Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir

Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir

by Donna M. Johnson


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A compassionate, humorous memoir of faith, betrayal, and coming of age on the evangelical sawdust trail.

Long before the Blues Brothers coined the term, Donna M. Johnson’s family was on a mission from God. She was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist for tent revivalist David Terrell. Before long, Donna and her family were part of the hugely popular evangelical preacher’s inner circle. At seventeen, she left the ministry for good, with a trove of stranger-than-fiction memories. A homecoming like no other, Holy Ghost Girl brings to life miracles, exorcisms, and face-offs with the Ku Klux Klan. And that’s just what went on under the tent.

As Terrell became known worldwide during the 1960s and ’70s, he enthralled—and healed—thousands a night, andthe caravan of broken-down cars and trucks that made up his ministry evolved into fleets of Mercedes and private jets. The glories of the Word mixed with betrayals of the flesh, and Donna’s mother bore Terrell’s children in one of the secret households he maintained. Terrell’s followers, dubbed “Terrellites” by the press, descended on backwaters across the South to await the apocalypse in cult-like communities.

Johnson’s personal story takes us into the heart of a mystical and deeply flawed family where the norms are anything but normal and where love covers a multitude of sin. Recounted with the deadpan observations and surreal detail only a kid would notice, Holy Ghost Girl bypasses easy judgment to articulate a rich world in which the mystery of faith and human frailty share a surprising and humorous coexistence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592407354
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 605,420
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Donna M. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction prize as a work in progress. Donna lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.

What People are Saying About This

Lisa Napoli

"A wretching and extraordinarily beautiful memoir. If you're a fan of The Glass Castle, you'll be mesmerized by Donna M. Johnson's true-life tale of how her young life was upended by her mother's love affair with an infamous charismatic preacher."

Texas Monthly

“Compulsively readable”

Dallas Morning News

“Johnson’s fascinating and sometimes disturbing personal story is mixed with serious reflection … Holy Ghost Girl tells a harrowing, sometimes funny, story from a youthful insider’s point of view.”

Beliefnet Editors

“A page-turning, thrilling tale set in the 1960/70s containing adultery, KKK face-offs, fasting to the point of collapse, child neglect/abuse, show business and family connection.”


“Sensitive and revelatory…an impressive achievement of perspective and maturity…a haunting and memorable book.”

The Oprah Magazine O

“Therein lies the paradox at the center of Johnson’s story, in which faith and love live alongside anger and betrayal”

From the Publisher

“What a life! Holy Ghost Girl takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can’t tell them apart. Donna Johnson sorts through her story with great insight, compassion and humor, giving us an indelible portrait of a charismatic preacher and the faithful who so desperately believed in him.” — Jeannette Walls, author of New York Times bestsellers The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses

The New York Times

Holy Ghost Girl turns, as good books must, from promising read into sure bet. Ms. Johnson’s enthralling memoir, her first book, is about growing up on the road in a clan of what she calls Holy Rollers.”

Tampa Tribune

“‘Holy Ghost Girl’ is the most compelling, exquisitely detailed, well-written memoir I have read in a month of Sundays.”

Reading Group Guide

“Doubt is a lot like faith; a mustard seed’s worth changes everything” (p. 256).

At seventeen, Donna Johnson fled Brother David Terrell and his Holy Roller crew to seek “the world with its . terrible beauty” (p. 236). But after decades of running, Donna still felt the pull of her past. So when circumstances summon her back to Terrell’s revival tent, she finally confronts the conundrum of miracles and hypocrisy, faith and corruption that encompassed her young life.

Donna’s mother, Carolyn, was a disgraced divorcee when she first heard the charismatic evangelist preach. Terrell “was a twenty–seven–year–old six–foot looker with black hair, blue eyes, and a smile that flashed Holy Ghost charm” (p.25). He offered her redemption, and she became his organist.

His ministry lived on the road, crisscrossing rural America’s “sawdust trail.” Exemplary behavior was expected from everyone. Even three–year–old Donna sat quietly while Terrell healed the sick, the lame, and the blind under their huge tent. But between revivals, she and her younger brother, Gary, ran wild, and played games like “husbands and wives“ and “sinners” with Terrell’s own children.

The faithful gave Terrell what scant cash and valuables they possessed. Still, their operation was expensive to run and “the situation was always dire” (p. 66). If it wasn’t money troubles, it was the Ku Klux Klan threatening Terrell for preaching to un–segregated audiences, or the mainstream church condemning his heresies. He begged for money, exorcised the devil, and endured beatings and life–threatening fasts with the same righteous conviction.

Terrell’s ministry steadily grew famous worldwide, and his new tent “accommodated anywhere from five to ten thousand people” (p. 141). Yet, success meant that the children were often shunted off with erratic caregivers for indefinite periods without explanation. Donna “figured that’s how life was. Things happened, and then they were over. No hard feelings” (p. 155).

Then, Carolyn became pregnant with the first of her three illegitimate children with Terrell, and the true nature of their relationship became clear. She confided to Donna how “she believed [Terrell] would “do right” by her. All she had to do was pray and keep the faith” (p. 231).

As the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s, Carolyn and thousands of others kept the faith. “Love offerings” (p. 241) bought Terrell vast estates and luxury cars, while also sustaining his multiple secret families. When he predicted the coming, apocalypse his followers poured into makeshift shantytowns and prepared for the end of the world—until the man of God went to prison for tax evasion.

After college, motherhood, and years of middle–class respectability, Donna had become a “doubt–ridden Episcopalian with Buddhist tendencies” (p. 4), but when she learns that Terrell’s son, Randall, had died—and that the preacher planned to resurrect him—a lifetime’s worth of buried memories came tumbling out.

Packing a wallop as powerful as Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Donna Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl is a haunting chronicle of childhood that illuminates the ultimate unknowability of the world and the harsh beauty of radical faith.



Donna Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and other publications. Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction Prize as a work in progress. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.



Q. What did you hope to accomplish in writing Holy Ghost Girl?

The writing allowed me to go home again, to sift through my childhood and try to reconcile the world I experienced as a kid with the more rational world I lived in as an adult. As a writer, I also wanted to explore the mysterious nature of reality and human beings. Our views of life and people have become overly simplistic, like a Disney movie. Everything is black or white, good or evil. Religion has helped bring about this idiocy, but so have the media and the unexamined assumptions we accept at face value as individuals. When I looked back at my childhood, I realized my experience of the world was more nuanced. Terrell was both an angel and a monster. My mother loved me and yet failed me in so many ways. Reality was a dappled thing, neither black or white and thus hard to pin down or sum up.

Q. You spent many years trying to sever all connections to Brother Terrell and his ministry. Yet, you don’t seem to blame him or indulge in any self–pity about the way you were raised. How long did it take you to get to this point? Are you using humor as a way to deflect the pain?

At times I have blamed Terrell and my mother for the hardships of my childhood, but when I considered the harshness of their childhoods, and all that they did without, I realized there really is no one to blame. It’s hard to accept that, where we kids were concerned, they thought they were doing what God wanted them to do. Were they also making selfish choices? Of course. Don’t we all to some extent? The process of writing the book stirred up and also helped dissipate animosity toward my mother and Terrell. I tried to write out of compassion for the discrepancy between who they wanted to be and how far from their ideals they strayed. I could do that because I too have failed myself and others in big ways. I think the humor came naturally as I detached enough from my story to see it as exactly that, a story. As for using laughter to deflect pain, couldn’t that serve as a working definition of comedy?

Q. Is there anything you regret including in—or excluding from—your book?

Of course! I wish I had done a better job of reflecting the contradictions and oddities embodied by Terrell. He picked up hitchhikers, bought them meals and sent them on their way with enough money to ensure they could rent a motel room for a night. He tried to respond to everyone in need, and yet he took money, and in later years, a lot of money, from the poor and used it to fund a somewhat lavish lifestyle. He is also a very twitchy person, given to tics. I’m not sure I adequately conveyed that physical aspect of him.

Q. Have you ever confronted Brother Terrell about the way he treated your mother?

After spending much of my childhood trying to manage their relationship, I finally decided it wasn’t my business. Terrell has apologized to my mother on two occasions.

Q. How many of your siblings have remained Terrellites? Do your three half–sisters maintain relationships with him?

Only my brother has remained close to the Terrellite faith, though he would say his beliefs have changed drastically. As for my sisters’ relationship with their dad, that’s not for me to discuss.

Q. Brother Terrell seems to attract ardent protectors. Are you concerned about any potential repercussions from revealing what you’ve written?

The Terrellites are a passionate group, but they’ve never been violent. Still the book has already stirred animosities and harsh words within the extended family. At times I do worry that one of faithful might physically accost me as a result of the book.

Q. In remembering your time with Sister Waters, you write, “Having no idea I was a poverty–stricken kid, I pretended to be poor” (p. 150). It seems incredible that—despite your lack of clothes and food—you didn’t realize you were poor. At what point did this realization sink in?

I didn’t realize we were poor because everyone around us was poor, and I had no TV image with which to compare our life style. Plus when we (the kids) traveled with our parents, we never went hungry. Bologna is not the best food, but it was a staple for lots of families in the South. For some reason, life with Sisters Waters was desperate at every level. It’s possible the ministry was going through one of its many down times, and that my mother and the Terrells didn’t have enough money to send back to Sister Waters for groceries. Or maybe she used the money for other things. It may sound odd, but only when I reflected back during the writing of the book did I realize that we were poor!

Q. This year, the New York Times published a study indicating a strong correlation between religion, education level, and income—with Pentecostals representing the lowest end of the spectrum. And you write that your mother was “one of the few in the evangelistic team with a high–school diploma” (p. 69). Why do you think this branch of Christianity gives such short shrift to education?

From the perspective of an outsider at least part of the answer might be that people with an education are more given to questioning the rule–bound theology of Pentcostalism. The insider perspective is more complex. If you believe the world will end at any moment and that God has commissioned you to save as many souls as possible before the Apocalypse, education falls toward the bottom of your priority list. The hierarchy of needs also comes into play. When you’re struggling to survive and your kids have to work to help put food on the table, education can seem a luxury. But neither of these answers fully addresses the question. Many Pentecostals do not value material things. Possessions and status mean nothing to them, so to pursue an education to increase one’s standing in the world makes no sense. It is the unseen world, the world of the spirit, that matters. Terrell lost sight of this value system once the money started rolling in, but the principles I’m describing here are still alive in many of the small backwoods Pentecostal churches that exist today. It could well be argued that this radical anti–materialism (minus the anti–education stance) is at the true heart of Christianity.

Q. Not long ago, another preacher, Harold Camping, predicted that the end of the world would occur on May 21, 2011. Based on your own experience with Brother Terrell’s failed prophecy, how do believers react after the world continues as usual.

Camping has recalculated judgment day twice, saying he made a mathematical error. I’ve read that millennialists tend to rationalize why the world continues so that it makes sense within their belief system. For example the Branch Davidians who followed David Koresh (and survived the fire) still believe he was a true prophet and one who may very well return. Terrell’s fall from grace caused many long time followers to dessert him. The ones I know joined charismatic meg–type churches and still espouse a literal interpretation of scripture and divine one–on–one revelation—two tenants I believe enable the rise of prophets like Terrell.

Q. At what point did you tell your daughter about your early life? How did your experiences inform the way you chose to parent?

I never wanted to burden my daughter with the painful aspects of my early life—so we never had that kind of talk. On occasion my mother would take her to a revival without my permission. Once she came home insisting she needed to be saved, but she wasn’t sure what from. On another occasion she wondered what God had against earrings. I made many mistakes in parenting my daughter, but I did some things right too. I married a man who had experienced a loving, stable family and knew how to recreate that for my daughter. We stressed higher education and encouraged and supported her participation in a variety of school activities. I wanted my daughter to know she could accomplish things in the world and that the world was a beautiful place, worthy of any effort she might invest in it. The best values of Pentecostalism were incorporated into our lives—a lack of emphasis on material things and the understanding that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that if we see others suffering it is our responsibility to respond on a human level and not just write a check.

Q. Do you have plans to write another book?

Yes, I am considering two very different ideas, both nonfiction projects.


  • How much did you know about tent preachers before reading Holy Ghost Girl? What was your opinion of them and how did it change—if at all—over the course of the book?
  • Have you ever attended a revival meeting? How would you categorize your own spiritual beliefs?
  • Have you ever witnessed something that you couldn’t explain? Did you let it sway your beliefs or did you dismiss it?
  • What does Johnson seem to be saying about the nature of belief when she discusses how her personal miracle came and went?
  • Why would Brother Terrell risk his personal safety defending blacks from the Ku Klux Klan while he “told racist jokes in private” (p. 55)?
  • A United Nations report indicates that the Pentecostal movement has “been the most successful at recruiting its members from the poorest of the poor.” How would you explain this? What does this movement offer the poor that others do not?
  • It’s always a little jarring when one begins to see a parent figure as a fallible human rather than a perfect being. Did Johnson’s recollections of Carolyn resonate with memories of your own mother or father?
  • In what ways did Brother Terrell anticipate the broader, more mainstream evangelical movement? Are any of his teachings reflected in today’s mega churches?
  • The idea that wearing Levis indicated that “Donna has been taken over by a lesbian spirit” (p. 234) seems preposterous today—and even to Terrell in the 1960’s. Can you think of anything considered taboo today that might be accepted unblinkingly twenty or thirty years from now?
  • Johnson opens her book with news that Terrell plans to try to raise his son Randall from the dead. How did this prepare you for the story that she was about to share?
  • Compare Holy Ghost Girl to other coming–of–age memoirs you’ve read and enjoyed. Is there a common thread that draws you to these stories?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Holy Ghost Girl 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
    Becket More than 1 year ago
    The writing was easy to follow, and the reader gets a glimpse of what it was like for a 3-year old growing to a 12-year old on the road with a traveling evangelist. Her mother made choices for their lives that were not always the best choices and put the kids in a precarious spot. Donna knows this about her mother, accepts it when she is young, and then questions her mother about it when she feels like the circumstances warrant the right to speak out. The book should have had a more conclusive ending. I would have liked to know what happened to the brother and the mother. Maybe the writer will do a follow-up after her kids start asking about religion and her childhood.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    What an amazing memior.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Saw many things as a child attending tent meetings. Saw what appeared to be real healings. One was a cousin of mine. That particular meeting changed the life of her whole family. I'm sure Donna's life had to have been very confusing. God bless her for sharing the truths she shared. It makes one wonder what is really truth and what appears to be true during those meetings.
    LittleCastle More than 1 year ago
    This book tells the story of a family that travels with a tent revival ministry. The author shares all of the parts of their journey-the good, the bad and the downright strange. I laughed and cried as I read. I recommend this one!
    SuZQ41 More than 1 year ago
    This true book brought back memories of attending tent shows with my grandma and finally getting a look backstage. I found it impossible to put down.
    debpaige More than 1 year ago
    Hucksterism, whether secular or religious, is an ancient profession; however, tent revival hucksters and sawdust paths to repentance are things of the past. Therefore, Donna Johnson's upbringing as the stepdaughter of a tent-revival evangelist, whose ministry and personal life were characterized by both egregious hypocrisy and baffling miracles, is an important memoir that extends to a time in the recent past that feels entirely disconnected from the twenty-first century. Johnson depicts her life on the road, as the daughter of an evangelist's musician and paramour, honestly, charitably, and without rancor--a miracle in itself, if you ask me. In doing so, she demonstrates that faith cannot be reduced to easy answers of right and wrong and suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that God is more forgiving than some of us would like to believe.
    efm More than 1 year ago
    Enjoyed this true story of life in the revival circuit.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I looked forward to this book, because David Terrell is my uncle. We never knew him, and I was looking for some insight into him, perhaps to be more understanding of his choices. Instead, this reinforced most of the negative beliefs I always had about him. I think Donna did a very good job describing that life, though she did get at least one major fact wrong. David was the 7th of nine children, not the youngest of 7. It was well written, and I am glad I read it. But it did not cause me to look upon him more favorably at all. It seems he was the shyster and womanizer that he always appeared to be. Sad for all the families and kids he left behind.
    sneps More than 1 year ago
    Donna Johnson¿s book, titled ¿The Holy Ghost Girl¿ gives a window to those who always wonder what happens at big tent revivals and healing services. Most importantly, it sheds light into what happens when the people go home. Donna¿s experience is one not so different from those who grew up in the charasmatic churches of the South or went to the tent revials in small Southern towns¿at least from my own personal experience. However, it is still mind boggling how someone ( a leader) can call himself that and lead people into believing he is God, or at least God¿s right hand. As a Christian, I believe that the Holy Bible is the Truth and is infallible, however it can certainly get twisted when interpreted and taught for one¿s own purpose. Donna is very open in her journey, what she witnessed and how she experienced it as a child, and how it shaped her adult life and how it has impacted her spirituality today. This is a great read, one that should be read, and one that should be used as a tool to heed caution.
    jrquilter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book is a fascinating account of the author's dysfunctional family life as a follower of the evangelist and faith healer David Terrell. Her story is well told, mostly through her eyes as a young child. It was an interesting and compelling book.
    Abi516 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Like the author of Holy Ghost Girl, Donna Johnson, I too grew up in the church. My experience, however, was quite different than the Tent Revival Circuit described in her book. I grew up as a Methodist. I didn't know that it was "allowed" to do anything with your hands during a church service other than keep them folded quietly in your lap or color on the bulletin if you were really lucky. I didn't know that you could sing songs that weren't printed in the hymnal, sung by the church choir, or accompanied by anything other than a piano or organ. I didn't know that a pastor could speak above a barely audible drone.I had a bit of a rude awakening when I was a teenager and realized that other people did church differently. I went on a mission trip with an organization that turned out to be much more "charismatic" in nature than I'd been prepared for. It was on this trip that I experienced things that Donna Johnson might find all too familiar. This was the first time that I'd been surrounded by hundreds of people speaking in tongues (Johnson's onomatopoeia is dead on), the first time I'd seen faith healing, the first time I saw people attempting to walk on water like Jesus did. This was all pretty terrifying for a good little Methodist girl from the Midwest.Therefore, I can imagine Johnson's surprise at discovering that there was a world outside her religious culture, just as I was surprised to discover that her religious culture existed. I can empathize with her confusion and simultaneous belief and distrust. In all, I think this was a very well written and engaging book and certainly refreshed my memories of similar experience even though mine were years later and in different circumstances. Those outside of this religious tradition might question what part of Johnson's memoir is reality and what is simply based on unreliable childhood memories. I can say that she's done an excellent job of meshing her memories with things that still go on today.
    Onionspark on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    While the book was written well enough, it was hard for me to enjoy without a sense of morbid discomfort - the world of the Holy Rollers, full of performance and hypocrisy, is anathema to my own. All the same it was an interesting look into a unique and at times dysfunctional childhood. This book gave a feeling of the author's catharsis, and her continuing struggle between belief and rationality.
    WillowOne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I am not sure how to write a review for this book, it is as simple as that. I grew up a preachers daughter and never experienced anything like Donna Johnson's memoir. We stayed in the same home, with the same church for most of my younger years. We never were taken to or saw a tent revival. As I started the book I was diving in blind and the shock of Donna's reality hit me hard. I wondered what was real and what was the assumed reality of a younger mind. I do not for one second assume to know what life on the tent circuit was, as I said before I had no idea these things even existed. I felt sad for Donna and her siblings. How they were being held to the scripture and living both a lie and a sin. How does anyone, let alone a supposed man of God, teach and live such a mixed message and expect the children who learn from the adult ways around them expect them not to come out a little skeptical or not knowing what is right or wrong?Donna Johnson's memoir is about being brought up during the 60's and 70's traveling with her Mother, brother and eventually 2 more sisters in a tent revival ministry. The ministry was headed up by Brother David Terrell who eventually gained worldwide attention. Brother Terrell held everyone to a biblical standard but held himself to no standard and only answerable to himself. He believes himself to be Jesus in human form come to take away the sins of our world. During Donna's younger years she recounts all of the times her Mother left her and her brother with someone else while she followed the tent revival ministry. Donna recounts how she and her brother were told to lie and hide the truth about their relationship with Brother Terrell who was having an extramarital affair with their Mother even though he was married. The experiences that Mrs. Johnson had throughout her growing up years are enough to drive someone away from religion, but she is still working on that and maybe one day she will work out the rights from the wrongs and find her place among God's children.
    kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Donna Johnson grew up on the tent revival circuit of the 1950's and '60's. Her mother was a follower of David Terrell's ministry, playing organ for his traveling ministry. If you've never been to a tent revival, this may all seem very strange, but for many Americans these revivals are a part of a normal spiritual life - an addition to their regular church-going schedule. Tent revivals are a place to hear what I always think of as Holy Roller-type preachers. These preachers are often Pentecostal and people within their tents can be heard and seen speaking in tongues. Faith healing is another frequent component to these events. If you're still confused it might help to think of people like Oral Roberts - just about all of the early televangelists came out of the tent revival circuit.Whether or not you are Christian, tent revivals are a unique experience. My Mississippi grandmother was Southern Baptist and took me to one that occurred as a part of the Webster County, Mississippi Centennial celebrations. I don't remember a lot about it other than the smell of the tent, the heat and the flapping of the funeral parlor fans (paper fans on a wooden stick donated by the local funeral parlor), and the amazing singing. People brought picnic lunches and stayed all day and into the night as different parts of the same community came together under the big tent.Donna Johnson grew up on this circuit, hauled around in the backseat of cars, living wherever the faithful provided, as her mother played organ for David Terrell. Later, the family lived in Houston as her mother continued her long-time affair with Brother Terrell. While Ms. Johnson left the church at 16, it is clear within her writing that she did not leave faith entirely behind and it is the uneasy compromise she appears to have reached between her life before and after Brother Terrell that provides the underlying tension throughout her memoir.Ms. Johnson is at her best when describing her childhood - the days and nights under the tent, backseats and borrowed houses, lack of food, uncertainty in everything except the love of Brother Terrell. She is very skilled at picturing this from her childhood eyes and at keeping her adult self safely on the sidelines. The later parts of the book, events that follow after her mother left them and then returned, are much less clear-eyed, more hazy, less connected to reality and perhaps that is as it should be after a childhood under the bigger-than-life tent - what comes next feels up for grabs. Well-written, honest, funny, tragic, and often surreal, Holy Ghost Girl gives the reader an up close look at a different kind of life while avoiding sensationalism and judgment.
    whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I always thought tent revivals were the stuff of movies or of a time long since disappeared. And in some ways, I'm not wrong. Charismatic Holy Roller preachers are not terribly common any more, their ministries smaller. This memoir is the story of a woman who grew up in the shadow of one of the remaining tents, whose mother chose to follow the magnetic David Terrell around the country, and who has written a clear-eyed, compassionate, balanced story of her life growing up in this world set apart.Johnson was only three when her mother, a gifted musician, packed Donna and her younger brother into a car and followed David Terrell as the revival organist. Johnson details her early years traveling with their evangelical family, falling asleep against her mother in the back of a car as they drove from one town to another. She captures the moments of childish rebellion, the sliding into sleep as the prayers lasted for hours into the night, the amalgam of people who formed the inner circle, and the wonderment and love that she felt towards Terrell. She chronicles faith healings and an exorcism. She describes the faithful evenhandedly. And she shares the heartwrenching moment when she and her brother and Terrell's children are left behind with a follower while the adults continued on the circuit.As Terrell's fame as a preacher and faith healer grows and her mother's affair with him (which resulted in three children) becomes more intense, their lives change from the open hardscrabble existence that they once knew to a more secretive but fixed and financially secure lifestyle. Less visceral than her early childhood experiences and not as comprehensive about her experiences, Johnson chronicles this time in her life when she loses much of her faith, marries at the age of fifteen, and leaves her family for the first time. Despite her ultimate questioning about the paradoxes between Terrell's ministry and life of affluence, she never declares him a charlatan.Her upbringing was unusual and despite the fact that she lives a life outside the one that she knew when she was young, this is not a complete repudiation memoir. The chasm between the life that Terrell leads on the back of his followers' assets and the lives that they lead, destitute after giving him their money, is a huge one. But Johnson manages not to demonize Terrell. She questions his morality and confronts his obvious sins but she also acknowledges the great draw of the miracles he's performed and does not dismiss them as manufactured for the revival believers. All in all a fascinating and balanced look at an unusual childhood and the ministry that pervaded every aspect of it.
    kqueue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    It took me a long time to get in to this book about Donna Johnson, who was the young daughter of a woman who sold everything to follow evangelist and preacher David Terrell in the 1960s and 70s. Donna's mother had an affair with the married minister and secretly bore three of his children. On one hand, this is a fascinating look at the inside world of tent revivals, and how people want to believe in miracles so badly that they overlook all the warning signs that the minister just might be a con man. On the other hand, the author did witness some truly miraculous things that didn't appear to be staged or sleight of hand, but if you want definitive proof, you won't get it.
    dulcibelle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book is the somewhat interesting memoir of a girl growing up on the tent revival circuit of the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in that era, in the South, so the big tents of the Holy Roller and Pentacostal revivals are familar to me. Growing up in that charged atmosphere had to be weird, where so many people expect so much of the preacher - seeming to forget that, whatever his calling, he's still just a man. Many of those following these preachers could deny them nothing - thinking that if they (the preachers) wanted it, God must be laying that want on their heart (whether it was right or wrong). I expected this memoir to get into this aspect a little more.The author followed the revival with her mother and brother from the age of 3 until she was 17. Her descriptions lack passion - it's almost as if she's reporting on events happening to someone else. While I didn't expect a "mile a minute" ride (let's face it - most people's lives are pretty boring, even in an odd circumstance) I would have liked a little more life in the storytelling. It was an OK read, and some of the details about life in the tent and what happened behind the scenes are interesting, but overall, the book fell a little flat.
    rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A couple of months ago, I received a call from Donna Johnson, who identified herself as a former student of my college. She told me she had written a memoir of her life growing up on the ¿sawdust circuit,¿ otherwise known as the world of tent revivals. It didn¿t seem like something I would be interested in, but she offered to send me a copy of the book. She also asked if she could speak to my creative writing class. I am always happy to accommodate this request, because writers invariably tell my students the same things I tell them about reading, writing, persistence, and discipline.When, I got Holy Ghost Girl, I was still skeptical, but publication by a division of Penguin must mean something. So, I called her back and made arrangements for her to speak to my class.Whew! Am I glad I did not let these two opportunities slip by me. First of all, Donna did a terrific job ¿ not only in my class, but also at a reading at the local Barnes & Noble a couple of days later.When we agreed on a date and time, I decided I should at least begin to read the book. Once I started, I could hardly put it down.Tent revivals encompass a world entirely off my radar. I knew about them in a vague sort of way ¿ mostly from television. But Johnson has created a vivid world of the showmanship, the greed, the shameless begging, and obviously faked ¿miracle cures.¿ Donna tells the story through her eyes as a young child. She acknowledges help with some of the memories from her sister and mother and some scholarly sources, but the truth of her story pours off every page. I never doubted a word of her tale for even a moment.The rationalizations, the excuses, the canard ¿It¿s all part of God¿s plan,¿ and the ubiquitous ¿God told me (fill in the blank).¿ Needless to say I was appalled at the pandering for the last dollars and coins of people living on the edge. Most of the revivals seem to have taken place in the rural south, including Texas. David Terrell is still active, and his website lists a number of revivals.The real tragedy of the story involves the effect this life had on Donna and her brother and sisters. CPS would be all over Donna¿s mother, Carolyn Johnson for abandonment of her children in the care of near-strangers. Donna captures the terror of every move, every all-night drive to the next revival site, every time the children watched their mother drive away for an unknown destination for unknown length of time.Donna has her doubts, but somehow she cannot turn completely away. Of course the child is awestruck by the charismatic preacher, but the adult has questions. She writes, ¿Doubt is a lot like faith; a mustard seed¿s worth changes everything. Away from the tent, the questions kept coming. How can Brother Terrell claim to be without sin? Why doesn¿t it matter that he is committing adultery and lying? [italics Johnson¿s] .(256) and ¿¿Why did Brother Terrell and my family have so much stuff, when Jesus said to sell everything and give it to the poor? Why had an omnipotent God let that child die?¿ (257). Why indeed?As Lord Acton wrote, ¿Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,¿ so inevitably, the mansions, the Mercedes, the planes, the fast living, all consumed David Terrell, and, inevitably, the tax man cometh. Eventually, Terrell was convicted and spent a few measly years in prison for the millions he bilked off of poor, gullible people who desperately wanted to believe a better life awaited them in the beyond.An absorbing story, and I recommend it highly. 5 stars--Jim, 11/17/11
    Jackie.the.Librarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    "Holy Ghost Girl" is a candid, entertaining memoir which orbits the strange world of travelling tent revivals; a way of spreading the word that was dying out even as the author experienced it. Although author Donna Johnson could've dramatized this memoir quite a bit (a' la James Frey), she didn't. Instead she lets the subtle comedies and tragedies of revival life accumulate, so that at the end of the book, the reader is left with as many questions as answers. Many of these questions revolve around the glowing core of the author's childhood experience - preacher David Terrell. As a faith-healer, is he the real deal? Could he actually bring sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, or are these just elaborate stage tricks easily swallowed by a brainwashed little girl? I find it hard to empathize with Terrell, a hypocrite of biblical proportions. He rails against females who dare to wear makeup and pants, but has affairs with multiple women from his following, fathering hordes of confused children out of wedlock. However, Johnson doesn't depict Terrell as a villain; only a conflicted fanatic, who even in the depths of hypocrisy is capable of frequent acts of kindness. The author does not make the focus of this memoir her personal life outside the tent; instead she shows us how tent life shaped her as an impressionable young girl and eventually, a less-impressionable woman. However, I found myself wanting in on that personal life; I wish Johnson shared a little more of that experience. For instance, how did she go from being a near-puritanical holy roller to a pot smoking, pants-wearing free spirit? That transition is never breached, but it seems like it would've made for great material. This small criticism aside, the writing in this book is quite good. Already, Johnson seems to be a master of metaphor. * Favorite line of the book (referring to Randall, the preacher Terrell's son): "Away from the tent, he was nobody, and if there was one thing Randall couldn't stand, it was being a nobody. Pam and I knew this about him. We knew it in the way kids sniff out tender areas of one another's psyches, little gardens of feeling to be skirted or trampled upon, depending on the day and the situation" (p. 74).
    daly5 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Ive posted that I still havent gotten this book from the August 2011 batch but someone keeps deleting it but its now November so looks like Im not getting this one
    DubiousDisciple on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Excellent! Definitely a fun book, if a bit freaky. Now, there¿s a word I¿ve never used before in a book review!Donna Johnson tells the story of a little girl growing up on the ¿sawdust trail¿ of traveling tent missionary David Terrell. Yes, that David Terrell. Welcome to the world of public miracles, undercover infidelity and cognitive dissonance. On a grand scale. While it¿s true the story is told through the wide eyes of a child, you may turn the final page still wondering if this wayward, charismatic holy man was the real thing. Perhaps God has a sense of humor.Here¿s the odd part. I read the entire book, never connecting the name of the author with the little girl it¿s about. Donna. Yeah, it¿s a memoir, an autobiographical work, but it never once crossed my mind that the young girl of this book could possibly overcome her bizarre upbringing and grow up ¿normal¿ enough to recount her youth in such fascinating prose. The writing is as delightful as it is haunting, one of those books that leaves you grasping hungrily at the acknowledgements after its all over to avoid putting it down.It might be that I¿m over-fascinated by religion-gone-wild, but IMO this is a story you don¿t want to miss.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    60143pbr More than 1 year ago
    At the start of the book I thought that it might be an interesting read - as an independent Catholic it seemed to be something worth thinking about. However, the way the book ended was a real dud. I know that the author had herself backed into a corner but surely she could have come up with a better finish. Sorry.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    No point in diwnloading
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago