As a little girl, Johnson lived with her mother in Tampa in the back of the parsonage of their church. She was an only child.
Johnson and her mother belonged to an apostolic church and went to mandatory service six days a week, sometimes seven. Hats and long sleeves were required for the girls and women; they could not wear pants or jewelry. They behaved in accordance with strict church guidelines, and the elders told them what they could say or do.
Johnson’s mother spent little time with her. When she did, it was to bake biscuits and fruit pies for the church. There was no television in the house, but her mother would, on occasion, sit down with Johnson with a coloring book and pencils. That is the fondest memory Johnson has of her childhood.
Each day before school, Johnson sought out her aunt for lunch money because Johnson’s mother worked as a substitute teacher and could barely make ends meet. Her aunt lived nearby in the same house as the bishop of their church, and one day, when Johnson was 8, he summoned her into his bedroom.
I got your lunch money. Come and get it.
He forced her to lie on the bed, used petroleum jelly and penetrated her. He said nothing and then sent her on her way, blood dripping down her legs. Johnson ran to a bathroom to wash herself, but she was a child in the fourth grade. She could not understand what had happened.
After that, she was raped repeatedly by the bishop and also a church deacon. But when she tried to talk about it, no one believed her, not even her mother. It happened so frequently that Johnson accepted it as a part of growing up.
Her elementary school classmates cruelly told her she smelled like fish.
Several months passed when, one day in class, she was summoned to a room where students received their vaccinations. Johnson was confused. She never got shots; her church forbade them.
She was examined by a nurse and sent back to class. A few minutes later, she heard her name again, blaring through the intercom. She was to collect all her belongings and wait in the office for her mother to pick her up. What had she done wrong?
You’re going to have a baby, her mother blurted out in the car. Who’s been messing with you?
I tried to tell you, Johnson replied. But you said I was lying.
A doctor examined her and gave her the news: She was seven months pregnant. She did the math and knew it was the deacon’s baby.
Her mother stood up in church and told everyone her daughter was lying about being raped. She blamed Johnson for bringing shame on the family and sent her away to Miami with the bishop who had raped her. She was dropped off at Jackson Memorial Hospital and left there alone to have her baby.
On a February night in 1970, Johnson, only 10 years old, waited in a hospital hallway. She tried to imagine how a baby would come out of her body; no one had explained it to her. The stares burned through her; she felt like an oddity at an amusement park.
At 1:54 a.m., she gave birth to her first child. When she returned to Tampa, a child welfare worker came by to ask questions. She figures her elementary school must have tipped off the state.
The men who had raped her were adults and if the truth were to surface, they would face statutory rape charges. Instead, Johnson’s mother arranged for her daughter to marry one of her rapists, the deacon. She bought a white dress and veil for her daughter and accompanied bride and groom to the Hillsborough County courthouse in Tampa.
Johnson was 11. The man she was marrying was 20.