How does one write compelling memoir? Well, besides the hard work of remembering and “writing down the bones” for all to read, there is the no-less-important task of reading the memoirs of others and getting a feel for the style. That has been my task over the past few months, and none that I’ve read were as riveting as Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land.
Julia lived not far from me, in and around the Indiana college town of Lafayette, and her tale of growing up under the collective thumbs of ultra-conservative parents, pastors and reform school authorities made this book an obvious choice for me, for we have more than a few things in common. Someone once said that we can get used to saying and doing the right things whether we believe them or not; in that respect we are co-journeyers. But my story cannot begin to compare when one considers the emotional and physical abuse she endured; here she writes about her spiritually-turbulent teenage years with an emotional detachment that is both comforting in its distance and yet liberating in its brutal honesty.
At the heart of her story is her relationship with her adopted brother David. He’s black, frail and a plaything at first, but over the years he becomes her sole anchor of sanity in an insanely distant and troubling world. Things get complicated when they enter high school and both eventually end up being sent to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic; this is their one shot to “get right or get left” as the old saying goes. “The Program,” with its levels of “freedom” measured minute by minute by an ever-present and dictatorial staff, is intense and life-altering in ways one may not care to imagine. Here is an excerpt about one particular experience that struck a cord with me:
Right as I’m chugging along toward Third, I hit a snag that threatens my PRO-gress toward freedom.
After Bruce dumps my underwear drawer on the floor for the fourth day in a row without an explanation, I ask him for one.
We’re standing beside my bunk bed, my panties scattered like used Kleenex at our feet. He jots a 2 on my score chart, then looks at me to gauge my reaction. I put on my humble face.
“Please, Bruce, will you tell me what I’ve done wrong?” I ask. “Please, just this once?”
He considers this request for a long moment, tapping an index finger against his fat lips, before exhaling sharply and bending to snatch a pair of panties from the floor. He kneels beside the bunk and motions for me to join him.
“Watch carefully,” he says, gripping the cotton in his hairy fingers and stretching out the SCHEERES on the inside back waistband. My cheeks burn at seeing my underthings in his wooly grasp, but this is important: I cannot let a pair of panties stand between me and Third Level.
Bruce executes the Escuela Caribe underwear fold on the tile floor: crotch to waist, right side to center, left side to center. When he finishes, he slowly presses his fist over the white square like an iron, the tip of his tongue jutting from his mouth in concentration.
I grab another pair from the floor and mimic his movements, right down to the fist iron and the jutting tongue. When I lay my pair next to his, they look identical.
“Nope,” Bruce says, shaking his head.
He taps the pair he folded.
“My panty is tighter than your panty, eh?” he says. “It’s tidier. More compressed.”
I look at my panty. I look at his panty. They are identical.
“You’re right, Bruce,” I say, shaking my head with feigned amazement.
I must show proper Courtesy and Respect Toward Authority Figures, and part of that is letting authority figures with panty-folding contests. Yes, Bruce, you do have the tightest panty. You are the Queen of Panty Folders, you Canadian faggot.
We stand and he gives me a sideways smile, then jots a + after the two on my chart. A 2+ doesn’t mean squat – I’m punished for any point below a 3. It’s suddenly clear to me that this has nothing to do with panties. It has to do with Bruce provoking me to see how I react. If I break and rebel, or if I obediently swallow all his bull crap.
Bruce is taunting me.
He points at the 2+ and looks at me expectantly.
“Thank you, Bruce,” I say sweetly. “That’s very generous of you.”
When he turns to walk upstairs, I flip him off with both hands.
In all their verbose religiousity and heavy-handed Christian discipline, I get the feeling that these folks missed the verse that instructs adults to “provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” For provoking is all the authority figures in Julia’s life seem to be capable of doing. I’m all for nurturing, but beating a child, whether with words or a belt, often leads to resentment and emotional scars that lead not to wisdom but to rebellion and hatred – an emotion far more damaging than mere anger.
As with all memoir, especially after the James Frey fiasco, one must wonder how much of what we read is an accurate representation of the facts. I know I thought about this while reading Julia’s story; surely life couldn’t have been that bad . . . all the time?! But is memoir necessarily about facts? I know as I write posts that are about my experiences in life, I often get bogged down in trying to get the facts right instead of focusing on how what occurred to me and around me affected me and made me who I am today. We as memoirists have a certain amount of leeway when it comes to factual information that can, unfortunately, be abused to our advantage – a twist of the truth here and there and the story can become much more compelling, a justification of sorts for feeling the way we do, an excuse to not face the facts in all their complexity and instead fabricate a reality that suits our emotional needs. Our job, however, is to write with honesty. And sometimes that means skimming lightly over the little things that really didn’t mean much to get closer to the bigger things that carried a far more enduring psychological punch.
And a punch is what this memoir delivers.