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Holy Ghost Girl:

A Memoir

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Selected for the October 2011 Indie Next List

A compassionate, humorous story of faith, betrayal, and coming of age on the sawdust trail

She was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist of tent revivalist David Terrell, and before long, Donna Johnson was 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, the caravan of broken-down cars and trucks that made up his ministry evolved into fleets of Mercedes and airplanes. The glories of the Word mixed with betrayals of the flesh, and Donna’s mother bore Terrell’s children in one of several secret households he maintained. Thousands of followers, dubbed “Terrellites” by the press, left their homes to await the end of the world in cult-like communities. Jesus didn’t show, but the IRS did, and the prophet-healer went to prison.

Recounted with deadpan observations and surreal detail, Holy Ghost Girl bypasses easy judgment to articulate a rich world where the mystery of faith and human frailty share a surprising and humorous coexistence.

Editorial Reviews

“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, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle

“This is a thoroughly provocative memoir. Memoirs don’t usually resist the obvious. This one does. You won’t find Donna M. Johnson dithering in anger, cynicism, or self-pity. Holy Ghost Girl is a sensitive exploration of the power that inheres in faith communities, however flawed.”

Rhoda Janzen, New York Times bestselling author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

“Donna M. Johnson’s memoir captivated me from the first page. Vividly written and richly detailed, it evokes a curious subculture that few Americans are familiar with—that of the Pentecostal revival tent, with all the spiritual and carnal ecstasy that simmer beneath it. Holy Ghost Girl is also a cautionary tale of preachers whose followers elevate them to a godhood then blind themselves to their leader’s often extravagant sins.”

Julia Scheeres, New York Times bestselling author of Jesus Land

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…Fascinating.”

New York Times

“Yet for all the disaster that seems inevitable from the opening pages of this plainspoken memoir, Johnson still maintains some affection for the part-time charlatan who was often caring and loving to her…and therein lies the paradox at the center of Johnson’s story, in which faith and love live alongside anger and betrayal.”

O, the Oprah Magazine

“Johnson’s lively memoir recalls a truly strange childhood…Fascinating and sometimes disturbing…mixed with serious reflection.”

Dallas Morning News

“Johnson’s beautifully written and super-absorbing memoir of growing up on the tent revival circuit is full of vivid and sometimes shocking events.”

Star Tribune

“Johnson spent her childhood in the 1960s and 1970s traveling America’s South with revivalist preacher Brother David Terrell, a hugely popular Holy Roller who brought thousands to his raucous tent sermons. But life under the tent—and under Terrell’s control—was far from easy, and Johnson eloquently recounts this uncommon upbringing shaped by constant upheaval and her increasingly fraught conception of faith…Leaving the tent circuit for good at sixteen gave Johnson the perspective she needed for this fascinating tale of life with a ‘con man, a prophet, a performer.’”

Publishers Weekly

“Johnson has a terrific ability to write details as seen through the eyes of a child, letting readers discern what is really happening before the narrator is able to understand herself…Brilliant prose that is both precise and evocative of larger truths illuminates the normalized yet bewildering world.”

School Library Journal

“A trustworthy narrator, Johnson is consistently funny, poetic, and remarkably devoid of bitterness.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Carrington MacDuffie was fantastic as narrator. She made the atmosphere of a tent revival come to life. When she narrated Brother Terrell’s sections, I was glued to the story. She brought his charisma through the speakers.”

LiterateHousewife.com

Holy Ghost Girl is a wonder of a book. Chief among its marvels is how clear-eyed and deeply compassionate Johnson is as she recounts what it was like to grow up believing all things are possible and how hard it was to leave that harsh and deeply flawed paradise to become a part of the world in all its ‘gaudy glory.’ With evocatively precise details, fond humor, and an utter lack of scorn or cynicism, Johnson accomplishes the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle miracle of rendering the world through the eyes of a young child. Arriving at a time when the war between fact and faith is escalating, Holy Ghost Girl is a book that people will be talking about.”

Sarah Bird, author of The Gap Year

“A wrenching 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.”

Lisa Napoli, author of Radio Shangri-La

“A brilliant and beautiful story of people who passionately loved God and broke his commandments in almost every way possible. The kind of story the Bible is full of, told with rare compassion and grace.”

Christine Wicker, author of Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead and God Knows My Heart

Author Biography

Donna Johnson grew up calling evangelical minister David Terrell “Daddy.” She left his ministry for good at the age of seventeen and has not returned since. She has written about religion for the Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman. With her husband, she owns and operates Bazzirk, Inc., a marketing and advertising firm that runs marketing programs around the world. She maintained a residency at the Ragdale Foundation in spring 2009 and won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction Prize for Manuscript in Progress in 2007 for Holy Ghost Girl. She lives in Austin and is active in the local writing community.

Reader Biography

Carrington MacDuffie is a voice actor and recording artist who has narrated over two hundred audiobooks, received numerous AudioFile Earphones Awards, and has been a frequent finalist for the Audie Award, including for her original audiobook, Many Things Invisible. Alongside her narration work, she has released a new album of original songs, Only an Angel.

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