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Fair Oaks Street resident Julia Scheeres did not expect her memoir, Jesus Land (Counterpoint Press, 2005), to receive all the attention it has. The New York Times Book Review called the book "a page turner" and described it as "heart-stopping and enraging." Entertainment Weekly called it a "marvelous remembrance... Jesus Land will break your heart and mend it again, but it won't stop haunting you." And Booklist gave it an Alex Award, as one of the best adult books for teen readers this year.
Though pleased with the reception, Scheeres remains surprised by all the fuss. "I don't think my life is very interesting," says the freelance journalist who has written for Wired and the Los Angeles Times, and is 39 years old, a new mother to baby Tessa born in late August, and wife to Tim Rose, a professor at Laney College in Oakland. She says she wrote the book as a tribute to her brother David, to their relationship, and to everything they went through together.
Scheeres grew up in Indiana in a fundamentalist Christian family. When she was a teenager, she and David, the same age as she, were sent to an evangelical reform school in the Dominican Republic.
David, who is African American and adopted, had been having problems at their all-white high school in Indiana. The other kids often attacked him because he was black, and Scheeres found herself separating and distancing from him, "shamefully," she says, because, "I was tired of being called a 'n----- lover.' I just wanted to be normal."
David fell into a deep depression, and his parents thought he could use a change of scenery. Scheeres got sent to the reform school not to keep David company, but because she had been caught sleeping with her boyfriend. "In that Christian world, your virginity is your most prized possession," she says dryly.
The book chronicles their time at the reform school, which she says was set up like a boot camp and still exists today. "We had to ask permission to sit down, to stand up, to walk from room to room. They used physical punishment and discipline," Scheeres recounts. But the experience brought her and her brother back together again, bonding them against a common oppressor. "The book pokes fun at these righteous folks who ran our lives," she says, describing the memoir as full of dark humor to help balance the intensely stressful subject matter.
A member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, Scheeres is currently working on a novel. Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from Jesus Land: A Memoir, available in Noe Valley at Phoenix Books and Cover to Cover Booksellers.
A new girl arrives from eastern Kentucky. This means I'm no longer the lowest ranker in the girls' house. This means I'll no longer scrub toilets. This means I'll get a better shot at a second helping of dessert. I welcome her arrival.
Her name is Jolene, and she's 15. She's got bleached, permed hair that cascades down to her skinny butt in straw-colored coils. At night, she sits in her bunk and combs it out with a special rubber-tipped pick, one coil at a time. It is her pride and joy.
Jolene's taken hard to the loss of freedom and often plunges her face into her hands with a small moan, as if all this were a thing too ghastly to behold.
When Bruce gives her pushups, she'll chew on her bottom lip for several seconds before lowering herself to the ground, and all his tomato-faced shrieking won't speed her along. Sometimes I catch her staring at me with confused eyes, as if she were waiting for an explanation. I turn away; she'll learn soon enough that there's none to be had.
On a Sunday before vespers we learn why Jolene is here. Bruce picks me to fetch his water, and then we circle the metal chairs in the living room and sit down to confess our sins.
I now know my lines by heart, as I am called upon to repeat them whenever I'm asked what brought me to The Program.
"I was a fornicator and an alcoholic," I say in a loud voice while gazing at my shoes, striving to appear humbled. I am a magnificent actress. I consistently get high points in the box called Being Totally Truthful and Honest, Facing Reality on my daily scorecard.
When it's Jolene's turn to confess, she looks around the circle blankly.
"Honestly, Ah don't know what Ah was sent down here for," she says in her drawl, which is so hillbilly that Indiana rednecks seem citified in comparison.
Bruce narrows his eyes and the girls around me shift uneasily in their metal seats.
"You do too know," he says in a tight voice. "You know perfectly well." His voice rises several octaves, into the soprano range, when he's upset. It's a scary sound.
"Well, Ah do know that Momma married herself a borned-again man, and that's when my troubles began," Jolene says, flipping a long corkscrew of hair over her shoulder. "Ah shoulda known they was storyin' me about this place. That rich old Briggity Britches was up to no good, no how."
I stuff my fist in my mouth to keep from laughing, and a couple of girls cough into their hands to do the same. Becky, sitting beside Jolene, turns to her.
"Jolene, Jesus forgives His children," she says. "Jesus loves you. Jesus will forgive you. But the first step toward receiving His love and forgiveness is to admit our mistakes."
Jolene sucks in her cheeks as if she were preparing to spit.
"Ah don't need no forgivin, cuz Ah ain't done nothing wrong," she says, her black eyes flashing. "And I cain't say I care much for this Jesus character neither."
Bruce bolts to his feet.
"Would you like me to tell everyone why your parents sent you here?"
"That would be my momma, cuz my daddy died when I was--"
"Jolene here had a game she played with the boys in her town, called 'Health Clinic'--"
"Nah, we called it 'House Call' and..."
"This ritual of sexual abuse took place in her bedroom while her poor mother was working as a maid in a motel, toiling away in order--"
"Wasn't no motel, she worked at--"
"Quiet!" Bruce roars.
Jolene crosses her arms and hunkers down in her chair, glaring at him.
"These boys would take turns having intimate, carnal knowledge of Jolene. Right there under her poor mother's roof."
Bruce sits down, and the room falls silent. Becky puts a hand on Jolene's shoulder, and Jolene shrugs it off with a jerk. I stare at her baggy Kentucky Wildcats T-shirt and wonder what's so special about the stick figure underneath that all these boys would crave it. She lifts her chin and looks back at me defiantly.
"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" Bruce asks her.
"That all happened 'fore Momma found that rich old Bapdist and decided to become a fancy lady. Fore that, she didn't pay no mind at all."
Bruce raises his index finger with an ah-ha expression on his face.
"So you confess to being a fornicator."
"You had sex before marriage."
"Yeah, I s'pose. So?"
"Fornication is an abomination in the eyes of our Lord!"
"A sin! Evil! Wrong!"
"Wasn't like we was harming no one," Jolene says with a giggle. "Actually, it was real fun."
Bruce jumps up and orders the rest of us out of the house, so he can talk private with Jolene. We all know what this means: a session. Calisthenics, threats, tears. Big fat O's in the Being Totally Truthful and Honest, Facing Reality box and the Courtesy and Respect Toward Authority Figures box.
Becky leads us into the darkening field beside the house, where we sit on the machete-hewn grass and sing "Humble Thyself" and "Sandy Land."
But no matter how high we raise our voices, we can still hear Bruce bellowing inside the concrete house. We slap no-see-ums from our bare arms and shout out the lyrics and fix our eyes on the fading horizon. We sing until night wraps itself around each of us like a shroud. We sing until the raging stops.
AT VESPERS, Jolene bends her head to pray and doesn't raise it back up again.
The chaplain, a young preacher-in-training from Kansas, asks us if Jesus will find our hearts 100 percent pure and hate-free when He returns to Earth, and I wonder how such a thing is possible.
There's a special function in the courtyard after the service. We're given grape Kool-Aid and stale chocolate-chip cookies sent by someone's parents that were tied up in Customs for two months.
No one notices that Jolene is gone until we've lined up to march back up the hill -- high ranker to low -- and there's an empty space behind me.
Bruce and Becky run through the courtyard wailing Jolene's name and are soon joined by other staffers, who poke flashlights into the dark classrooms and toilets calling, "Jolene! Time to go, Jolene!" as if she'd simply misplaced herself. Karen and I exchange a wide-eyed look; we know better.
Ted struts around with his hands on his hips, barking orders. The Dominican guard trots up with his machete and German shepherd, then lopes off into the darkness again, shouting in Spanish.
She's gone. Vanished into the Dominican side of the barbed wire.
Bruce and the other men pile into the school's two vans. The vehicles careen through the front gate, tires spitting gravel, and shoot down the narrow road towards Jarabacoa.
After the thrum of their engines fades into the distance, Becky turns to us, her face as pale as a mushroom.
"Let's go," she says in a whisper.
We walk up to the girls house under the moon's unblinking gaze in a heavy silence, no one daring to give voice to the thought swirling through her head.
Reprinted with author's permission from Jesus Land: A Memoir, by Julia Scheeres (Counterpoint Press, New York, 2005).
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