This week I had the opportunity to chat with Donna Johnson about her recent book, Holy Ghost Girl.
Holy Ghost Girl is a beautiful and provocative book about faith and betrayal growing up on the tent revival circuit under revivalist David Terrell. Once I started reading it, I never wanted to put it down…and had my mother not hijacked it from me and read the whole thing herself when I was only a couple chapters in, I might not have. (I kept it closer after that.)
If you haven’t read Holy Ghost Girl, let me catch you up to speed: Donna is daughter to the organist who traveled with Brother David Terrell. Somewhere along the way, her mother developed a rather complicated relationship with the married revivalist…and married him herself.
Well, sort of.
In actuality, the marriage was never made legal. He was, after all, already married. And so, theirs was a marriage “in the eyes of God”, by example of the likes of King David, and with a level of affluence well on its way to match.
And she wasn’t the only one.
Sound kind of, well, old-school Mormon? Not even hardly. This took place in the tongue-speaking, tent-quaking, forehead slap-healing days of the latter part of the last century under a lesser-known banner of the Holy Rolling community. And at the time I’m writing this, the involved parties are all still alive.
Fascinated as I am with people who were raised in extreme fundamentalist situations, I admit something akin to giddy excitement with the opportunity to ask the talented Austin-based Donna Johnson a few questions. I mean, she’s my people. Only, unlike me she had to grow up wearing ankle-length dresses, grow up in an itinerant tent and partake in mandatory fasting.
(Did I mention I love this woman?)
ERIKA RAE: Let’s start with swimming. You write a colorful scene in which you and the other “Holy Roller” kids go to the public swimming pool fully clothed, with your long dresses ballooning out around you in the water while the other swimsuit clad kids at the pool sort of just backed away slowly….
DONNA JOHNSON: [laughs] You know, my sisters [children of mother and Terrell] did the same thing later. At that point the family was a little more affluent, so they would go swimming in pools in hotels and would clear them out with those split culotte skirts that go all the way down. We all think it’s kind of amazing that we all didn’t drown.
ERIKA RAE: Is that what you were wearing in the guitar shaped pool at the Elvis-style mansion where David Terrell later lived?
DONNA JOHNSON: No, when they went to their dad’s house, apparently they could wear swimsuits because they weren’t in public then. I never went there, but I think they told me that when they swam with their dad he would swim in his pajamas and a full set of underwear.
ERIKA RAE: Really?
DONNA JOHNSON: Yeah. I think my mom had a little swimsuit with a skirt on it. But isn’t that odd? In the privacy of his own pool and his own children and someone like a sorta wife.
ERIKA RAE: I like that: “a sorta wife”. Before you wrote this, did your friends know about your past?
DONNA JOHNSON: Yes and no. My closest friends knew, but they didn’t really know what that meant. And it took a long time to even tell them – that I grew up as the step kid of a tent revivalist. I remember when I lived in lovely Waco, TX. I had a bunch of friends who went to school, and most of them were thinkers, and some artists, and some musicians, and partiers—and he came to town, and then a lot of them knew. They read who he was in the paper and they said, “Isn’t that Donna’s step dad?” And that was really embarrassing because I had friends who worked for social services—and once he left they were inundated with poor people who had given everything they had.
ERIKA RAE: Was it difficult to write this memoir? It’s so personal. How has it been received by your family?
Donna Johnson: Mostly really well, even well by many of the Terrellites and ex-Terrellites. And that sort of set an alarm in my head that maybe I was too kind, but I think that the people who are still in his ministry were relieved to see themselves portrayed as human beings and not turned into clowns. And also there is something kind of seductive about seeing yourself in a piece of literature. And even he has been known to say, “You know, it’s not that bad.”
My family liked it, I guess. My brother was reading it—he’s still involved with them—I don’t really know what he thought about it. My brother was not that excited about me writing it and my mom was not either, but my mom did provide materials to help me, bless her heart, she’s always been really torn between loving her children and utter devotion to this man, who she still believes in.
ERIKA RAE: So she’s still in it?
DONNA JOHNSON: Yeah. She doesn’t see him very much, but she goes to those little backwoods holiness churches where people follow him and she lives now up in northern Arkansas and when he comes to town, she has been known to go and see him, which my sisters say, “Ew, creepy!” [laughs]. But I can’t really say that this applies so much now, my mom has Alzheimer’s and she has terminal lymphoma.
ERIKA RAE: I’m sorry to hear that. So, tell me more about your brother, has this book caused tension in your relationship?
DONNA JOHNSON: I think it has caused tension. You know, the year before last he drove all the way down from Tennessee just to have Thanksgiving dinner with us. My brother has no money whatsoever, he’s still an itinerant preacher and preaching in these tiny little churches. So, he drove down and I was very touched and we started talking and I began to ask him questions about our childhood and he said, “Well, aren’t you really asking me these questions, trying to get information out of me without just being up front about Brother Terrell?” And the book was almost finished by then, and I said, “Actually no, I was just trying to talk to you about our childhood, I wouldn’t use it without letting you know I was doing that,” and that really hurt my feelings a lot….
And on the other hand, when I think of my brother’s experience and I kind of step outside my own reaction, any time you’re talking to a writer who’s writing a book, maybe you should beware [laughs]. I don’t really fault him I guess on that, but things seem to be healing last time I talked to him. I think he had the book, but I don’t know if he had read it. So, my family is not really my readers. My sisters though, Terrell’s daughters with my mom, they have been great. They’ve taken a lot of flack from relatives on the Terrell side, but they really have had my back.
ERIKA RAE: As a child, you were dragged across the country for a period of years from one itinerant home to another, often with imposed fasting, sharing beds, no running water, etc. You write about the life your mother handed you with such compassion. Did you feel this way as an adult before you wrote your memoir, or was that a sort of byproduct from processing the situation on paper?
DONNA JOHNSON: That’s a good question, Erika. Really, I was very angry as a young woman. I was angry with my mother from the time she came back—I guess I was about 9 or 10—and by the time I got to be about 11 or 12 I was really angry. So I was angry with her for a long time as a young adult. I threw her out of my house a couple of times. She just couldn’t even breathe without it irritating me, and that’s a lot of old stuff, and I really wanted to forgive my mom over the years. I mean, that’s a heavy thing to carry around. I really wanted to forgive her. I meditated, I therapized, I prayed…I mean my mom would come visit and I might not have prayed for a year, but I’d be praying hard for a month, “Let me be nice to her, let me not feel so angry,” and I couldn’t do it and then as I got older I had more compassion. I screwed up enough, honestly, big time—and that really gave me some compassion for her. Because I realized I wanted to be one kind of parent—I have one daughter—and I failed miserably in some big ways. I didn’t leave my daughter, but I really wasn’t there for her, so I really began to have some compassion for her. We all have these goals for ourselves, who we want to be as human beings. I think all of us, maybe not as spectacularly as my mom and David Terrell or even me, but I tried to write the book from that middle ground between who we are and who we want to be. Putting it down on paper I realized that to write a good book, I needed to write from trying to understand the world a little bit from their perspective. I was at a workshop recently and I was trying to tell the participants that the paper is not a place for revenge, or resentment or anger even. To do anger and make it work, you better mix it with a little humor, I think….
ERIKA RAE: There were so many people who your mother handed you off to while she was traveling with Brother Terrell. There was the woman [Sister Waters, AKA "The Waters"] who locked you out of the house in the morning and wouldn’t let you back in until evening. There was the woman [Sister Coleman] who told you that your mother had given you up to her, made you eat your own vomit and call her “Mom”. Have you seen or heard from any of these women after writing Holy Ghost Girl?
DONNA JOHNSON: I think Sister Coleman must have been a sadist. It’s weird. I mean, looking back you can see her good intentions, and then how they went awry. I don’t think she set out thinking I’m going to get these children and I’m going to torture them. When we moved away, she came to see us in Houston and brought toys for our birthday. Humans are infinitely complex. Sometimes I think the labeling—you know, “she’s a sadist” or he’s a drug addict—keeps us from seeing the complexity of the humanity there. No, I saw the Waters because as an older child and very young adult I would see her at the revivals. She would come to the Blessed Area and we would go up and hug her, both Gary and I would, just happy to see her. And I think Pam, who has a little more anger and a bit more integrated anger, said, “she was so mean to us, I hated her,” and I did remember then and I didn’t love her anymore. [laughs]
But I think the point is children can love almost anyone and anything. And the truth is that no matter how bad those people were to us, it probably was more important that I love them than hate them because I needed to have something to love in the world. I probably didn’t do a good job of bringing it out in the book, but I think that love, just like all the poets and the mystics say, and Jesus said, that love is the balm that heals the world. I think if I hadn’t loved those women, no matter how bad they were to me, then I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.
ERIKA RAE: You witnessed so many healings, some of them were very real, including your own healing. Can you elaborate on that a little?
DONNA JOHNSON: Well, you know, I did see some spectacular things under the tent and I wrote about one in the first part of the book, there was a woman who was coming through the prayer line and she had a giant stomach and Terrell prayed for her, and she lost her skirt. The stomach just seemed to go down. And whether I’m writing that from memory or from memories of story, it’s hard to know. Because those early childhood memories melded into stories that we told like mythologies over and over again, but that is what I thought I saw.
And then later on, as I left the ministry at about 15, I went back and I met this child —he was probably 9 maybe 10—and he was sitting outside with his mother. Terrell was appearing in an auditorium in San Antonio, and I was talking to this woman and she wanted her son prayed for because he was deaf, and she asked me how that works. I told her several ways that might work and we went in and Terrell prayed for a few people, then he stopped in his tracks, went back, turned around, and out of hundreds and hundreds of people he asked that woman to stand up and prayed for her son, and it seemed as if her son could hear.
When I left after church we were driving out of the parking lot and I saw them at a bus stop, and the boy was turning his head from right and left and I stopped to say something to her. I was used to healings, but that particular healing coming when it did really meant something to me. I said, “What is your boy doing as he turns his head right to left?” And she said, “He’s listening to traffic because he’s never heard it before.” And that was rather stunning to me.
And then later, I left the ministry, anyway. And I got really, really sick, I was living the rock n’ roll party lifestyle. I came back because no one could tell me what was wrong, I lost a lot of weight and I felt awful all the time—fevers—and he prayed for me. He called me out. Now, to everyone around me, it would have looked as though he just spotted me in the audience, called me out and told me what was wrong with me. He prayed for me. He also prayed for the boyfriend I had with me. The boyfriend, as soon as Terrell touched him just went down, an unbroken fall, very hard, and stayed out, Terrell prayed for me and the next day I was well, and I stayed well for 10 years. Then, one day I learned a new fact about him that sort of in my estimation sunk him to a new low, and when I learned that I became ill again. And I was surprised, because as I learned that about him I realized I had a remnant of faith that I didn’t realize I had invested in him. And I was sick again for a long time. It took a long time to get it under control.
In writing the book, I talked to other scholars who had followed men like him, and one said that he went to several of David Terrell’s meetings, and in one of them, he said he saw him call a woman out of the audience and said, “You’ve got cancer.” And he prayed for her and he said the woman was crying. Well, after the service, it just so happened that the woman was parked next to him and she was still crying and he said to me, “I was just so angry I wanted to just go beat those guys up.” I said, “Bill, why did you think she was crying?” Because I thought I knew why she was crying. And he said, “Well she knew she wasn’t healed, that’s why she was crying. They had hurt her.” And I, of course, thought she was crying because she had felt something sort of ineffable. That was from my experience. He was filtering it from his experience.
Part of what I saw under the tent was what I expected to see. Which is one of the reasons I wrote the book in the way that I did. I never saw any plants, or what I thought was a plant, although there probably were. When David Terrell called someone out of the audience slapped his hand on their head and said, “You are healed”, the whole tent went up like crazy. We all thought we were seeing a miracle. I think sometimes amazing things happen, but who knows? Maybe because we were expecting to see those things, amazing things happened. It’s hard to know. It’s hard to tease all of that apart, I think.
ERIKA RAE: How has your extreme religious upbringing affected you as an adult?
DONNA JOHNSON: Sitting under the tent and seeing people so intent on making a connection with God and I would say with each other, even now I find it profoundly moving. I had one woman, a seminarian, stand up and say, “I’m sorry you had a childhood of ’mass hysteria’”…it’s interesting the way we categorize things—but it gave me a sense that there is something moving beneath the hard surfaces of the world. Lots of New Agers call it “the mystery”, some people call it “the universe”… I don’t really choose to call it anything. Not God, really. Sometimes I use the word God as a shorthand for everything beyond us. I can’t get away from that.
I tried really hard for awhile to be an atheist, and it’s just so—not all atheists are like this—but I had such hard edges. I just had to defend myself so hard against things I had experienced. I don’t know if that makes sense. I didn’t like the person I was. Gradually, that kind of fell away from me. But certain things convinced me there was something else, going to church with my daughter convinced me. But one thing about growing up in that kind of church, I really like that intensity. It’s hard for me to deal with the mundane reality. I’m always expecting that big thing…that big sweeping feeling, that amazing thing to see. That’s caused me some difficulties.
ERIKA RAE: Do you know others who were raised in the Holy Roller community or other fundamentalist sects within Christianity—or maybe even beyond Christianity—and who have left it? What is your experience of people coming out of that?
DONNA JOHNSON: Some are angry. I’ve had more contact with people since I wrote the book with people who have come out of fundamentalist sects than before, because I was really intent on pulling away from that stuff. Some tend to be really, really angry. I’ve had people like that argue with me. But people who have reflected back on their experience tend to find it interesting, much in the way that you do and I do. They are more interested in what was going on there, the what was that?. I mean, they debunk it somewhat, but they’re more interested in the psychology of it, they’re interested in the power that was there and why it was there.
Sometimes the folks I grew up with that left David Terrell behind tend to make a few changes, you know, the women can wear slacks, for example. But you know, the scriptures below the part that talks about it being an abomination for a woman to wear that which pertaineth to a man, about what they would consider to be about homosexuality, they still cling to those. I don’t mean this with disrespect, it’s just interesting to me. They make the tiniest moves and it feels huge to them. It makes them feel like they’ve left all that behind, but it seems to me they’re still very mired in that. I mean, they’re still fundamentalists, they’ve just decided there are a couple of scriptures they no longer believe fundamentally, but most of them they still do.
ERIKA RAE: How has your upbringing influenced how you raised your daughter?
DONNA JOHNSON: That’s an interesting question. On the positive side, I really raised my daughter as though we are our brothers’ keepers—that’s one thing I got from that kind of religion. If there was somebody walking on the side of the road, and we only had $20, Brother Terrell would either pick him up if we had room in the car, and often take them to get something to eat and leave them with the $20 or whatever money we had. So, I really learned that we are our brothers’ keeper, that it matters how we treat other people, especially in need. And you know, my daughter went to school and became a social worker and is now a therapist, interestingly enough. So we continued that—that was the right thing that we did in our lives, as we continued living out that sense that we are all connected to each other and that we owe each other something.
ERIKA RAE: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
DONNA JOHNSON: “What were you thinking?” [laughs]