Jesus Land

I gobbled Julia Scheeres’ riveting memoir, Jesus Land. But now, a week or so after finishing it, I have to admit that what compelled me was the horrible story of multiple levels of psychological abuse and the energy and pluck in her voice. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve gotten into the habit of dog-earing pages containing really striking language. I didn’t note anything about this book.

Nonetheless, as I wrote last week, I think it’s a good book and an interesting one. The story is strange and compelling: Julia is the fourth child of a strict Christian family. Her parents decided to adopt a child and, unable to quickly get a disabled child, took on—as their Christian duty—a black boy, David. He joins the family at 3 when Julia, too, is 3. Unfortunately for everyone, the family’s racism, compounded by their surroundings (rural Indiana, outside Lafayette--not exactly a bastion of diversity or tolerance), only intensified the already oppressive and abusive atmosphere at home. (The weeping and depressed mother, single-mindedly focused on saving souls elsewhere reminded me of that wonderful, insane mother in Jeannette Winterson’s terrific first book, Oranges Are not the Only Fruit.) Thinking David lonely, Julia’s parents adopt another black boy, older than David, Jerome. He arrives as a young child (not a baby) with an array of behavioral problems and grows to sexually abuse Julia. Reading about the shifting alliances in this evil, oppressive combination is gripping indeed. With the older children grown, these three form a small group against the parents. But when the beatings come round, the boys get it worse than Julia and racial tension within the family grow. At other times, Julia and David ally themselves against parents and their delinquent, difficult older brother. At other times, Julia distances herself from a socially inconvenient brother.

The second half of the book is even more incredible in the abuse it describes and here is where Scheeres’ abilities as a journalist serve her best. When Jerome’s delinquency and the parents’ pathology grow, the parents send David off to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic (all the harder to escape, my dear….all the harder to police, my dear...). Julia gets herself into trouble and runs away to join him only to find that it’s a horrible nightmare of a place. This part is incredible and if you go to her website you can see the activism that must drive her: lots of links dedicated to exposing the gap between what the Christian groups describe as a kind of “Outward Bound” reform experience and the abuse and neglect. Somehow, even in the face of beatings and blisters, overwork and inhumanity the notion of oatmeal made with kool-aid sticks in my head as particularly cruel.