
Russ: …Gave me that idea, but it was there. And I remember I was 12, and they threw us out of the church, because you can’t have a drunk pastor. But I had my little guitar. And I would sing. And that’s something I could do. And I would learn a song through the week, and then my deal was Saturday night, or Sunday night – we were in church four nights a week – I would sing my song and play my guitar.
Russ: And I – so I walk in – I go back down there, they voted Daddy out. He can’t be there. And my uncle had taken over. And I walked in the door with my little card box, you know, guitar case. And my uncle stopped me. And he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m – I’m gonna sing my song.” And he goes, “We don’t want you here.”
Jim: Hmm, wow.
Russ: And I said, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” He goes, “Well, you’re a son, and we don’t want any of you here.” And so, I – I go back to the house. I mean, there’s just rejection on all fronts. But Mama had a key to the church. And late at night – and when there’s trauma, chaos, addiction, you can stay out till 5 in the morning, nobody cares. And I would take the key, and I would go into that little bitty church, and I wouldn’t turn the lights on. And when you’re 12, it’s scary.
Jim: Think of that.
Russ: A dark church. And I would feel my way to the front. And I wouldn’t turn on lights, because people would drive by and see lights on. But there was a little lamp at the front of the church on a little desk. And I would feel my way down there. And I would turn that little lamp on, and I would – I would either kneel down, or I would sit, and I would cry and tell Jesus how I felt and how scared I was and how troubled I was. And – but somehow it soothed me a little bit. And so, I continued it and continued it. When mama would dump on me and I’m carrying all the stuff that, I would go down there afterwards. And I would tell Jesus – and so, during that time, He became a friend, the guy that I could tell my secrets to. And so, that started back then. That’s why I couldn’t walk away from Jesus. I couldn’t, because He was the only one helping me, and so, anyway.
Jim: No, that’s good. And, man, I see the pain. I see your tears. I mean, that’s still raw. And it will be raw for your entire life, because that was hard to go through.
John: Well, we’re hearing from the hearts of Russ and Tori Taff today on Focus on the Family. And you can get a copy of their book, Russ Taff: I Still Believe at our website. There’s also a film, I Still Believe, it’s a documentary that really captures the story. It’s available on a DVD. Stop by our website for more details – focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Or, call 800, A, FAMILY.
Jim: Russ, that’s where I want to pick up. It’s even in the title, I Still Believe, because many people listening right now is going, “How?” I mean, you’re that teenager, you’re feeling all that pain, and now you’re in your 20s, where – we’d stopped the story there – but married to Tori and – and you now begin to repeat – kind of the things that you saw your father do. How was that battle going, internally, for you as you begin to do those very same things? And describe that for the listeners.
Russ: Sure. Carrying all of this stuff from my childhood and the voices, daily, you’re not worth it, you’re not good enough, and I would beg God to take it away. I’d beg Him to take it away and, you know, renewing my mind. And I tried to meditate on Scriptures. But when there’s trauma, when there’s pain, it’s hard to sit and meditate on Scripture, but we were in New York. And I never drank, because of daddy. I was 26. But there were three Heinekens , and in Nashville, there was some social drinking with Christians. And, you know, if you want to have a glass of wine, you know, I don’t sit and judge people. That’s between them and God. And a lot of people aren’t designed the way I’m designed. I can’t do it. I can’t bring around it at all.
Jim: Right, so you’re in the room and there were some…
Russ: Yeah, there were three Heinekens in the refrigerator. And it was July in New York on a fifth store apartment building, with not a good air conditioner. And so, I thought, “Well, I’ll” – you know, some of my friends – we’d play golf and they’d have a beer at the end of it. And, you know, I never would. But maybe this’ll help cool me off. And I had one. And – I started feeling something. So, I had another. And, I started feeling better about myself. And by the third one, all the voices were silent. And I told Tori the day after. It was like, “This must be the way real, I mean…”
Tori: Normal people.
Russ: “…Normal people live, without all of this stuff on their head,” not knowing that I was being set up to become my dad.
Russ: And you talk about bringing hatred on. You’re looking, I mean, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror…
Russ: …Yes, you know, you – I’d become him.
Jim: The thing that you loathed the most, you became.
Russ: I became. And I’m traumatizing her, just like my dad traumatized me.
Jim: Well and speak to that. What was the duration of this? Tori, what did your marriage look like? What – you now see the cracks. You know, the funny, creative musician is now showing you – because he can’t hide it.
Tori: Well, he did really, really well.
Russ: I was good at hiding. I was good…
Tori: He learned literally at his father’s knee how to hide. The next day, we went to see a Broadway show. He kept excusing himself to go to the bathroom. When I was in trance with Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and he was going, because there was a bar.
Russ: And so, I’d go by there on the way to the bathroom – and I’d go back, have a drink and then go back and sit down. And I don’t know how many times I did that.
Tori: This is the next day, so it…
Russ: Yeah, the very next day, when I introduced it.
Tori: It took hold. There is a genetic component that you can’t ignore, as well as he was set up. It was a perfect storm. So, what I started seeing – and the drinking progressed pretty quickly, I guess, in the – in the grand scheme of things. But – but the behavior, what I saw, because I didn’t see him drunk. I didn’t see – he wasn’t staggering in and throwing up on my couch. He was gone a lot. He was – the self-hatred started manifesting itself as distance and isolation. And he was snappish. He was turned inward. It was dark. We always have had an easy connection. We’ve always had a – we were buddies, as well as I was – we were crazy about each other. And that buddy was going away.
Jim: Yeah, and continued to go away, until the point – and we don’t need to, you know, kind of celebrate all the negative – but it got to the point where you felt you had to go talk to an attorney. And that was – that got everybody’s attention. So, you know, this is a sensitive area. And there are, I’m sure, some wives, maybe some husbands, who are in a similar spot. They’re thinking my relationship with my spouse is on a string. And they’re contemplating this. Speak to that. Walk us through the thinking, and then what God began to do in both of your hearts, from that point.
Tori: It took 10 years, almost – well, no – yeah, close to that before he was diagnosed…
Jim: So yeah, 10-year struggle.
Tori: …and we knew alcohol was the problem. He went to treatment, came back. There would be a period of up to a decade. But as they say – and a lot of programs and therapists – and we had plenty of both, thank God – there’s a “ism.” And once you take the alcohol out, you still have the ism. And the “ism” was all of the part that wasn’t healed, and it hadn’t been dealt with. And we sat in therapist’s office, and he told his true but sad stories again and again to the point that it was – it was not a shock that he had had a hard upbringing. We got that. But, the depth of it and the trauma, the physical violence in that home, had never really been addressed. So as – I would barely begin to hope again, and we would have this period of calm. And we would have this, you know, years. But – but – but it wasn’t healed. It was – it was – and he was working hard. He was…
Jim: Yeah, and this is really important, because in reading the book, it comes out so beautifully that people were trying to help you with the alcoholism. But someone came along all these years later and said, “You got to go to the root. Alcoholism is the symptom.
Jim: There’s a root.” What happened in that conversation? Why was that different?
Russ: There was someone in the book and in the documentary, we call her Mama June. And she’s the one that – she and her husband, Bud,
Tori: She was the teacher.
Russ: …took me in when I was 17.
Jim: Oh, really? Wow, there’s a story.
Russ: And, I mean, they – they – they saved me. I mean, they got me out of the system I was in. And I got to see for a few years a happy, healthy marriage and happy, healthy kids. And so, I got to see what that was like.
But she loved me enough to tell the truth. And so that got my attention. And that made – that started – went into my head, because, I mean, to really stress here, I was two different people. I would shove the trauma and the childhood and all of that stuff to the side, and I was a minister of the Gospel. And so I lived just two different personalities.
Jim: No, I get it. And it’s so important for people to hear, because I know there’s somebody listening right now, and this has grabbed your heart. And it may be more than one. It could be dozens. It could be hundreds. It could be thousands. Because this life is all about what you experienced, especially in the church. And this isn’t aimed at any particular denomination or anything else. This whole pattern of being two people and not going through the sanctification process, which is what the Lord wants – He loves us. He cares for us. But he’s also honest and truthful with our behavior. He wants us to live better.
Russ: Oh, yeah.
Jim: So, in that context, I mean, speak to that person. Get to that place and explain how you kicked off the other guy, how you put him where he needed to be, and how you embraced God and understood His love for you, maybe for the very first time.
Russ: It was to realize there is help. There is help. But I got to tell somebody. You can’t carry this by yourself…
Jim: And work it out on your own.
Russ: …And work it out on your own, because you can’t. You don’t know how. And so you carry this deep inside. And you beg God to take it away, whatever it is. I mean, trauma
Tori: It changes your brain. It changes the way your brain works.
Russ: Really does. So to – to encourage the folks, the first thing I did – you had to do – is to tell somebody and to say, “I am struck” – but risk telling somebody. And I always tell them, you know, when we talk about this stuff is, find somebody that their life has been broken and God has put it back together, because they can listen to you and not judge you. And that’s why we did the DVD and the book and everything else. And I really felt like if I risked and told my secret, that people would say, “Well, you know, they didn’t throw him out, you know, and we still love him.” But – but because I tell you, I’m one person that knows what the love of God is and the mercy and grace of God. But I’m also one that knows how the body of Christ loves somebody that’s broken. They did, and how the body of Christ wrapped him arms around me and said, “We’re not going to let you go,” when I was so scared and confused and not knowing what to do.
Jim: Well, and that’s a beautiful part of the story. And you’ve written such a great testimony, really, in your book, I Still Believe. And man, we have run out of time. But I, you know, I’m thinking of you, the listener, right now, I mean, where you’re sitting. And I know there are people listening who are struggling. They are two people still. They haven’t integrated. They haven’t shared their secrets. And I would encourage you to call us. We have counselors here at Focus on the Family…
Russ: Oh great, great, great, great.
Jim: …as a starting point. But the, you know, the – that certainly is a good thing to do, and then to tell somebody who’s walking near you, physically. Get involved with the church. Talk to a pastor. That’s the work of the local church.
Russ: But, you know, you can be transformed by the renewing of your mind. I had to replace all that negative stuff with God’s Word, where I said, “I am the righteousness of God. You know, I am His child, and I’m not afraid.” And so, I began to say all those. And I used to write it on the wall, my mirror, you know – dry erase – of my declaration of who I am today. And I’m not that, you know, loser guy that I was told I was supposed to be. But I’m dearly loved by God. When I’m good, when I’m bad, I’m dearly loved by God.
Jim: Well, and that’s true of each one of us. And that’s the key. And we just have to embrace that, and then let the Lord do his work in our heart to make us one.
Russ: Can I make one more thing? And people listening – and what I’ve seen on the road is, like, they have children that are going through this.
Jim: Oh, yeah.
Russ: They have spouses that are going through this. They have grandkids that are going through this. And just to say, there is hope.
Russ: Call Focus on the Family. Call and – and talk to the operators here, and it’s a starting point, just to say what’s going on in your life.
Jim: It’s a step. It sounds very small, but it opens your heart up.
Russ: And you talk about it.
Tori: You let go of the secrets.
Jim: It’s so good. Well, listen – we can’t say it any better. And if, again, you are in that spot, or someone you love is in that spot, what a great resource for you – Russ Taff, along with the story of Tori, his wife, included – I Still Believe. What a beautiful expression of God’s healing of brokenness.
John: Well, we’re going to invite you to call for that consultation with one of our counselors. Get Russ and Tori’s book, Russ Taff: I Still Believe. Find details about the DVD, I Still Believe – all of that at our website, focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Or call 800, the letter A, and the word family. 800-232-6459. And we’re gonna turn our attention to Tori and ask a couple of questions about her amazing walk with God during the times that were perhaps some of the darkest that she could imagine. So do stop by the website for that.
Jim: John, one more thing. We heard today that Russ and Tori’s marriage was right on the edge. If you’re in a difficult marriage involving maybe addiction or some other situation that you think is hopeless, we can help. I say that with confidence. Our Hope Restored intensive counseling program that takes place over several days in Missouri or Michigan can turn your marriage around. We help couples break free from cycles of pain in their marriage and thrive in ways that used to seem impossible, and I’m proud to say 97% of couples who attend say the experience was beyond their expectations. That’s so good. Call us and get healing through Hope Restored.
Closing Voice Track:
John: And again the number is 800-232-6459. Well next time you’ll hear the powerful testimony of Captain Ron Johnson who relied heavily on his faith in God when he was put in charge of security in Ferguson, Missouri.
Captain Ron Johnson: And for that moment, I didn’t hear any bottles being thrown, I didn’t hear any names bein’ thrown out. It was just a sense of peace.
Ron: And at that moment I knew that my faith would carry me and guide me through.