Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julie Scheeres

Julie Scheeres had a shitty childhood. Now you might think you've had a shitty childhood and feel you could hold your own in the Shitty Childhood Championships but, unless you have a particularly harrowing story or were her brother David, it is unlikely to be as shitty as Scheeres. She grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household with parents who she paints as unloving and scary. Her father beat her adopted brothers brutally. Her mother had an intercom system set up so she could monitor conversations anywhere in the house.

She also experienced sexual abuse from her older adoptive brother, Jerome, who made her young life a living hell. Meanwhile her brother David suffered racist abuse on an almost daily basis growing up in "Hicksville" as a black adopted member of a white family.

And what did the two of them get for their troubles? They got sent to Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic, where they were subjected to emotional and physical abuse "for their own good".

Sounds like a depressing book right? But instead Scheeres manages to maintain a balanced look back on her youth weaving in humourous episodes and giving full and balanced perspectives on all involved (rather than the deeply bitter perspective one could reasonably accept from someone who has been through what she went through). But above all else the love she had for her brother David shines through and this book is really a story about how they stuck it out together dreaming of a better life.

This is a story of religious excess, abuse, racism and of family. And it is one I'll admit to shedding a tear over in the final pages. Scheeres really doesn't hold back much detail on what happened to her which gives this book the credibility that many memoirs I've read recently desperately lack.

There's more on the abusive atmosphere at Escuela Caribe here.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julie Scheeres

A Thousand Lives. What an absolutely excellent book. Julie Scheeres has a real talent for bringing history to life. Whilst Reiterman's "Raven" (which I read a couple of months ago) gives a detailed history of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple this book gives us an insight into the people of Jonestown and how they fell in love with the Peoples Temple and how it turned out for them on November 18th 1978.

You follow the lives of people like Hyacinth Thrash who was with Jones from his early days in Indiana all the way through to that last evening when she managed to survive the massacre in her cottage. You see how she changes from true believer to disgruntled resident. Unlike other books you get a real sense of the humanity of the Jonestown residents.

Another person who the narrative follows is Edith Roller. An intelligent, middle class former college professor she truly believed in the project. She also kept an incredibly detailed journal describing life in the colony and honestly discussing some of its drawbacks. She died that tragic November evening.

But the true tear-jerker story is that of teenage rebels Tommy Bogue and Brian Davis. They were desperate to escape the Hell that was their life in Jonestown. They were inseparable. Except on the final day when Bogue finally got his wish and fled with his family. Davis, a minor and unable to leave without his family's permission, was murdered that night. You can read Bogue's moving tribute to his friend here.

If you want a blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of Jim Jones, go read "Raven". If you, however, want to really understand (as close as anyone so far removed from the events can anyway) what the people of Jonestown went through and how they were led to the slaughter this is the book for you.

Some may just mock the victims of Jones and put it all down to them being crazy cultists. But they were so much more than that and Scheeres really brings home to you that each one of those people who died were individuals. All undeserving of their fate.

Scheeres ends the book with words that have haunted me for days after finishing it. "They believed in a dream, how terribly they were betrayed."