Sunday, February 19, 2012

Author Interview Donna Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl

A few weeks ago I posted a review of Holy Ghost Girl, about a family who traveled with a revival preacher in the 1960's. The author of this book, Donna Johnson, graciously agreed to answer my questions about the book. Here is part 1 of the interview; part 2 is coming soon!

Did you hold on to any of the religious beliefs of your childhood? 

I carry a belief in social justice that stems from the teachings I absorbed as  a kid. I inherited the idea that there is something huge and mysterious afoot in the world, though I think that religion often makes that "something" too small by trying to define it. I am a sort of cultural Christian, much more of a contemplative. I read Buddhist writers and thinkers and they have influenced the way in which I think about existence. I would like to feel more connected to my own tradition, but find I still have quite a bit of resistance, even though I've attended an Episcopal church on and off and years.

As I mentioned in my review, I was expecting a sort of tongue-in-cheek sendup of the “crazy Pentecostals,” but your book is a far cry from that. You seem to be writing from a position of ambivalence – an even-handed acknowledgement of the good hand-in-hand with the bad. Would you say there was more good? Or more bad? Would you trade your childhood for a “normal” childhood?

I don't know if there was more good than bad. On a day to day basis, there may have been more bad times than good. But there was also great deal of love, and that redeemed my childhood to a large extent and gave me some sense of goodness in the world. In terms of trading my childhood for a normal one--because of my daughter and because I now see so much dysfunction being passed down through the next generation, I have to say yes, I would trade my childhood for something more normal. I would have liked to have had an experience of stability and safety to pass on.

If a religious leader is going to have “feet of clay,” it often seems to be in the area of sexuality. Why do you think that sexual sin is so common among admired Christian men?

I've thought a great deal about this. Statistics show that divorce and affairs are as common in the church as outside of it, so I don't know that Christian men are more prone to sexual misconduct. Several Buddhist leaders and Hindu holy men have been accused of misconduct similar to Terrell's in terms of money and women. I tend to think that power is a corrupting force. Look at the secret and not so secret lives of performers and politicians. I think sexual misconduct stands out in Christian and religious circles because we expect more from these men, as we should. Terrell's sexual misconduct was on a grand scale, more like a rock star's maybe. But I do not think it is an anomaly in any circle, especially where there is unchecked power and ego.

Your brother was younger than you. How has he reacted to the upbringing the two of you shared?

My brother has recreated a life style that is similar to the one in which we grew up with a couple of large exceptions: he treated his wife far better and he didn't leave his children behind. He often says he doesn't like to talk about the past, but I think it is because it is so very painful for him.  And I'm not sure that talking about it makes it any better or any less painful.

Your book describes a kind of parallel existence with kids in the rest of the world—for example, the scene where some of you visit a local swimming pool, where the town kids watch you swim in your church clothes—because you don’t own bathing suits. Did you (collectively) feel superior to “normal” kids? Envious? Can you describe how you came to realize that you had something in common with them? As an adult, do you now feel “assimilated,” or do you still have something of that wall between you and outsiders?

We felt both superior and inferior to "worldly" kids. We knew we were different and to compensate for that difference, we feigned superiority. I say feigned, but we were taught that we were the elect, the chosen ones and we absorbed that teaching. In later years, as a preteen, I was very envious of normal kids. I think I first realized I had something in common with the rest of the world through reading. Good books allowed me to see the commonality of humanity. I never discussed my innermost feelings with anyone until I reached my twenties. I am certainly more assimilated than I've ever been, but it's been a long process, and yes, I still often feel like an outsider. It's habit. I have to remind myself on occasion that the reality is I am no longer an outsider and have not been for a long time.

Watch for part 2, coming soon!


  1. I could very much relate to the book based on my childhood and upbringing. I can also very much relate to the author's comments about feeling like an outsider and having to learn to function in larger society. The book and interview have got me thinking. :)

  2. Me too! I have decided that after I finish the dissertation I'm going to write about how it was for us...

  3. My parents were, and unfortunately still are followers of David Terrell. I too, wanted to write something of those years but I feared the accusation of "sour grapes" not from the true believers, but from the accomodationists within the heirarcies of higher literary critics themselves. I instead, opted for a literary fiction device using an event involving the death by drowning of a young girl who attended the church in Bangs, TX in 1975. I regret not starting the writing project though I attempted a short story on the subject in High School.

  4. It's a fascinating part of our culture that is still not very well known. Are you the Ken Stephens who works at SEU?