Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir Paperback – Oct 2 2012
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“What a life! Holy Ghost Girl takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can’t tell them apart. Donna Johnson sorts through her story with great insight, compassion and humor, giving us an indelible portrait of a charismatic preacher and the faithful who so desperately believed in him.” — Jeannette Walls, author of New York Times bestsellers The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses
“Holy Ghost Girl turns, as good books must, from promising read into sure bet. Ms. Johnson’s enthralling memoir, her first book, is about growing up on the road in a clan of what she calls Holy Rollers.” — The New York Times
“A page-turning, thrilling tale set in the 1960/70s containing adultery, KKK face-offs, fasting to the point of collapse, child neglect/abuse, show business and family connection.” — Beliefnet.com
“Sensitive and revelatory…an impressive achievement of perspective and maturity…a haunting and memorable book.” — Bookpage
“Compulsively readable” — Texas Monthly
“Therein lies the paradox at the center of Johnson’s story, in which faith and love live alongside anger and betrayal” — O, The Oprah Magazine
“A trustworthy narrator, Johnson is consistently funny, poetic and remarkably devoid of bitterness.” — Kirkus Reviews
“‘Holy Ghost Girl’ is the most compelling, exquisitely detailed, well-written memoir I have read in a month of Sundays.” — Tampa Tribune
“Johnson’s fascinating and sometimes disturbing personal story is mixed with serious reflection … Holy Ghost Girl tells a harrowing, sometimes funny, story from a youthful insider’s point of view.” — Dallas Morning News
"A wretching and extraordinarily beautiful memoir. If you're a fan of The Glass Castle, you'll be mesmerized by Donna M. Johnson's true-life tale of how her young life was upended by her mother's love affair with an infamous charismatic preacher." — Lisa Napoli, author of Radio Shangri-La
About the Author
Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction prize as a work in progress. Donna lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
I differ with her on one point. She says David Terrell was a prophet and a liar. This is impossible unless she meant a false prophet, which I know she did not. All of us who have followed such ministries share a common fault. We did not study God's Word to show ourselves approved and were deceived because of our ignorance of God's ways and character, which are revealed throughout the good book. A worthwhile read for anyone looking to God's servants for leadership.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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, no longer on the road, and began a clandestine life as Terrell's "other" wife, never acknowledged openly in public. Johnson felt an urge to be accepted by kids at school, and her mother didn't discourage this. In her early teens, unable to make sense of the hypocrisy of the Terrell's ministry 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 premature marriage, she went to college and established a life most readers would consider normal. In the final scene of the book, she neatly pulls it all together, 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, first 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 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.
I followed the same ministry during the '70s, the same time Donna tells about in the last couple chapters. I only knew the later amazing "prophet" with the hillbilly accent. He was a dynamo that scared the beelzebub out of you. Of course, over time his credibility began to fade in the sheer light of day.
I was a "sold out" and close enough to the "end-time" ministry to see some of the homes (I worked on one)and some of the close family inconsistencies. But I kept my questions compartmentalized for a long time, daring not to question what I thought was "of God." I even did the funeral for the little girl whose parents abandoned her to death by faith, that Donna mentions was the beginning of investigations that unraveled the Terrellite fabric.
As I read this book, the stream-of-consciousness historicity reminded me of Jack Kerouac. Donna is a marvelous writer. I already knew the things of which she writes; but I didn't know the background of the '60s before I committed to "the ministry." Donna brings back the surreal quality of the whole religious circus that it was. Maybe now I can accept Terrell for the human that he was and sublimate the regret and anger beneath my surface. We want to blame and lament lost years looking for the "7 years of tribulation" we believed were here. But Donna reveals a humility borne of the whole experience. I did it willingly.
I can't recommend this book enough. For anyone. And perhaps most of all for people who wrangle with their own religious experience, trying to work through cognitive dissonance from abuse or just from things not being what they seem. Never was there any greater example of that than the "behold the lamb of God" man. Enjoy, weep, and laugh. It's all here.
After the first line of the Prologue, I was hooked on Holy Ghost Girl:
"Donna, I don't know if you're coming to the funeral, but I heard Daddy's gonna try to raise Randall from the dead."
Soon, I couldn't wait to "hear" what Brother Terrell had to say... Soon I was a tent girl too; "sitting" on those hard revival chairs, knowing full well that I am a lost sinner. I need Brother Terrell's saving grace...Can I get it? "Yes, you can" says Brother Terrell, but at what cost?
Do read this succulent memoir. Much more then a religious expose, Holy Ghost Girl is all about the journey- skinning the layers of a life; navigating through a matrix of contradictory forces...A childhood, vividly portrayed, and anything but ordinary...
When Donna was three years old her mother accepted a job as organist for tent revivalist, David Terrell. Donna grew up under the tent watching sin and miracles vie for elbow room....listening to the sounds of coins clinking in the offering plates and dancing feet stamping in the aisles. "Brother Terrell" kept two families-one being Donna's family. Sexual deviance, greed and coercion ran rampant under that tent, yet God still chose to mingle with such people and many were genuinely healed. Author Jeannett Walls says, "(Holy Ghost Girl) takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can't tell them apart."
I'll never understand why God's presence fills places such as Bro. Terrell's tent; maybe it's simply because the people ask?
Donna leaves the tent life when she is seventeen years old. She is left searching for the good-the truth-in a pile of horrifying memories. Maybe it's not as dramatic for the rest of us, but I suppose we all are searching for dimes in piles of shattered glass-looking for God in the midst of religion.
Since this dramatic story is Donna's childhood put down on paper, it would be so easy for her to pass judgement and make conclusions. She doesn't do such a thing. As author Rhoda Jansen says, "Memoirs don't usually resist the obvious. This one does." Sometimes I wish she would offer some conclusions...or tell more...but part of the book's appeal is that she doesn't do that. You finish the book and you keep on thinking.
Donna's book is not a happy read but it is certainly thought provoking and I do recommend it. Donna sets an inspiring example of how to release shame... how to step away from the painful memories, and, without bitterness, call abuse what it is and receive healing.