Scheeres grew up in Indiana farm country in the mid-1970's in a misguided fundamentalist household. Upstanding citizens and leaders in their Calvinist church, Scheeres' parents were nevertheless horribly abusive. After raising three older children, the Scheeres, led by altruistic impulses, seek to adopt a handicapped girl, in part to provide companionship for their youngest child, Julia. Instead, they inherit two less-than-welcome black boys. Innocent three-year-old Julia immediately accepts these boys as her brothers, but her rural Indiana neighbors aren't as eager, or as colorblind. The elder of the boys, Jerome, chafes under the strictures (and racism) of his new environment. Engulfed with rage, he partakes in all kinds of criminal behaviors, tormenting Julia whenever the opportunity strikes. The youngest boy, David, is exactly Julia's age, and fast becomes the little girl's closest ally and best friend.
As Julia and David endure the oppressive, inexplicable, warped Christian regime of their parents and face all of the gruesome trials of an outcast childhood and adolescence together, they develop a palpable, unquestioning, blood-is-thicker-than-water bond. Unfortunately, Julia's parents treat her brothers as second-class citizens, relegating them to the basement, criticizing them constantly, and physically abusing them at every opportunity. Julia internalizes deep shame over the discrepancy in her parents' treatment (believing she is favored because she is white), which later causes her to act out in startling ways.
Meanwhile, the piousness and hypocrisy mounts. "Rejoice Radio" constantly blares through the house, but it is broadcast over an intercom system that Mother uses to eavesdrop on her children. Whenever Julia and David are attacked by ugly racists at school, they are told to "turn the other cheek," yet their father breaks David's arm with a 2 X 4 in the name of Jesus/discipline. Finally, Julia is sent off to reform school because she is caught having a loving sexual relationship with her boyfriend. This despite the fact that she has endured years of sexual abuse under her own roof.
For some trumped-up reason, David has already been dispatched to this same reform school, so we follow the siblings to an outward paradise -- the Dominican Republic -- which masks an even deeper, more vicious circle of Hell. 'Escuela Caribe' is one of those Christian boot camps that promises to "break the child's spirit" in order to "build their character." The chronic humiliations and daily brutality these two encounter while at "school" are enough to make you wish they were back amongst the KKK in Indiana. But all the while, their abiding faith in one another and their impenetrable love allows them to survive the insanity of their circumstances. They give up on God, their family, teachers, and pretty much people in general, but they never give up on each other. That simple truth is their redemption. The day they manage to share a stolen moment over a piña colada feels like The Resurrection Itself. I wept with utter relief and joy for them, we'd been through so much together.
I've been on a memoir tear of late; I've read five in a row, but this is the only one that had me staying up until 3am to finish it. What's great about the book is not the confirmation of every evil thing you ever thought about religious zealots (though that's certainly a sinfully delicious part of it). What's great is that despite its inflammatory truths, Scheeres tells her story with unflinching, calm directness and no trace of self-pity whatsoever. The jacket copy says "This book will break your heart and mend it again." It's true, but not in the way you might expect. That Julia Scheeres survived with her spirit (and mind) intact is nothing short of a miracle. But she isn't after uplift -- in fact, her memoir is tinged with great, unreconciled sadness. The things that were done to her and her brother in the name of Jesus were despicable, and there is no making sense out of any of it. If there is any feeling of triumph at the end of this book, it comes from the author's tender depiction of a brother who taught her the true meaning of family: unconditional love. And that's enough to make a believer out of me.