Hey, San Fransisco-based writer Tony Dushane just put out a neat little novel about growing up as a Jehovah's Witness.
Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk is the story of Gabe, a young Witness who struggles to make his own budding sexuality fit with the doctrines of the Church. Gabe and his friends Peter and Jin want to be seen as normal kids, but each weekend they are required to go door-to-door handing out copies of The Watchtower to his unsuspecting schoolmates. Making things more confusing are his uncle Jeff, a 'worldy' professional bass player and cousin Karen, a firebrand who alternates between demeaning Gabe and alluring him.
Dushane took some time to talk with me and answer questions that were not related to his glorious mustache. As to be expected, there are some minor spoilers so tread carefully.
There's a sharp divide in the book between the adults who converted into Jehovah's Witnesses and the kids growing up who have never known anything else. Was there a sense that, if you were going to write about what it's really like as a Witness it had to be from a child coming of age?
Well, that's how I grew up. It was an important story for me to get out, even though Gabe is not me. The experiences of the dogma of Jehovah's Witnesses, those are really true. You know, I grew up in that era where they essentially told you that masturbation is homosexuality—there was a bit of misinformation given. They don't say that anymore, but they don't retract it either. But I love the characters. Even as they grew on their own and they make decisions where I'm just slapping my head going,"'Oh my God, you can't make those decisions." But it's really fun, they had a way of growing on their own.
I think that fun comes across.
Yeah, I think in writing it's really important, even on dark subject matter—there's a point where you've got to love these guys and just let them make horrific mistakes, but not love them so much that you'll be codependent with them and go, "No, you're going to think like I am."
Was there a character besides Gabe that you just fell in love with as they developed?
I was really in love with Peter and Jeff. The Jeff character was kind of something I wish I had had. When you're in it you don't think you're in a belief system—that's life, that's it. The father in the book, Alan, he trusts Jeff, who turns out to be somebody who helps Gabe develop on his own where Gabe wouldn't have been able to experience that freedom. But the relationship between Jeff and Alan is kind of a camaraderie and a mutual respect even though Jeff's belief system isn't the same as Alan, but Alan trusts Jeff enough because... Well, actually I wrote a lot more about Jeff and Alan and their relationship, which I ended up having to take out of the novel because the novel is Gabe's journey, so their relationship hopefully comes across because of all the extra writing I did and character development.
It's an interesting relationship. You get the sense they have a deeper history because Alan, in all his other dealings with the world, seems in lockstep with the Witness doctrine, so I thought his trust of Jeff rounded out his character.
A lot of the Jehovah's Witness information or novels or memoirs that I read really are biased and it comes from a point of anger and you can see it. That was kind of the inspiration for [me saying] "I need to write a book that's not angry."
You're not trying to set up Jehovah's Witnesses for denouncement, but more demystify them?
Right, and even writing in character I had to have a respect for the religion which is different than mine.
Did your relationship with the religion change during the process of writing this novel?
It was actually kind of hard on me, 'cause I still had connections with some Jehovah's Witnesses. I also write about music and stuff, so people have kind of kept in touch and get excited about going to concerts for free and finding out about new bands, so they still kind of gravitated towards me a little bit, but when news of the novel came out it was just pure hatred spewed without even knowing the approach I was going to take. It was like, boom, everybody cut me off. There was no informed decision as to why they hated me, it was just, now they have to hate me because I'm writing on a secular level about Jehovah's Witnesses.
And this is from friends?
Yeah, friends for many years. And even ex-Jehovah's Witnesses who've left have had to cut me off because their families know the book is coming out—you know, without ever reading a word of the book —they know a book about Jehovah's Witnesses is coming out and so they pretty much had to cut me off as well and say, "Look, my family won't talk to me anymore. I will lose them if I hang out with you." One of them said, "I can hang out with you, we just can't tell anybody," and that's when I said, "I don't have relationships like that so, you know what? We're not hanging out anymore." [laughs] I'm beyond the belief system and if that's the way they're going to be then I can't be around it. Even though it hurts, you know.
Has anyone read the book and changed their mind?
No, I think this book is definitely going to be on the black list of Jehovah's Witnesses. The problem is that you read their publications only. Anything else that is not written by them and is about them is seen as apostasy unless it's pre-approved or whatever.
Something I connected with in this book was how obsessed with sex Gabe is. That rang true to my ninth grade experience, but were you afraid that focus might cause readers to just put the book down and go, "This is filthy?"
I'm not worried about that. That was kind of my experience. Me and Gabe had a little bit more of a parallel obsession with it when I was that age. When you're growing up a Jehovah's Witness you think everyone else is just doing drugs and having orgies and you're like, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool just for a week to be on the other side? But if Armageddon comes then I'm dead!" Then, walking away from [the religion] you go, "Oh wait, a lot of my friends didn't even get laid in college!" Growing up I just assumed, "Hey, you're 14 and all these worldly people are getting it on. Oh man!"[laughs]
Was it uncomfortable to get back into that high school frame of mind? Gabe goes through some really embarrassing situations.
I don't think it was uncomfortable. It was a blast to write those; it was awesome. Those parts were kind of fun and cathartic. I put Gabe through Hell. [laughs] Gabe, the person on the page, he doesn't know he's being exposed to the world; every embarrassing aspect of a teenage boy's existence. But hey, did I go through that? Yeah! [laughs] I'm not scared about it. I think it's embarrassing, but I also think it's true to the human condition, so I'm not embarrassed by that. I'm sure Gabe is and if he ever became a human being he'd probably sucker-punch me.
I thought the character of his cousin, Karen, was really interesting. Can you talk about where that character came from?
There is no Karen. My cousins are reading the book now and they're probably gonna go, "Uh... what?" She was a way for [Gabe] to get into some messy situations when he's younger and she's also kind of exposure to things he wouldn't be able to do on his own. Plus there's the adolescent confusion we all have—well, I don't know, maybe it was just me—when you're young and you find out that these people in your life, as they grow all of a sudden they become sexual at a point when they're not supposed to be. That thought goes through your mind and you go, "Oh crap! That's not cool, but... she looks good in that shirt."
She sort of ushers him out of the world of Scritti Politti and U2 and into Black Flag concerts. Did you have a similar transition?
I guess it could be similar. I found punk rock when I was 14. We used to have to go to bible study three times a week, you know, and KPFA in Berkeley used to play Maximum Rock n Roll right after one of the bible studies meetings I attended, so I would come home and listen secretly on my headphones to Maximum Rock n Roll every week. The pure anger and the rawness... I felt instant camaraderie, because I didn't even know I had that anger in me. I think music really saved my life when I was younger. I did sneak to shows when I could and I would tell my parents I was going to a bible study meeting with a friend I knew in Berkeley—you know, "I'm going to Berkeley congregation this week"—and they'd get all excited that I was expanding my horizons, but actually I was going to go see the Mr. T Experience or someone. So I think music was more a part of my life than Gabe's life. He gets to experience it as another thing that's, I guess... true? You know, you're a teenage punk rocker and you're trying to find your way and there's an honesty to it.
Do you have plans for what's coming next?
Yeah, I've been working on something novel-wise. Right now it's about suicide and pharmacology. I'm working on the characters right now.
Well, I'll be looking forward to it.
We'll see. You know how the publishing world works [laughs]. It might not even be the next one that gets published, who knows?