Book Look - Holy Ghost Girl, Donna Johnson

I can imagine several reasons why people might pick up this non-fiction account of the "daughter" of David Terrell, one of the most famous (some would say infamous) Pentecostal preachers of the 50s/60s. But I bet, when they've done reading, few will discover this to have been what they expected. This is not a passionate homage to the "tent preacher" tradition, now mostly passed into memory; but neither is it a vindictive expose of the corruptions and hypocrisies that have come to be associated with the tradition. Holy Ghost Girl is, instead, the unapologetically complex tale of a life indelibly marked by faith, cruelty, doubt, miracles, greed, and love.

Donna Johnson's prose is stark, unemotional, and effecting as she recounts a childhood that was alternately remarkable (she regularly witnessed miracles of healing and faith) and horrific (she was also regularly abandoned by her mother, left in the care of "guardians" ranging from merely inept to deliberately cruel). The book traces her life from her earliest memories - of fidgeting in wood chairs, sticky with sweat, as "Brother Terrell" preached hellfire and salvation to the poor - through her years as a young woman, struggling to reconcile the part of her that loathes the growing hypocrisy of Terrellite movement with the part of her that still believes in the power of faith and love. Along the way, she finds ways to cope (demonstrating a resilience I found both astonishing and heartbreaking) with challenges to include a childhood almost entirely devoid of childish experiences; a nomadic existence featuring a succession of donated "homes", each more bleak than the one before; a mother who consistently choose religion over her children; a brother who suffered from a horrific medical condition; racism and the Klan (tent revivals being one of the few places in the 50s/60s where whites and blacks came together as equals) and - most confusing of all - her relationship with David Terrell, the man who treated her as his own daughter and who regularly shared her mother's bed ... yet who required her to call him "Uncle Terrell" in public, and who never attempted to divorce the wife and mother of his other children.

As I suspect others will do, I approached this book with definite biases that I expected to be reinforced by the author's story. What I found instead was a story much more unsettling, much more morally complex, and much more moving than I expected.

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