Sunday, October 16, 2011

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson — 278 pgs

In this candid and revealing memoir, a young woman reflects upon a life spent in the shadow of a traveling evangelical ministry. Donna Johnson can’t remember a time in her childhood when she wasn’t involved with Brother David Terrell and his ministry. When her mother, Carolyn, sold all she owned and packed up herself and her two children to join the “sawdust circuit,” Donna was merely two years old. Amidst the huge tent filled with wooden chairs, she witnessed believers flock to the preaching and healing of Brother Terrell, a man of God with feet of clay. As Donna begins to grow and understand what living among a group of traveling evangelicals is all about, she witnesses powerful healings at the hands of Brother Terrell and sees the massive amounts of cash that is being funneled into his organization.

Life for Donna is far from easy, as her mother’s relationship with the already married Brother Terrell is not at all simple. Her desire to traverse the circuit with him forces her to put her children in the care of other believers who are sometimes abusive and cruel to Donna and her younger brother. When the legend of Brother Terrell’s healing and sanctity begin to grow, so does his ministry, but this only increases Donna’s anxieties as her mother finds new and ever crueler people with whom to leave her children and becomes dangerously embroiled in an illicit relationship with the preacher. As the years pass, things become ever more complicated until everything about the ministry begins to implode. This is the life story of a young girl who was completely immersed in the life and lifestyle of a group of traveling evangelists, and her struggle for acceptance and belief in a God who she never felt she fully understood.

This book was very revelatory for me. I’m a big lover of memoirs, and the more unusual they are, the more enjoyment I got out of them. I went into this one with a lot of curiosity and questions, and was ultimately rewarded handsomely. I’ve been somewhat familiar with evangelical preachers throughout my life, and although theirs are not beliefs that I espouse, I know quite a few people who get very caught up in this type of ministry. I think what it all boils down to is the very charismatic way these men of God end up subtly manipulating the people who follow them. Despite the fact that some are truly gifted with the power to heal, often it’s their own human foibles that destroy what they are trying so ferociously to build. Such was the case with Brother Terrell and his ministry. While many would argue that he was a righteous man of God, the facts about his life tell a very different and sordid story.

Most of this book made me angry and astonished. As Donna tells of being repeatedly left in the care of nefarious church followers and embroiled in a world of overwhelmingly dogmatic religion interspersed with flagrant adultery, I became increasingly jaded and distrustful, both of Donna’s mother Carolyn and especially of Brother Terrell. According to Donna, who is a reluctant believer to this day, Brother Terrell did indeed have the capacity to perform miraculous healings. I met this revelation with a lot of skepticism and incredulity. How could a man who was living such a shameful secret life be the possessor of such an incredible gift from God? Why were the children of these people so neglected and foisted onto people who didn’t take care of them? I was astonished to discover the magnitude of the deceptions that were being perpetrated and horrified to learn that many of Brother Terrell’s followers were sacrificing their last financial resources so that the man they called “the prophet” could buy multiple properties and travel about in a personal airplane. It all made me indignant.

Because of the way Donna was raised, there existed in her an understandable confusion about the Lord. She lived her whole life in a state of fear and dread, which I must say is a very different experience than I had living in a faithful home. There was a sharp dichotomy between what Brother Terrell preached and the things he did, and Donna saw it all. All his fasting and healing didn’t erase the fact that he was stealing money from those who needed it most and conducting many adulterous affairs that produced several offspring. In addition, I found it reprehensible that the children of these unions were hidden and made to feel like shameful secrets. But it was Donna and her brother’s plight that really twisted my heart, as they were shuffled from home to home, forced to live among people who were abusive and dishonest. It seemed to me a chaotic existence, and for all the good that those children saw under the tent, there was a great deal of tumult that followed them everywhere they went.

When all is said and done, it’s true that everything done in the dark will eventually come to light, and such a fate wasn’t eluded by Brother Terrell. I found this somewhat satisfying, but only to a certain degree, for by the time that he finally got his comeuppance, many lives had been altered and painstakingly rearranged forever. In Donna’s emergence into adulthood, there was a lot of shame and apprehension about sharing her past with the people she came into contact with. It was clear that Brother Terrell’s deceptions had farther reaching consequences than anyone could imagine. For Donna’s mother, Brother Terrell’s final betrayal stung bitterly, and when I reached the section that dealt with this, I was filled with ill will towards the man who had bilked his followers and ramshackle family out of safe and well constructed lives. It was with growing anger that I realized that even though Brother Terrell was made to pay for his sins, that hadn’t stopped him from trying to rebuild the ministry that his lies had torn apart, and the book closed on a scene that had me marveling with disbelief.

While this book evinced some strongly negative emotions in me, it was the kind of tale you can’t help but follow eagerly to its startling conclusion. It was written in a way that evoked feelings of not only total belief, but ultimate doubt. Those looking for a memoir that stands above the crowd should definitely look here. It’s a story you won’t soon forget about a very magnetic man and the way that magnetism changed so many lives, both in positive and negative ways. A very interesting reading experience. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, October 4th:Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, October 5th:Melody & Words
Thursday, October 6th:Bermuda Onion
Monday, October 10th:Chaotic Compendiums
Thursday, October 13th:In the Next Room
Friday, October 14th:Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Monday, October 17th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, October 18th:Amused by Books
Wednesday, October 19th:Book Addiction
Thursday, October 20th:Books Like Breathing
Monday, October 24th:BookNAround
Tuesday, October 25th:Life in Review
Wednesday, October 26th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, October 27th:Broken Teepee
Date TBD:A Fair Substitute for Heaven
Date TBD:Colloquium

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have wish listed this one, because I just think I will enjoy it for some reason. Happy to have read your take on it. Have a great week!

Darlene said...

Wow, this sounds like a really great memoir to read. Very emotional and powerful. How awful to be left in the care of people like that. I can't imagine a childhood like that at all. Great review Heather.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review, but I think it would make me too mad!

TheBookGirl said...

It is so unfortunate that the fallout of the do as I say, not as I do "holy men" is most often most felt by their families. I have alot of respect for this author, telling her story so honestly and forthrightly at what was surely a cost to her amongst some family members and friends. I find it interesting that her experiences have not turned her off to religion entirely.

Wonderful review :)

Unknown said...

The truth is stranger than fiction. Glad you enjoyed this memoir. I don't always read memoirs because I become too emotionally involved. Still, I find them in my hands somehow!

Unknown said...

I almost gasped out loud when I read "Most of this book made me angry and astonished" in your review because I felt this way reading your review of this book and a couple others. It never ceases to shock me some of the irresponsible ways single and even married parents care for their children. I was also surprised to read that Donna is a believer albeit a reluctant one. This revelation alone would make me want to read this book if I wasn't already very interested in it.

I'm happy to knoiw Brother Terrell doesn't totally get away with his dishonesty and abuse. But, like you said, he harmed and destroyed so many people's lives, it doesn't seem punishment enough.

I thought I wanted to read this memoir before reading your review and now I know I do. Your wonderful review has greatly piqued my interest in this book. I'm also curious about your personal knowledge of preachers and the evangelical ministry!
Thank you, Heather!

Vasilly said...

Wow! This is such a great review! It's a shame that Johnson went through so much with her brother and the cruelty of members of this church. I really can't wait to read this now.

Jenny said...

This sounds like it was so fascinating and impactful! I have a feeling I would be really mad when reading this lol.

Kaye said...

Wonderful review, Heather! Somehow memoirs and I don't play well together but this one does sound intriguing.

Ti said...

Writing that leaves you feeling angry and at times indignant is a sign of great writing. I like to feel something while reading. Even if it's not a feeling that's particularly good...I like for the writing to shake me up a bit. Sounds like this book did that to you.

bermudaonion said...

I really enjoyed this book too. I so wanted Donna to reveal that the healings were all a scam. It was her mother who made me the most angry - I felt like she chose Terrell over her children. I suppose she justified it by saying it was a calling.

Audra said...

Heather, I always enjoy your reviews but I especially liked this one -- the mix of your personal opinions with a really succinct summary just grabbed me! I'm not sure I could stomach this book but it sounds amazing -- it would likely impact me the same way it hit you.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

Really good review - I suspect I'd feel the same as you!

Suko said...

What a stunningly incisive review! This memoir sounds very absorbing and revealing.

Literary Feline said...

I can see why this would bring out so much negative emotion in the reading--it probably would me too. My heart goes out to Donna, having to live through all that.

I know something about the evangelical movement but not a whole lot. I know people who have been caught up in it and have wondered about the pull it has for them.

Thank you for the great review, Heather. I definitely will have to add this one to my wish list.

Athira said...

I'm reading another book about a church and its pastor, and I found some parallels between the two. It's terrible when things like this happen - it's so easy to lose your faith or worse, be confused for the rest of your life. This book sounds like a fabulous memoir (and I enjoy memoirs that are stranger than the usual stuff).

Trisha said...

I definitely get the negative emotions the book evokes, but it does sound like the type of read which will keep me riveted.

Jenners said...

I really want to read this book. I'm a big memoir fan too and it sounds like this has a unique angle. I hate to say it but I'm probably predisposed to believe this about thsese kinds of preachers, which seems terribly unfair. I'm glad that the author survived what sounds like a very difficult childhood and was able to get her story out there.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Your enthusiasm for memoirs is so catching. :O) This one actually looks like something I would seek out. Very cool.

Anonymous said...

Heather, this is a seriously excellent review. I am scheduled to tour this one tomorrow and I haven't written my review yet because I'm just not sure what to say. On the one hand, I agree with everything you said here. The book elicited many emotions from me as well, most of all that I found myself incredibly angry at Brother Terrell. However, I was left wanting at the end. I felt like the author didn't have a lot of growth and I found myself wondering why exactly she wrote the memoir. Was it to expose this man and his church? or was it to explain her own emotional healing? I just wasn't sure. I'm still not sure. Anyway, I will be posting tomorrow either way so you can see what I end up saying then. ;)

Wall-to-wall books said...

I was suppose to have gotten this book from Librarything early reviewers, but I never received it!
And I am really angry! I really wanted to get it.

Anonymous said...

"often it’s their own human foibles that destroy what they are trying so ferociously to build" - how very true that is!

I'm glad you found the book compelling and well-written. It sounds like an usual childhood to say the very least! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Anonymous said...

I am very familiar with how you feel. I married into a family who follows this very person. I do not. I also see a lot that is not right. Good luck to you!!

Zibilee said...

Thanks for your tremendous courage in posting this. I feel for you on a deep level, knowing what life is like for the followers of this man. Be well. My wish for you is that you find safety and wholeness in your journeys.

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