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Review: I Felt the End Before it Came by Daniel Allen Cox
Viking Books, May 9, 2023
In his tenacious and sharply written memoir-in-essays I Felt the End Before it Came, Daniel Allen Cox details his experiences as a queer man struggling against the lasting effects of his childhood indoctrination into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Cox’s fifth book and first memoir is a culmination of what he describes as “a lifelong project to redefine words that had once been used against [him].” Throughout the book, Cox trades the church’s Paradise for a Paradise of books and music, and a theology of shame for “a theology of queer tenderness.”
The memoir’s episodic essay structure is original and inspired. Each piece focuses on how Cox experienced and ultimately rebelled against a different method of indoctrination. “A Library for Apostates” highlights the Witness’s suppression of Cox’s education, and details how he became a writer and educator despite this. In “The Witness is Complicit,” Cox criticizes how the Witnesses use the promise of salvation from Armageddon to recruit new members, then ties this to his experience writing against the church during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cox’s effort to balance information and anecdote often results in a satisfyingly profound insight.
“The Glow of Electrum” powerfully delves into how Cox was shamed by members of the church for his early speech impediment, which made him, in their eyes, a “defective missionary,” then explores how he eventually “allowed strangeness of speech” back into his life. The essay does an especially good job of seamlessly moving between anecdote, research, and synthesis, never staying in one mode too long, and plays with language in a way that fits well with its themes, defamiliarizing the experience of stuttering. “Not all hesitations are composed of the same materials,” Cox writes. “A filler word can sound like the real thing. Sometimes the body continues moving through a word; the mouth freezes but the foot taps on.”
In some stretches of the book, Cox will focus on information more than memoir, or memoir more than information. In “Moonwalking to Armageddon,” Cox spends much of the chapter on Michael Jackson’s and Prince’s experiences in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The End of Times Square” is almost entirely focused on the story of Cox’s time as an adult photography model in late 90s New York City. It can feel like these parts lose focus on the book’s project to serve as a blueprint for identifying and overcoming indoctrination, but they give a satisfying picture of the inner workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and an intimate view of Cox’s life, and keep the book from feeling monotone.
Cox’s memoir is smart, funny, and gripping throughout. “We Are the Ones Held,” an essay about his alcoholism, is filled with moving self-indictment and cultural critique, while also showing off Cox’s knack for choosing details that show his humorous, yet always sensitive and empathetic, view of himself and others: “I dismantled the wine rack in my bedroom and put it on the street, where someone picked it up within the hour, no doubt to set it up in another bedroom nearby.”
The most memorable essay in the book is the aforementioned “Moonwalking to Armageddon,” about how Jehovah’s Witnesses view the supernatural. The essay abounds with fun anecdotes and juicy insider strangeness, detailing, among other things, his church’s enmity with The Smurfs. Cox is especially playful with his barbs here. He suggests, for instance, that Witnesses might be “jealous of Smurfs because they live an exclusive Paradise.” The irreverence of the essay elevates a critique of the Witnesses’ hypocrisy by showing it at its most absurd.
In I Felt the End Before it Came, Cox ruminates with wit and insight on the universal themes of shame, identity, censorship, control, and emotional manipulation, while telling the story of his ongoing attempt to define his life outside of the church’s dogmatism. His meticulous approach to dismantling and overcoming methods of control and manipulation will feel cathartic to many readers.
Parts of I Felt the End Before it Came appeared in The Florida Review vol. 45.2 as “Death Trap”