In this memoir of a Pentecostal childhood, religious zeal and illicit love nearly tear a family apart.
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In Holy Ghost Girl (Gotham, $26), Donna M. Johnson’s compulsively readable memoir of growing up on the Pentecostal tent revival circuit, the Austin author describes her mother’s introduction to the evangelist David Terrell as “the Holy Roller equivalent of the big bang.” Within days of that meeting, Carolyn Johnson became Terrell’s organist, and for more than a decade she and her children traveled with Terrell’s ministry throughout the South, ultimately settling in Texas.
Like Terrell, Carolyn grew up in a poor, strictly religious Southern family, and both of them had had visions in which God told them they were destined for great things. As a young woman, she had run away from her domineering father, an Assemblies of God pastor, and ended up in Los Angeles, marrying “a sinner boy who was everything [her father] feared.” Before long, she came slinking back home with a toddler and another child on the way, having lost her “vision of herself as God’s own girl.”
Perhaps she saw Terrell as a way to get that vision back. He was 27, with a wife and two children, and already considered a comer on the “sawdust trail” (so called because sawdust was used to cover the tent floors). Terrell was also tall and handsome, and he could “scat on Scripture like a jazz singer hopped up on speed.” He could also, it seems, talk anyone, especially women—especially Carolyn Johnson—into anything.
If life was hard for Terrell and his staff in the early days—the tent circuit was tough, grinding work, both physically and emotionally—it was doubly so for the children. Donna recalls sitting through three services a day in a stiff petticoat as “a three-year-old’s version of hell.” More seriously, there was the constant and exhausting travel, the meager diet of mayonnaise sandwiches and pork and beans. Although the parents were so focused on their work and anxious about their circumstances that they paid little attention to the children, Donna found it bearable because her mother was there.
There are many jaw-dropping moments in Holy Ghost Girl when the adults behave in inexplicable ways. One occurs when Donna overhears her mother talking about Terrell’s plans to go to Central America to build a Bible school and an orphanage and expressing her wish to live there as a missionary. When someone asks Carolyn what she would do with her own children, she replies that they could live in the orphanage while the adults traveled and preached. “Mama spoke slowly as if awed at how perfect everything would work out,” Johnson writes. “I sat up and looked around. I wanted to ask, ‘But wouldn’t that make us orphans too?’ ” Young Donna never told anyone about this conversation. She believed, as many young children do, that “if I never repeated what I had heard, it would never happen.”
But something similar did. One morning Donna and her younger brother, Gary, awoke to find that their mother had gone away and left them in the care of Sister Waters, a Terrell acolyte whom the children especially disliked. For some reason, Sister Waters showed a particular enmity toward Donna and often locked her out of the house from breakfast to dinnertime, whatever the weather. Months later Carolyn simply showed up, offering no explanation for her absence, and took her children to live with her in Houston. This pattern would be repeated again and again. Donna and Gary “wandered through seven households in three years, and then Mama reappeared. Her return was as unfathomable as her departures.”
During the times the children did live with their mother, Terrell would sometimes visit, and Carolyn introduced him to the neighbors as her “brother David.” By this point, Terrell was no longer merely Carolyn’s spiritual leader; he was also her lover. Yet Donna was given little clue as to what was going on. “Family life was deep space,” she observes. “No road maps. No signs. Just light-years of uncharted territory.”
Johnson is a gifted writer with the ability to bring the world of her childhood to vivid life. She often presents events without judgment, and sometimes that’s a rare and welcome thing—after all, no one wants to read a memoir written just so the author can cast blame on her parents. But she seems to have suffered a kind of child abuse that doesn’t really get called what it is. She lets her mother off the hook too easily. What was Carolyn thinking when she left her children with various, sometimes downright abusive, caretakers, many of whom she seems not to have known personally?
It’s not enough to excuse her actions on the grounds of her religious faith or her psychological ignorance. Clearly, Terrell mattered more to Carolyn than her own children did. Perhaps she told herself that everything she did was to serve God, to foster Terrell’s ministry, but her actions don’t seem entirely selfless, as her long-standing sexual relationship with Terrell—she eventually bore him three daughters—suggests. Like a lot of women in similar situations, she believed that he would leave his wife because he told her he would. (She didn’t know there were other women and other children.)
Donna was undoubtedly affected by the uncertainty of her young life. When she was a preteen and a teenager, the family lived for a while with Terrell on a ranch outside Groesbeck in newfound affluence. For the first time Donna had friends and had a chance to fit in. But she couldn’t quite pull it off. “I was jonesing for excitement. Normal was not in my repertoire, nor was it in Mama’s,” she writes. “She didn’t have a clue that I was the only girl in seventh grade who dated high-school seniors. By eighth grade I was dating college guys, with Mama’s blessing.” The only caveat was that Donna and her boyfriends had to attend Carolyn’s Bible study group. At 15, rather than move with her mother and Terrell away from Groesbeck, Donna reluctantly married a 22-year-old law student she had been planning to break up with. Carolyn, amazingly, encouraged the marriage.
There are several creepy things about this scenario: not just the older boys’ desire to date a child, but also Carolyn’s obliviousness and then acquiescence, her willingness to marry her teenage daughter off in order to, essentially, solve a problem. As to why Donna would need this sort of excitement, why she would want to date those older boys and what these desires reveal about the repercussions of her precarious childhood, she has little to say. Though she is brutally revealing about her upbringing, and though she describes herself as a young adult feeling “like a cardboard cutout of a person,” she never quite tells us how her formative experiences affected her later on and how she eventually overcame them. Maybe one day she’ll write another memoir, about the past few decades of her life. If it’s as compelling as this one, I’ll be first in line to read it.
Textra credit: What else we’re reading this month
Feast Day of Fools, James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). The best-selling mystery writer returns to the adventures of Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland.
The Trials of Eroy Brown, Michael Berryhill (UT Press, $29.95). A Houston writer reports on a history-making Huntsville murder case.
Stirring It Up With Molly Ivins, Ellen Sweets (UT Press, $29.95). A longtime Austin friend offers a “memoir with recipes” of the iconoclastic journalist.