Jesus Land – Julia Scheeres

I walked past a tray of books waiting to be re-shelved at the Merida English Library, and the name “Jesus Land” jumped out at me. The words “A Memoir” were also written on the binding. An almost certainly tragic memoir that sounds like it came from Fuckyourcousinville, Kentucky? Sold! Like a fly to shit, my hand was drawn to pick it up and flip through the pages, my go-to strategy when I’m trying to decide if something is worth reading.

Generally speaking, I can open a book in the middle, read for a few minutes, and get a sense of whether I’m going to like it or not. The quality of writing is what I take into greatest consideration when choosing a book, because whether the plot is a real page-turner, or a “bathtub story” (where all the actions happens in the same location over a short period of time – see Lincoln in the Bardo), the writing ultimately sustains the entire thing. After Fifty Shades of Grey first came out, I picked it up in an airport and read: “He stood over me menacingly, whip in hand, and flicked the side of my hot, swollen —–. I came instantly, thrashing to and fro over the satin sheets that were the color of a post Taco Bell shit in the middle of an August thunderstorm.” Yeah, that wasn’t exactly what it said, but it was so riddled with cliches and stupid modifiers that I put the book down and immediately washed my hands. You get the point. The writing has to be good.

The writing in Jesus Land is really quite good. It doesn’t quite hit the literary nail right on the head – there are some weird metaphors and adverbs that jarred me out of the story a few times (the smell of cow shit “slams” up their nose at one point). Generally speaking, however, Scheeres has an excellent command of the manner in which she goes about telling this story. The language is at its best when it is straightforward, literal, and painfully descriptive, and the dialogue is very good, considering that Scheeres was writing from her memories of a quarter century ago, and essentially had to make it up.

My first guess about the fundamentally tragic nature of the memoir turned out to be on the nose. Told from Julia Scheere’s perspective, her parents, fundamental Calvinists, have three biological children, and then feel called by God to adopt a black son. Despite misgivings, they believe this is God giving them a chance to prove that He isn’t a racist and that His Christian children aren’t, either. So they take David home, despite the mother later admitting that she was afraid “the black would rub off on her hands.” Thus begins many years of racially-driven physical abuse, covered up by a despicable self-righteousness. When David turns 5, his parents adopt another boy – Jerome, 7 years old – so David can have “one of his own” to play with. But Jerome comes from a series of neglectful foster homes, and ends up being troubled, mean, and violent, even stomping on David’s leg and deliberately breaking it.

The parents are utterly clueless to their sons’ needs as black children in a white household in the middle of rural Indiana where everyone is white, because their first priority is to be zealous missionaries who move within their Christian community and the rest of the world as celebrated faith leaders. Their home is filled with pictures of tattered black children in Africa clutching Bibles – not with pictures of their own children, black or white. The father, the surgeon, is absent and mostly only appears to beat the living shit out of the kids – but only the black ones – when they disobey or mouth off. The mother is cold and distant, irritated when her children are sick and need her attention, and calling on the father to intervene when necessary. Scheeres, who becomes increasingly aware of the difference between the scoldings she receives and her brothers’ being belted in the face, is both relieved for being spared the worst of the discipline and guilty at the rift it brings between her and David, who are bonded tightly throughout their young lives. Everything is compounded by the fact that Jerome is raping Scheeres throughout her teen years, but Jerome and David need each other to bond over the fact that they’re the only two black kids in the whole school and the only kids who get violently beaten by their father.

Eventually, Jerome is in prison, and David and Scheeres are both sent to a Come-Back-to-Jesus camp for incorrigibly bad children who have committed such crimes as smoking pot, joining Satanist sects, and having sex. This “school,” Escuela Caribe, is in the Dominican Republic, conveniently far from both the parents, eager to get rid of their children, and inspecting government eyes. Given the fact that a bunch of teenager boys and girls are locked in a compound fueled by fervent religious zealotry, where men have absolute power, and privileges like sitting down and eating must be specifically requested with the requisite politeness, you can imagine what happens. You’ll have to read the book to get the full details, but let me tempt you by revealing that the pastor impregnates a 16 year old girl, kids are beaten and sent into solitary confinement, pointless, extreme manual labor is the norm, and throughout it all, the boys and girls still find ways to flirt and drink alcohol and kill themselves.

Throughout their young lives, David and Scheeres are each others’ rock, constantly constructing the glue of sanity from the tenderest of sources (a feigned punch on the arm, an equally feigned stagger of pain, and all is well again), and we get a beautiful glimpse into the indelible power that sibling love can have. We also get to see the destructive potential of the undying hope children hold in the ability of their parents to get it together and act like adults, which never happens, and which breaks David and Scheere’s hearts again and again.

Despite all this, Scheeres executes perfectly the balance of giving the hairy details without falling into self-pity or contempt for the bad actors. The actions of the abusive and neglectful adults speak for themselves, and Scheeres does not paint herself as a faultless heroin. Complex as it is heartrending, this book stands as a natural excoriation for not only single-minded religious zealotry, but also the ruthless redneck racism that thrived (and which still thrives) in small-town America. Nevertheless, this story still manages to feel kind of hopeful – like a couple of kids are able to overcome the evils of the human condition, loving and sustaining each other despite all odds, even if only for a short while. For even as we read a last chapter that feels so sweet it’s almost out of context, Scheeres drops a bomb at the very end of the book that will probably leave you feeling like the world sucks, people are beyond hope, and we should all just plug ourselves into our VR headsets and leave the communists to do as they will.

Okay. So it’s kind of a depressing book. Why read it? I was actually talking about this with a great friend of mine, who was raised in a household down the street from me where physical and emotional abuse reigned supreme despite an outward zeal for our parents’ conservative Mormonism (in fact, our mothers liked to gossip about each other after church, speaking with contempt about how weird they found each other). Both my friend and I are drawn towards books like Jesus Land that open painful wounds and remind us that even though we can live successful lives and have happy relationships, the shit in our past is always lurking there somewhere, waiting to be triggered and manifest itself in destructive ways. So why do we explore these stories, especially in the pleasurable context of reading? And, furthermore, why do we write about it?

I suspect it’s because, no matter how old we get, no matter how many times we tell ourselves our parents were nuts and we’ll never be like them, there’s still this need for recognition and validation. It actually feels good to read these books, to pick open the scabs of childhood trauma and poke our fingers around in the gore of the past, of screamed accusations of whorish behavior, of wooden spatulas broken on small, skinny butts, of the dawning realization that it actually causes your mother acute discomfort to hug you or tell you she loves you. Your stories don’t have to match up exactly with the authors’; even just a few of the essential elements need be present for a cathartic experience to take place. But nobody who hasn’t been through something like it can possibly understand, and it just feels so goddamn good to know that from one fucked up kid to another, you can say, “Yes! See? You get it, too. Wasn’t that insane? Wasn’t that awful? Isn’t it crazy that somehow we managed to turn into normal adults? Ha-ha! Hahaha!” *Cue bursting into hysterical tears*. I actually wrote the author at 2:30 in the morning when I finished this book, boobing like a little bitch, and sent her an email full of sadness and anger profusely thanking her for writing Jesus Land. She wrote back and was super fucking awesome about it (you’ll never read this, Julia, but thanks a lot!).

And for the people who haven’t experienced childhood trauma of varying kinds (although have any of us escaped it unscathed?), the magic of a book like this – as is the magic of all books – is the power it has to transport you into a world where you need not live the experience to get a look at it first-hand. You, too, can be right alongside somebody whose Camp Leader is about to punch a scrawny kid in the face to teach him that Jesus loves him. And who wouldn’t want that?

I leave you with a poem to inspire and uplift you:

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
– Philip Larkin
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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