Shrimping and Saving

Diane Wilson's religious experience.
by Published on

The myth of childhood is that it’s a land of innocence, before mortality and responsibility have become comprehensible concepts, much less heavy-handed laws. But another word for innocence is ignorance, and ignorance is a vacuum that will be filled with whatever’s around, be it boogeymen and monsters or heffalumps and woozles. For Diane Wilson, childhood was populated by devils and ghosts, holy and otherwise. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of the Knock Down, Drag Out; Or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus describes Wilson’s Pentecostal upbringing in the tiny fishing town of Seadrift, Texas, where residents were ruled by poverty, labor, elaborate religious mores, and corrupt authorities. Despite that potentially oppressive litany, the book is a delight. Wilson’s world, at least to this reader, registers as exotic and bizarre, full of hysterical preachers and wild-eyed snake-handlers. It speeds along in a language of pure poetry, a rhythmic patois rich with the acute senses of childhood. And unlike most memoirs, Holy Roller has a murder-mystery subplot to goose the pace.

The book is even more fun if you know who Diane Wilson turned out to be. After her hardscrabble youth, she stayed in Seadrift and became a shrimp boat captain and mother of five. Then, learning that her county was the most polluted in the United States, she became a full-time environmental activist. That aspect of Wilson’s life is detailed in her first book, An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. As we can now see, Wilson’s activism is underscored and supported by a faith-in loving humanity and in a benevolent universe-that’s all the more inspiring for having emerged from the formative years described in Holy Roller.

Wilson’s second memoir opens with 9-year-old Diane in bed with her two sisters, squished up against the window, scratching a message into the paint of the sill. The message is, “I will see Jesus in three months.” Then she wonders, “How did I know that message dropped out of heaven and didn’t come up from hell?” So she asks her Grandma.

“She said it was a sin to dream true dreams,” Wilson writes. “That was witchcraft. Unless, of course, Jesus sent them or sent angels to send them, and that was the gift of prophesy. So who did it? The devil or Jesus?”

Seadrift shrimper-activist-author Diane Wilson

Wilson gets this kind of riddling shrift in response to the simplest questions, reflecting the weight her family grants to thoughts, dreams, feelings, and gibberish. In Wilson’s youth, material objects and mental stimuli are so scarce that even the most passing of psychic ephemera warrant examination and, in most cases, judgment. Grandma asserts that a person inspired by the devil won’t be able to say “Lord Jesus” three times. Wilson says “Lord Jesus” three times.

“Okay, child,” Grandma allows. “You’re okay for the minute.”

Wilson spends most of her childhood either at church or in the company of her many caretakers, of whom Grandma is one. There’s also her mother, described as a “serious serious Christian woman,” but one for whom work takes precedence over worship: “She could have two lines of wash strung out before the pastor’s wife said Deuteronomy or Ecclesiastes.”

Wilson’s father, a shrimp boat captain, is considered “backslidden,” a term for those once saved by God but since lost to bad behavior-in this case, because he smokes and doesn’t attend church. Wilson is also occasionally sent to stay with her father’s father, a half-Native American former fisherman dubbed Chief. Chief is unreligious, but believes he can converse with dead spirits, both awake and in dreams.

Shuttled from place to place, young Wilson learns to keep quiet and follow orders. This works fairly well until Wilson’s uncle, Archie Don, goes missing just as another shrimper on Archie’s boat is mysteriously shot dead at sea. Chief enlists young Diane to help him track down what turns out to be Archie Don’s corpse-and then his killer-nearly getting her killed in the process.

If Wilson had wanted a more plot-heavy version of Holy Roller, she could have started the book with the dynamite sentences that kick off Chapter 5: “Murder in a fishing town is like the day before a hurricane hits. Everybody knows it’s gonna be a terrible tragedy but they can’t help feeling excited.” From here, the book picks up its pace considerably, but if Wilson had begun here, the reader would have missed 50 pages of context.

As it is, the first major event in Holy Roller is the arrival of missionaries. This introduces us to the titular Church of Knock Down, Drag Out (aka the Church of Jesus Loves You), and gives readers an initial taste of the young protagonist’s bewildering world. A visiting preacher works himself into a lather glorifying the missionaries, whom he describes as “flaming torches in darkest Aferker … laying their lives under a sharp hatchet so those heathen folks over there can get a chance to be washed in the precious blood of the lamb just like me and you here tonight.” Then, inspired by the Holy Ghost, the visiting evangelist “started running around the altar with the Bible up to his chest, then stopped and slammed the Bible on the altar like he just whacked an escaping roach. Somebody hollered, ‘Jeesssus’s blood blood blood blood.’” Two young women get up and start singing about Jesus, but after a minute, “the first sister slumped over and down came the second sister, WHAM WHAM. They were slain in the spirit. Collapsed in the abiding arms of the Lord. But to me they just died. Dead as a hammer.”

These multihour worship services are the only place where such Holy Ghost-inspired theatrics and behavioral extravagances are permissible. The rest of Wilson’s life is emotionally sparse, alternating between boredom and fear, hiding and working. A cold mayonnaise sandwich is a rare delight. Such deprivations, to which Wilson is acclimatized by accident of birth, are culturally reinforced by the demands of her community. According to the Church of Jesus Loves You, things that can keep you out of heaven include “tobacco in all its forms, secret societies like the Masons, life insurance, doctors, medicine, liquor, dance halls, theaters, movies, Coca-Cola, public swimming, professional sports, beauty parlors, jewelry, church bazaars, Christmas trees, and the entire idea of Halloween.” Add to that list being rich, reading books, and worshipping as a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Catholic.

Luckily or not, most of these lifestyle options weren’t available to the impoverished members of the Church of Jesus Loves You, which tended to affirm poverty as a virtue.

“At the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, around the 1900s, they were all extremely poor people,” Wilson recently told me. “It was like they were so on the fringes of America, and a lot of these places, they were barely surviving, so they had a great disdain for the part of society that excluded them. So they had their own religion, and one of the main things about it was that even being rich was one of the things that would keep you out of heaven. The Bible says what is first now will be last then and what is last now will be first then-that was a big, big deal. Especially with the rapture. That was like, any moment, it’s gonna happen. It could happen at supper, it could happen that night, we were gonna float up out of our shoes. And the people that weren’t going to make it were going to be the people who had all the stuff.”

More recently, Wilson says, the church has evolved along with its constituents’ socioeconomic standing.

“It’s changed completely from my childhood,” she says. “Now God’s gonna make you rich. Before, being rich was gonna keep you out of heaven, and only the really poor of spirit such as we were gonna make it. Now, God’s supposed to increase you tenfold. … I read a comment one time that God doesn’t invent people, but people invent God to be whatever we are. Now, it’s about being rich and powerful, and war, war, war. Now we’ve invented God to be very rich, powerful, and warring. If you’re not rich, it’s because you didn’t have enough faith.”

Here Wilson is referring to a particularly disturbing passage in Holy Roller wherein Grandma tries to raise her son Delbert, Diane’s uncle, from the dead. Delbert had suffered a self-inflicted rifle shot to the chest and is clearly expired, but Grandma just knows that if her faith is sufficient, he will be restored.

“Grandma shoved the creeping mass of hysterical girls out of the kitchen where Delbert was laid out on the table and she wedged a chair against the doorknob and waited on Jesus to work behind the scenes. Jesus told her to pray for life, even though death was tempting her to doubt it could take place. The cold hands and face. The blue-tinged lips and fingertips. The gaping bloody hole. Those symptoms … the presence of death … were the devil’s lies. God always responded to prayer. And if he didn’t, who’s fault was that? Not God’s. Look for it elsewhere …”

“She really believed she could raise him from the dead,” Wilson told me. “And I know that the Pentecostals absolutely believe it. And if you can’t do it, it shows your lack of faith. It’s similar to faith healing-the faith makes you well. So it’s a problem with you if you can’t do it, not with God.”

This tenet of Wilson’s ancestral faith-the placement of guilt for life’s cruelest events squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer-is part of what causes Wilson, at the book’s conclusion, to crumble. One of Holy Roller‘s few weaknesses is that it fails to make absolutely explicit what happens at this critical moment of truth. The reader is told that movie star Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame), mentioned early in the book, approaches Wilson and tells her how the two of them are going to act. She writes, “My head’s insides moved an inch. My handwritten message in the dirt switched from right leaning to left leaning. And in the weeds and later under the chinaberry trees (the shedding, weeping chinaberry trees) I ceased to exist. No curtains moved in my house.”

Wilson apparently means by this abstraction that she experienced a psychic break.

“What happened is, I was nine years old, and I believed everything they told me,” Wilson says. “I was a very gullible kid. And God got to be a little too violent and a little too angry, so I developed this other personality. It totally took over. … The main thing about Anthony is that he was stoic. He couldn’t be reached by anything. … It was almost like I was invisible. That’s how I survived until I was probably 20,” which is when Wilson says she consciously rejected the religion of her youth.

“I wrassled God to the floor,” she says. “And when I did, suddenly I had this pure silence. And I knew from then on I would never ever take in another thing that I did not personally know to be true. And that’s the way I live. I don’t care what anyone says to me. If it doesn’t ring true to me, if I don’t experience it as true, I reject it.”

Miraculously, Wilson hasn’t become a nihilist. Instead, that rejection empowered her faith on behalf of the environment. “I’m a mystic,” she says now. “I think everything is alive. That’s the part of the Pentecostal faith that I retained-a sense of the invisible world. Even when I do my activism, I take action with a certain confidence that the universe is working in a positive manner. And I may not know what’s going to happen or how things will work out, but I know they will …

“I believe man is ultimately good and that we are evolving,” Wilson adds. “That’s why I’ll step out here with no money and insurmountable odds-if you do activism, the odds always seem insurmountable. But if you really believed that, you’d turn and walk away from it. I don’t. I have no doubt in my mind that good will come of it. I have no doubt. I’m positive.”

Contributing writer Emily DePrang lives in Pearland.

exceprt from Holy Rollerillustration by Tyler Parker

…I was dough on anybody’s dough board. I was missionary dough on Sister Pearl’s dough board and nurse dough on Momma’s dough board. Momma was a born-again Christian but big big on nursing. Her dream for a short while was to be a nurse but she got married and, BOOM!, had seven kids instead so she transferred her aborted nursing dream onto her daughters. It was a tangled, twisted little fetus of a thing. Never quite living, not quite dead. But no matter, the nursing dream was like a possum up a tree and she was the kid with a stick trying to hit it over the head; she never hit it squarely on the head, but ever’ time she thought about it, she went out and took another swing at it.

Momma had lived all her life in one little town and had never went beyond the city-limit sign until she was about twenty-five, when she and her three kids rode on a train to Clute, Texas, to visit an uncle. By nightfall the uncle wanted to know when she and that batch of kids was leaving so Momma left Clute and went home crying. She never left again. Momma said the only reason a woman needed to be outa the house was if she was making money and if she was a woman she wasn’t making much so really there wasn’t no reason for her to be outa the house. Unless she was a nurse. Nurses made lots of money. So Momma wanted every one of us girls to be a nurse and hardly one of us was heading that way so Momma ran out of ideas on what to do with us besides sending us to church. Maybe one of us would be a missionary. Sacrifice and money. Momma was big on one and knew a lot about the scarcity of the other. So make lots of money or go to the Congo as a missionary and get hacked to pieces and buried in a shoebox. (No missionary made it alive out of the Congo.)

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.