Your memoir [Jesus Land] conjures up the cruelty, humor and vulnerability of adolescence so vividly, it left me wondering why you didn't repress all those horrors like the rest of us?
You'd be surprised what you can remember if you close yourself in a dark room and listen to music from the '80s. I also kept a diary, because we could not talk about our feelings in our household. But I wouldn't have written this book if I hadn't stumbled across my [adopted] brother's notebook [after he died], about growing up black, the racism/he confronted, and being part of an evangelical family that was so Teutonic and Dutch.
Your parents lived in a ranch house with a Porsche and ate penny-pinching recipes for "garbage soup." How did you deal with the contradictions?
I just lived it. My mother would send the money we saved by eating crappy food and powdered milk to the missionaries, and I resented it. She was sending them money that could have been spent on my designer jeans! That's how you feel at that age. You go to a new high school and you're judged by what you're wearing. If it's pleather Top-Siders and no-name jeans, you're doomed. Then if you have two black brothers and it's a lily-white school, you know they are thinking, "These people are losers."
Some of the scenes from the Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic where your parents sent you and your brother were published in the San Francisco Chronicle. What was the response?
A lot of people wanted to read more. I also got in touch with some former students and started an alumni message board at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Escuela_Caribe/. We now have 48 members. A lot of the kids still have nightmares.
What kind of nightmares?
At the school, it's all about breaking down the rebellious teenage spirit and building it back up again through Christ. You had boys scrubbing the floor with their foreheads. One boy was accused of spending too much time in the bathroom, so they made him defecate and urinate in a bucket, so he could prove he was actually using the bathroom.
Did you intentionally write the second half of the book as an exposé of expensive evangelical schools like Escuela Caribe?
More than anything, the book is a vindication of my brother David's life. He was always looking for love, for a family, and he was denied that. Writing this book has helped ease the longing that his death left me with: to tell him, "I love you"; to say I'm sorry for the times I turned my back on you, when I got sick of being the girl with the black brother.