March 2006

nonfiction

Jesusland by Julia Scheeres

In Julia Scheeres's achingly confessional memoir, Jesusland is more of an attitude than a geographic location. The title refers to a world where children are raised according to a type of fundamentalist Christian theology in which physical violence is invariably the remedy for adolescent indiscretions.

The author's experiences growing up in a Christian fundamentalist family, including the horrific year she spent at a reform school in the Dominican Republic, are one part of Jesusland. The other is the author's relationship to her black brother David, who is adopted into a biracial family at the height of the popularity of the television show Diff`rent Strokes. That's an important detail because it reflects the divide between the strides of mainstream culture of the 1980s and the community in which the Scheeres family lives. It is also the aspect of that Jesusland that makes Scheeres's book a welcome addition to the memoir genre.

The book opens on 16-year-old Julia living an adolescence which might appear normal to outsiders. At school, she's an awkward kid trudging through the normal trials of the age. At home, she lives in fear of her two Calvinist missionary parents. Her mother spends more time sending care packages to missionaries than with her children, and her father, when he's around, exacts his own vicious brand of not "sparing the rod and spoiling the child" on her two adopted black brothers. Scheeres writes that the two boys are the family's cross to bear, because "to reject a black baby would have been un-Chrstian, a sin. God was testing them." With guilt so clear it feels palpable, Scheeres recalls the treatment of her brothers at the hands of her parents, their school-age peers, and the community as well as the guilt she feels for the modest chidings she receives.

The children's home life falls apart quickly, with the eldest black brother Jerome lost to the state juvenile delinquent system and David shipped off to the Escuala Caribe Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Julia, after her own fall from grace, follows David, believing that he is all she has left of family.

The camp is little more than a re-education facility, a place where physical labor and brainwashing are used to break campers' spirits and obliterate their identities. The children are forced to repent for sins they don't know they've committed, and are awarded merit points in categories from cleanliness to "courtesy and respect towards people, places and things." Campers rat each other out to move up in the ranks. The lesson Julia gleans from this system intended to instill in her a love of God? "Trust no one."

Sprinkled throughout are flashback scenes of Julia and David's relationship. These are the most touching moments in the book, inviting the reader into a friendship that captures the best of childhood, even as the children are confronted with adult problems. We are given a veritable biography of David Scheeres -- one that makes us yearn, as David does, for this family to pull it together.

Because she is publishing her book in an age when memoirists are taken to task for embellishing -- or even inventing -- the facts, Scheeres, a journalist by profession, makes every effort o support Jesusland through documents on her website. These include the journal David kept, her personal file from the camp, and photographs she took after returning to the school a decade and a half later. It is unfortunate that memoirists must go to such lengths, but in this case it does make the story even more effective.

That tale is laid out in the kind of spare prose common in the genre today -- storytelling that aspires more to conversational intimacy with the reader than to great literature. The yearnings of adolescence come alive in the author's hands, even if her mordant tone sometimes undermines the seriousness of her subject. But that is a quibble -- one that suggests the author didn't understand the gravity of her situation until much later.

Scheeres's depiction of how she navigated her captor's game, as well as her compassionate rendering of her brother David's life easily place Jesusland among the most accessible and penetrating first person accounts of the violence perpetrated in our country in the name of religion. The book's epilogue, although heart-breaking, leaves us with the consolation that the construct of family is our own to shape.

Jesusland by Julia Scheeres
Counterpoint Press
ISBN: 1582433380
356 Pages