Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land is a painfully candid account of a family riddled with dysfunction. Scheeres, now 38, grew up in a strict Calvinist household in Lafayette, Indiana, the daughter of a surgeon and his Bible-thumping wife. Her parents’ missionary zeal led them to adopt two African-American boys when Julia was still a toddler. One of them, David, became Julia’s soul mate. Together, the two endured their upbringing and shared many trials, including a harrowing stay at Escuela Caribe, a Christian school in the Dominican Republic run by New Horizons Youth Ministries. Scheeres’ parents appear more interested in their own religiosity than their children’s emotional needs. Her father’s answer to discipline was bone-breaking brutality; meanwhile, her mother turned a blind eye to rampant behavioral problems, including David’s attempted suicide.
Julia’s other adopted brother, Jerome, grew up angry and hostile, and his repeated sexual abuse of Julia was additional torment in their ugly home life. Jesus Land concludes with the news that David, whose personal notebook inspired the memoir, died in a car crash in 1987. He was only 20 years old. Scheeres recently answered questions from BookPage about her wrenching personal story.
BookPage: Your portrait of Escuela Caribe is troubling, since what’s supposed to be a reaffirming place for confused teens comes off as an insensitive reform school. Do you think your parents made a mistake in sending you there? Julia Scheeres: I think it’s a mistake to send any child to Escuela Caribe. For $3,000 a month, you can ship your child to a Christian boot camp in the Dominican Republic, where she’ll receive a substandard education, learn to spout “Praise Jesus,” and be so traumatized she’ll have nightmares about it for the rest of her life. Escuela Caribe is essentially a dumping ground for the problem teens of wealthy evangelicals. Many students come from homes where they were emotionally, physically or sexually harmed, yet these issues aren’t addressed by the school. Such camps are located in foreign countries for good reason: to evade U.S. regulations governing child welfare, academic quality and housing standards. The whole point of Escuela Caribe is to break the “rebellious teenage spirit” through humiliation, intimidation and suspending simple freedoms and convert kids into Christian automatons.
BP: Frank memoirs involving family and abuse can be painful reading for all concerned. What have been the reactions of those involved in your life at that time? JS: My book is first and foremost a tribute to my brother David. I found a green notebook after his funeral in which he detailed what it was like to grow up black in a white, fundamentalist family and about our time together at Escuela Caribe. I wrote Jesus Land in an effort to preserve his memory and the memory of the life we shared together. I was the person who knew him best, and it’s my job to keep telling people about what a quirky, tragic and beautiful soul he was. The reaction of other family members and acquaintances wasn’t a consideration as I wrote Jesus Land.
BP: Of all the people in your book, your father seems the most mysterious. What was, or is now, your relationship with him? JS: My father was a ’50s-era dad, who left childcare to the wife and was largely absent due to his high-pressure work as a surgeon. But he was also pressured to be the Biblical head-of-the household disciplinarian. We didn’t talk about problems or issues in my house. You were told what to do, and you obeyed. If you broke the rules, you got spanked or whipped, in my brothers’ case. I grew up fearing and avoiding my father not a healthy situation. I no longer have contact with either of my parents, who work as full-time volunteers at a missionary compound in Orlando, Florida.
BP: Being the victim of sexual abuse usually holds lingering consequences. What has been the long-term emotional or behavioral fallout for you? JS: Where to begin? A rabid distrust of people, and all men in particular? Sexual frigidity and/or promiscuity? A tendency to depersonalize and/or revile sexual partners? I’m sure it’s all well-documented in the case studies. I think the most important step for me was meeting my husband, a man who blew away my low expectations for male behavior and companionship. I don’t think people ever fully recover from ritual abuse of any sort. I still get into funks, but have learned to better negotiate them.
BP: Despite your troubled youth, you’ve gone on to obtain a master’s degree and respect as a journalist. To what do you ascribe your perseverance? JS: I’ve always had a strong sense of self and an independent streak three miles wide. Growing up, I believed that if I could just escape the pettiness surrounding me, things would get better. And they have.