Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

Looking at Julia Scheeres, you would never know she had the childhood from hell.

Tall, slim, lovely-looking with long blonde hair cascading past her shoulders, Scheeres seems the epitome of chic and savvy. Her grace comes naturally, as does her smile.

That is why her memoir, Jesus Land, now out in paperback, is so devastating. Scheeres grew up in an austere Calvinist family in the Midwest. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a devoted church member. When Scheeres was three, her parents adopted a new son, an African-American boy named David. A short time later they adopted another black son.

Scheeres’ book is primarily an homage to her brother David, whom she considered her best friend in life. For many years the two of them were soul mates who weathered their parents’ fundamentalism together. It is only when they begin a new high school in Indiana where David is one of the only black students do the two drift apart. Scheeres wants to fit in so badly she rejects her brother and his blackness.

Naturally, David acts act against this meanness and his parents decide to send him to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Scheeres, who had been abused for years by her other brother, is caught sleeping with her boyfriends. Soon she is on a plane for the Caribbean.

Escuela Caribe, run by New Horizons Youth Ministry, is a school unlike any other. When students first arrive, they are not allowed to do anything without the permission of an instructor. They cannot move or walk without asking permission. They cannot eat, talk, or answer a question without explicit approval. They are not allowed to talk to a member of the opposite sex. The ability to gain personal freedom is tied up in how fervently these students profess a belief in God and a willingness to subject themselves completely to the will of the institution. The school professes to use Christian theology to transform its students, but abuse is at the core of its mission.

When Scheeres first arrived, she had not seen her brother for months. School officials allowed them to talk for ten minutes, but then the two were forbidden to make contact until Scheeres worked her way up the school’s deportment ladder. Scheeres learns to play the game well and soon becomes the top student in the school. There is a wonderful scene when she and David are supposed to walk to their volunteer job at an orphanage, but they stop by a bar and drink pina coladas. They haven’t been free and happy in months, and they experience pure joy at getting to hang out together without the threat of spying eyes. Of course they get caught.

This is really a love poem to David, who died in a car accident when he was 20. The only reservation I had about this book, and it is not a big one, is that Scheeres never brings her parents front and center in the book. We never learn why they embraced religion so tightly. Her father is a respected doctor, yet he is a tyrant at home. I would have liked to see more scenes of her parents and gotten a better understanding of who they were.

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