Thursday, November 17, 2011

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson

A couple of months ago, I received a call from Donna Johnson, who identified herself as a former student of my college. She told me she had written a memoir of her life growing up on the “sawdust circuit,” otherwise known as the world of tent revivals. It didn’t seem like something I would be interested in, but she offered to send me a copy of the book. She also asked if she could speak to my creative writing class. I am always happy to accommodate this request, because writers invariably tell my students the same things I tell them about reading, writing, persistence, and discipline.

When, I got Holy Ghost Girl, I was still skeptical, but publication by a division of Penguin must mean something. So, I called her back and made arrangements for her to speak to my class.

Whew! Am I glad I did not let these two opportunities slip by me. First of all, Donna did a terrific job – not only in my class, but also at a reading at the local Barnes & Noble a couple of days later.

When we agreed on a date and time, I decided I should at least begin to read the book. Once I started, I could hardly put it down.

Tent revivals encompass a world entirely off my radar. I knew about them in a vague sort of way – mostly from television. But Johnson has created a vivid world of the showmanship, the greed, the shameless begging, and obviously faked “miracle cures.”

Donna tells the story through her eyes as a young child. She acknowledges help with some of the memories from her sister and mother and some scholarly sources, but the truth of her story pours off every page. I never doubted a word of her tale for even a moment.

The rationalizations, the excuses, the canard “It’s all part of God’s plan,” and the ubiquitous “God told me (fill in the blank).” Needless to say I was appalled at the pandering for the last dollars and coins of people living on the edge. Most of the revivals seem to have taken place in the rural south, including Texas. David Terrell is still active, and his website lists a number of revivals.

The real tragedy of the story involves the effect this life had on Donna and her brother and sisters. CPS would be all over Donna’s mother, Carolyn Johnson for abandonment of her children in the care of near-strangers. Donna captures the terror of every move, every all-night drive to the next revival site, every time the children watched their mother drive away for an unknown destination for unknown length of time.

Donna has her doubts, but somehow she cannot turn completely away. Of course the child is awestruck by the charismatic preacher, but the adult has questions. She writes, “Doubt is a lot like faith; a mustard seed’s worth changes everything. Away from the tent, the questions kept coming. How can Brother Terrell claim to be without sin? Why doesn’t it matter that he is committing adultery and lying? [italics Johnson’s] .(256) and “”Why did Brother Terrell and my family have so much stuff, when Jesus said to sell everything and give it to the poor? Why had an omnipotent God let that child die?” (257). Why indeed?

As Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” so inevitably, the mansions, the Mercedes, the planes, the fast living, all consumed David Terrell, and, inevitably, the tax man cometh. Eventually, Terrell was convicted and spent a few measly years in prison for the millions he bilked off of poor, gullible people who desperately wanted to believe a better life awaited them in the beyond.

An absorbing story, and I recommend it highly. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/17/11

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have been enjoying this book. I grew up in an Apocalypse cult, and would love to email Donna! if you are able to connect us, my email is