Author Daniel Allen Cox on the 'lifelong disentanglement' of being a queer ex-Jehovah's Witness
In I Felt the End Before It Came, Cox confronts the complex traumas of being raised under The Watchtower
Queeries is a column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
"I spent 18 years in a group that taught me to hate myself," Daniel Allen Cox writes in I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah's Witness. "You cannot be queer and a Jehovah's Witness — it's one or the other."
Montreal-based Cox has been writing about his queerness for two decades, notably in acclaimed, award-winning novels like Shuck (2008), Krakow Melt (2010), Basement of Wolves (2012) and Mouthquake (2015). But it took until I Felt The End Before It Came — a deeply vulnerable and often staggeringly insightful collection of essays — for Cox to feel ready to truly process in writing his upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness.
"I originally understood my departure from Jehovah's Witnesses in a very simplistic kind of 'cult exit' narrative of once you're out, you're out," Cox says. "Once the original ruptures happen, it's over and you've made a clean break. But I think over the years, various things inside me and my reactions and behaviour and responses to things have actually shown me that, no, this is a lifelong entanglement."
And that, as Cox has found, requires "a lifelong disentanglement."
"Once I realized that, I kind of understood that I can write about those tangles because that's where the material is. That's where the writing is: in how this kind of trauma lives with us over the years."
Cox knows this all too well, and not just from his own experience.
"When two of my ex-Jehovah's Witness friends died in 2018 and I went to their funerals, I began to understand how close the more life and death aspects of this were to me," he says. "From from those two funerals onward, it was a one-way train of, 'I'm not going to stop this book until this is done.'"
Jehovah's Witnesses is a denomination with many hard lines on what it deems as against its belief system: celebrating birthdays, voting in elections, accepting blood transfusions even if your life literally depends on it. Homosexuality is condemned by The Watchtower — the magazine considered the official means of sharing Jehovah's Witness beliefs — which describes it as "one of the most vile of sins." To come out as queer means you will be shunned by your community, your family and your friends — a profoundly harmful tactic that is sadly far from exclusive to this specific context.
"I'm starting to get to get a lot of the messages from people who've read like advance copies of the book that say like ,'Hey, I was kicked out of my Amish community for being gay,' or things like this," Cox says. "And somebody took me aside after my first reading a week ago to ask me a question about her gay son and a social situation involving a Jehovah's Witness friend of the family."
This kind of engagement from readers of the book is certainly going to accelerate as the book gets out into the world — something Cox will gladly embrace.
"It's exciting because I can feel a shift happening," he says. "There's already starting to be like a community component. And so now it's a whole different work. The writing is over and now it's a social kind of work, which I can tell I've been looking forward to it just by how excited I'm getting talking about it now.
Ultimately, I Felt The End Before It Came articulates something that extends well beyond what it means to be queer and Jehovah's Witness. It's also very much about the complex traumas that can from leaving (or being forced to leave) a cult-like institution or even "cultish influence."
"You don't have to live in a commune or be physically or even digitally cut off from people in order to be subject to a cultish influence," Cox says. "And a lot of that coercive control is actually hiding in plain sight — at work, at play, in our relationships. And the fact that it's actually hiding in plain sight is what creates that cognitive dissonance and gets us to question, 'Is this really happening?' Cultish influence exists everywhere."
Cox hopes his readers walk away from the book understanding the importance of listening to how you feel.
"Sometimes something doesn't feel right and we actually don't know why," he says. "You may have to take action and then articulate those reasons later. And it's never going to be a simple story. It's always going to live within the nuance of a contradiction."
This is something I Felt The End Before It Came courageously makes clear.