Whether you count yourself as a nonbeliever or one of the faithful, the first line of Donna Johnson’s memoir hooks like no other: “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.”
I’m with Johnson’s husband, who says, “We’re going, right?”
In Holy Ghost Girl (Gotham Books), her story of growing up in a tent-revival family, Johnson eventually takes us to her half-brother’s funeral. But by the time she does, you’ll long since have forgotten about it, since even a resurrection pales beside the rest of this book’s sideshow acts, where the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and tumors the size of watermelons vanish in front of your eyes.
Johnson was 3 years old when her mother debuted as an organist in the ministry of Brother David Terrell, one of the last of the Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone revivalist preachers who thundered and threatened his way along the “sawdust trail” in the rural South of the ’60s and ’70s.
Handsome, charismatic, and on fire for Jesus, Terrell convinced thousands of the faithful to sell their worldly goods and follow him—including Johnson’s mother, who packed up her two children and joined “the inner circle of a Holy Roller tribe that preached, prayed, and scared sinners into the fold.” She eventually became Terrell’s common-law wife and bore him three other children.
We think we know this story: Evangelist preacher bilks poor rubes of their life savings; masks his blatant infidelities and all-around ungodliness with displays of public piety; sees his empire expand and finally topple when the IRS gets wind of more sin than salvation.
Therefore it comes as a surprise when Johnson—who left the tribe at 17 and went on to become “a semi-respectable, doubt-ridden Episcopalian with Buddhist tendencies”—forgoes the standard tell-all in favor of a more complex reality, nuanced and unexpected.
She offers a world seen through the eyes of a child, where the strange appears normal, “the miraculous and the mundane tap-danced up and down the aisles of the tent together.” In mapping the routines of her childhood—the incessant, wearying caravanning from revival to revival; the marathon sermons and healings she and her siblings sat through; the houses they lived in without electricity or running water—Johnson revisits them as familial rituals, replete with sibling squabbles and jealous snapping between Terrell’s legal wife and Johnson’s mother.
Even when her parents left the country to spread God’s word, abandoning them for months at a time with a series of unvetted caretakers, Johnson and her brother gamely endured the attentions of women who should have been locked up: one such foster mother forced Donna to eat cold oatmeal; after vomiting it up, she was forced to eat that as well.
Like the parents in Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Johnson’s mother and stepfather are drawn with a clarity and sympathy some readers will feel they don’t deserve. She paints them as kindred spirits, “chosen” ones whose obligation to and connection with God and each other drove them to cheat, lie, and neglect their kids.
Terrell, far from being a glib charmer, barely functioned outside his ministry. The son of a sharecropper, a “cripple boy” who grew up unable to read a menu, his power lay in the wizardry he created onstage, where he scatted “scripture like a jazz singer hopped up on speed,” epic rants that lasted for “three, four and five hours” without recourse to notes or outlines.
Vividly reimagined scenes of Terrell’s jittery sermonizing and his rural audiences jump off the page like figures from a Thomas Hart Benton mural: “Men, taut as fiddle strings, hunch-shouldered in overalls or someone else’s discarded Sunday best, someone taller and better fed,” and “women with creased brows and apologetic eyes as faded as their dresses.”
In one chapter, Terrell’s invitation in 1961 to African Americans to mingle with whites under his tent—and the chilling run-in that followed with the Louisiana Klan—verifies the historical role of big-tent revivals in breaking down the color line.
Though it must have been tempting to expose Terrell as a charlatan, Johnson describes his extremes of faith—brutal fasting, prophesying, miracle cures, exorcism—without doubt or cynicism, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
But when it comes to his unorthodox relationship with Johnson’s mother, Terrell doesn’t get off the hook so easily. His failure to divorce his first wife and marry her mother, the instructions to pretend he was “Uncle David” instead of “Daddy,” and the fact that her three sisters remained illegitimate—these were his real sins in Johnson’s eyes, impossible to reconcile with the message Terrell preached onstage every day.
Johnson, who now lives in Austin, made a new life for herself once she left Terrell’s ministry, but trying to choose between the world “under the tent,” and the one outside proved difficult: “Each time I turned toward one,” she writes, “I turned away from some part of myself. In Holy Ghost Girl, Johnson works her own miracle by bringing those two worlds back together in a fascinating balancing act between the disenchanted exile and the true believer.
Now, about that resurrection…