Every month, I interview an author I admire on her literary firsts.
February’s featured author is Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land — a searing memoir that tells the story of Julia and her adopted black brother David, both of who were not only taunted by racist peers at school but abused and neglected by their religious, punitive parents at home.
As I mentioned before, the book takes a fascinating and disturbingly close look at key social issues that still plague us today: racism, sexual assault, and child abuse carried out in the name of god, both in the quiet secrecy of family homes and the formalized settings of religious institutions.
Julia more recently wrote A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown — another page-turner that tells the story of why close to a thousand people followed a religious leader — despite his descent into alcohol and drug abuse and psychosis — to end up committing “revolutionary suicide” in the 70 (my microreview here).
In this interview, Julia talks about why she decided at long last to tell her story, how both nonfiction and fiction can address life’s great questions, and what we must do to fight bigotry and injustice, especially in today’s political climate.
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Siel: Having been brought up by very religious and punitive parents myself, reading your memoir Jesus Land was an extremely personal and visceral — even cathartic — experience for me. I was awestruck by your decision to write about your experiences with such candor and detail — especially because I have the opposite inclinations as a writer. I tend to resist writing about my formative years altogether, and even when I write about my experiences, I’m driven to heavily fictionalize them.
Are we just wired differently, or did your willingness / desire to write about these experiences change as you gained more time and distance from them? To put my question more briefly: What compelled you to write this memoir? Because I’m very glad you did.
Julia: That’s a sorry coincidence – as in, I’m sorry. I bet a whole rash of writers emerge from such circumstances. What better childhood than one lived in constant fear of supernatural forces and one’s paddle-swinging parents to foment a writer? Most writers spend their lifetimes obsessing over and reshaping the traumas of their youth. For many, it’s the strife of our formative years that compels us to become writers.
Had I lived my experiences alone, I probably would have been content writing thinly veiled autobiographical fiction. But because I witnessed my brother David – who was, as you know, adopted and black – suffer greatly at the hands of these Bible verse-belching believers, I wanted to create a record of his life. A testament of sorts. What drove me was a need to “set the record straight,” so to speak. Thus I did not change the names of the adults in Jesus Land because I thought that the adults abusing children in the name of God – in my home and at the “Christian therapeutic boarding school” we were sent to – should be held accountable for their actions.
I’m guessing that after the publication of Jesus Land, you were inundated with emotional, sometimes even desperate emails and letters from people who’d gone through similar experiences. Some of my friends who’ve written memoirs that deal with heavy topics (e.g. childhood sexual abuse) have mentioned the difficulty of responding to these readers with kindness while simultaneously managing their own time and emotional needs by keeping a professional distance. Do you have any advice or strategies for other memoir writers who are seeking to find this balance?
Indeed, the amount of reader mail was overwhelming at the beginning! LONGGG emails detailing years of the writer’s personal problems and challenges. I didn’t expect that. At first I tried to respond to each one, but then got into an endless back-and-forths with readers and answering email became a full-time job. Finally I put a note on my website’s homepage thanking readers for reading Jesus Land and letting them know that, as a full-time writer and mom to two young kids -– I simply don’t have time to respond to every message, although I do read them all. That seems to have done the trick.
But I do still get several messages about Jesus Land a week, 12 years after publication. It humbles me that my book touched such a deep nerve with some readers. One reader told me she finished the book and had a “tremendous urge” to embrace my brother David – that really moved me. That’s why I wrote the book – so there’d be a record of his life and struggles. I felt vindicated when I read that.
After Jesus Land, you wrote A Thousand Lives, which tells the story of the Jonestown massacre — another riveting true tale that explores issues of religion, race, and abuse. Which was easier for you to write, your own memoir or the third-person story?
Emotionally, my memoir was MUCH harder to write. Although the Jonestown story had tough elements – such as the fact that 1/3 of the murdered residents were minors – it wasn’t my life I was writing about. It was more of a journalistic challenge than a personal one. It took me a full year to read through the 50,000 pages of FBI files and figure out how to structure the book.
In your introduction to A Thousand Lives, you write this: “I believe that true stories are more powerful, in a meaningful, existential way, than made up ones.” As a fiction writer myself, I have to ask: Do you still believe this statement, six years after its publication? Also, what happened to the novel you were working on before you took up A Thousand Lives?
Ha ha. You caught me. Okay. Funny thing: I’ve gone back to writing fiction now, although a different book than on the one I was working on when I started “A Thousand Lives.” I needed to take a break from sad stories and write a book that ended on an upbeat note. It’s hella fun to make shit up. I do think nonfiction has that “wow-this-really-happened” element that fiction lacks. But I think fiction can address life’s great questions just as eloquently, and in certain situations, perhaps more so, than creative nonfiction.
Reading A Thousand Lives — with its focus on Jim Jones, a monomaniacal, uncontrollable, and erratic leader who led hundreds of people to their untimely demise through lies and psychological warfare — was quite the scary experience, post Trump’s election to the presidency. You’re an author who has looked deeply at the factors that allow someone like Jim Jones rise to power. I realize this is a big question, but what suggestions do you have for exposing deception, fighting tyrants, and retaining our grip on reality?
That’s a YUGE question. A lot of what went wrong in Jones’ church, Peoples Temple, happened because people ignored that gut feeling that something wasn’t right and didn’t speak out. And once he had them trapped in the middle of jungle, it was too late. They were doomed.
I live in the bubble that is Berkeley, CA, where everyone I know is a progressive liberal like I am. I’m glad to see the push-back after Trump’s election — the marches and protests against his parade of bigotry and untruths. I think we need to continue to raise our voices and be LOUD and unyielding. I’m raising my two daughters to be outspoken advocates for justice – in fact they marched in a Black Lives Matter march when the older was 4 and the younger still an infant. The beauty of social media is that we can find like-minded people and organize and keep resisting. And as writers, to use our talent to expose bigotry and injustice wherever we find it.