This memoir falls squarely into the “my childhood was worse than your childhood” category. And you know what? She wins. (Not that this is a category that anyone really wants to win.) The sadness of the Scheeres’ childhood hit me harder than any other memoir of childhood I’ve read. Even Anne Frank had parents who loved her.
Scheeres’ memoir begin in Indiana, where the family has just moved. She and her same-age adopted brother, David, are in high school together. The story goes back and forth between the chonological events beginning from their move to the new school in Indiana and memories of her childhood. It tells of how she and her brother are sent to a reform school in the Caribbean, and some of what happens after they graduate.
The Scheeres’ family is deeply Calvinist. They care very much about appearing perfect. They also care about keeping their children away from secular influences; the children are forbidden most pop culture. (They may listen to gospel, but not pop music. Even the Brady Bunch is forbidden, though the Waltons are okay.) Her mother is obsessed with missionaries, and cares about them more than her own children. She adopts Julia’s brother David as an act of Christian charity, and later, she adopts another black child, Jerome, so that David will have one of “his own kind” to play with.
One of the motifs of this book was how racism affected everyone. Jerome and David are treated differently from the rest of the family. Their bedroom is in the basement, whereas Julia has a room on the second floor. Scheeres’ cleverly points out that this is not a space issue–theirs is a large, modern house, and they have an empty guest room on the second floor that either boy could presumably use. When the children are punished, Julia and the white children get grounded, while the boys are beaten with a belt hard enough to leave scars. She knows they are treated differently, and it strikes her as unfair early and often. At school, David is always singled out for his color, and she’s often tarred by association, labeled as “the sister of the black kid.” Sometimes Julia distances herself from him, and sometimes she’s caught up in defending him. Julia knows full well that she’s treated more leniently than either of her brothers, and it bothers her, even as she is powerless to do anything about it. David absorbs the abuse, while Jerome diverts it into violence against Julia.
One of the other themes I took from this book was the destruction caused by the culture of silence. At one point, Julia is the victim of an attempted gang rape. It’s clear that while so many of the students know about this culture that Julia knows the term “gang bang,” it’s also clear that no one has ever informed the faculty, the police, or their parents, and if they have, nothing has been done to change this culture. Julia does not go to her mother with this information, and from the context, it’s clear that to do so would only bring more trouble on herself, and do nothing to ensure either her safety or justice against the perpetrators.
The third theme I took from this was how little love and joy and kindness there is in a world where all the people worship an evil god. The God of this Jesusland is not kind. His followers paint God as all-knowing, all-seeing, and malevolent. People will be tortured for all eternity if they make any mistake. Followers are expected to constantly praise and worship God, to be perfect in every way, and to eschew all pleasure except the dubious pleasures of faith and obedience. Their God demands suffering, and his followers are keen on carrying out his will.
The worst crimes in this Jesusland are human-to-human affection, autonomy, and believing that ones body belongs to oneself. In this Jesusland, humans do not matter, only the angry and the immature sky daddy’s insatiable desire for praise and control over others. It’s bad in Indiana, but it gets even worse at the reform school. The counselors at the camp are sadistic tyrants, torturing children for the sake of their twisted mission. (I felt like I was reading about a concentration camp. That no one died seemed a miracle.) Honesty, trust, curiosity, art that doesn’t praise God, and seeking out pleasure are punished severely. That these places actually exist, and that people pay to send their children there, makes me want to tell my good Christian friends that I’m sorry their religion has the same name. (It’s like being unfortunate enough to share the last name with a war criminal.)
The reform school is a place to cure what doesn’t need to be cured. All the “crimes” committed by these teens were the crimes of transitioning from childhood to adulthood: wanting to be sexual, wanting to try new things, wanting autonomy. Breaking the spirit of “rebellious” teens for acting more like human adults and less like obedient pets is sad and ultimately futile.
This book has a very sad ending. I ended up crying for the last fifteen minutes of the audiobook, and had a hard time not crying the rest of the night. At the end of the book, I felt like I knew David and Julia as personal friends, and I had much empathy for their suffering. I’m very sorry that Julia Scheeres had to suffer through such a childhood, and have a great deal of respect for her courage and endurance.