Austin author reflects on life in a cult-like religious community

Austin Statesman/October 21, 2011

Donna Johnson's new memoir, "Holy Ghost Girl," tells the fascinating story of Johnson as a child growing up with her mother who becomes the organist for self-proclaimed prophet and popular evangelical preacher David Terrell in the 1960s and 1970s. Johnson, who lives in Austin, writes about the world of tent revivals with candor and a sweet innocence, though she left Terrell's ministry when she was 17 and never returned.

Her writing about religion has appeared in the American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News. In 2007, she won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction Prize for the in-progress manuscript of "Holy Ghost Girl." When she was working on the book, Johnson said she found a way to connect the disparate parts of her self - skeptical and believer alike. "The sight of a gospel tent stretched against an evening sky leaves an ache in her heart, but she no longer flees at the sound of a tambourine," a version of her bio reads. "She has been known to tell people she'll pray for them. And she does."

In a phone interview, she said the book was an opportunity for her to reconnect with her past in a more complete way. "It gave me an opportunity to look at the parts that were not only dysfunctional, but also, what was beautiful about that." Johnson will be on a panel at the Texas Book Festival about memoir today and she will read from the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. The interview below has been edited and condensed.

American-Statesman: Did you find redemption from books to be an easier path than seeking redemption through religion?

Donna Johnson:Yes, I think I used the term redemption very broadly. I wanted a different kind of life than the life that I had in the world I'd grown up in. Books provided a window into many other worlds. For those of us who have grown up in what many would consider in a cult-like environment, you can go years without coming into contact with the outside world. (Books) saved me from the life I'd grown up in that I didn't really want.

Would you say you were part of a cult or just an eccentric religious community?

That's a great question, and it's one that I return to over and over again. The milieu in which I grew up is part of a long tradition of religion in the South. I do not think that a holy roller tent revival-based religion is necessarily a cult. It became secretive; it became us against them. You didn't want to talk to the outside world because you thought everyone was out to get you in the outside world.

How did you reconcile the different parts of Brother Terrell?

I didn't and I haven't. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. He had the kind of charisma and personality that inspires love in people. He would pick up people on the road and give them his last dollar to make sure they had money or take them out to dinner. I admired him, but at the same time, he had a bad temper. There was also his treatment of my mother. For me, I knew a lot of what he said wasn't true, so it created a cognitive dissonance that stays with me, I think. But in some ways, my feelings and thoughts for Brother Terrell, are not that different from the thoughts and feelings most people have for their parents. You know them as authorities and then you find out things about their personalities ... it (all) exists on the same continuum.

Did your childhood make you jaded about religion?

I think my childhood created in me the sort of very basic connection to religion that I can't seem to get away from. I continue to be fascinated by it. God is a hard God to quit. I try to say that I don't believe and I find that there's very deep connection to the dream of God and to religion. At the same time, I'm very wary of unchecked beliefs. I'm very wary of friends who are always looking for gurus. That would never be me. I tend to shy away from personalities who have all the answers. I think that's pretty healthy.

Tell me what, if anything, Randall's story taught you about the ability or inability for prayer to be physically healing.

Belief and faith are far more mysterious things than we have any idea of. Brother Terrell prayed for me and I was well for 10 years. When I thought I didn't have any belief left in him, I found out something worse about him than I'd ever known, and that night, I was sick again. I don't know what to think about that. There are many ways that you can explain it but I'm aware that those are constructs we use to talk about it. If you're of another bent, New Age, even Buddhist, you might say the mind-body connection is strong.

How has this journey influenced how you think about faith?

I think that it's really given me a sort of open mind and an open heart when it comes to ideas of God and what God is and who God is. I tend to see scripture in terms of metaphor, which some people think makes it less true but for me makes it more true, which may be because I'm a writer. I try not to be too much of a literalist, I try not to let dogma become too rooted in my psyche. How that comes from my childhood, I don't know. I know I'm connected to something bigger than myself, and I believe that all kinds of people have ways to be connected to whatever that force is — that bigger dream of God. I call it a dream of God because we all have a different one when it comes to God.

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