Note: Information about next month’s book is at the bottom of this post.
Content Warning: The author of this book describes her extreme physical and sexual abuse as a child, at the hands of people who used Jesus to justify their actions.
Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. This book is a memoir of Julia’s youth, growing up in an extremist Evangelical household and eventually being sent to an Evangelical reformation school in the Caribbean. The book is also an account of her two adopted brothers, David (who was her best friend) and Jerome (who abused her sexually). The story is told through Julia’s point of view, but a lot of the source material comes from one of David’s journals, so he is also one of the main characters.
The book gets its name from a series of signs that Julia saw in a farm, a few days after moving to the country:
sinners go to HELL
rightchuss go to HEAVEN
the end is NEER
this here is JESUS LAND
Many of the events in the book were so extreme, it was sort of like reading a Stephen King novel. The fact that this was reality was even scarier.
The first part of the book, “In God We Trust,” is all about her childhood and growing up in the country in the 1970s and 80s. Julia’s family is white and her adopted brothers are black. She mentions that her family decided to adopt two black children because they felt that it was a test from God and that it was another way to bear witness to Jesus. In reality, her mother resented all of her children (especially the black ones) for taking up time she could have been spending in worship of God. Her father physically abused all of his children, but he saved the most severe punishments for his black sons.
In addition to having a tumultuous family life, Julia and David have to face the everyday racism of their town (and of course David faces the worst). As a baby, David was born prematurely to a 13-year-old girl, weighing just a couple of pounds. He survived, but he almost didn’t make it through the foster system because of the horrible neglect (and racism) of his many foster parents. When Julia’s parents adopted David, he was three years old, but he could not walk or talk and he still slept in a crib, like a baby. Julia, who was only four months older, took him under her wing as her “baby” and raised him, which is why they have such a close relationship.
As an adolescent, Julia was subjected to sexual abuse by her older brother Jerome, who targeted her because she “wasn’t his real sister” and to get back at his adopted father for his physical abuse. Julia never told her family about what Jerome did to her because she didn’t want to be responsible for any more of Jerome’s punishments, which is a heavy burden to take on as a child.
Julia’s high school experience is hard to sum up in a paragraph. The short version is that she narrowly escaped being gang-raped at her school, and she later ends up becoming the girlfriend of one of her wannabe-rapists, Scott. She doesn’t love Scott, and he doesn’t respect her, but this is her version of consent and she uses him to try to erase the memories of her sexual abuse by Jerome.
During all of this, David is sent away to an Evangelical reform school in the Dominican Republic, Escuela Caribe. His mother burns all of his stuff and bleaches his room, because she doesn’t want him to come back, although he doesn’t know it at the time because he keeps writing letters asking when he can come home.
Eventually, Julia runs away and is arrested by the police for breaking curfew laws. She is sent to jail (which she chooses instead of going home) and in court, she is given the choice of becoming an emancipated minor or going to Escuela Caribe. She chooses the latter so that she can be close to David.
This is where the second part of the book starts, entitled “Trust No One.” This section covers Julia and David’s entire experience at Escuela, which continues the physical abuse in the name of Jesus in order to reform the “bad kids” at the school.
All students start off at Level 0, where they have to ask permission to sit, stand, walk, eat, etc. To advance to another level and get more privileges, students had to memorize Bible passages and do exercises. Julia is given special permission to talk to David for 10 minutes, and he warns her to trust no one (except for him) because students are given extra points for tattling on others.
Once Julia realizes that resisting The Program and having an openly-defiant attitude will get her nowhere, she starts advancing through the levels, doing every humiliating activity with a smile–and she reminds herself that this isn’t defeat, it’s survival. Everyone at the camp always tells her that the constant beatings and demoralizing treatment will build character, but she makes the point that in her experience, treating someone viciously doesn’t make them a better person, it just teaches them to hate.
If you are more interested in reading about the abuses at Escuela Caribe and in the New Horizons Youth Ministries program, Julia and other alumni made this website exposing the truth. Fortunately, thanks to their internet campaign, Escuela closed in 2011, but NHYM is still in operation.
Nowadays, Julia describes herself as a secular humanist, thanks to the rampant hypocrisy she witnessed by people who worshiped Jesus by beating children. You can read more about her at her website.
This Month’s Recipe: Fresh Strawberry Cake
Obviously this is not a themed dessert. Or maybe it is, and the theme is “I need something sweet to distract myself from the horrible traumas of this book.” In any case, this cake is delicious. I love making strawberry muffins in the summer, and this is basically a giant strawberry muffin, plus it’s very simple and easy to follow. Check out the recipe here!
Next Month’s Book: Life Ascending
For August, we will be reading Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. I will be making a post on August 24th. See you then!