Holy Ghost Girl, by Donna M. Johnson

This is another of the memoirs that I picked up as a weekend break from the long historical tomes, and I devoured it in a matter of hours. Of course any story that explores the author’s religious and spiritual roots is almost guaranteed to be a hit with me, but Holy Ghost Girl is a particularly good example of the genre.

In some ways, it reminded me less of other memoirs I’ve read than of a novel I recently finished: Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows. Just as The Little Shadows made the world of early twentieth-century vaudeville performers seem real to me, so Holy Ghost Girl illuminated another hidden world, a different kind of performance art: life on the sawdust trail, under the big tent of a charismatic (in both senses) revival preacher.

Donna Johnson, as a young child, travelled in the entourage of Brother David Terrell: her mother played the organ in Terrell’s travelling revival meetings. I’d never heard of Terrell before reading this book, but the type is familiar, although Terrell is a late-day example of a phenomenon that flourished more in the earlier years of the twentieth-century. He was (and still is) a genuine hellfire and brimstone holiness preacher, whose stage show was complete with tongues-speaking, Spirit-slaying, and faith-healings.

As Donna describes the early years, in the 1960s, it’s clear that the ministry and the minister operated on a shoestring budget, dependent on offerings, dirt-poor much of the time, driven by all-consuming faith. Over the years, this changed: Holy Ghost Girl documents how, with growing popularity, prosperity crept into the movement and Brother Terrell began to live in fine style while many of his followers remained in poverty. Fancy cars and swimming pools weren’t the only signs of deviation from the original cause: sexual immorality was a problem too. Donna’s mother was only one of several women with whom Terrell not only carried on affairs, but had quasi-marriages and secret families.

All this made for a pretty  unconventional childhood, as you might imagine. The stories of travelling with the tent meetings are vivid and often funny, the sort of “slice of life” you expect from a memoir or novel set in an unfamiliar world. But for the long months and years when Donna and her siblings were left behind by their travelling mother, there are harrowing stories of abuse and neglect in a string of different homes, punctuated by occasional periods of living with their mother who would clearly rather have been back on the road with Brother Terrell. These sections were the source of my only quibble with an otherwise superb book: there were times when I felt uncomfortable with how Johnson handled the passage of time. A single night meeting under the tent would be described in pages of rich and minute detail, followed by years of childhood telescoped into a few paragraphs, so that I sometimes felt there was too much summarizing going on. That’s a difficult pitfall to avoid in a book that covers so many years and takes place in so many locations, and it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment.

The title, though catchy enough to draw me in, is probably something of a misnomer. Despite her total immersion in the world of holiness revivals, Donna Johnson appears never to have been a genuine “Holy Ghost Girl.” Though clearly captivated by the force of Brother Terrell’s personality as a child, she seems to have always had her doubts about the actual religious message being promoted, and the one experience she describes of herself speaking in tongues is quite clearly manufactured under peer pressure. She rebelled against the constraints of the holiness lifestyle as a teenager, but found herself drawn back to the stability and sense of family that it provided — after all, it was the only family she had ever known, and David Terrell was, as she points out early in the book, her only father figure, however flawed.

This was, no doubt, an incredibly difficult way to grow up, but it’s the perfect perspective for the memoirist: Johnson writes about the world of the revival tent as both an insider and an outsider, one steeped in the subculture yet always critical and questioning of it. Though there’s no doubt of her critical stance, especially given the suffering she went through as a child because of her mother’s dedication to the ministry, this is not (as a few reviewers seemed to expect it to be) an “expose the fraudulent preacher” tell-all. To my mind, Holy Ghost Girl represents the best kind of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, about narrow and intense religious groups — a view that exposes the flaws but also shows the genuine faith of the faithful. Miraculous healings are presented as healings, not as fakes: while there no doubt are faith-healers who cynically fake healings, nobody who’s done even a cursory study of the subject would deny that inexplicable recoveries do take place in these settings, though it’s up to you whether you want to attribute them to God, the devil, or some quirks of the human mind-body connection that we don’t yet fully understand. Johnson is also quick to point out strengths as well as weaknesses along the sawdust trail: before reading this book I didn’t know that in the racially segregated American South of the 1960s, holiness preachers like Terrell, while certainly not supporters of the civil rights movement, believed passionately in the equality and brotherhood of black and white believers inside the revival tent, and risked arrests and beatings to defy segregationists and retain the right for blacks and whites to worship together.

Of course, part of the reason this book resonated so strongly with me was because of my Seventh-day Adventist background. While there are aspects of that Pentcostal holiness movement that are very alien to Adventists — the tongues, the slaying, the faith healings — there are other aspects that will seem very familiar to readers like me. The strong sense of a subculture separate from (and persecuted by) the outside world, the suspicion of “worldly” dress and entertainment, the centrality of religion to lifestyle, and the constant expectation of the Apocalypse — all these are elements of the revival-tent world that even a middle-of-the-road Adventist like me, raised pretty much within mainstream culture, can relate to. For people who grew up in a more conservative Adventist environment, and perhaps especially for children of Adventist evangelists, or of ministers who spent their summers on the campmeeting circuit, I imagine the parallels would be even sharper.

Being raised in a subculture that defines the mainstream culture as “Other” and ourselves as separate, set apart, uniquely blessed and burdened by God, has a huge impact on the person you become. For those like Donna Johnson who left that world, and for those like myself who stay but continue to question and critique, it’s always timely and relevant to examine that culture and the scars, as well as the gifts, it gave us.

My favourite part of this memoir is the ending — which is also the beginning, since the same scene acts as a framing device to introduce and conclude the story. That event is the funeral of David Terrell’s son Randall, Johnson’s childhood playmate and (in the weird dynamic of Terrell’s many families) sort-of-brother. The opening sentences hook the reader with the possibility that Brother Terrell will attempt the ultimate test of faith at the funeral: raising his adult son from the dead. At the story’s end we return to that funeral, which is in one sense anti-climactic — no resurrection — but is in another sense the only possible climax. Johnson, now many years away from the faith and having lost touch with much of the extended family from those days, sits through Randall’s funeral, listens to Brother Terrell preach again, sees and hears the flawed and difficult people who made her early life what it was. She notes how the wave of revivalist emotion spreads over the crowd, affecting even those she knows don’t share the faith.

I can only quote her conclusion because it’s too beautiful to summarize:

“They looked … blessed. Yes, that was the word. By a con man? A prophet? A performer?

“I had spent a lifetime deciding, and each time I thought I knew, the answer proved too small to encompass my experience….Maybe it wasn’t about Brother Terrell, but two worlds: one under the tent and the other outside. Each time I turned toward one, I turned away from some part of myself. I watched the people move through the line….I knew them. I had always known them. There was no separation, no division, no choice to be made. They had been with me all along, and without knowing it, I had been with them. After all this time. It wasn’t belief or unbelief. It was love. It could not have been otherwise.”

That paragraph, right there, encapsulates everything I’ve ever tried to do in my own writing, and everything I’m looking for in other people’s books, when it comes to writing about faith and religion. (It also, by the way, exemplifies exactly what I felt was missing from Deborah Feldman’s Unorthdox, and why I think it’s a bad idea to write  a memoir about a life-changing experience like leaving your religious group while you’re still in the middle of making that change).

Only the mature gaze, I think, can look back on the pain and craziness of the past and put it into some kind of perspective. That maturity doesn’t excuse the sins of a man like Brother Terrell, but it doesn’t deny his gifts and his power either. Donna Johnson has done a wonderful job of taking a complex look at a world too often oversimplified, and at how that world shaped the person she became.

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