By Donna M. Johnson
The epigraph of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” which reads “Only connect…” could serve as a statement of purpose for many a writer. This may hold especially true for writers of personal narrative.
As one such writer, it was my privilege and pleasure to spend a day and a half with Baylor journalism students discussing the subset of creative nonfiction called memoir.
The spirited dialogue we had remains with me and indeed grew louder when I read editor-in-chief Caroline Brewton’s recent review of my memoir “Holy Ghost Girl,” published on April 11. The book has been favorably reviewed in a number newspapers, including The New York Times, but I particularly enjoyed the Lariat review.
Brewton was the only reviewer to attempt to evaluate the tone and shape of my story. I applaud her critical thinking, though I do not agree with all of her conclusions.
“Holy Ghost Girl” tells the story of my family’s association with one of the last of the sawdust trail tent preachers named David Terrell.
My mother began working for Terrell when I was 3 years old. Despite Terrell’s marriage, she began a secret affair with him that lasted for more than 20 years. She abandoned my brother and me for a time to travel with him.
Terrell was a gifted and dedicated preacher during the early days. Like others before and after him, he was seduced by sex, power and money, though it could be argued the first two vices are one and same.
Over time, Terrell became a sort of stepfather to my brother and me.
The book recounts a spectacular fall from grace, and I do not brag when I say it does so without bitterness. Brewton thinks so, too. She writes in her review that I forgive Terrell and my mother again and again, that I refuse to hold them to scrutiny and that by doing so I allow them to achieve a kind of (unearned?) redemption.
In my address to the journalism class, I stated that as a trained journalist I opted to err on the side of fairness. The characters in my book cannot present their side of the story to readers, and so I felt bound to try to understand their actions from their point of view. Since these characters are also members of my family whose backstories and limitations are known to me, I erred also on the side of kindness, reporting only what concerned my immediate story.
The book circles around an implied set of questions: Why did my mother and Terrell behave as they did, and what was the cost of their behavior?
The story is a reckoning of Terrell and his brand of revivalism.
It is recounted without additional vitriol for many reasons, the foremost being that as I understand it, literature works better as a venue for exploration than score settling. The injunction of creative writing to show rather than tell is also at work here.
Brewton states my lack of bitterness left her wondering what thoughts and feelings I experienced in evaluating my childhood. I recount the cruel and humiliating treatment my brother and I received at the hands of caregivers. I write that I prayed for my mother’s return, that I thought her absence meant God hated me. I state that I left home first at 15, then again for good at 17, that my mother and I argued about Terrell for years.
In short, I felt wretched and that wretchedness is on the page. It is not, however, the point of the book.
The disparity between my mother’s and Terrell’s professed beliefs and their behavior is an old story.
The strange and I hope fascinating aspect of the story is how they embodied so much of the spirit of Christianity. I refer to their treatment of the poor and marginalized and their stand for integration, despite being hounded and beaten by the Ku Klux Klan.
My mother and stepfather broke the commandments regularly, yet they loved God whole-heartedly. As one fellow writer put it, the Bible is filled with stories of people just like them. I do not mean to justify bad behavior. I’m simply saying that good and bad are intertwined in an individual in the same way that faith and doubt often coexist in believers. It is simplistic to think otherwise.
Finally, there is the reviewer’s mention of “absolute truth” and my unwillingness to sacrifice my mother and Terrell to that glittering ideal.
Given that my book focuses on what happens when people think they know the absolute truth, I find the reference astonishing.
As a freelance religion writer, I’ve learned the only way to report on faith is by entering into the framework of believers. In the book I recount fantastic occurrences such as miracles and exorcisms as real events.
I am trying to immerse the reader in a mystical world where anything is possible. This may strain credulity for some, but it is crucial to understanding the world from which I came.
Perhaps the real quarrel with “Holy Ghost Girl” is that I tell my family’s story without wholly repudiating or endorsing their belief system. This is hard for readers on both sides of the faith question to accept.
As a writer, I try to navigate the confluence of faith and human frailty, which is the murkier, and I think the deeper water. Here there are no absolutes.
Once that is accepted, a truer story may surface, flawed but rich with connection.
Donna M. Johnson is the author of “Holy Ghost Girl,” an award-winning memoir critically acclaimed by the New York Times, O Magazine and others. Her work has appeared in the Shambhala Sun, the Huffington Post and the Austin American-Statesman. She is currently at work on a second memoir.