Saving souls, losing kids

Jesus Land: A Memoir
Julia Scheeres


Have You Seen My Mother?
Bryan Lee McGlothin


While some might wish that memoirs of childhood trauma were out of fashion, such personal stories succeed or fail in how well they go beyond mere recitations of emotional torture, physical battering and survival. Two new entries in the genre take a look at the ways that religious fanaticism and hypocrisy—in one case, coupled with racism—can mangle the lives of children whose parents see themselves as “defenders of the faith.”

Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land is, in addition to being a memoir of her unrelentingly difficult teen years, a loving portrait of her brother, David. Adopted along with another African-American boy by Scheeres’ fundamentalist Christian parents, David wanted desperately to belong to a family. Julia was the only family member who felt the same way about him.

Emotionally and physically abused by his adoptive parents, David eventually is sent to a Christian “reform” school in the Caribbean. After he leaves, Julia finds her mother scrubbing the basement room he had shared with the other African-American adopted brother—already gone to juvenile prison—with bleach. “Who knows what those boys were doing down here?” she says.

Scheeres had been having a hard time herself, and after David’s exile, she winds up a runaway in legal trouble. Rather than become an emancipated minor, she opts to be sent to the same Christian “reform” school as her brother. She’s sure that if they stick together, everything will be all right.

Jesus Land creates a growing sense of dread as Scheeres unveils each new step taken at the Christian school in Belize to debase the youths incarcerated there; what’s more, the perpetrators of this violence—emotional, physical and spiritual—in no way admit that they are doing harm. Eventually, Julia and her brother leave the institution and return to Indiana, but their dreams of a happy family are revealed as delusional. The miracle here is that anyone survives, let alone finds some peace.

In a similar fashion, religious fervor combines with unimaginable cruelty to weave a fabric of lies and half-truths of Bryan Lee McGlothin’s childhood—all the more ironic because his father claims to have stolen him away from his “demonized” mother to raise him “in the Truth.” (Reminder: Be wary of anyone who describes his or her beliefs as “the Truth” with a definite article and a capital “T.”)

McGlothin’s father tells him that his mother abandoned him and, later, that she died. Finally, in his 30s, McGlothin takes it upon himself to investigate; he discovers that his father kidnapped him from his mother’s custody and hid him for years, with the cooperation of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a church in which his father was an elder.

Have You Seen My Mother? makes up in pure sentiment what it lacks in sophisticated writing. McGlothin’s reunion with his mother, now brain-damaged from a failed suicide attempt made when she despaired of ever seeing her son again, will leave all but the most hard-hearted reader wiping away tears. His story makes an excellent case for the aggressive enforcement of child-custody orders and parental-kidnap laws.

What both memoirs have in common are their raw and literate accounts of the terrors inflicted on children whose parents see them as property rather than as people. Like the Rev. James Dobson, who advocates breaking the will of children through the use of corporal punishment—beginning as young as 15 months, mind you—the parents in these memoirs claim that their overriding motive is concern for their children’s spiritual lives. The reality of their children’s shattered spirits tells another story, and it’s one worth reading.