Book Report: “Jesus Land” by Julia Scheeres
I read “Jesus Land” by Julia Scheeres a few years ago, shortly after it was first released and recently read it again because it was such a moving, engaging read with a story that will stick with you long after you turn the final pages. It is a memoir; my long-time favorite book genre and to me, it did everything that a memoir/biography should: It teaches you something, it opens your eyes to the world around you, it reaches inside of you and it makes you feel.
Although Julia Scheeres is a well-spoken, polished author, the story itself is raw with emotion. Years later, you can still feel her pain and the anger she feels. Very few books have actually made me cry while reading them; this is one that did.
Julia’s story takes place during her childhood and teenaged years, growing up a blonde Caucasian girl with conservative, religious white parents in Lafayette, Indiana. Her parents had also adopted two African-American boys, one of whom, David, was exactly her age. They were as close as a brother and sister were, best friends, confidantes and each others’ favorite playmate, and the beginning of the book explores how foreign and unwelcome David was made to feel in ultra-white, ultra-Evangelical (let’s just call it what it is: racist) Lafayette and how she, never questioning being anything other than his sister, struggles to understand why he’s constantly targeted, picked on and singled out amongst neighbors, at school and even at home with their very own parents.
In one early instance, she recalls riding bicycles down an abandoned, dirt road with David one summer afternoon. Two men in a pick-up truck are coming down the road and decide to scare them a bit – No matter how far they try to move over on the dirt road, the pick-up truck remains right behind them, threatening to run them over, and refusing to pass. I forget exactly how it ended, but I believe one or both of them ended up toppling off of their bike onto the side of the road as the truck roared past, the men laughing. She does an excellent job of recalling the story through a child’s eyes, as they were when that had happened, and the pain that she still feels in not being able to justify or understand these men, and why they would want to do that to her brother.
I think this book was especially heartwrenching for me because Lafayette, Indiana isn’t all that far from Chicago – It’s about halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, and it’s a rural college town. I’ve only ever passed Lafayette myself while on the highway, on my way to bigger and better places (that particular highway being a major thoroughfare for people driving from the Chicago area to Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, etc), but it’s only a couple of hours outside of what we all like to pride ourselves on being a big, progressive, liberal-leaning city. Additionally, college towns are notoriously liberal so coupled with the fact that she begins her story during her childhood – In the 1980’s (not the ’50’s or ’60’s, this was after integration and civil rights) – it was really something to read about these horrendous, blatant acts of racism in what we’re so good at tricking ourselves into thinking are “modern” times, when all differences have been scrubbed clean in the United States and we’re all born onto an equal playing field. Manifest destiny still exists and, in the 1980’s in Lafayette, Indiana, was still very much ingrained into many of the residents’ heads.
Trying to reconcile religion with the treatment that she and David received from a town that prided itself on their Christian beliefs, devoutly religious parents and, later, the reform school in the Dominican Republic that they are both sent to is the main theme of this book, laced in between painful memories (several molestation attempts by her other adopted brother, turning her back and ignoring David at school as they got older and the kids meaner and more blatantly racist, a distant, non-emotional relationship with her mother, the physical abuse that David and her other adopted brother always seemed to receive far more than any of the biological children, herself included, of her parents, etc). It’s simple and it’s terribly sad: There is no way to justify, especially in the name of your chosen god or vein of religion, the way that David and Julia suffered. What makes it especially heartbreaking is the fact that David is a quiet, soft-spoken boy who is wildly intelligent and articulate beyond his years – Even after being refused what should be basic things for every child: Love and opportunity.
As Julia enters her adolescence, she begins to rebel against the rigidness of religion as she begins to question everything she’s been taught thus far in life. She begins drinking, having sex, dating and mouthing off to her parents, which results in her being sent to the Dominican Republic to a “Christian reform school”, which David had been sent to months earlier (and which had caused her spiral to grow even worse). The teenagers do physical labor for hours on end in the hot Latin American sun, but it’s the mental anguish that they’re put through that are really meant to break them down. This isn’t “tough love” – There is absolutely nothing resembling love there. Unruly teenagers are sent to spend nights in an area called “The Hole”, which is an empty, pitch-black room where they are stripped of both their clothing and the very last of their dignity. Public humiliation and every creative type of mental and physical abuse imaginable is commonplace here (as is telephone bugging and mail censoring to prevent kids from talking to family and friends) , Julia and David likely only able to survive it all without completely breaking down because they have each other. The most horrifying part of it all? This “Christian reform school” is still wide open for business. I even Googled it after reading “Jesus Land” the first time, because I couldn’t believe that this type of place could possibly still be standing. It is, and they even have a website. To be fair, there is also a website of “alumni” that have gathered together on the Web to back up Julia’s claims and recount their own horrific experiences.
Julia and David band together and do what they have to do – Lie, cheat, tell people what they want to hear and “fake it” – to get released. Julia goes on to college and, sadly, ends the memoir by mentioning that David was killed a few years later in a car accident at the age of 20.
Her memoir, she insinuates, is not just her own – It is also David’s, and she hoped to tell the truth about his life and share his story in the only way she knew how – Through her own eyes, the eyes of his sister. D.N.A. clearly doesn’t automatically create familial connections, if her closeness with David and distant disconnect between herself and her parents is any indication, and you certainly don’t have to be biologically related to be family. She never questions, even as a little girl when the cruel attitudes of other kids and the racism handed down generation to generation in their small town, that David is her brother and she is his sister. She does an excellent job at recounting her remarkable brother’s life and does all of her readers a service by allowing us to get a glimpse of him and “know” him in a way. “Jesus Land” is probably one of the most poweful and moving books I’ve read in my adult life and if it doesn’t draw you in, make you angry, upset you, make you sad and make you think all by the final chapter, then I’d question the existence of a heartbeat in your chest.