Life in Midwest America was far from a pastoral paradise for Julia Scheeres. Her family's move to rural Indiana dropped Julia and her adopted brother David into a nightmare from which they would not emerge until years later. David, a black boy adopted by the Scheeres family at the age of three, became a target for the inbred racist piglets of the rural surroundings, as did Julia, her brother's constant companion. They endured the racial intolerance not only in the form of jokes and remarks hurled at them but physically. On the school bus, Julia is called "Nigger lover" and David kicked in the crotch, and this all on the first day of school. It goes downhill from there, as Scheeres describes in her brutal memoir, Jesus Land.
The torture endured by Julia and David at the hands of their peers would have been mitigated by a loving family life, had they been so fortunate. Instead they were the victims of emotional and physical abuse at home, dished out by their mother and father, respectively. David optimistically pined for the Brady Bunch family he believed the Scheeres could be, while he and his older brother Jerome (also black and adopted), were nightly beaten by Dr. Scheeres for various minor infractions. Julia's mother, who firmly believed that "the best thing you can do in life is die for Jesus Christ," focused all her love upon her savior and the missionaries of the Lafayette Christian Reformed church, leaving none for her children. Worse yet, Jerome repeatedly raped Julia.Crushed between the cruelty of their peers and domestic abuse at home, Julia and David learned to cope with their youth in different ways. David goes within, his optimism replaced by sullenness, while Julia finds solace in alcohol and sex. Both keep their thoughts trained on the magical age of 18 when they envision themselves together in Florida, their metaphor for freedom from their family and the nightmare of their youth. Before this can happen however, they are sent by their parents to Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school located deep in the jungles of the Dominican Republic.
Escuela Caribe is a Christian boot-camp for "problem" teens, staffed by abusive and sadistic personnel. Upon arrival, students must ask permission to sit, stand, move, or eat. Punishment for noncompliance is meted out in various forms: students are thrown in solitary isolation; awakened in the night to do push-ups, threatened, and even physically abused - Julia watches as David is punched in the stomach by a staff member in a fit of rage. While alone with Julia, the founder of Escuela Caribe compares her to a 15-year old "whore," a former student:'I took that little whore, and I stripped her naked and I beat her black and blue,' The Pastor says, his voice a hoarse whisper. 'Beat the Devil right out of her. And believe you me, I would not hesitate to do it again.
Students have no rights, no freedom, no recourse, and they either get with "The Program" or suffer still more consequences. The siblings learned quickly to trust no one but each other, and like prison-camp inmates, the two formed a secret language that allowed them to communicate in the hostile environs.
Woody Allen once said "If Jesus Christ came back today and saw what was being done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up." He was right. Jesus Land is the story of Christianity gone horribly awry, of children entrusted to unfit parents, and of siblings united against terrible odds. Scheeres' is a heart-breaking memoir, a compelling read that will hold you fast from start to finish and leave you in tears.