“I hid my queerness for years,” Daniel Allen Cox writes in I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, his memoir-in-essays about coming of age within two conflicting identities: “I knew there was something wrong with me because the books and magazines told me so.” In these reading materials, the Jehovah’s Witnesses orient queerness as an affliction leading to “destruction at Armageddon,” ultimately forcing queer Witnesses to “choose between sucking dick or swallowing the firehose of the word of God.” Cox’s memoir about that decision is a queer origin story tinged with sorrow and fueled by rage.
Cox gives readers an enlightening glimpse of the stifling world he has escaped: door-to-door preaching, refusal of certain medical treatments, and the shunning of those who question the rules while waiting for paradise at the end of days. Cox’s own voluntary departure from the church came after he wrote a letter to the elders at the age of 18: “It was a breakup letter to Jehovah, the first proof I’ve ever had that I could think for myself.” And his queer life began just as his old life ended, all in the service of “a horniness for a future that made sense.”
These essays don’t all center the queer experience directly, but rather allow it to infuse other concerns as Cox explores how his personal experience shapes the way he sees the world around him: uneasiness about our rapidly warming planet, explorations of the religious fascination with the occult, impostor syndrome about a lack of formal education, his struggles with a persistent stutter, and the proliferation of substance abuse in the community of ex-Witnesses, among others. And the figures of Michael Jackson and Prince—both at least initially of the faith that Cox grew up in—function as bewildering bridges between the performance of sexual freedom and living the conservative life of a Witness, complicating his own feelings about these two seemingly incompatible worlds.
Cox draws meaningful parallels between the queer experience and that of being a Witness. He recalls “a permanent state of living undercover: both hiding your religious zeal in public and pretending at the meetings that you follow the rules perfectly. This is how I could blossom into a little queerdo while distributing magazines that said there was no way I could do both.” It’s a constant concealment that his closeted queerness had doubly trained him for, a “cognitive dissonance—of living in multiple realities at once” that is often also the experience of a queer person in a cis-hetero world, passing quietly in certain contexts and thriving out loud in others.
The essay “The End of Times Square” is a particularly resonant account of the kind of delayed adolescence experienced by so many queer people. It chronicles Cox’s defiant period among the gay community in a late ’90s New York City being scrubbed clean by local politicians of its more permissive and freeing public spaces. “At some point I’d internalized the cliché that New York was the ultimate challenge for a young artist, a proving ground,” he writes, and his younger self takes on this challenge, balancing sexual escapades with an ongoing education in the political power of art. The essay also functions as the origin story of Cox as a writer.
At the end of the essay, Cox describes the photo shoot that produced the image reproduced on the cover of his memoir, a photograph of himself splayed shirtless across the floor of the photographer’s studio with his face obscured by a spiral notebook as he doodles on the cover:
[T]he text in the notebook should stand in for the boy in the photo; that the half-nude body is just a meat sack in service to the writing. I’m trying to tell the viewer that my gaze is turned on them. … In the photo, you can smell the danger of trying to tell the story too soon, before it’s even partially lived. The boy in the photo would put the notebook away and, in turning squarely to the lens, the tunnel, the avenue, fully inhabit the feeling of being lost and all it could mean before trying to describe it.
In the end, writing about the self is all about perspective, and the events depicted in I Felt the End Before It Came have clearly been rigorously pored over by a mind making sense of a period of rapid change before the experiences could finally be committed to the page. 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.
I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness
By Daniel Allen Cox
Published May 9, 2023
Richard Scott Larson is a queer writer and critic. He has recently received fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and he is an active member of the National Book Critics Circle. His debut memoir will be published next year by the University of Wisconsin Press.