A Prophet and a Liar

“Holy Ghost Girl”, a new memoir by Donna M. Johnson, tells the remarkable story of the author’s childhood among the followers of Brother David Terrell, the last of the great tent-revival preachers of the fabled Sawdust Trail, an evangelical circuit in the South named for the sawdust on the floors of its temporary tabernacles. Johnson’s mother, Carolyn, was the Depression-era daughter of an itinerant Assemblies of God minister. Born into the kind of white Southern poverty photographed by Dorothea Lange, Carolyn possessed a longing for the wider world, and uncanny musical ability. When Brother Terrell brought the gospel to her Alabama town in the late 1950s, Carolyn discovered both her soul mate and her calling. Within a week, she’d sold or given away most of her earthly goods, and joined his circus.

With her two children (the author and her little brother Gary) in tow, Carolyn became Brother Terrell’s organist, ghostwriter, Girl Friday, and considerably more. Though he was a married man, and his interpretation of the Scriptures was peppered with hellfire and brimstone, Brother Terrell also had quite an eye for the ladies. As the years would reveal, it wasn’t just the Holy Spirit that Terrell was sowing on the Sawdust Trail. In addition to the children he had with Betty Ann, his wan, long-suffering wife, and the three daughters he would eventually father with Carolyn, he begot many progeny by an assortment of worshipful followers, mistresses, fellow preachers and wives. By 2001, when Johnson’s sort-of step-brother Randall—a mischievous, pitiful, Southern Gothic figure who suffered from an obscure chronic ailment—mercifully passed away, Terrell’s family “numbered around seventy.” Emphasis on the “around,” because, like so much in “Holy Ghost Girl”, there’s really no way to rightly know “the truth.”

There’s much to admire about Johnson’s memoir, including its wry humor and sprightly, elegant prose, but one of the things I, as a fellow memoirist, most admire is her willingness to acknowledge the “unknowableness” of her experience; to suspend judgment and shrug her shoulders at the strangeness of her early life and the odd crop of adults who peopled it. The incidents of Johnson’s childhood were peculiar even by the somewhat compromised standards of the rural South. She now lives in Austin. She’s married to a poet. And I imagine she voted for Obama.

The reason that I emphasize this is because it makes the extraordinary open-mindedness she exhibits toward Terrell and his followers more extraordinary still. Is Terrell, she asks herself, “a con man? A prophet? A performer?” Though he was her step-father, he remains a figure of LBJ-caliber complexity. She witnessed him perform extremely convincing miracles, healings, even an exorcism. Prospero to her Miranda, he possessed undeniable power, and a knowledge of the private sufferings of others that beggars rational explanation. Johnson provides a startling description of the time he “laid hands” on her: “It was as though a curtain fell over my senses. … The I that was me, separate and distinct, released its hold, and I experienced myself as a vast and bliss-filled darkness. … [That night] the sores, fevers, and lethargy that had plagued me for months disappeared.”

In so many ways, Holy Ghost Girl depicts Brother Terrell as a scoundrel. Besides his shabby behavior toward his children, wives, and lovers, and his cavalier treatment of sycophants, he amassed a personal fortune of many millions from the frightened and desperate people who flocked under his tents. Eventually, in the 1980s, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to three concurrent 10-year prison sentences for income tax evasion, but only after making preparations to flee the country, and allowing Johnson’s spurned mother to languish for weeks in the Wichita County jail for refusing to testify against him.

And yet, Johnson still struggles to reconcile the disparate aspects of Terrell’s character, in such a way that reveals the “irreconcilableness” of belief and rationality. “I believed,” she writes, “[he] was a prophet and a healer. I knew he was a liar and an adulterer,” a flawed messenger in a world of such “messy glory.” Meeting him again after many years, she finds herself relating to him in terms with which we can all probably identify, if not quite understand: “It wasn’t belief or unbelief,” she writes. “It was love.”