Tuesday, June 29, 2010

True Conversions No. 7: Julia Scheeres

Jesus Land 

By Julia Scheeres 

Counterpoint, $24 
288 pages 

ISBN 1582433380

True conversions? This chilling, “coming of age” memoir by author Julia Scheeres, is more in the nature of True Confessions. Scheeres writes intensely-and graphically- about her adolescent struggles against both an abusive home situation and the strict upbringing she experienced in the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination with its roots in historic Calvinism. This book covers the period of her transition, in the early 1980’s, from the sheltered haven of a private Christian elementary school to the ‘secular’ world of public high school in quasi-redneck Lafayette, Indiana.

This is not an idealized, “Leave it to Beaver” American family. Sheeres’ father, a prominent surgeon, reportedly beats his male children on a regular basis, often on the flimsiest of excuses. Two paddles—one named “Spare the Rod”, and the other, “Spoil the Child” tell the story. Her mother spends most of her time involved in church-related work—support of foreign missionaries is her passion. She appears to be utterly indifferent to the affective needs of her children. When she does give them attention, it is usually to criticize. Her parents have adopted two African-American children to rear alongside their own biological offspring. One of the adopted children, David, is the same age as the author, and becomes her literal soul mate. The other stepbrother, Jerome, exhibits violent and self-destructive tendencies from an early age. In addition to his other behaviors, he has sexually assaulted his sister on multiple occasions.

To fill out this grim portrait of domestic dysfunction, teenagers Julia and David are shipped off to hellhole of a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic where, according to the author, they are subjected to a daily regimen of humiliating mistreatment. Only the mutual love and concern of the brother and sister make their psychic survival possible. Eventually both siblings are liberated from their banishment, but David is killed some years later in an auto accident. The author herself ends up being excommunicated by her church and shunned by her community for her unorthodox views and conduct.

This is not a tale about religious conversion; it’s a story about survival. Survival from a loveless childhood and adolescence; survival from apparently indifferent, and even violent parents. Survival from a religious community which apparently accorded these young people little, if any, acceptance, support, or affirmation.

This grim memoir straddles precariously between necessary truth telling and compulsive self-disclosure. The reader does not really need a lengthy blow by blow description of routine abuse and humiliation to get the picture. It’s pretty clear what’s going on from the get-go. What is less clear is what is happening to the young Julia Scheeres internally, spiritually, if you will. She writes about the beliefs of others, but not about her own. Although the author describes extensively the religious beliefs and attitudes of her family and church community, she reveals very little of her own worldview or spiritual beliefs. We know what she’s ‘a-gin”, but we have no clue about what she’s “fur.” At present, Scheeres half-jokingly describes herself as a “devout hedonist, agnostic, (and) secular humanist.” Not a surprising response from someone who appears to have experienced only a mean, petty, and vengeful God as a child. Exposure of deep and still-raw wounds to the light of day may be the requisite first step in her healing process. “True conversion” may well have to wait.

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