*SHORTLISTED FOR THE GRAND PRIX DU LIVRE DE MONTREAL*
A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST BOOK OF 2023
“I spent eighteen years in a group that taught me to hate myself. You cannot be queer and a Jehovah’s Witness—it’s one or the other.”
Daniel Allen Cox grew up with firm lines around what his religion considered unacceptable: celebrating birthdays and holidays; voting in elections, pursuing higher education, and other forays into independent thought. Their opposition to blood transfusions would have consequences for his mother, just as their stance on homosexuality would for him.
But even years after whispers of his sexual orientation reached his congregation’s presiding elder, catalyzing his disassociation, the distinction between “in” and “out” isn’t always clear. Still in the midst of a lifelong disentanglement, Cox grapples with the group’s cultish tactics—from gaslighting to shunning—and their resulting harms—from simmering anger to substance abuse—all while redefining its concepts through a queer lens. Can Paradise be a bathhouse, a concert hall, or a room full of books?
With great candour and disarming self-awareness, Cox takes readers on a journey from his early days as a solicitous door-to-door preacher in Montreal to a stint in New York City, where he’s swept up in a scene of photographers and hustlers blurring the line between art and pornography. The culmination of years spent both processing and avoiding a complicated past, I Felt the End Before It Came reckons with memory and language just as it provides a blueprint to surviving a litany of Armageddons.
About the author
Daniel Allen Cox is the author of the novels Shuck (2008), shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award and a ReLit Award, and Krakow Melt (2010), shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction. Daniel has spoken and performed widely at literary festivals and universities, and on CBC Radio One. In the 2009 Montreal Mirror readers” poll, Daniel was voted one of the top 10 best local authors. He writes a monthly column for Capital Xtra and lives in Montreal.
- Long-listed, Grand Prix du livre de Montreal
Excerpt: I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah's Witness (by (author) Daniel Allen Cox)
Most know Jehovah’s Witnesses as the people who stand on street corners with literature carts, telling strangers they can live forever on a Paradise earth. They’re the neighbours who believe that at Armageddon—which is coming any day now—Jehovah and his son, Jesus, will literally kill billions of non-Witnesses and leave their bodies to rot in the street. They don’t vote because the new world that follows will make elections obsolete. Others know them as the patients in hospitals who refuse blood transfusions at the risk of death. They’re the ever-smiling Christians who don’t celebrate birthdays and who don’t send their kids to university because they would be better served by studying The Watchtower, the flagship magazine of the Watch Tower Society, the group that controls all Witness life and is the sole source for what it calls the truth.
I, on the other hand, will always know the Witnesses—JWs for short—as the people who watched as I was baptized at age thirteen in an inflatable Canadian Tire pool in a minor league hockey arena at the group's 1989 district convention in Ottawa. I shivered in the waist-deep water, marvelled at the utter cheapness of the pool, and thought, This must be the way to Paradise. Two hunks in clingy swimwear and white T-shirts grabbed and dunked me. Later, when friends and family asked if I’d felt anything, I said I did, but it wasn’t the feeling they thought it was.
That year, I carried a Bible through the halls of St. Pius X High School, tucked under my arm with my textbooks. Catholics often mistook me for one of them, and on my shyer and weaker days, I let this misconception go. I sometimes brought an Awake! magazine to science class, the last place you’d expect to find a creationist periodical. It might’ve been a ploy my mother and I concocted to inure me to lies; the mere presence of Witness literature would act as an antidote to false teachings like evolution. But mostly I carried the literature to give a good witness.
I preached door to door after school and on weekends, sometimes with other Witnesses but often alone. This good news of the Kingdom we dropped in the snow, shoved into hands, and jimmied into doors to prevent them from closing. We targeted the weak, the sick, the old, the war-weary, the grieving, and anyone else looking for comfort and stability. We called on mansions to tell the people who lived there that the Paradise they thought they’d already found wasn’t going to last. Our job was to rescue people from dying at Armageddon. We did this work for free because it was our privilege to do so. We charged householders a small fee for the books and magazines, until we were told to ask for donations instead. We dropped this money into the contribution box, along with money of our own. Jehovah was watching, so we always made sure to slip in a few bills among the coins. Our salvation depended on it.
In election years, I used openers like “We’re asking your neighbours if they think politicians tell the truth” and “Can mankind’s governments really offer lasting solutions to our problems?” My audience often slammed the door, but I still racked up an impressive number of return visits. I checked the boxes on the field service sheets: Not at Home, Call Again, or Do Not Call. The last was reserved for hostile encounters, in which householders told us to leave and never come back. Sometimes they proclaimed we were in a cult, a comment we were trained to expect. That’s exactly what someone would say if they were controlled by Satan and angry that we had the one true religion.
The truth is a boot camp where kids and converts are taught a unique lexicon. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t speak in tongues, but their sociolect is dense enough that you can have difficulty understanding them when they thrust literature at you and tell you it’s food at the proper time. The Watch Tower knows exactly when to spoon-feed doctrine to its followers, and this sociolect is a kind of food they learn to crave. There was no room to interpret the Scriptures on our own. Doing so meant we were relying on our own understanding, and we could be disciplined for that. Understanding could come only from Jehovah in the form of new light. As long as I remained a good Christian, my path would be lit. At least the next few feet of it, anyway.
We didn’t have a word to describe a parental body falling through space. The event renders language unusable to the child, the bystander, the witness. At age ten I watched as my mother staggered and told me she couldn’t see, then fell on the bed and asked me to call 911. I dialed, but didn’t know what to say, so I pressed the phone into her hand. I would later find out she was going into shock. I could hear in the subtext of what she explained to the operator that it was more than just a physical problem. With us, there was always a spiritual component.
She hemorrhaged most of her blood that day. It was her spiritual duty as a Jehovah’s Witness to refuse transfusions, because of the sacredness of blood. At this very moment, somewhere in the world, a set of JW parents are seated in court, flipping through Leviticus, explaining why their sick kid can’t have blood while the judge wonders how long they can afford to debate religious freedom. A small life ebbs away under a web of tubing.
Hospital staff did what they could to keep my mother’s veins from collapsing. I spent three weeks gazing at her through the polyethylene screen of her icu tent. She was anemic and turning yellow, buried under the equipment, eyes half open. The JW Hospital Liaison Committee arrived with briefcases full of legal precedent and defended my mother’s right to bloodless treatment. I don’t remember whether she received plasma substitutes or nothing at all. Ultimately, the committee defended her right to die.
My uncle and I discovered a broken vending machine that returned all the money when you bought a drink. Most visitors to the hospital didn’t realize it, and we fleeced them while they drowned their grief in pop. My family assumed—wrongly—that I was terrified. I was oblivious, either weighing dimes by the pound or reading the fine print on the “No Blood” card I had to carry with me. If I ever ended up in the same position as my mom, I would have to assert my faith and reject any transfusion the doctors pushed on me. If my little body couldn’t handle it and I came to an earthly end, then so be it. I would be resurrected in Paradise. It was a win-win. In the waiting room, I did my homework to the white noise of machine bleeps. I still feel guilty for not being afraid. Was I showing faith or ignorance? Neither is quite right.
Late nights at home with my stepdad were too quiet. He just stared at me, probably in disbelief that he might have to raise a kid by himself. What did kids eat, think, dream, and obsess over? Did we mind secondhand smoke? One night, it hit him hard. “Do you realize how close she is to dying?” he asked me. “Do you have any idea at all?” His questions were supposed to slap me aware. The moment was all about him.
My stepdad sometimes came to meetings, but he just as often skipped them. I don’t know what he thought about my mother’s decision to abstain from blood. I just didn’t want to be left alone with him. I’d feared his angry outbursts for years. He and my mom fought constantly, and he levelled his rage against both of us. At least with my mom there to protect me, I’d be okay. What a selfish thing for me to think, as if my mom’s everlasting salvation weren’t more important.
My mom was transferred to a semi-private room where she was allowed to eat non-hospital food. My aunts arrived with an industrial juicer and made her beet and carrot sludge for the iron content. They ground incessantly. I can still smell the mulch they left in the juicer between rounds. My mother, the Bloodless Miracle, gradually got better. The nurses crossed themselves when she walked out.
Why hadn’t I worried about losing my mother? I’m hoping the answer isn’t because I believed—that isn’t the narrative I’ve constructed for myself since the days of beet juice and prayer. For my mother, surviving this brush with death is a point of pride, vindication for having remained faithful to Witness law. This is the type of thing that embeds religion within families and makes it shameful to abandon.
In 1982 my mother took me to see the film Deathtrap, a dark comedy starring Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine, in which they infamously share a kiss. I know my mother covered my eyes at certain points, but not during the kiss, because I remember seeing it. It got a rise out of the people around us in the theatre. If she’d known the kiss was coming, we wouldn’t have gone to see Deathtrap. It would be years before I would ascribe anything sexual to Reeve, when I would stare at the bulge in Superman’s red undies on the faded movie posters and know what to do with the feeling. I suspect my mother has since revisited the scenario of our day at the theatre and hypothesized on the effect the kiss had on me. I wonder if she blames herself, even though the blame is a credit, and one she cannot possibly earn. My queerness is worth more than the cost of a movie ticket in 1982.
For JWs, queerness is a sin that leads to destruction at Armageddon. “Homosexuality is not an alternative life-style acceptable to Jehovah God,” says The Watchtower. “Frequently, both gay and liberal preachers twist the scriptures in futile endeavors to make it seem that it is.” It was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, committed by those whom the apostle Paul called “unreasoning animals born naturally to be caught and destroyed.” I had every reason to believe that at the appointed time Jehovah and Jesus would smite me to pieces and leave my bones for the birds. If, outwardly, my baptism marked my dedication to Jehovah, inwardly it marked a sexual bubbling. Questions Young People Ask—Answers That Work, released the same weekend I was baptized, says that avoiding hugging your “same-sex friends” quashes any “homosexual feelings” you may have toward them. I tested the theory out: false.
I hid my queerness for years. I knew there was something wrong with me because the books and magazines told me so. Jehovah was a straight alpha male, a model for every man and boy in His organization. I was eventually supposed to find a wife to knock on doors with until we’d rapped the skin off our knuckles. We would spawn entire congregations of children: boys who would marry girls, and girls who would marry boys. But the elders somehow knew I was different. I could feel the accusations in their talks from the podium, the way their eyes would land on me as they spoke of aberrations, of unclean and unnatural desires. And they had a point. Because afterward, when I stripped off my meeting suit and took to the shower, I would think about men and the totally unnatural ways I could touch them. And just when the feeling peaked, I would hear the voices of condemnation and try to hold back, and in the trying I would cum harder each time. I spent half my teenage years sitting in shame in a cold bathtub, wondering why my dick was hard but my religious zeal was going soft.
By the time I was eighteen I’d started sneaking out of my parents’ apartment in the West Island suburbs of Montreal to make the two-hour trip downtown by bus and metro. I sought refuge at Sky, the biggest club in the gay village, where I shook my ass to house music and let older men chase me from one dance floor to another. One night I got drunk on sugary cocktails and saw him dancing: a boy made of moves and mischief. I found holes in the matrix of elbows and slipped closer to him. Drew from Connecticut, he said. The music changed and I went for it—our kiss was a detonation and it cleared a ten-minute space around us. He took me back to the hotel where he was staying with friends, who minded their own business while we made out in the bath for six hours, and by minded their own business I mean listened at the door. Drew knew he was my first and took his time kissing me while the bathwater turned cold. I was lost in the world of his eyes, his tongue, the stubble that scratched my face raw. We didn’t sleep and nor did we fuck; the Paradise of his mouth was enough for me.
*SHORTLISTED FOR THE GRAND PRIX DU LIVRE DE MONTREAL*
A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST BOOK OF 2023
“This is ultimately a story about the struggle to build a life out of ashes with little to no support—about unlearning familial inheritances and forgiving ourselves for our own trespasses. Most of all, it is about learning how to carry on after leaving a community obsessed with finality.”
—The Washington Post
“Elegant . . . [Cox] approaches his subject with emotional nuance, and writes with a mix of self-aware humor and deep insight that sets his project apart from other former believer memoirs.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A captivating, richly layered text that dismantles any reductive ideas readers may hold about indoctrination, departures, comings-out, and the practice of memoir-writing itself.”
—Montreal Review of Books
“A deeply vulnerable and often staggeringly insightful collection of essays.”
“Cox has turned his gaze outward back onto us after his time out on the avenues, welcoming us to follow his map of how to build a new life when the ones we were born into become too small to contain us.”
—Chicago Review of Books
“Cox’s memoir is smart, funny, and gripping throughout . . . His meticulous approach to dismantling and overcoming methods of control and manipulation will feel cathartic to many readers.”
—The Florida Review
“Daniel Allen Cox is a true writer who can convey complexity with grace. His story inspires us to want to know our own contradictions, to see them as riches instead of shame. In this way our lives become enhanced by both his vulnerability and his gifts.”
—Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show
“I know of no better exploration of the psychic costs of gaslighting and shunning, especially on the lives of LGBTQ people. As in all great books, it offers more questions than answers, not to mention its big courageous heart, part tender, part outrageous, part buoyant.”
—Paul Lisicky, author of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
“A hugely entertaining, open-hearted, and insightful memoir that sheds light on what it means to grow up as a Jehovah’s Witness coming to terms with queerness, and how families survive and love one another after being fragmented by divergence of faith . . . a joy to read from start to finish.”
—Heather O’Neill, author of When We Lost Our Heads
“A candid and beautiful exploration of learning to save yourself from a fundamentalist childhood and the complications that come from the dizzying freedom after you leave its confines. A vital and unique addition to the queer coming-of-age genre.”
—Zoe Whittall, author of The Fake
“In this breathtaking spiritual, sexual, and artistic coming-of-age, Daniel Allen Cox troubles and subverts what it means to seek salvation . . . he takes us on a probing and candid journey to find a new language to think with, and into a new definition of paradise.”
—Sarah Gerard, author of Sunshine State