Donna Johnson had an unusual childhood. Her mother brought Donna and her younger brother, Gary, into the inner circle of David Terrell, a very popular big tent revivalist in the 1960s and 70s. Donna spent her childhood under the wing of the charismatic and megalomaniacal minister; the only home she knew was under the “largest tent in the world.”
At first, the tent families scrape by, dodging creditors, living in dingy homes, and eating not quite enough food. Johnson comments, “I wondered from time to time why miracles performed under the tent were perfect and complete, while in our daily lives God left things half finished.”
Her mother and the other religious leaders instill in the children—both directly and by example—that they are different. And they are; Donna and the other children move around so often, they have very little in common with other children, whom she ironically dubs “outsiders”:
Everything about outsiders—their clothes, speech, habits—seemed to belittle us, and that put us on the defensive. . . . There was only one way to be in the world, one right way anyhow, and that was the way we were.
However, Donna does not stay with the tent all the time. At a young age, Donna and her brother Gary are left, for months and sometimes years, in the care of religiously rigid—and sometimes fanatically cruel—believers, while their mother tours the world with Brother Terrell.
As the years pass and Terrell gains in popularity, he begins amassing cars and property—and secret families. By the time the IRS catches up to him, he has two families—including one with Donna’s mother—in addition to his public life with his other kids.
Johnson has a front-row seat to Terrell’s hypocrisy and delusion, but she maintains an even hand in her account, telling also of his powers of healing and the positive effect he had on his followers’ lives. She captures the cadence of a southern revivalist perfectly–his tone, his openness, his unwavering faith—all of the things that form a powerful charisma:
He was the healer and prophet plucked by the hand of God from the Alabama countryside and given a worldwide ministry of faith and deliverance. He was a son of God, crying out in the wilderness. Oh, hallelujah, he knew who he was, and the devil couldn’t take that away from him.
Is David Terrell a con man? A prophet? A performer? “I had spent a lifetime deciding,” Johnson writes, “and each time I thought I knew, the answer proved too small to encompass my experience.”
Her account of her unusual life is surreal but convincing, powerful without seeming overwrought. Johnson ably demonstrates the complexity of faith, commenting that “Belief, like love, can go underground. It can become part of our operating system, without our knowledge or approval.”
She is insightful without being judgmental about why people choose to follow charismatic leaders:
In him they saw a more powerful, dazzling image of themselves. He came from the same grim poverty that had shaped them, but it did not cling to him. . . . He was them without the shame. He was them without the hopelessness. And oh how they loved him for it.
As Donna struggles to reconcile the disparities between her different identities—the person she was, the person she has become, and the person she wants to be—I saw my own struggle. I loved this book so intensely because it helped me understand myself—my past, my present, and my hoped-for self.
I was raised in a very religiously strict environment. My father believed—and believes—that he was chosen for the evangelical work of God, and my mother acquiesced to that immovable faith for many years. My eight siblings and I lived in a remote, rundown farmhouse and were homeschooled for much of our lives.
Though the details of my upbringing were drastically different from Johnson’s, the underpinning beliefs, doubts, and struggles are identical. This book hit countless familiar notes for me. The long, hot nights spent fidgeting on hard chairs, the joyfully exuberant music, the passion and eloquence of evangelical ministers instantly transported me back in time.
There were times I laughed out loud at the similarities between the way we were raised; when Donna tells her mother that she is afraid of the dark, Carolyn replies firmly, “If you’ve been good, there’s no reason to be scared.” Instead of monsters under their beds, Christians have demons in the corner.
There were other times, however, when Donna’s insight made me feel as though she were writing my inner monologue and deepest secrets:
For a long time I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person, flat and one-dimensional, propped up with a plastic stand, nothing behind me. I watched the students, teachers, employers, friends, and colleagues around me and picked up cues on how to be in the world: Look them in the eye, firm up the handshake, file down the emotion, read good books, wear good shoes, dark colors, the best haircut you can afford. Fake it till you make it. Gradually, the years between me and the tent stacked up until they had formed a wall of experience that separated me from my former self.
Despite the way she is treated and the hypocrisy she witnesses, Donna finds it impossible to reject the religion that has formed such a large part of her life. It is so ingrained in her, she feels guilty for not accepting it wholeheartedly:
What I knew but could not articulate was that sometimes I felt so awful, so sinful, that I wanted to pull everything down around me, wanted in fact for everything to fall on me like the dead weight of a felled tree and crush me into the ground.
Johnson is a superb writer and storyteller. The honesty and warmth of her story reminded me of one of my favorite memoirs, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Through her tumultuous and unique upbringing, Johnson manages to pick out themes of identity, belief, and desire. She teases out the complexity of a black-and-white world.
Holy Ghost Girl is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and it is certainly one of my favorites from 2011.
Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Holy Ghost Girl for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.
October 4: Joyfully Retired
October 6: Bermuda Onion
October 7: Colloquium
October 10: Chaotic Compendiums
October 12: A Fair Substitute for Heaven
October 13: In the Next Room
October 14: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
October 17: Raging Bibliomania
October 18: Amused by Books
October 19: Book Addiction
October 20: Books Like Breathing
October 24: BookNAround
October 25: Life in Review
October 26: Sara’s Organized Chaos
October 27: Broken Teepee