book reviews

A review of Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir, by Donna Johnson…

I just finished reading Donna Johnson’s fascinating book, Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir. It was published in 2011, but somehow, I just got around to finding out about it. It surprises me I wasn’t turned onto this book years ago, since I love a good religious memoir. Actually, I see that I bought this book exactly one year ago. I have a big backlog of things to read, though, so it’s taken me a year to finally buckle down and read this excellent book.

Author Donna Johnson grew up with her mother and brother, following Brother David Terrell around the country in his big tent revivals. Somehow, I had not heard of Brother David Terrell until I read Johnson’s book, but he was once a big time evangelist, on par with guys like Oral Roberts. Johnson came of age in the 60s and 70s, the daughter of a musically gifted mom who had gone a little bit wild as a young woman and married too early. Johnson’s father took off, and her mom, whose strict, Southern, religious family had warned her against her “wild ways”, went back to being religious. She fell in with Brother David Terrell’s crowd, ditching her pants and rock music, and trailing him and his sawdust “tent revivals”, where she worked as his organist.

Donna and her brother, Gary, came of age with Brother Terrell’s children, sleeping at the revivals, never really having a real home, and sometimes being pawned off on other people. Despite this chaotic upbringing, during which Donna’s mom, Carolyn, had an affair with Brother Terrell and bore him three more daughters (a singleton and twins), Johnson manages to relate her story with style, grace, and a minimum of anger. And she would have plenty to be angry about, too.

At one point in Donna’s childhood, she and her brother were sent to live with Sister Coleman, a weird woman whose son had many disabilities. Sister Coleman claimed she’d wanted to give Donna and Gary a “good home”, but she would give them food that made them vomit. Then, she would force them to eat the vomit. Sister Coleman would also threaten the children and physically abuse them if they stepped out of line. She told the children that they would be living with her permanently, since her mother no longer wanted them. It wasn’t until Donna managed to tell another tent revival attendee about this treatment that she and her brother were finally able to escape it. At that point, she learned that her mother had intended to come back for them. She had signed a medical power of attorney so that they could see a doctor if they needed one. Donna’s mom was temporarily playing music in New Orleans, with Brother Terrell’s group. The abusive Sister Coleman had cruelly led the children to believe they had been abandoned as she fed them salty mackerel and thick oatmeal that made them heave. When Sister Coleman’s abuse was exposed, she reared back to slap Donna.

Johnson writes that over the course of three years, she and her brother lived in seven different households while their mother traipsed along with Terrell to play music. At one point, Donna and her brother lived with Sister Waters, who, for some reason, disliked Donna so much that she’d lock her out of the house from breakfast to dinner time. Donna’s mother was evidently never the wiser of this neglect, and somehow, no one from the local child welfare office ever held her accountable.

Donna Johnson writes vividly about her mother’s obsession with Brother Terrell, who despite being married with children, had other women on the side. Terrell even fathered more children with another woman, a female preacher. Brother Terrell kept secret ranches and forced his mistresses and children to be blindfolded whenever they visited. He rotated his women in and out of the ranches, never telling them about each other, leading them to believe that they were the only ones in his life. Meanwhile, Terrell was trying and failing to keep a few steps ahead of the IRS. He was eventually caught and spent time in prison.

As I read Holy Ghost Girl, I was continually impressed by Johnson’s ability to turn a phrase. She really has a knack for descriptive prose that is a pleasure to read. Her voice is intelligent and articulate and I found myself forming images of the tent revivals and the people within them. Brother Terrell is an interesting, charismatic character in and of himself. Johnson writes of how he would fast a lot, losing scads of weight in a mission to show how devoted he was to the Lord. One time, he was going to spank Donna’s brother with a belt, but he’d lost so much weight that when he took off the belt to administer the whipping, his pants fell down. At the end of the book, Johnson writes of how he demanded that ministers at his revivals whip him in front of the congregants… an “innocent” man taking punishment for America, as he claimed it was going to Hell. I can agree that America is going to Hell, but I don’t think that will change because a man emaciated by repeated fasts and demanding to be physically punished has been whipped by ministers. To me, it just sounds like a massive mind fuck. But then, that’s how people like Brother Terrell keep their flocks.

Due to her chaotic upbringing, Donna Johnson weathered some rough times in her youth. She dated guys who were much older than she was, and eventually married a law student when she was still just a teenager. She hadn’t wanted to marry him, but it was either marry the guy and have some normalcy, or move with her mother to the middle of nowhere at Terrell’s behest. Johnson was not quite an adult, but just on the verge of adulthood. Rather than take a more compassionate, normal course of action, Johnson was forced into a loveless marriage and early divorce. Amazingly enough, Carolyn had even encouraged the marriage, even though Donna had wanted to break up with the law student and have a relationship with someone her age. This tendency of Donna’s mother to force her children to mature before their time is a recurrent theme, as she obsessively follows the married Brother Terrell and repeatedly leaves her children in the care of people she doesn’t really know. Donna and Gary suffered for that, since many of their caretakers were abusive and neglectful.

I would compare Holy Ghost Girl favorably to books like The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, and Educated, by Tara Westover. I see on Amazon endorsements from people like Julia Scheeres, who wrote Jesus Land, and Rhoda Janzen, who wrote Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. In fact, I’ve read and reviewed each of the aforementioned books, although most of the reviews have been forever lost in the wilds of the Internet since went bust.

I looked up Brother David Terrell. I see he still has a presence. In fact, there are videos on YouTube of his tent revivals. For her part, Johnson seems to believe he has some ability to heal, even if she also outs him as a criminal and a liar. She writes that he healed her from a mysterious illness that doctors couldn’t seem to cure. Then, when she fell away from his influence, she got sick again. She writes that her illness has gotten better, and doctors have found drugs that control the symptoms when they flare.

This is a pretty good read. I would definitely recommend it to those who find cults fascinating, particularly regarding evangelism. It’s gratifying to see that Donna Johnson turned her experiences into something positive, rather than going down the road to ruin. It would have been very easy for her life to go completely south. I hope this review will encourage others to read Donna Johnson’s incredible story.

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