Growing Up in Jesus Land

When I worked at a domestic violence shelter in Chicago, a client told me that her husband had tied her arms around the base of the toilet and broke a broomstick across her legs. But, she said, that wasn't the worse part. The worst part started the next morning when she began to fear when he would beat her again.

In her memoir "Jesus Land," Julia Scheeres unlocks the door to her childhood home plagued with domestic abuse. And she skillfully captures a whole picture of children living in fear -- from the beatings and humiliation, to the expectant, when-next moments in between.

The on-going abuse in “Jesus Land” is devastating. Scheeres' father, who was a surgeon, beat her brother David with a 2-by-4, broke a bone, and then sent him to the very hospital where he worked. And shortly after the beating, when Scheeres' mother learned that young David had slit his wrists, she coldly responded: "Why can't I just have one day of peace?"(After she inspected his wounds: "They're surface cuts ... if you want to kill yourself, you slice down, not sideways.")

But "Jesus Land" truly rattled me as I read about the Scheeres family eating dinner -- Christian radio blaring through the intercom -- and no one saying anything.

"Jesus Land" is a horrific story honestly and beautifully told, and I read it with one hand over my eyes, afraid of what was unfolding. I didn't take a decent breath until I reached the last page, and even then, I first had to cry.

Set in the 1980s, Scheeres' first book bravely recounts her adolescence in a fundamentalist Christian household in rural Indiana with her two adopted black brothers. (Scheeres is white.) Her older brother, Jerome, frequently rapes Julia. Her younger brother, David, is her soft-spoken best friend and an optimist. Scheeres writes: "Despite everything, (David) still believes in the goodness of humankind, that our parents will someday welcome him home with open arms, that his friends will not betray him. That's the fundamental difference between us."

Julia and David fight both the harsh, racist outside world and their volatile home life. As David and Julia fend off the n-word taunts (and worse) at school and carefully sidestep their father's wrath at home, their mother methodically stuffs quackery Christian propaganda down their throats, exploiting the doctrine by using it to justify domestic abuse.

Life off of Country Road 50 soon ends for Julia and David, who are sent to Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. They continue to suffer in the jungle. The reform school is a sort of torture camp for "problem" children. Teachers sucker-punch children for punishment. Housefathers demand pushups at 3 a.m. from teenage girls in their nightgowns. The students must ask permission to do everything, from sitting down to raising a fork. In a closed-door meeting, a founder of the program tells Julia that he once punished a 15-year-old "whore" by stripping her naked and beating her "black and blue." "And believe me," he says to Julia. "I would not hesitate to do it again." (After reading "Jesus Land," a friend of mine phoned Human Rights Watch. "Do you monitor Christian reform schools?" she asked.)

Scheeres' storytelling makes the pain of reading her memoir worthwhile. Through tight, descriptive prose, she reveals daily fundamentalist life -- showing that all things secular were, to David and her, part of a foreign and forbidden world. She discloses the disturbing images of a violent household: her shirtless brothers shooting hoops with matching welts across their backs.

And she doesn't shy away from addressing the stark racism in contemporary, rural Indiana. With narrative grace, Scheeres braids together these three subjects -- Christian fundamentalism, violence, and race -- while still portraying (sometimes comically) herself as a normal Farrah Fawcett-worshiping teen. "I used to pray all the time," she writes, "but cut back when I didn't see results. Jerome didn't stop bothering me, mother didn't get any happier, and my chest is still flat."

Julia's father abuses Jerome. Jerome rapes Julia. When Jerome runs away their father abuses David. And who do Julia and David abuse? Themselves, of course. David withdraws and blames himself for not being white. Julia swigs Southern Comfort in the morning before school.

David and Jerome have nothing in common but the color of their skin and the abuse. Julia is spared a certain amount of abuse and humiliation because she is white, and they all know it. But Scheeres' memoir does not sag with white guilt. She was spared the full intensity of the rod due to the privilege of her pale skin (and perhaps her gender), but she also experienced a type of racism as the freak sister of a black boy in a county of all white faces.

If there are reasons why parents systematically abuse their children and why neighbors, teachers and the law turn the other cheek, Scheeres does not investigate. She neither justifies the adults' shameful behavior nor berates them for it. And she isn't an armchair psychoanalyst. Simply, she tells the story of David and her.

It broke my heart to read that David died in a car crash when he was 20 because, at its core, "Jesus Land" is a platonic love story about a sister and a brother who spend their lives quietly trying to protect each other. Julia and David's story will make sense to anyone who has gone or would go to great lengths to defend a sibling. Like all good love stories, Julia and David's fight to survive, to be together, and to hold on to unrealistic dreams is believable and crushing.

Escuela Caribe still exists. The experiences of Escuela Caribe alumni can be read at the web site The Truth About New Horizons Youth Ministries.

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