Monday, June 22, 2015

"Jesus Land" by Julia Scheeres: A Love Story Between Sister and Brother

Christal Cooper

Article/ with excerpts 4,077 Words

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

REMEMBER FLORIDA I’d scrawled in my notebook, drawing a heart beneath the words.  I ripped the page out and stuck it in his textbook when no one was looking.
       I think we both realize that the chance of us moving to Florida together at this point is slim.  I’ve decided to go to college to become a social worker and David wants to become an actor and work on TV.
       But I wrote REMEMBER FLORIDA anyway, because for years, it’s what we’ve done when things get tough.  Anyway, Florida, is not a place, it’s a concept.  It’s freedom and happiness and being in control of your own life.  Remember Florida:  Remember there’s a better place than this.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

       In August of 1987, Julia Scheeres had just attended her brother David’s funeral and was going through his belongings when she discovered a green notebook full of notes, a book David planned to write:  a book that Julia would later write and become a bestseller eighteen years later.

      I wrote Jesus Land in an effort to preserve his memory and the memory of the life we shared together.  From the time he was adopted at age three until he died in a car crash at age 20, we were in constant contact.  I was the person who knew him best, and it's my job to keep telling people about what a quirky, tragic and beautiful soul he was.”

Jesus Land is a memoir and the first book written by San Francisco Writers Grotto faculty member Julia Scheeres, about her and David’s experiences of intense racism, child abuse at home, and severe abuse at Escuela Carib, a Christian reform school for troubled teens in the Dominican Republic.

       Julia and David were better described as twins – the same age, kindred spirits constantly at the hip ready to defend the other, and having a connection that could not be explained and never be defeated. 

The only differences these two had were all due to DNA – Julia was white and a girl; David black and a boy; and each had different biological parents. 

       Jesus Land starts out in 1983, David and Julia, both 16, are on a bike riding adventure in the hot steamy summer of Lafayette, Indiana, a predominately white, conservative, Bible belt community that reeked of racism.

       “That darky your boyfriend?”  one of them asks to a burst of snickers.  I pull my bike upright and wheel it forward so David can get his.
“No, he’s my brother.”
They crowd around us.
“What, your momma git knocked up by some Detroit nigger?”
There’s a shuffle of dirty laughter ant he leans forward, his pimpled jaw working up and down.  He hawks a glob of chew into the dirt, narrowly missing David’s sneakers.  I glare at him and he throws his shoulders back and grins proudly, a string of spittle stretching from his pink face to the dust.  David contemplates the lump of brown slime at his feet with knitted eyebrows, as if it were the saddest thing he’d ever seen.  Don’t freeze up on me.  Don’t!
“Let’s go,” I order David, elbowing him in the ribs.
“Yea, you’d best skedaddle,” the tall one says.
As we mount our bikes, they watch with crossed arms and slit eyes.  We’ve got enough fear ricocheting through us to propel ourselves all the way home without stopping. 

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.

       They eventually ride their bikes back home, a sprawling three-story ranch house on 180 Sumac Drive.  Home is supposed to be a safe haven, but, instead, it is an abusive environment:  Julia is repeatedly raped by adoptive brother Jerome; and both Julia and David are physically, emotionally, and verbally abused by their parents.

Their father is a surgeon who spends most of his life on the job and when he gets home only speaks with two things:  a belt, inflicting deep scars beneath thick skin, and a fist plummeting into his sons’ stomachs. 

       Their mother is a former nurse obsessed with the spreading of the Gospel:  writing letters to missionaries, attending church, attending organizations that benefit the spreading of gospel, reading Christianity Today, and praying.   These obsessions are all consuming and fanatical, leaving no room for her to acknowledge her children.

She’s got missionaries around the globe.  Sends letters and packages, birthday cards, chewing gum, $20 bills.  Pins their photos to the bulletin board over her desk.  White couples, posing with mud huts and dark children, their locations jotted on the back of each picture:  “Loving the Lord in Laos.”  “Coming to Christ in Columbia.”  “Giving God to Ghana.”  It all sounds so vaguely pornographic to me, although I know they’re working hard to save souls.
She and Dad go on medical mission trips from which she returns giddy with enthusiasm.  They make us sit through slide shows that document their god squad adventures.  Look at this football-sized tumor.  Here’s a gangrenous spear wound.  We brought these loin-clothed pagans to Jesus, healing bodies and souls at the same time.
“Such gratitude for Christ, such a hankering for the Word!”  Mother will gasp, shaking her head at the wonder of it.
Sometimes they show movies about missionary martyrs after Vespers, projecting the film onto the back of the church while we sit in folding chairs in the parking lot, drinking Kool-Aid.  Mother holds these people in high esteem.  Says she would have been a missionary herself if it weren’t for meeting our father.
I used to wish she’d show the same enthusiasm for us, pin our family photographs to her bulletin board.  When I was in third grade, I poked all her missionaries’ eyes out with a thumbtack in a fit of jealousy.  She paddled me for it.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.

       Despite the father being a surgeon, most of the income goes toward other missionaries, spreading the gospel, and the father’s pricey Porsche, which means the family has to make sacrifices: no air conditioning during the sweltering summer months, no clothes shopping, and no home cooked meals at the dinner table; instead David and Julia eat what some would call staple food, food usually eaten by the poor during the Depression.

       Garbage Soup is Mother’s name for it, not ours.  She makes it from old vegetables and plate-scrapings – flaccid celery and carrot sticks, chicken bones, potato skins, cheese rinds – that she collects in a mayonnaise jar and freezes.  When the jar is full, she stews the contents in salted water for two hours, strains the broth, adds hamburger, and la viola, Garbage Soup!  She says it’s loaded with vitamins, one of the most nutritious meals ever.   But it tastes just like its name, sour and dirty and old.  It’s summertime, the air con is off to save energy; and I’m damp with sweat, but the mayo jar was full, so it’s Garbage Soup for supper.  Waste not, want not.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres
Punishment for any form of behavior or opinions that did not coincide with the parent’s view was met with physical abuse from the father and emotional and verbal abuse from the mother.

In addition the entire house is wired with an intercom system in every room of the three-story ranch home: where the only thing heard is the Rejoice Radio, which begins at 8 a.m. until bedtime.  But there are more sinister uses for the intercom system:

The intercom has another important function:  spying.  Control panels in the kitchen and master bedroom have a black switch that can be flipped to “listen” or to “talk.”  You can tell when Mother’s eavesdropping because the speakers crackle, but we can’t turn the volume down or off because we get in trouble if we don’t hear her call us.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres
Soon Julia finds an outlet and an escape – through drinking alcohol that she hides in a mayonnaise jar in a box in her closet; and sneaking her boyfriend into her bedroom where they have sex. 

David has one dream – for the family to be like the Brady Bunch; the oldest three children Daniel, Deb, and Lauren are away at college; but then Jerome is sent to a juvenile detention center, and he is loosing hope of his dream coming true.  Things worsen when, during the first part of December, his father beats him with a 2x4 resulting in a broken arm.

       “Are you okay?”  I ask, although it’s obvious that he’s not.  “Do you want some water or something?”
He begins to murmur.
“So sick of it, sick of all of it.”
My heart contracts.  He’s giving up, and we’re almost there.
“Don’t do this now,” I say.  “A year and a half and we’re eighteen.  Remember Florida!”

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Their greatest message to one another was two words:  Remember Florida.  Julia and David had a dream – upon the age of 18 escaping Jesus Land and their abusive parents, and moving to Florida.  Julia would earn a living making jewelry out of seashells and selling it on the beach; and David would earn his living by deep-sea fishing.  They both would spend their non-working hours at the white beach, without being attacked because of David’s skin color or being abused by their parents.   While at those white beaches they would simply listen to the blue waves make its own music, and they would live happily ever after. 

But for David that Christmas of 1983 he reached a point where Remember Florida no longer gave him hope and he attempted suicide by repeatedly slashing his wrist and arm with a razor from a wall-mounted pencil sharpener.  Julia finds him and in a panic goes to their mother.

 “He cut his wrist!”  I yell, cupping my hands around my mouth as if she were a mile away.  She exhales, exasperated.
“Why can’t I just have one day of peace?”  she grumbles, handing me the spatula.
She walks downstairs braying his name.
“A White Christmas, just what everyone wanted!”  the bleached blond TV reporter says.  I push the pink and white paste around the skillet and wonder if I should call an ambulance or if Mother will take him to the hospital herself.
Next thing, she’s beside me, snatching the spatula from my hand.
“It’s burning!”
I wipe my hand on my jeans to erase her touch and watch her spoon four craters in the hash and crack an egg into each one.  She says nothing.
“Well, are you taking him to the hospital?”  I ask.
She snorts and jerks the saltshaker over the skillet.
“They’re just surface cuts,” she says.  “If you want to kill yourself, you slice down, not sideways.”
She illustrates with her index finger before bending to pull a metal lid from the tangle of pans in the cupboard below the counter.
“But doesn’t he need . . .”
“He’s just trying to get attention.  Ignore him.”
She drops the lid on the skillet and turns to open the refrigerator.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

       On January 2, 1984 David is sent to the Dominican Republic where he attends Escuela Carib, a reform school for delinquent teenagers governed by New Horizons Youth Ministries, Inc.

       In the spring of 1984 her mother reads her diary and Julia is afraid her father may be aware of her sexual rendezvous with her boyfriend Scott.  Julia runs away from home and moves in with her brother Dan and his three roommates at Purdue.  She finds a job as a busgirl at the Howard Johnson’s Hotel, and, for the first time, Julia experiences independence, peace, and happiness until, weeks later, her mother calls her on the telephone.

       “You killed my baby,” she kept repeating.  It took me a while to figure out that her “baby” was our dog, Lecka.  I had unchained her the previous night and taken her to Scott’s house to play with her, but she ran away before I could take her back, and sometime during the night, she was run over in front of his driveway.  His father had called Mother with the news.
“I loved that dog,” my mother wailed on the phone.  “And you killed her.”
I hung up the phone on her and snapped.  It wasn’t just being responsible for Lecka’s dying that set me off.  It was my mother calling Lecka her “baby,” and saying she loved her, and it was the emotion in her voice.  It was my mother – who had never in my seventeen years told me that she loved me – getting all lathered up over the dog.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.

       Hours after the conversation with her mother, Julia is arrested for entering an unlocked car and breaking curfew – it was past midnight and she was a minor.  Her father comes to the police station to pick her up but she chooses to stay in jail instead of go home with him.  She stays in jail for five days.  Eventually Julia is faced with three choices – go back home with her abusive parents, be declared an emancipated minor, or join David at Escuela Caribe.   Julia, thinking it would be a happy reunion with David, chooses Escuela Caribe, unaware of the horrors that await her there.

       “What is this place?”  I asked, squinting across the table at him in the high tropical light.
He pushes his glasses up his nose.
“What do you mean?”
“How come you never told me what it was really like?”  As I talk, my anger swells.  “Do you know I had to get special permission to talk to you just now?  And after this, that fat lady says we can’t communicate?”
“Shh!”  He presses a finger to his lips and glances around, a deep crease etched into his forehead.
“Well?”  I ask, glancing at my watch.  “We’ve only got, like, eight minutes left.”
     He leans forward.  “I couldn’t tell you – they read the mail,” he says in a low rush.   “If you write anything negative about The Program, they dock your points and throw away the letter.”

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

The New Horizon’s Youth Ministries School Escuela Caribe imposes forced church attendance; sleep deprivation, beatings, forced labor, threats of sexual violence, food deprivation, and abuse.  

Each “student” is required to ask permission before he or she can move, sit, stand, eat, or communicate with other members of the opposite sex.   All incoming and outgoing mail is scrutinized for any negativity about the school.  If any negativity is detected the mail is destroyed before it reaches the addressee.

It was at the school that Julia and David felt total abandonment, but they held on to one another, and even though talking was not allowed they found their own way of communicating:  a stare meant “Are you okay?’’ and the shake of the head or a nod meant “not good”, and the one message they never stopped sending to one another:  Remember Florida.

I just have to playact, same as David and I did as little kids in the basement with our dress-up clothes.  He’d pretend to be a Texas cowboy, and I’d pretend to be an evil witch.  Now we just have to playact the part of repentant teenagers.
When I get out, I’ll go live with Deb and find another job as a busgirl.  I’ll save money to buy a junker and drive down to Florida, where I’ll rent an apartment on the sand and wait for David to join me.  Unless, of course, he gets out first, in which case I’d join him. 
I imagine the two of us living in our beach apartment, dunking each other in the warm waves and going for long bike rides on the boardwalk.  We’ll be fine after all, David, we will.

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.

They also found the ability to pretend that they were being submissive to the school’s philosophy, which included Julia confessing to being a whore, an alcoholic, and the cause of her parents’ misery.  They are both on their way to reach Level 5 that would enable them to leave the school for good; but until then Julia is dealt another horror.

The Pastor gets up to close it, then perches on the desk in front of me.
“I once knew a girl like you, a real smart aleck,” he says.  “Only fifteen years old, and already a whore, fornicating left and right.  Her daddy was dead, so her mother called me for help.  Would you like to know what I did to her?”
He bores into me with his steel gray eyes and I want to shake my head “no,” but know he’ll tell me anyway.  I look at the bug, at the felt banner over the desk.  I am the Potter and You are the Clay.  If I look at him, something bad will happen.  If you stare down a growling dog, it will bite you.
The Pastor leans forward until his face is a few inches form mine, blocking out the rest of the room.  His breath smells of boiled cabbage.  I stare at the stubble on his chin.  Some of it white, some of it gray.
“I took that little whore, and I striped 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.”

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres
       David and Julia have earned enough points to be free from the school and on their last day in the Dominican Republic they finally are able to Remember Florida.

       A marshy breeze blows over us and ruffles the mopheads of the palm trees arched over the shoreline.  The fishing boats are trailing out of the bay to the open sea, and the gulls now soar in lazy circles over us.
“It’s like Florida,” David says, taking it all in.
“Better,” I say.
He takes a corner of his towel and wipes his gleaming forehead.
“Remember how we were going to move down there?” he asks.
“Yea.  We talked about it for years.”
“Guess this is as close as we’ll get,” he says, sighing.
I watch a wave rear up celery green and collapse shhhhhhh onto the sand before turning to him.
“Let’s pretend this is our Florida.  Today.”
He crosses his arms in front of him on the towel and rests his chin on them, smiling.
“Okay,” he says, closing his eyes.
“Let’s pretend that everything turns out fine.  We’re living on the beach and we’re happy.”
“I am happy right now, “ he says.  “I only wish it would stay like this.”
“Shh,” I reply, seeing his forehead crease.  “We’re fine.”

Excerpt from Jesus Land
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

       The twins never return to the three-story ranch style home to live, only to visit; instead Julia is sent to Portugal to be a part of the group Teen Missions that helps build missionary compounds.  In the fall of 1985 she attends a Christian college in Upland, Indiana.   David, who is now a year behind in his studies, is sent to the Escuela Caribe in Marion, Indiana, where he will stay until he is old enough to join the Indiana National Guard.   He died on August 1, 1987 in a car crash, on his way to see Julia, only four miles from the house.    

       The next 18 years were successful years for Julia:  she earned a BA in Spanish from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a M.A. in Print Journalism from University of Southern California, and worked for the Los Angeles Times as well as other prestigious publications.

       But her personal life was a mess:  - it took her a full -year before she finally accepted David’s death.
       “Shortly after he died, I transferred to another college, where I told everyone about my hilarious brother. I kept up this fiction for over a year, then blurted out the truth during a bout of drinking Peach Schnapps.”

       It took her ten years to gather up the courage and strength to stand over his gravestone in 1997.

In 2001, she began the research process of turning David’s green notebook into the memoir Jesus Land. 
In 2002, she connected with the man, Tim Rose, who would change her life.  They first connected via a dating site, and then, finally met face to face at a Berkeley, California café. 
Three years later, May 21, 2005, the two married at San Francisco City Hall, a union that Julia’s mother said she refused to recognize since they had not married in a church. 

This was the last straw and Julia cut off contact with both her parents, who now live in Florida.
Jesus Land was published by Counterpoint Press in the United States on January 1, 2005.

       The memoir under the title Another Hour On A Sunday Morning was published in the United Kingdom by Random House in 2005.

Jesus Land was a New York Times national bestseller, a Times bestseller in the U.K., and named one of the top ten best memoirs ever by Entertainment Weekly Magazine.
The book was also the winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award in 2006; New Visions Nonfiction Book Award in 2006; and a top selection for the Quality Paperback Book Club.
The book is now being shopped by Hollywood for possible movie consideration (as well as her other book A Thousand Lives). 

       “I was surprised that so many people read it, and felt moved by it.  Amazed and thrilled at the response. It was hard to get published - all the big houses turned it down. I still get emails several times a week. It blew me away that people felt touched by David's life and cared about him.”

       The most important thing in Julia’s life is her own family – her husband Tim Rose, a history professor at Berkeley Community College, and their two daughters – Tessa Rose-Scheeres, 8, and Davia Rose-Scheeres, 6.

       “I choose now to live in Berkeley, California, which is a progressive refuge, despite the fact that I can’t afford to buy a house here. It’s important to me that my children grow up in a place where everything is questioned, examined and debated.”

Julia makes sure Tessa and Davia attend schools that are diverse in both the student makeup and the parent make up.
They have friends who are black, Muslim, Latino, Asian—you name it. There is no sense of the “white way being the right way.” Parents also come in every variety—mixed race marriages, gay partners, divorced moms. We all love our children and want to do right by them, and that’s what matters most.

       "I only wish my brother David had survived to experience Berkeley as well. No one would flinch here if we were to walk down the street together, whereas in Indiana we were constantly met with hostility. I don’t believe in heaven, but this is about as close to heaven on earth as I imagine getting.”
       It seems only reasonable that Julia identifies herself as an atheist and a humanist:  “The abuse I witnessed in the name of God made me resent organized religion and especially Christian fundamentalists.  It made me lose my faith.”
Yet Jesus Land is not a condemnation of Christianity but rather a condemnation of criminal/abusive behavior disguised as Christianity.   Julia’s own two sisters Laura and Debra are both devout Christians and she maintains close relationships with both her sisters and brother Dan.

Jesus Land should never be described as an anti-Christian book, but a book detailing the dangers of forced religion, the affects abuse can have on individuals, but most importantly, it is about the power of love between brother and sister, and how their love conquered and continues to conquer what fanaticism tried so hard to destroy.

Photograph Description And Copyright Information

Photo 1
Julia in her home office in Berkeley, California.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 2
Jacket cover for Jesus Land.
Julia and David on their last day of Kindergarten
May 1972
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 3a, 3b, 3c, and 3d
Pages from David’s green notebook.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 4
Julia and David
June 1970
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 5
Julia and David
Christmas 1986
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 6
The gate leading to the Escuela Carib in the Dominican Republic.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.

Photo 7
Julia and David as the flower girl and ring bearer at their babysitter’s wedding
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 8
Julia and David as Candy Striper and Checker
Summer of 1980
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 9
Jacket cover of Jesus Land
Julia and David at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana
Summer of 1972
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 10
108 Sumac Drive in West Lafayette, Indiana
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 11
The Scheeres Family
Christmas 1976.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 12.
Julia and David
Mid 1970s
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 13
David holding a bird’s nest
Julia holding the bird
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 14
The Scheeres Family
Christmas 1977
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 15
Julia and David
April of 1970
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 16
The Brady Bunch TV logo
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 17
Julia and David
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 18
Julia and David
Summer of 1986
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 19
David holding a net full of fish and Julia
Memorial Day in the 1970s
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 20
David at Escuela Carib
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 21
Julia and David
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 22
Julia and David in the sandbox
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 23 and Photo 24
Paperwork on Julia from Escuela Carib
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 25
Davie and Julia Tobogganing at Slater Hill in Purdue, Indiana
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 26
David and Julia
Winter 1972
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 27
Julia and David on his birthday in August of 1972.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 28
David at age 17 in 1985.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 29
Julia Scheeres
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 31
David and Julia in the 9th grade. 1981-1982
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 33
David gravestone
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 36
Tim and Julia’s wedding day
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 38a
Jacket cover of Jesus Land

Photo 38b
Web logo for Counterpoint Press
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright law

Photo 39a
Jacket cover of Another Hour On A Sunday Morning

Photo 39b
Jacket cover of Another Hour On A Sunday Morning
Julia pulling David in a red wagon, 1970.
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 39c
Web logo for Random House
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 40
The famous Hollywood Sign
Public Domain

Photo 41
Jacket cover of A Thousand Lives

Photo 42
Letters Julia has received from her readers
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 43
Tessa, Tim, Julia and Davia
December 19, 2014
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 44
Tessa, Julia, and Davia on Mother’s Day 2014
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 46
Tessa and Davia in their Berkeley, California neighborhood
April 2014
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 50
Sister Deb, Tessa, and Julia
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 51
Julia and brother Daniel
Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres

Photo 52
The last photo taken of David and Julia Scheeres

Copyright granted by Julia Scheeres.