(Soft Skull Press, 2010, 214 pages, $14.95 paperback)
Many of the ups and downs in Tony Dushane's debut novel, Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, occur in the narrator's pants. But of course Gabe Dagsland’s incessant boners aren’t what make the story unique. The larger setting within which all of this rising and falling action occurs is, however, to my knowledge unique in fiction. Dushane gives us a novel seen through the eyes of teenage boy who also happens to be a Jehovah's Witness.
Sex, Separateness, and Service
Part coming-of-age story, part ethnography, Gabe's travail of pubescence is really one teen's struggle to live in the world but not be of the world —at least that’s the rationale behind the prescribed conduct and protocol of Jehovah's Witnesses. For them, things not within the realm of "the truth," as they call it, are "worldly." And the truth, according to JWs, comes solely from the bible, which is the word of God (aka Jehovah). As you might guess, premarital sex is, um, discouraged to put it mildly.
But it's not all scripture and sexual suppression for the narrator. He has two close Witness buddies and together they comprise what is essentially a support group to negotiate the tricky path of piety and prurience.
Then there's Uncle Jeff, a rock musician, who shows up enough at the Kingdom Hall (i.e., JW church) to suggest he's at least making an attempt to improve himself--which makes it okay for Gabe to hang out with him.
And Witness girls? Oh, they're all over. It's all about stealing precious moments. Like when riding to and from field service (you know, the door-to-door thing): There’s always the possibility that Gabe may sit next to Jasmine, his secret love, and experience the thrill of his knee touching hers. And then there are his attempts to get phone numbers from cute girls when at the district convention, a regular event that brings regional congregations together for assembly.
In one instance, the sex-obsessed Gabe is triumphant after the conquest not of a girl per se but simply her contact info: "I was giddy.... A Jehovah's Witness getting an address and phone number at an assembly is like getting a blow job on a first date for most people."
Beyond the Surface
Nearly every page of the book offers something of the rarely seen—a view that probes the lives of the primly dressed people who bear Watchtower Society literature on your doorstep.
Confessions brings to life the difficulties faced by JWs from society at large. It also gives a sense of what it’s like—more creepy than comforting—to have one’s personal life so tightly woven into the fabric of the congregation. And it demonstrates the absolute—and eery—obedience that JWs maintain to the organization’s authority—from the governing body of the Watchtower Society down to the elders of each congregation.
In a lighter instance of this, a married couple is compelled to report to Gabe's father, an elder, that they inadvertently, and briefly, engaged in anal sex. Gabe listens in on the other line as his father takes the phone into the bathroom for privacy: " 'This might be hard , but you need to give me all the details,' Dad said. I pictured him sitting on the toilet, phone tucked on his shoulder to his ear, with a notepad, ready to start the process of taking charge of the fate of Brother Knox." (It gets funnier. Trust me.)
(A glimpse of paradise: A Watchtower Society rendering)
Perhaps the quintessential point to understanding JWs is this: They are eschatological in their focus, which is to say they are convinced we are in the end times. Armageddon, the great battle that will destroy those disobedient to God, is always near—a thought never far from Gabe’s mind. To be destroyed at Armageddon means he’ll miss out on “the new system,” which will be a paradise here on earth. Thus, being ready is a priority:
That semester I got all A's and B's on my report card.... [Mom and Dad] were happy but Mom reassured me that since Armageddon would be here before I got out of high school, there was no need to engage more than necessary in worldly activities.
The brothers at the Kingdom Hall talked about the world of mankind like the Titanic.
“If you were on a ship that was sinking, would you polish the brass? No, you get on a lifeboat.”
Getting on a lifeboat meant being a Jehovah’s Witness and going out in service and to all of the meetings.
Even with what is a highly dramatic denouement, one which in no way leaves a favorable light shining on the JW faith, Confessions author Tony Dushane is not so brash as to think he’s going to indict the entire religion. And he’s not interested in that. He wrote Confessions confident in the idea that the story of Gabe was simply enough for him.
As Dushane explains on To the Best of Our Knowledge, Confessions signifies "closure to [an] identity that I don't feel ashamed about anymore." And he made a conscious decision to take his own experiences growing up as a JW and recast them in the form of a novel—rather than, say, a survivor’s jeremiad (of which by the way there are many, many in book form and on the web): “The writings of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses that I’ve read tended to be woe-is-me memoirs…. [S]ometimes people will blame…their whole existence on being a Jehovah’s Witness…where it was obvious that there was other dysfunction in their family. So what I wanted to do was just really capture a slice of time and life of a teenager who doesn’t even know he’s in a belief system.”
And he does just that. Dushane’s story—at one moment hilarious at another gut-wrenchingly disturbing—portrays the anguish and intensity of one thoughtful religious teen’s journey on his way not to paradise but to the frontier of selfhood.
One among many other sites of interest on this topic is this one: http://www.jehovahswitnessrecovery.com/