Book Review: Jesus Land: A Memoir

I finished this book over a week ago, and I cannot stop thinking about it.  It wasn’t an easy read, but it certainly was thought-provoking!  Written by Julia Scheeres, it was also published as Another Hour on a Sunday Morning in the UK.

Julia is the youngest of four children (one boy, three girls) in a very strict Calvinist family. When she was three, her family decided to adopt a boy. They were a bit taken aback when there were no white babies available and ended up with a black child, David.  Bigoted themselves, David’s new mom was afraid that his blackness would rub off on her whenever she touched him.  Julia, however, had an instant bond with him and loved him unreservedly, becoming best friends.  When David was a few years older, they decided he needed another brother ‘like him’, and adopted Jerome. These are the three children that move to small town Indiana in the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, the parents are more concerned with their image as the ‘wonderful people’ that ‘adopted those poor boys’, and not with their family. Christians that are pious when on church property, but not so much so at home.  Photos of the missionaries they send money to on the walls, instead of any photos of their family.  All the money going to the missionaries, while the kids eat soup made from garbage scraps and wear clothes that have come from the trash at Goodwill.  Yet dad, a surgeon (mom is a nurse) drives a Porsche.  Very strict religious rules at home, very frugal so money can go to missions.  This is a family that is the definition of dysfunctional, shows biased punishment toward the adopted children (whippings with a 2×4, breaking arms and ribs), and moves to a racially intolerant town where their family is different.  As a result, the eldest of the three becomes abusive and a delinquent, Julia must get drunk before school every day just to make it through and is molested by the older brother, and David takes the abuse and longs for a home. And these are the milder problems that the children have within the family as they cope.  Julia and David sneak into their parent’s bedroom to watch old episodes of The Brady Bunch, and David dreams of the day his family changes into the same sort of idyllic family.

Halfway through the book, David is sent to the Dominican Republic to attend a Christian Reform school so that his parents don’t have to deal with him any more. Julia acts out as a result, and moves in with her sister.  When she is in court on a breaking and entering charge from a time she was staying warm in a car, she is given the option to either go home to her parents or to the same school David attends.  Missing her brother horribly, she quickly decides that she’d rather be with him and leaves for the DR.  When she arrives at Escuela Caribe, she discovers that the letters home from her brother have been misleading.  Not only is life not all unicorns and rainbows but is instead brutal, abusive, brain-washing, and criminal. Children start at level 0, and have to work their way up for rights.  The right to enter a room.  The right to eat.  The right to move.  The right to go to the bathroom.  The right to get in bed.  Level 1 you get to do things without asking, but still not much else.  Any violation of the rules leads to loss of level, loss of points, and extreme physical punishment.  Moving woodpiles for eight hours.  Climbing a mountain and coming back down again for an entire afternoon.  Extreme behavior problems earns you a boxing match with an adult and a crowd, to get the tar beaten out of you as an example.  Solitary punishment.

The extreme opposite of unicorns and rainbows.

The physical abuse is not nearly as bad as the mental abuse.  A priest gets one of the campers pregnant, and both are sent away.  The mental abuse is appalling, and is meant to break you down.  You learn quickly that the way to increase your rank is to narc on other campers, for things either real or imagined.  Your only goal is to kiss the hindquarters of the ones in charge, and hope that it earns you points in favor.

For then, you stand a chance of getting out.

The story is a true telling of the life of Julia and David Scheeres, and of what they experienced, based mostly on the diaries that they kept as children and young adults.  Yet the author admittedly cleaned up the narrative as the truth was even more obscene than recanted, and would make the story unreadable. Very disturbing in its description, and in the atrocities that she has experienced–not just with her parents and family but at the school in the name of Christianity as well.  The school has changed names, but is still running in not just the DR but in Canada and the US as well.  There are lawsuits being brought against the school by adults that went through the program for mental abuse, child endangerment, sexual abuse, and so on. Yet the school is still thriving.

Secondary to the way that the school behaves is the way that it uses its own warped sense of Christianity and rams it down the throats of the children.  The school is founded in the name of Jesus and is supposedly indoctrinated in Old Testament theology.  Only it’s not like any theology I’ve ever experienced, read about, seen, or heard of.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand how the Bible that I have read can be interpreted in those ways.  I’m not saying my belief, my creed, my way is the only way.  Far from it.  You can believe what you want to believe.  But the basic tenets of human decency alone prevent you from treating another person in this manner.  Laws of this city/state/country prevent you from treating another person in this manner.  Shoot, the Geneva Convention prevents you from treating people this way.

So yes, I struggled with the book.  I struggled with it because I know too many people who treat their children, adopted and biological, the way that David and Julia Scheeres were treated as children.  I struggled because I know too many children that have had to endure that sort of abuse and that sort of life as a child.  I struggled because I consider myself a Christian, and I can’t imagine that there is any part of my faith that allows for others to be treated that way.  I struggled because as a compassionate human being I don’t understand how you can treat other people that way.

All in all, though, I am glad I read this book.  The purpose of reading non-brain-fluff writing is to inform, right?  It’s to encourage awareness, begin the conversation, right?  If that’s true, then Scheeres certainly accomplished her goal.  I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I read it.  I thought about it.  I’m still thinking about it.  And I’m telling others about it to spread awareness.

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One thought on “Book Review: Jesus Land: A Memoir

  1. Pingback: Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres | ItIsTrish

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