Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson

Holy Ghost GirlHoly Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson
Published by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

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.

10 thoughts on “Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson”

  1. I am wondering if the author’s mother is still alive to recognize the freaking damage she did to her children!!! Ugh! I know the bitter reality is that if they are alive, they are too obtuse to realize it. What a frustrating and fascinating book.

  2. Sounds like a fascinating yet a challenging book to read. And that is a very interesting point you made about the ending. The first thing that came to my mind was that she was perhaps trying to get back to her mother for being so horrible 🙂 I’ll definitely add this one to my list…

  3. I loved your review, and it seems that we had a lot of the same feelings towards the book. I am also really intrigued by the aspect of faith healing, and am not sure what I believe when it comes to the reality of that. My interpretation of the ending of the book was that Donna wrote it as a way to purge herself from all the wrong that was done to her. In the end, having lived that life really damaged her capacity to have faith in God, and I think that last scene at the funeral home was just her way of letting the reader in on her incredulity that Brother Terrell was still playing the game, as it were, and I believe that her last comment to him was a reflection of that. Of letting go, and of the sense of unbelief she had when he didn’t recognize her. I know I was stunned by that! Sorry to run my mouth, I just found your reactions to the ending of the book very interesting!

    1. I agree that we had many of the same reactions. For whatever reason, I just felt that Donna was not anywhere near as strongly against Terrell as I would have expected her to be by the end. I mean, I felt way more outraged by her experiences than it seemed like she did. I’m not sure why I got that impression but it’s definitely how I felt.

  4. His song one of those topics that I’ve ever felt super interested in but still this sounds very interesting. There’s a local couple who were recently prosecuted for severely abusing their adopted children and they did so in the name of God and had the children convinced they deserved it because of their sins. Truly disgusting.

  5. “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.” I feel the same way when I read books like this. I mean, I KNOW people aren’t perfect but now do you possibly reconcile your behavior with your beliefs in this kind of situation?!

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the book for the most part, even though the ending didn’t quite give you what you were looking for. Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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