by Julia Scheeres; New York, Counterpoint Press, 2005, 356 pages, $23
Dr. McClenahan is assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans and medical director of region 3 of the office of mental health at Louisiana State Department of Health and Hospitals.
In Julia Scheeres' debut novel, Jesus Land, the author has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Wired and is a recipient of several journalism awards. Scheeres presents this autobiography with focus on her relationship with her adopted younger African-American brother David. The novel begins with Julia and David bicycling through farmland. Scheeres depicts their early Calvinist upbringing in rural Indiana and ensuing exile together to Escuela Caribe, a harsh Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Their father, a surgeon, although mostly aloof, has a quick propensity for violence from which she is usually spared. Their mother, a fundamentalist Christian, is more devoted to her own church missionary work than to her children's welfare.
When they adopt three-year-old David, the parents feel that to reject such a baby would be considered un-Christian, and they see an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that neither they nor their God are prejudiced. Scheeres reveals that her mother, upon first touching David, has been concerned that "the black would rub off" onto her hands. Peers at school are brazen in their racism. These siblings also struggle with their shared adolescent trajectory. Julia's situation is further complicated with the incest committed by a sociopathic older brother, Jerome, who catalyzes a failed attempted gang rape by three of her classmates.
The protagonist's heterosexual coming-of-age is rendered with painful poignancy. When introduced to a handsome "hottie," she invokes advice from Glamour to act in a casual manner as if he were merely a valet or a delivery boy. Yet she remains unsure about how to proceed, because she has never met a valet or a delivery boy. Later, after relinquishing her virginity, she is viewed as running with the Devil. Her older sister's gift of the Glamour subscription is seen as having sown the seeds of sinful behavior. After her encounter with classmate Scott who forces fellatio, she hopes that things in her life will change for the better now that she has a boyfriend.
The bullying in Indiana yields to the grim Caribbean Christian boot camp where adolescents must repent for being sinners. When Julia returns years later to the island to gather information for this book, she is asked to recall her most important lessons from the experience. She tells us that she has learned to not trust others but to believe in people over dogma. She also has managed to partake of things sensual and joyous even in horrid circumstances. Amid such intolerance, hypocrisy, cruelty, and ignorance, Julia and David learn that they can survive anything. Throughout her account, Scheeres preserves a sense of dignity, integrity, and humor. This inspiring story of personal triumph and recovery is the grist for our work as mental health professionals.