I think I’m well-positioned to review this book, because I grew up with Julia and David Scheeres. More precisely, we all went to Lafayette Christian School through eighth grade. Both Julia and David were in my brother’s elementary school class, one year ahead of me. Jerome, her older adopted brother, was in the class two years ahead of me. Lafayette Christian figures heavily in the story, although the story itself takes place starting two years after graduation from that school.
I can’t decide quite what to make of “Jesus Land.” It is a compelling memoir of sufferings undergone. I can confirm certain gruesome external details about Julia’s upbringing, so the criticisms comparing it to “A Million Little Pieces” and similar fabulist works are unfair, and I expect that her Escuela Caribe experience was pretty much just as she described it. I knew David Scheeres, and he was an excellent kid with a great heart, just as he is described (unlike his adoptive brother Jerome, whom I also knew, and who was a very bad actor even as a child).
Without going into unnecessary detail, for example, I can confirm personally seeing either welts or scars (at this remove, I cannot say which) all across David’s and Jerome’s backs from whippings with some instrument. This was not regarded as normal, but as Scheeres said, back then nobody would do anything about such things. So while I never knew her parents personally, it seems to me entirely possible they were just as bad as she portrays. (Her father is apparently dead, though she does not mention it. She does not mention what happened to Jerome, but a simple Google search suggests that at least in 2011 he was still living in the same geographic area, because he was arrested for marijuana possession.)
But “Jesus Land” is undermined and worsened by numerous small factual inaccuracies, and frankly, fictions. One could say that these are poetic license. But they are not poetic. Nor are they accidental. Rather, they are all in the service of what is the book’s prime vice, which is that it is written for, and only for, a specific audience and target market. That market is leftist agnostics and atheists who have contempt not only for Christianity but for every person who lives in flyover country. You see this in that Scheeres repeatedly notes she lives in Berkeley, in order to signal to the reader she is Not That Kind Of Person. Only the Right Kind Of Person, of course, is invited onto NPR and other media outlets; hence the continual dripping contempt for anyone not fitting the author’s mold of A Desirable Person (which apparently zero people in Indiana do).
One possible response is “So”? Leftist atheists need love, and books directed at them, too. But the problem with small inaccuracies, or falsehoods, is that they undermine confidence in the rest of the narrative. What also undermines and coarsens the book is the cardboard nature of everyone portrayed. They all are grossly deficient in every way, and characterized as such with contemptuous adjectives. Bus drivers are “fat.” French teachers teach “in a constipated voice.” The barrage of contempt is never-ending and highly distracting. (It only lets up when the author talks about what is apparently the real “Jesus Land,” namely Berkeley.)
Anyway, on the inaccuracies. None are huge; it’s their cumulative effect and direction which undermine the narrative. Most would not be visible to more than a few people alive today. In particular, a very substantial percentage of the specific statements about Lafayette Christian are false. Lafayette Christian was (and is) a Reformed, or Calvinist, school, as Scheeres notes. What she does not note is that Reformed students were a minority; the school had many different types of Christians welcomed and accepted as students, including Catholics (such as me). So here’s a not-exclusive list of further incorrect statements in the book:
1) “Until , we attended a Dutch Calvinist school as well, where all the kids were blonde and lanky like me.” I have in my hand a picture of the graduating class of David and Julia Scheeres and another of my class. In the pictures, only four children have blonde hair. Blonde hair was simply not the norm. This would not matter, except it is an attempt to hide the actual diversity of the school (and probably to vaguely imply Nazi-type leanings).
2) As to Jews, Scheeres says “Jesus-killers, we called them at Lafayette Christian.” This is frankly ludicrous. I suppose it’s possible that the “we” meant some children in private conversations. But the phrasing is clearly meant to imply that’s what the school authorities said and therefore endorsed. Which is, as I say, ludicrous.
3) “At Lafayette Christian, there was no sex ed class.” This is false (it is said in support of “Everything I know about being female I learned from a Kotex box.”) Sex ed was taught every two years to both boys and girls, separately. It was taught to the 5th/6th graders and separately to the 7th/8th graders (the advanced class!) My classes were exactly coterminous with Scheeres’s, so I know they were offered. Again, this is an attempt to paint the school as blinkered and dangerously parochial, which it most assuredly was not.
4) On the first day of school, a high school math teachers’ responds to a girl identifying herself as “Goldstein” with “Jew name, isn’t it?” That is very, very unlikely. Similarly unlikely is that a gravestone from the 19th Century spelled “died” as “dyed.” Again—these are simply fictions designed to make Indiana seem like a horrible place to be. In fact, Scheeres specifically says “My parents’ own state, Indiana, had once been a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, and was still a haven for backwater bigots.” (She does not seem to know that the Indiana Klan was much more opposed to Catholics than black people, though.)
5) Scheeres bizarrely claims her mother, a surgeon’s wife, initially feared if she touched her own black adopted baby, “the black would rub off on her hands.”
6) Scheeres says that as a teenager, having just moved to the country (actually, to a rural area only a few miles from my house on the edge of West Lafayette, a fairly cosmopolitan college town), she saw a series of plywood signs “bear[ing] a hand-scrawled message.” This consists of four signs, among them “Rightchuss go to: HEAVEN” and “The end is neer: REPENT.” Maybe. But I lived on the edge of that same countryside at the exact same time, and not only did I never see any billboards advising people to repent (which do crop up sometimes in Indiana), but I never saw any type of hand-made sign. And, what shows this to be false most of all, is the mis-spelling. People in Indiana can spell just fine. But that would not advance the author’s narrative. Much of the flavor of the book paints Indiana as a hybrid of a KKK rally and a liberal’s Facebook feed about WalMart, crudely designed to play to the prejudices of Scheeres’ Berkeley/NPR crowd.
7) I think it highly unlikely that racism was ubiquitous as portrayed in the environments in which David Scheeres was raised. For example, much is made of supposed racism of children in the Kingston pool (which was in West Lafayette, not the country). I spent much of several summers there, and I remember David playing there frequently as well (they lived close to the pool at that time). I don’t remember any racist comments. And Lafayette Christian did not tolerate racism (they were, in fact, appalled at the Dutch Afrikaans behavior in South Africa, because they felt they were tarred with that brush as Dutch co-religionists). There was one family at the school with two boys, one in my class, which was openly racist, but the children had to tell their racist jokes in hushed tones, like dirty jokes, because they knew they would be severely punished if the teachers found out.
Finally, the book takes lots of actual poetic license, too, which leads to anachronisms. Jolt Cola was first marketed in 1985, but she refers to it as existing in 1983/1984. A scene where racist kids at the Kingston pool only leave David alone when a minivan arrives must take place prior to 1981, but the first minivan was sold in 1984. And so on. Again, not a huge deal, but when it undermines confidence in the book for readers—even though, as I say, I think all the key elements of author’s personal story in the book are almost certainly accurate.
Every author has to choose an audience. The tragedy is that by her secondary choices, Scheeres targeted this book to people who already thought Christians were stupid, evil, bigots or all three, and doubtless succeeded in reinforcing those views. (Scheeres also appears to have been instrumental in the closure of Escuela Caribe, though, so the book does appear to have had some other beneficial impact.) A better choice would have been to write a less vitriolic book, targeted to a broader, more open-minded audience than Berkeley drones, that could have been read by average, normal people all over the country (even in barbaric Indiana!) as a guide to what not to do.