For me, perhaps the most compelling thing about memoirs is when the author finds herself at odds with her upbringing and the ensuing struggle that leads to thinking for herself, free of the ingrained “truths” she accepted quite as naturally as breathing. Religion provides the basis for many of these stories including two recent reads.
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson grew up on the traveling revivalist tent circuit. The charismatic preacher David Terrell had a special relationship with Johnson’s mother which caused friction with his legal wife. Living like a gypsy, falling asleep across a couple of folding chairs as the adults prayed into the early morning, living in fear of the menacing Ku Klux Klan who disagreed with Terrell’s policy of non-segregation, moving into ramshackle temporary housing, spending hours on the road, and only occasional school attendance were all Johnson’s normal. When her mother is called to do missionary work with Terrell in South America, she and brother are passed off on a series of temporary guardians whose treatment is often abusive. Is Terrell the performer of miracles and saver of souls she was raised to believe or a pathological narcissist with a cruel double standard of behavior? Are his followers dupes or is he deserving of their reverence despite his failings? Johnson still struggles with definitive answers.
Fathermothergod: My Journey out of Christian Science tells the story of another religious group outside the mainstream. Lucia’s parents adopted Christian Science with a fervor that led her father to give up his high paying job to become a Christian Science practitioner — what in “Science” substitutes for a doctor who uses prayer instead of medicine because “dis-ease” is just an illusion caused erroneous thinking. When Greenhouse and her siblings suffered injuries or chicken pox, the family huddled and sang hymns. In retrospect Greenhouse wonders if her nurse grandmother’s oddly speckled applesauce hid contraband baby aspirin. When Greenhouse’s mother becomes critically ill, she and her adult siblings, no longer followers of their parents’ religion, struggle with the morality of allowing their mother to practice her religion and deny medical intervention.