2005 • 368 pages • Counterpoint
Ever since I watched Jesus Camp as a teenager, church camp has kind of spooked me. And I don’t mean regular, normal church camp. (I assume regular, normal church camp is pretty chill. I would have no idea, as Madame didn’t want me growing up Catholic and ashamed of my everything, but never settled on an alternative beyond “let the poor kid sleep in.”) I mean the camps bordering on indoctrination, the “pray away the gay” camps, the ones that feel like they’re preying on children. I just can’t understand why anyone would put their child through that.
This morbid fascination is why I alighted on Julia Scheeres’ similarly titled Jesus Land, a memoir of her and her brother’s time at Escuela Caribe, a “Christian boot camp” that’s a cross between those camps and the kind of camps that kidnap kids in the middle of the night to “straighten them out.” (These are real and they are horrifying.) It’s been on the Behemoth long enough that I no longer recall who recommended it to me, just that I came across in the little Carnegie library I used to live across from in Denver long afterwards. (Man. I used to live in Denver. Wild.)
The recommendation was so far behind me that I’d forgotten one key point of Jesus Land—Scheeres’ beloved brother, David, is black, while Scheeres herself is white. That racial divide influences everything, from the treatment the adopted David faces at the hands of the fundamentalist Scheeres parents to how Julia and David operate in high school to how they survive Escuela Caribe barely being able to communicate with each other openly. It complicates their deep love for each other, but never destroys it.
Scheeres writes about her childhood of neglect and sexual abuse in a frank way that may seem at a strange remove at first, but it soon becomes clear that it’s the remove native to writers and journalists as filtered through her adolescent memories. I don’t read a lot of memoirs by abuse survivors, for whatever reason, but I found Scheeres’ writing to be bracing and engaging. I especially liked the choice of writing in a present tense, given that the eighties setting of the memoir might obviously date it.
Engaging? Tense? Setting? Look at me, focusing on the ways in which this is a constructed prose narrative rather than an account of one’s own horrors. I think I’ve forgotten how to review memoirs, especially a memoir as… personal? as this is. How do you evaluate someone’s life and the way they tell it? (It is entirely possible my major tenet of “live and let live” is failing me in this area of criticism, which I am completely fine with.) Jesus Land, it turns out, is Scheeres’ tribute to her brother. The writing of Jesus Land is not meant to communicate an incredible, unbelievable story (although parts of it tragically should be unbelievable but are not), but rather to say, “We were here. We were there. We were together.”
Which doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate Scheeres’ narrative choices here—ending chapters with “flashbacks” detailing how the very young Julia and David became siblings and learned to face the many-headed hydra of racism in various forms. But I left Jesus Land more struck, impressive, and empathetic with Julia as a rebel in occupied territory, doing her damndest to survive with her soul intact despite the best efforts of those around her. For me, Julia’s entire time at Escuela Caribe read like that, from having to narc on her fellow “students” to get ahead to being forced to declare sins she’s barely committed. One of the most affecting passages comes when Julia rebels against a sermon by thinking of her boyfriend, eagerly committing thought crime just to have a space for herself. And while the circumstances are, of course, wildly different, that’s so universally adolescent that I found it transcendent.
So I enjoyed Jesus Land, insofar as one can enjoy a story like this. I enjoyed Scheeres’ writing and, yes, the Escuela Caribe section did satisfy my morbid curiosity about Christian camps meant to indoctrinate. But it’s a whole and entire thing all on its own, difficult for me to dig my teeth into, and that is no bad thing.
I rented this book from the public library.