While on retreat with Natalie Goldberg this summer in France, I sat next to a woman who is trying hard to figure out how to write a memoir about her famous father. I feel for her. My parents are deceased and almost no one knew them, though of course they have friends and family who have survived them and are people I need to navigate while working with private issues. Whether or not one's memoir is a "we-moir" as Kirin Narayan's husband called her family memoir My Family and Other Saints, our families and friends are going to be involved. If any of those people are known at any phenomenal level - as famous or otherwise public figures - that makes writing about oneself, much less one's family, all the harder.
When I read an interview with Donna M. Johnson, I immediately went to my Kindle shop and bought a ecopy of her book, Holy Ghost Girl. Despite my best attempts to leaf through my issues of Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers, I cannot seem to find the interview that drew me in. All I can tell you is that it was about her process, and a reference she made to the difficulty in truth-telling, rather than about the quite-sellable tale of her growing up in the Terrellites. I am generally not drawn to tell-all/confessional memoirs. Most of my interest is in the ordinary/mundane life, regular Joe and Jane heroes who survive or simply live. However, her compelling paragraph about truth in memoir writing drew me to her story.
I knew little to nothing about charismatic preachers or the movement overall that eventually spawned Oral Roberts, the only famous name I recognized. When Johnson pinpointed one of Terrell's locations as being where the Waco compound would come just ten years later, I recognized another name. Again, these were media flashes from my younger years, rather than key interest points for me.
So I went in with very little background and read the story for the story's sake, for the memoirist's journey of writing, over some sense of seeking content or a revelation of what it was like to live in a charismatic preacher's world. And at this level, as well as eventually spiking my curiosity in cults/Christian charismatics, Johnson delivers. She explores a lot of the paradoxical issues of her time, not just the contradictions of her famous religious "father", racism amongst them:
Red, yellow, black, or polka-dotted, we're all God's children and we all sit together under my tent,' he said. Not that we identified with the civil rights movement. The same whites who hugged the necks of black believers under the tent thought nothing of using the n-word in everyday life, and would not abide mixing with blacks under any other circumstance.Everywhere she goes, Johnson encounters misdirection. She isn't interested, does not truck in, exploiting her own story. She does not look to blame, to act as a victim. She describes herself now, with good humor, as "Episcopalian with Buddhist tendencies." She shows simple human suffering in her relationships, and makes sure to depict everyone as faulted and imperfect.
Some of my favorite passages:
The drive to Villa Rica was miserable. Randall rode in the backseat with Mama, Gary and me, and his unhappiness took up so much room we couldn't breathe without brushing up against it. Mama tapped her foot and Randall moaned. I cracked my knuckles and he wailed. Gary tried to make him feel better by offering my Etch A Sketch. "Git that thing away. I'm too miserable to play."
His eyes, round and swollen, slipped over every person, every object in the room, searching, searching, searching. It was as if he found himself locked outside life and looked for a way back in. On occasion he gathered the four of us kids close, Pam and Randall under each arm, Gary crowding in. I pulled away, unable to laugh and snuggle and hold my hand out for the silver dollar he offered, terrified by his vulnerability.
Smoke shot from a tailpipe, gray and blue against the blackness. Odd, how the mind records the most random detail and leaves the larger picture a blur. A car door opened and hands reached out and pulled me in and down, onto a scratchy weave of upholstery. My head settled on a broad thigh. A woman's sob broke through the static of voices. What? A question, soft and unformed, rose from the bottom of my consciousness. I tried to push myself up and was pulled back down by hands, warm and soothing, on my shoulders, my forehead. The door closed. Car wheels crunched through gravel. We were moving. I let myself sink back into sleep. Everything was okay as long as we were moving.
Given that life is full of ambiguity, ambivalence and inconsistency, I loved the memoir. Because she keeps a relatively even hand, while driving us forward with what may be a foregone conclusion to some (guess what: he exploits all his money and has multiple wives, I know you are shocked by this), the story itself is driven less by it's tell-all possibilities and more by the simple human connection.
Kids of famous (or infamous) people have real, normal lives, too. They, too, don't know whether their memories come from photos, from stories others have told about them, or their own minds. They, too, recall smoke and mirrors more than definite details. On this level alone, Johnson's memoir is a great exploration of what it means to make memoir at all - chasing down the (holy) ghosts of memory and asking them to stay awhile on the page, long enough to make a story other humans can understand.