When Donna Johnson was just a toddler, her mother began working with travelling preacher David Terrell as the organist at his church. Soon after joining the church, Donna and her family became prominent members of Terrell’s inner circle. As the evangelical preacher/faith healer’s popularity increased, so too did his life style – what was once broken-down cars and trailer homes turned into Mercedes, airplanes, and luxurious houses. Johnson saw the best and the worst of Terrell and his church, and in this memoir she gives an insider’s view of what life was really like for those who believed in Brother Terrell.
Holy Ghost Girl is one of the most engrossing, compulsive memoirs I’ve read in a long time. I am completely fascinated by the type of evangelism Johnson grew up experiencing, and reading about it from an insider’s perspective definitely added a layer to my fascination and interest in the subject.
I have to say, this book caused me to feel some seriously strong emotions. As Terrell’s popularity increased, Johnson’s mother spent more and more time on the road with him, and in so doing she left Donna and her younger brother with several different families over the years. Several of these families were cruel to the children, even abusive in some cases. This honestly just made my blood boil. I was so angry at Johnson’s mother for abandoning her children in that way – I just cannot comprehend how a parent can do that, and especially when she barely knew most of the people she left the kids with. And the abuse that Johnson and her brother suffered, particularly in one home, was absolutely horrific. It made me so mad and I have to say that I have a very difficult time understanding how someone who claims to be a man of God or woman of God can do that to children. Horrible beyond comprehension.
The most enjoyable aspect about Holy Ghost Girl, for me, was getting a peek at a culture that I admittedly don’t understand even a little bit. I don’t get the whole faith healing thing, I don’t get the hours-long sermons, and I certainly don’t get the way children were treated in this “Christian” environment. I say that in quotations because I am a Christian and no Christian I know would treat kids the way Brother Terrell and his followers did. Brother Terrell certainly seemed to be a charismatic guy, and based on the way Johnson described him and his preaching I can sort of understand how people would be drawn to hear what he has to say. Especially with the faith healing – if you actually believe he is anointed by God to perform miracles, wouldn’t you want those miracles performed on you and your loved ones? I know I would. So it was definitely illuminating to see how he was behind the scenes and the true personality that he had in real life, when not preaching.
I have to say, though, that the ending of Holy Ghost Girl left me wanting. With these types of memoirs, I like to see the author have either personal growth or some kind of revelation, and I simply didn’t see any of that in this book. I was almost left wondering why she wrote the book in the first place. Was she trying to expose the hidden world of tent evangelism? Was she trying to explore aspects of her own childhood? Was she trying to show how she was impacted or changed by her experiences? I honestly am not sure, and for me these questions left me somewhat uncomfortable. When I finish a memoir thinking to myself, “so what?” it’s not really a good thing.
All that being said, I did enjoy Holy Ghost Girl quite a bit and would definitely recommend it. I know many other readers have not had the same issues I had with the ending, so please take my opinions with a grain of salt. This memoir is completely fascinating and compulsively readable and if you enjoy these types of books or are interested in the subject matter like I am, I would definitely suggest you read it.