I Felt the End Before It Came
Most writers are obsessed with their origin story, but it’s endings that preoccupy Daniel Allen Cox in his kaleidoscopic and deeply felt memoir, I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness. The author of four award-winning novels, Cox has been chronicling queer life in Canada and abroad for nearly two decades. In his latest, he turns his gaze inward.
I Felt the End Before It Came is, in many ways, perched between worlds. It’s about this millennium and the last, about childhood indoctrination and adolescent self-discovery. It’s about departures, but it’s also a classic coming-of-age tale about finding, and fighting for, the truest version of yourself. What sets Cox apart as a memoirist is his ability to find nuance in difficult situations. In Cox’s clear-eyed estimation, leaving a high-control group isn’t as easy as being in or out. “None of my departures were as simple as they first seemed,” he writes.
Daniel Allen Cox and I corresponded recently over email about how his boyhood stutter helped him understand his queerness, the preservation of gay history through personal recollections, and the liberation that can be found in a “toe-curling orgasm.”
Greg Marshall (Rail): Let’s start with the title of the memoir, I Felt the End Before It Came. You’re referencing the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses expect the apocalypse, the literal end of the world, but the memoir also feels interested in other endings: the end of childhood innocence, the end of the planet as we know it through climate change, the end of a particular moment in gay culture. Could you talk about some of those literal and figurative endings? And about how you landed on your evocative and intriguing title?
Daniel Allen Cox: David, my editor, surprised me by plucking that line out of the book. We worked together to make the work a litany of endings.
I guess if I carried innocence and gullibility into adulthood, a cult upbringing contributed to that. I’m still naïve in many ways. The book is also about becoming desensitized to apocalypse. Leaving the Witnesses means leaving a certain kind of catastrophizing behind. That’s fine, but the trouble is when, because of that rejection, a person like me can’t recognize actual apocalypse when it’s right in front of me. I’m working on it. And yes, I do gesture to the end of pre-digital gay culture. I can’t help but think: what could I have awoken to sooner if the internet had been more of a presence in my life? I hope I’ve troubled the idea of endings itself, since everything is always in motion and most things are cyclical. Live long enough and it all comes back.
Rail: You’ve lived a full, rich life, from leaving the Witnesses, to teaching English to a famous priest in Poland, to getting sober, to making a living as a sex worker in Rudy Giuliani’s sanitized New York City—a period that included, I feel compelled to note, posing for a professional protest photo in Riverside Park with rat traps dangling from your foreskin. How did you figure out that leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be an apt framework for a memoir that contains so many different aspects of a life?
Cox: I don’t think I approached the book looking for a container for these events, but the reverse: here’s a framework I’ve avoided articulating for my entire career as a writer, now what are the various strands I need to parse out to understand it? My eclectic mix of jobs is a product of having grown up relatively working-class poor, never completing a university education, and trying to understand, by doing as many different jobs as I could find, a world I was sheltered from. This is one of the reasons I love Isaac Fitzgerald’s Dirtbag, Massachusetts so much, for its take on the working world. There are about twenty other jobs that never made it into my memoir, and it’s through all of these that my personality developed.
But very early on in writing the memoir, I realized I’d eventually need multiple frameworks to tell the full story. A cult exit narrative, while it has defined much of my life, is never going to be enough. Which leads me to believe that this is only my first memoir.
Rail: Growing up you had a stutter, and you write that “music and stuttering are as key to the story of my departure from the Jehovah’s Witnesses as queerness and sex are.” I found this to be such an intriguing, and surprising, observation. How did stuttering help lead to your departure from the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Cox: As ministers of the Gospel, “fluency” was one of the best qualities we could have. The idea was for our speech to reflect well on the word of God and show confidence in the message we were spreading. The speech patterns in my Bible talks were actually graded on a grid, which was a pretty toxic thing for me. I eventually read my stutter as a difference, a queer form of rebellion. Because speech is one of the many ways the Society controls its members, I figured that my embrace of stuttering could loosen the group’s hold on me and let me experience what was beyond its walls. It’s a bit like what multidisciplinary artist JJJJJerome Ellis describes when he says “when I’m stuttering, the world can come rushing into the clearing that’s opened by my dysfluency.” I couldn’t articulate it that way at the time, but I suspect that that’s what was going on.
Rail: Can you talk about the ways being queer propelled you out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Cox: The Witnesses don’t tolerate queerness, so I didn’t have a choice. I was raised believing that anyone not cis-het would be obliterated at Armageddon. The Witnesses love to object to this, saying that gay people are welcome as long as they don’t “act on their desires,” or in other words, if they suppress and deny their identities in totality. If you had “homosexual feelings,” you were supposed to double down on studying and pray harder, which has overtones of gay conversion therapy.
JW indoctrination is a deep-seated thing rooted in cognitive dissonance. You grow up believing that all the kids at school and all your coworkers at work will be dead soon, bodies strewn in the street. You know deep down that they’re wonderful people, so it doesn’t make sense. You’re supposed to be “no part of the world” but you still have to interact with everyone in it. A JW has to negotiate living in this parallel reality every second of the day. For me, I found there was little that could break through that thinking besides a toe-curling orgasm, which I didn’t realize until a hot homosexual gave me one. I started stealing away to the gay village in downtown Montreal to fuck these men, and I found a new kind of paradise through touch. I found kindness and love among a whole cast of evildoers that the Watch Tower Society had written off for me. Simply put, the sex was good enough to die at Armageddon for.
Rail: You write that leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a lifelong process and not a binary of being “in” or “out.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?
Cox: After I first left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is to say formally disassociated by sending a letter, I processed my departure as instant and complete, which I now know is a fallacy. You can’t shed yourself of almost two decades of coercive techniques and warped thinking overnight. There are aspects of the cult that have become embedded in my mind and artistic practice, some of which I don’t want to cut out completely. I think the strict in/out dichotomy is useful when first leaving, because you need that break, you need to believe in it. You need that push to be able to distinguish the life you’re leaving behind with the one you want. Now that I’ve been out of the group longer than I was in, I think it’s more complicated than that, and this book is my way of capturing those nuances, and the emotional changes that have occurred in me in the intervening years. For many who’ve left cults and high-control groups, extrication means a sophisticated engagement of where we come from and where we’re headed, one that doesn’t oversimplify.
Rail: In my early twenties, when I was newly out and trying to learn my history, I read a lot of the heavy hitters in gay literature: Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer. Reading your book, I felt that same sense of kinship and connection, but this time it was with a writer of my own generation. You have an indelible line toward the end of the book: “Queer history disappears disproportionately quickly, usually before it’s documented.” Is part of your job as a queer memoirist to preserve not just your own past but part of our shared cultural history as gay men?
Cox: I do see it as a job, but in the kind of writing I do, it happens far less deliberately than that. Sometimes I’ll be working on a memory of an event, a gathering, a magazine, search online, and find almost nothing extant on it. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to have to rely on memory as the primary historical document. Sometimes I do find documentation, but not through a queer lens, or not in literature or a memoir. I like to write about quirky clubs and bars where mixed audiences liked to hang out that have long since closed, and whose documentation was as ephemeral as event posters stapled to telephone poles. Have you ever noticed that to this day, event posters rarely include the year, almost as if the organizers and designers can’t imagine why someone in the future might need it? There’s something beautiful about this.
I’ve learned that if you dig around enough, you’ll find other people doing the work, and you can join them. Maybe the best way for queer history to survive is through this kind of parallel documentation, because there’s never a single way to tell the story. While I was finishing my book and writing about defunct NYC print porn magazines, a journalist got in touch. He was writing a history of these same magazines and managed to reach about sixty people involved with them. But he told me I was one of the only former models he could find, either because they used pseudonyms and couldn’t be tracked down, or because they died of AIDS. Queer communities have many types of built-in historical and cultural erasure. I’m grateful to many writers who do the work of remembering.
Rail: One aspect of your book I loved was seeing you emerge as a writer. You grew up in a belief system that you call “anti-education,” one that discouraged you from going to college. (After all, you write, “Why bother getting a degree when the world is about to end?”) How did you become interested in writing and how’d you get so damn good at it?
Cox: You flatter me. I’d have to say it all started with songwriting, which I used to do a lot. I dream, at least once a day, of getting back into music. And when I try to improve my writing, I imagine emulating my favorite records, not my favorite books. It’s possible, too, that I originally used writing as an “escape” from stuttering, until I realized I didn’t need to escape it.
Songwriting morphed into fiction writing, which I suppose I was using to show that I could write fables as convincing as the Watch Tower Society’s. Now, in my writing, I try to keep what’s apocalyptic and demonic, and reject the Christian, but I’m not always successful in evading that part of my past. And nor is that the point. I’ve only recently gone back to school to study literature. Any writing education I’ve gotten to date has been by discovering writers I love, independently, and reading as much work by them as I can find. When I’m lucky, I get to befriend them and show them my work. I live for this kind of informal apprenticeship, and if I can’t pay it back, then I at least try to pay it forward.
Rail: When you moved to New York in your twenties after leaving the Witnesses, you worked as a furniture mover and posed for gay magazines like Honcho. You write, “It didn’t occur to me that one day photos of me would hang in galleries, but I was aware of the political context of doing sex work and doing it as publicly as possible.” I should probably point out that you are pictured on the cover of your book. No shit, that’s you shirtless, notebook covering your face!
Cox: Yes, that’s me. And because I’m covering my face, not everyone realizes it. This is from a set by Stanley Stellar, a dear friend. He started shooting me in 1998, and within a few sessions, we created an intimate space where I could express, wordlessly through modeling, all that I was going through. The turbulence melted away when I was in his Tribeca studio. His years of shooting me is its own kind of memoir, which he generously lets me borrow from. I’ve wanted to have one of Stanley’s shots on a book cover for years. How it happened this time was a bit of magic. After first reading my description of the photo in the final chapter, my editor David asked to see it, then surprised me with a cover mockup. Kind of like what he did with the title.
Rail: Let’s circle back to what you wrote about photos of you hanging in galleries. Is it strange to see parts of your past become gay history? And where is the intersection of that with nostalgia for you?
Cox: It’s not weird to see parts of my past become history, per se. And it’s not surprising that a lot of the places where I used to hang out are gone, or that nostalgic facsimiles of them are being sold back to queers and others for an exorbitant cost. I try to resist that kind of nostalgia in my writing if I can, because it blunts the edges of lived experience, glorifies the past without showing any of the ugliness, and does so in a way that we can’t access or enter that past today. But this is big talk! I wonder how much of that nostalgia I’ve perpetuated in my own work and the kinds of gentrification I’ve contributed to. When I’ve written about the legendary nightclub Jackie 60, who have I sent in search of a Meatpacking District that no longer exists? Now, when I return to the city, do I return as a former resident, or as a tourist in my own memory? It takes continual vigilance to resist nostalgia as a writer.
To talk about the East Village for a minute, if you read books set in the neighborhood in a time before I got there, like Sarah Schulman’s 1990 novel People in Trouble or David Wojnarowicz’s 1991 memoir Close to the Knives, the depictions don’t document the kind of consumer experience that nostalgia so easily commodifies. These stories resist it. They are about community, about people helping one another and going about their lives. In many cases, dodging tourists. I love discovering newer works like Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger and Virology by Joseph Osmundson that confirm how survival and celebration in the neighborhood happens at the dining room table, at your friend’s apartment, and at establishments that don’t kick you out the minute you stop ordering off the menu.
Rail: You gave up drinking in 2018 and you write about the difficulty of finding a “secular path to recovery” since programs like AA often have a religious element, invoking a higher power. If programs like AA haven’t worked for you, what has?
Cox: Friends have helped me get and stay sober. They understand that sobriety, alcoholism, and recovery are all words that have to be defined individually, since substance addiction is complex, and different for everybody it affects. What has also helped is when writers and other artists are open about the role of substances in their lives and bust the myth that they need some kind of holy ambrosia to sustain creativity. We’ve spent decades or centuries celebrating the myth of the drunk or high (usually cis male) genius, and the trope now couldn’t be more out of touch.
Rail: Lastly, I’ve been thinking about the role shunning and gaslighting play in your story. Are we especially susceptible to shunning and gaslighting as queer people?
Cox: I believe we are. An obvious take is how often queer and trans people are rejected by family and the people who are supposed to accept, love, celebrate, and take care of them. This might go double for those whose families subscribe to homophobic religious dogma. Over the years, the queer person becomes acclimated to shunning. They normalize it, excuse it, and become oblivious to all the times it happens; other times, the pain of it may be too great to acknowledge. And sometimes, the queer person isn’t totally aware of when they may, in turn, be shunning others, and the harm it enacts on their communities.
But what’s less visible is how the harm that plays out on bigger stages affects queer people on an individual, day-to-day level. To talk about gaslighting for a minute: think about the trans, nonbinary, or two-spirit person alive in 2023 who, anytime they go online, has to encounter waves of hate couched in opinion pieces debating their very existence. There are several trans people in my life, including my nonbinary partner Wes, who have to choose between reading the news or having a good mental health day, between having their reality questioned by strangers or spending the day focused on career and the normal things of life. I’m angry about the part religion plays in this, which is to say the part I’ve played in this, an aspect I hope comes through in my book.