I've never had the opportunity to visit a holy roller tent revival with a blood and thunder preacher renowned for his ability to heal deafness, blindness, lameness, tumors, and every sort of affliction. If one did come to town, I'd probably keep my distance, but I'd be intensely curious about the goings-on within. In her memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, Donna Johnson has vicariously satisfied this curiosity. She not only tells us about the services, she gives richly detailed accounts of how Brother David Terrell's hands would turn red and hot and tremble with supernatural energy as he began healing sessions. She also gives detailed accounts of how Terrell ran his camp of followers and conducted affairs of all sorts with the women among them.
Johnson knows about these things first hand. When she was only three years old, her divorced mother became Terrell's organist, hitting the road with Johnson and her infant brother. They were raised together with the Terrell children, moving every few weeks from one ramshackle temporary lodging to another that her family shared with the Terrells and another evangelistic couple. She gives intimate details of living conditions as well as the progressive growth of Terrell's ministry. She painstakingly documents growing tensions among the women as the story builds.
Then came the three year period during which she and her brother were abandoned to live with a series of strangers in often horrifying circumstances. Finally their mother returned, settled with them in a house provided by Terrell, and began a clandestine life as Terrell's "other" wife, never acknowledged as such in public. In her early teens, unable to make sense of the hypocrisy of the Terrell's ministry as it progressed from decrepit cars to a fleet of Mercedes and airplanes, or understand the lies her mother and Terrell were living, Johnson "sold her soul to the devil" in return for "The World."
For decades her life was split between the parallel universes of life inside the puzzling world of the Tent, with all its prophesies of hellfire damnation and doom, and the relative sanity of "The World." After working her way through a period of drugs, alcohol and a marriage at a very young age, she went to college and established a life most readers would consider normal. In the final scene of the book, she neatly bridges the gap, appearing to find inner balance and peace without actual answers.
I found this book so rich in detail and provocative thoughts that I took the almost unprecedented step of reading it twice, to better understand how she managed to resolve these conflicting lines of thinking, and also to fully savor the rich thoroughness of her detailed description. When I read an early scene describing her experience of a specific church service when she was three years old, it seemed impossibly detailed. Not only would she be unlikely to recall this level of detail about a specific-yet-ordinary service from fifty years earlier, but three-year-old children don't generally have the depth of language and understanding to describe things in the terms she uses. I had to wonder about the validity and truth of the book. How much was "true" and how much creative embellishment was employed?
My skepticism disappeared as I continued, and I was held captive through both readings by her compellingly told tale. I soon realized that although she was obviously using creative license, she had used it to recount the Truth of her early experience and recast her memories through the pen of the adult. This specific service surely represents a composite of actual memory fragments from many such events tied together with the glue of her reflections upon the sense of things. I can accept that she has told it as she recalls it now, not necessarily in the precise details of the day, and for me, that's as true as it gets.
In the final analysis, I find her gift for reflecting back with such compelling clarity both remarkable and instructive. Any aspiring memoirist would do well to study her techniques of description and structure. Any reader should find inspiration in Johnson's example as she heals the void between her parallel universes in such an ultimately uplifting, compassionate and peaceful way.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson. Visit her website.
Check out our interview with the author of Holy Ghost Girl.
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