November 22, 2005
Julia Scheeres Revisits the Harsh "Jesus Land" of Her Youth
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Faith as a political issue came to front and center in America when George W. Bush moved into the White House. In the life of writer Julia Scheeres, though, a restrictive, exclusionary faith was always front and center. Her parents had raised her and her adopted brother in a repressive, abusive fundamentalist Christian home, and sent them to a Christian "boarding school" which was in reality -- ironically and tragically -- a kind of Hell. Jesus Land, A Memoir, is Scheeres' look back at those painful days, living with so-called Christians whose hypocritical dogma allowed them to abuse the very children whose souls they claimed to be "saving."
This is Julia's compelling and riveting personal story; it is not meant to imply that all Christian families share similar fates. It is her courageous memoir and the story of a survivor. She emerged to embrace all people who see and respond to the miracle of humanity in others, whether they be Christians, Hindus, Jews, Moslems or agnostics. As Joan Osborne's lyric suggests, maybe the divine is best expressed by the question, "What If God Was One of Us?"
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BuzzFlash: Your book is a memoir called Jesus Land. When you begin the book, you write about being in Indiana, and there are signs along the roadside: "Sinners go to hell." "Rightchuss go to heaven." "The end is neer. Repent." "This here is Jesus Land." In thinking about a title for the book, why did you choose "Jesus Land"?
Julia Scheeres: One of the reasons is for what you just mentioned – it’s growing up in Indiana. You would have these farmers who would post signs along the roads. They would just put up these homemade religious signs – "Jesus Saves," or they would quote the Bible, or write, "This here is Jesus Land." I thought that kind of sums it up – this pervasive religiosity in the Midwest context that I grew up in.
BuzzFlash: Your book is a memoir, a personal story. You don’t really draw conclusions about religion until the very end, when you make some personal observations, looking back. But your book is like To Kill a Mockingbird, in a way – an adult looking back on her youth. As BuzzFlash, we can draw conclusions or extrapolations, but you simply tell a story of you and your brother. You’re white and a biological child of your parents. Your brother, David, is black and is adopted. And you have another older brother who was adopted and three older natural siblings who make brief appearances in the book. But the story that you tell is about your love for your brother, David, to whom the book is dedicated.
Second, it is about being in "Jesus Land." Your parents love Christ, but they seem to have a hard time loving you and David. The way your parents looked at it was like the old cliché -- to beat Satan out of your brother, in particular, and psychologically to beat Satan out of you.
Julia Scheeres: That’s another point of the book. Religion was more important than family, in our case. My Mom was more interested in going on about the missionaries she corresponded with halfway around the globe. She had their pictures on the bulletin board over her desk in a study, but not any of our pictures. One time, when I was eight years old, I went -- and with a thumb tack -- I poked all their eyes out on this bulletin board, because I was so jealous and I craved that attention. I got paddled for it.
BuzzFlash: One of the tenets you express in the end is to believe in people over dogma. It’s clear that your parents believed in dogma over people. How did this manifest itself? You come across as a person who is a survivor and who tried to find points of contact with other people -- for instance, with your brother, David. You tried to find things that would pull you through, but your parents were unrelenting in reacting to that as though you were moving toward the devil. When you and your brother tried to find something that you could respond to emotionally, your parents became even more distant and more remote.
Julia Scheeres: That’s part of the problem of dogma, isn’t it? You fiercely hold on to these tenets, without questioning whether they might be ridiculous. One of the problems that I address in the book is the complete lack of compassion and understanding, and just beating someone over the head with a Bible, instead of trying to really learn who these kids are. It was always: You’re being harassed at school? Turn the other cheek. Honor your mother and your father. Everything is just black and white rules -- this is the way it should be. There was no negotiation. It’s extremism. Extremism means that someone’s going to get hurt. It’s a complete lack of compassion and feeling for people.
BuzzFlash: Now, in Jesus Land, your brother, David, is literally beaten by your father with a two-by-four, and his arm is broken. Your father is a doctor, and he has someone handle it -- it’s very discreetly taken care of. No one really knows what happened. What was going on in your mind with that? He beat your older brother in the barn. Was he full of anger? Was faith so strong in him that, if you didn’t seem to follow the tenets he laid out, he was going to beat it out of you?
Julia Scheeres: I think there were a lot of things at play. He did have an anger issue. He had a very bad temper. He also was the kind of fifties father, where he was expected to mete out the discipline after working all day at a demanding job. When he'd come home, Mom would be, like, okay, well, David did this. Jerome did that. So after supper they would go out to the barn and someone would be whipped. It was also Biblical. They had two paddles in the rec room downstairs that were etched with "spare the rod and spoil the child" quotations. So it was both a personal anger problem and a case of justifying violence by using the Bible.
BuzzFlash: He was a surgeon -- a healer who comes home and beats the heck out of his kids.
Julia Scheeres: Yes.
BuzzFlash: You are very frank and vivid in your portrayal of the relationships. There’s a remoteness about your parents which is almost horrifying and inexplicable. It’s hard to see what their expectations of family were, except that if you were in the family, the only way you would really be accepted was if you followed the Calvinist faith in the manner that they saw fit. Otherwise, you were rejected.
Julia Scheeres: It was such a closed subculture. We went to school with the same kids who went to our church, and then we socialized with this group of people who were Christian Reformed Calvinists, just like we were. They were suspicious of other denominations. My sister ended up dating a Catholic in high school, and they kicked her out of the house for it. It was a very closed, suspicious subculture that I grew up in. You didn’t trust people if they didn’t believe exactly the same thing you did. They were out to get you. They were going to lead you astray, lead you to the devil. It’s been hard as an adult, now, to stop with the knee-jerk judgment or reactions I was brought up with.
BuzzFlash: What was going on that led your parents to adopt two black young men?
Julia Scheeres: My middle sister, Laura, spent a lot of time in hospitals when she was a little girl, having surgery. One of those times, she spent a month with an orphaned white boy in the same hospital room, and my parents wanted to adopt him, only to find he was taken.
The adoption agency then persisted, saying we have a lot of other kids who need homes –- black kids. My parents faced a religious crisis: Are we not going to adopt a baby because he’s black? Well, that’s not right, because, God’s not prejudiced, and we shouldn’t be either. It was a very simplistic attitude, and my Mom had very deep prejudices. In fact, I learned many years later that, the first time she picked up David, she thought the black was going to rub off on her hand. But despite having no background with other ethnic groups, they went ahead and adopted David. He and I were three years old. It was very difficult.
Then, when we were six, they decided to adopt another black boy, my brother Jerome, who was one year older than us. They thought that David should have one of "his own kind" in the household.
BuzzFlash: Not only does David have to deal with an abusive father and an emotionally remote mother, but he has to deal with the racism at school. You wrote about what David encountered at school – that he was called a monkey -- but somehow he got through it. What was it like growing up in a fundamentalist rural area with a black brother? How would you be protective of your brother?
Julia Scheeres: We were freaks in our town. Jerome and David were the only black kids in any of the schools that we went to. David and I being in the same class, I was able to see what was happening with him.
We were chased around the playground and called names. They would yell at David when we went to the public pool. He got called the "N" word, and I’d get called "N"-lover, and got my hair pulled, and kicked, and told not to go into the pool because David was going to pollute it. It was very heartbreaking. When we were very young, I went through being jealous of him, because I thought he got more attention for his skin color, you know. He stood out. He was like a miniature Bill Cosby. Everyone wanted to come up and touch him and see him.
But as we got older, the kids started calling him names, like Velcro head and monkey boy. Then I got very protective. We were best friends, so we would just play off by ourselves together.
BuzzFlash: Let’s talk about what is a very haunting part in the book -- when your father, beats David with the two-by-four, to the point of breaking his arm. Also, you are both sent at different times –- your brother first, and then you, for different reasons -- to a fundamentalist reform school in the Dominican Republic, run by Americans. It’s kind of like being sent to Devil’s Island. You can’t escape. There’s a guy there to keep residents of the Dominican Republic out, but it’s also to keep you in.
Julia Scheeres: It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean for a reason. There’s no place to go.
BuzzFlash: I don’t even know how to begin to describe how horrifying this experience is. Somehow you made it through that. But what did you make of these people? They invoked the name of Christianity, but it was the most hellish experience one could imagine.
Julia Scheeres: They beat and abused children in God’s name -- using Proverbs 23, 13-14 as justification: "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell." I was very wary or leery about this. The day that I arrived, they staged a boxing match between this big, big man and an adolescent boy.
BuzzFlash: That’s the second point at which the book reaches a crescendo that is almost impossible to bear. It is horrifying. This man appears in shorts, bare-chested, and he is literally going to beat the devil out of this young kid who’s pretty weak and frail, and defiant. They call all the students down to witness this. It is like something from Abu Ghraib.
Julia Scheeres: This school is predicated on fear and humiliation. You conform or be conformed. That was the message. It’s like, this too could happen to you.
BuzzFlash: There is no chance for this kid, who is thirteen and basically a weakling, to have any power against this bulky forty-year-old. It’s a cruelty that simply is beyond imagination. He literally beats the heck out of this kid in a so-called boxing match. We’ll give you a "fair chance" if you want to say the devil’s word -- fight me, come on, show you’re stronger. He just pummels him until he practically breaks the kid’s jaw.
Julia Scheeres: He leaves him bleeding on the ground, and just stoops down and says a prayer over him. We were sent back up to our houses to contemplate this. We weren't able to talk about what happened. That’s another theme of the book -- not being able to discuss things that really matter, a kind of self-imposed isolation.
BuzzFlash: In fact, you were prohibited from talking to your brother David at this Christian reform school.
Julia Scheeres: They would do that periodically to punish us. They knew it was devastating, because we couldn’t trust anyone else. There was a point system in use, so if you say, "damn," someone else is going to go tell on you to get points, and you’re going to be demoted. But David and I would find times to go off and have all kinds of wonderful experiences and just really let loose and be kids, because that’s what we were. We were teenagers.
BuzzFlash: One of the things you describe doing is to clean the home of the headmaster. At one point you were cleaning, and you found some rum bottles under his bed, which you threw out the window.
Julia Scheeres: Right. Who was going to believe that I found this in the founder’s room, you know? Although he threatened me the night before. He threatened to strip me.
BuzzFlash: He also had done that to another young woman – stripped her naked and beat the living daylights out of her.
Julia Scheeres: She was caught having sex.
BuzzFlash: What kept you going in this environment? What enabled you to continue?
Julia Scheeres: The only way out is to pretend to conform, so that’s what we did. Every day, we got points in thirteen categories -– for everything from good grades to courtesy and respect towards authority figures. I just made sure I did well in every single one of those categories. In fact, I got through the program in record time.
BuzzFlash: After an initial bout of resistance.
Julia Scheeres: You were powerless.
BuzzFlash: There are many genuine people of faith, whose faith is expressed in good deeds and being good in their relationships to others. But you were in a situation where those who you encountered used their faith to justify cruelty.
Julia Scheeres: The thing is, the people at the school believe that they are doing good. They take missionary wages to go down there, and they think they'll make a change in the kids’ lives – that they’re actually helping them -- that the kids would be worse off if they weren’t in this school. It’s just behavior modification, without addressing the needs for psychotherapy or emotional support. The idea is that you’re going to be better, going out the other side.
BuzzFlash: But in this case, it was within a religious context -- that it was about leading you toward Jesus.
Julia Scheeres: Yes. You have to recite Bible verses and do all the stuff to move up the levels. You have to profess to be a Christian and act like one.
BuzzFlash: Your relationship with your parents had been very tumultuous at home, your brothers had been beaten and you had been psychologically abused -- and then you’re sent to this school to join your brother, David. Did they believe cruelty was necessary to lead you to Christ? What did you think of the Bible and religion?
Julia Scheeres: I felt, if this is what God allows -– for adults to beat up on children in His name -- I want nothing to do with it. If you read the book, you see that we got a gradual sense that God isn’t answering prayers and God keeps allowing these people to act in the worst way possible towards their fellow human beings.
BuzzFlash: What do you think was going on in the minds of these people at the school, or your parents? Beyond any individual psychological issues they may have had, they viewed religion in such a dogmatic and ideological way that relationships with people were secondary to faith. You describe one woman who gives up her life in New England just to come down to do this missionary work.
Julia Scheeres: She was going down there to stop young girls from getting abortions. That was her mission. She thought God had called upon her to go down and convince us that abortions are bad and you should never get them.
BuzzFlash: Despite the horrifying situation you are in, you find something comical in her, which you also convey in the book when you describe her. She was what you would call a character, and certainly not one of the meanest people there.
Julia Scheeres: Poking fun at these people was a kind of comic relief.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash, we are focused on the political. But the fundamentalist base, which is part of the Bush base – those who are absolute believers – the James Dobsons of the world – if you took their dogmatic faith away, would they just crumble? Would they have anything left? Would they be able to deal with life? It’s such a rigid structure that it seems, if you take a brick out of it, they would collapse emotionally.
Julia Scheeres: I don’t know where they would be without it. It’s the center of their life, pushing out family and other things. I wouldn’t even recognize them without it.
BuzzFlash: You can’t even imagine what these people would be like without this rigidity?
Julia Scheeres: I cannot.
BuzzFlash: Yet there is some variation. There are the absolute monsters, and there are some people like the husband and wife who allowed you and your brother a day to be on your own, and they kind of loosen up a little, like they’re happy to get away, too.
Julia Scheeres: Yes. There were varying degrees of humanity. It's like the classic social psychology study of what happens when good people go bad. Dr. Philip Zimbardo designed an experiment in 1971 called the Stanford Prison Experiment. A group of volunteers pretended to be prison wardens, and others pretended to be the prisoners. All of a sudden, they’re being cruel to these people, humiliating and hurting them abusively. That’s kind of what happened here, too. All of a sudden, you find their behavior shifting.
BuzzFlash: You went back there in 2001. Why did you want to go back? Just as research for the book, or as emotional closure?
Julia Scheeres: It was both. For the book, I wanted to get the places and smells of the Dominican Republic. It was also a great excuse for a vacation. It’s a gorgeous Caribbean island. The people are beautiful. I actually fell in love with their Latin culture, and my undergraduate degree is in Spanish. Also, they had pictures of my brother that I don’t have. I took photographs of their picture album.
BuzzFlash: Is the school still open?
Julia Scheeres: Oh, yes. It’s expanding and growing. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry. If you’re a rich Evangelical and want to dump your problem child off to an island in the middle of the Caribbean and forget about him for four years -- which people have done -– sent their kids down there for the entire formative years -– you can do that.
BuzzFlash: Who runs it?
Julia Scheeres: A family out of Indiana.
BuzzFlash: Your parents knew about it because of the Indiana relationship?
Julia Scheeres: They found out about it from an advertisement in the back of "Christianity Today" or one of those magazines.
BuzzFlash: You went on. You’ve been a journalist. You worked for The Los Angeles Times.
Julia Scheeres: Now I'm concentrating on a novel.
BuzzFlash: You’ve made it to the other side. The book is without bitterness, it’s straightforward. You certainly recount your emotions at the time as you felt them, but it seems to come from a person who has made peace with what happened to them. Is that how you feel?
Julia Scheeres: It’s an attempt to set the record straight on a coming of age experience. It's my look back at these events, after having lost my faith completely, and moved to a very open-minded place, living in San Francisco. I had been talking to people about the story, and they were wanting to hear more. I had been thinking about these things myself, and reading through my brother’s notebook. It was a very empowering act to write the book. Now as an adult, with some power, and being a professional writer, I could say -- this is actually what went on down there -- and it was wrong.
BuzzFlash: There’s a sense of confidence that you can tell the story now, get it straight without the interference of psychological roadblocks.
Julia Scheeres: Well, I wrote a lot of angry drafts. But I don’t need to beat the reader over the head with my interpretation. The actions of these people speak very loudly for themselves.
BuzzFlash: This is your personal story. It’s not a political story. But nonetheless, in your epilogue, you write about the basic rule of life that you’ve come to feel is important -- to believe in people over dogmas. That seems to be the central conflict of this story. What you encountered as a child was dogma that came before people. But, certainly, throughout the book, you value David, as a person, over any dogma.
Julia Scheeres: Right.
BuzzFlash: When you look back now, are you comfortable with that notion that people come before dogmas?
Julia Scheeres: Completely. It took me years to realize that you don’t need to be Christian to be a good moral person. Now I know so many people who are atheist, or areligious, or they’re Buddhists, or whatever, and they’re much more moral than the Christians that I grew up with who go to church twice on Sunday and catechism and then come out and beat their children.
BuzzFlash: To be fair, we all know there are many righteous Christians.
Julia Scheeres: Oh, of course.
BuzzFlash: There also are many Christians who are hypocritical because their dogma comes before their human relationships.
Julia Scheeres: And they try to tell other people how to lead their lives -- the very outspoken Christian right. "This is the way our nation’s morality needs to be."
BuzzFlash: Imposed upon people. If you don’t accept this morality, you’re fallen. It is a remarkable act of courage on your part to write this book. What about the great photo on the front of the book? Is that you and David? Did your family go on trips in this trailer?
Julia Scheeres: Yes, that was taken when we were seven, and I love that picture. In fact, if you want to link to my website, www.juliascheeres.com, I have a lot more pictures there. I also have pages from David’s notebook.
BuzzFlash: Julia, thanks so much.
Julia Scheeres: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin.
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