author bio

Tony DuShane11 Questions for Tony DuShane  

author of Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk

by Jill Adams

Tony DuShane writes for the San Francisco Chronicle,, Mother Jones, Crawdaddy!, and other publications.  He hosts the radio show Drinks with Tony, interviewing writers, musicians, and filmmakers.  He entered the Jehovah’s Witnesses at three years old when his parent were converted by Saturday morning preachers.  He was later baptized but is now considered inactive.  Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, published by Soft Skull Press, is his first novel.  It follows the coming-of-age of Gabe Dagsland, a young boy brought up in the Jehovah’s Witness organization.  (see TBR review this issue) 

TBR:  You grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and through the fictional character of Gabe show what teen life is like in that community.  The downside is obvious - no dating, no masturbation, no encouragement to study since Armageddon is on the way, having to knock on doors to spread the word, and so on - but I’d like to know if you can personally recount an upside?  Actually, I believe Gabe says he sometimes felt good about preaching door to door, correct?

TD: When I was in the belief system, I really thought I was doing what was right and there were times it felt spiritual, even though it was just a skewed definition of spiritual. In the novel, I hope the point comes across that even though the community is absolutely dysfunctional and absurd on many levels, there’s still a community and when a person stays within the parameters of the community, they are love bombed. In the novel the large conventions are portrayed from Gabe’s point of view, that he is looking for what he thinks is happiness by looking forward to turning 18 years old so he can get married and have sex. But there are more aspects to it, like the elders giving speeches to 10,000 people and having them clap when talking about Jehovah. I was a part of those stage performances, as I like to refer to them. It’s a tremendous high. After I left I performed at comedy clubs and I have done many readings. When a room of 200 people are laughing, it’s a high like no other.

In the JWs I refer to it as a love bomb. They’ll love bomb you until you’re discarded if you don’t believe exactly as they tell you. The stakes are higher since being discarded, or disfellowshipped, as a JW is a death sentence for Armageddon.

And, just to make clear, dating is okay, as long as it is very “clean” and only for potential marriage. Regarding masturbation, in 2010, they “received new light” as they like to say. I refer to it as, “God called and told them to make sure they try not to do it.” They don’t like to refer to their earlier demand, that masturbation leads to homosexuality, which means death at Armageddon. Thus, why I bought literature off of Ebay to quote directly from in the novel.

In most religions I’m pretty sure masturbation is technically a no-no.

We’re all just goofy humans trying to make our way. For Gabe, and even for the people who hurt Gabe, they feel they are doing it for the right reasons. I wanted to convey the theme that even though the Jehovah’s Witnesses are really fucked up, humans are also fucked up. I hope that people understand I wanted to humanize the experience and to drop the reader right into Gabe’s story and take the ride.

I like humans, and there aren’t too many in humanity.

TBR: You humanize the experience beautifully. I love the fact you chose fiction over memoir to tell this story.  Can you elaborate on what motivated that decision? And though I hate to ask it, I’m going to - how much of Gabe is you?

TD: Memoir tells the story, fiction shows the story. From the beginning I knew in order to deal with a heavy theme, I had to give it a light brush stroke and stay inside Gabe’s head. He doesn’t think the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a belief system, he knows Jehovah’s Witnesses are the truth. It would have been easier to write a memoir, but I had to get into the heads of the characters and be okay with decisions I don’t believe are good ideas. If done right, there’s more truth in fiction since the theme can be strong.

I wish I was Gabe. He had a cousin and a step uncle who really helped him out. Their help wasn’t always in his best interest, but it opened him up a lost faster than it took me to get out of the belief system.

Regarding the dread of masturbation issues, thinking love and marriage would cure my emotional issues, finding music and literature, Gabe and I are pretty much on the same page. I believe we both have the same heart and would be best friends. I love Gabe, but I’m not Gabe.

TBR:  You really pull back the curtain and give us a good look at the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.   Have many Jehovah’s Witnesses read the book?  Did your parents?  Since it violates so many rules, might you be excommunicated?  I know you have been inactive for some years now, but do you still consider yourself, a part of yourself anyway, a member of the organization?

TD: As far as Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned, I’m apostate. That’s right up there with Satan giving Eve an apple for breakfast and bringing death to humans. I left the JWs over 10 years ago, though during the last few years my doubts were strong, but to express doubt is not too popular in that environment.

I have a feeling they won’t officially excommunicate me, but will try to sweep me behind the door and hope the novel just goes away. Either way it doesn’t matter to me, they can do what they want, their power is gone. I’ll lose communication with a few family members, but I don’t accept relationships that can make people stop loving you with an announcement of excommunication.

My parents left many years ago. They actually left before I did.

All that being said, while writing the novel, I wrote the world of JWs from Gabe’s point of view and from a place of love and respect. Those feelings are extremely misused, but they needed to be honest and pure to create a compelling narrative.

TBR:  I’ve never read a novel about life as a Jehovah’s Witness.  Are there others?

TD: Not that I know of. Zadie Smith had a sub-plot of Jehovah’s Witnesses in her novel White Teeth. I loved her story because she came from a Jamaican background and focused on the 1975 issue, when Armageddon was supposed to come then it didn’t. God called, it was just a test, it’s still coming any minute, He said. I picture the Watchtower leaders with a red phone like Batman.

TBR:  I’d love to see your novel turned into film.  Any possibility of that?  Who would you like to see play Gabe?  Who could direct?

TD: Many of my friends keep asking to play one of the elders.

Yes, the possibility is there. The film would really have to be handled with care by the right person. I would love to see it as an indie film with a director who knew how to work with heavy themes and keep comedic elements in it. I would feel comfortable putting it in the hands of someone like Todd Solondz, but he writes all of his own material. Miranda July would get it, but again, she writes her own scripts. It would be great to work with a first time director who had a feel like Miranda July or Mike Mills.

Who would play Gabe? I have no idea. Someone unknown for sure. There are so many dimensions to Gabe that it would be hard work for any actor.

TBR:  Can you share one of your more memorable personal experiences of preaching door to door?

TD: When I was six years old, my dad and I preached to a guy who brought his gun to the door. Then he listened to my dad read the bible to him while he checked his bullets. I thought I was going to die, but God would resurrect me since I was on the job for Him.

TBR:  There is so much rich, good humor in the novel.  Did you know that’s the way it would flow when you began?  Did you have the title in mind from the beginning?

book coverTD: Yes. I’ve been developing my voice for years and really working on taking heavy subject matter and giving it a comedic touch. In the film Down by Law by Jim Jarmusch, Roberto Bengini kept saying, “It’s a sad and beautiful world.” That’s my approach to everything I write that’s not journalism. I search for those few beautiful moments in the midst of tragedy. To write that way takes so much energy and very meticulous rewrites. Then when people say, wow, that was a quick read . . .  but I kept thinking about it, I know I’ve done my job.

The title changed many times and during the last year or two of rewrites it was Memoirs of a Teenage Jesus Jerk. My editor at Soft Skull asked me to consider the change to Confessions…. and she was absolutely right. I said yes immediately and knew I was working with an editor who really understood the book.

TBR:  You show how damaging it can be to be a teenager within the organization.  Have you ever thought of trying to help teens in this situation?  Reach out to them somehow?

TD: There’s really no reaching out to JW teens. The parents and organization would come after me like the KKK on lynching night. And, the teens are in the belief system, as Gabe was. I feel I’ve already reached out by making this novel available and I wish I could have read it when I was younger. In a sense, I kind of wrote it for my younger self.

TBR:  Have you ever had a Jehovah’s Witness innocently knock on your door?  If so, how did you react; or if not, how would you?

TD: Not since I have left the JWs. But I live in a very urban part of San Francisco where it’s hard for them to preach. I actually say hi to them when they are on a corner with their Watchtowers just to see if they’ll say hi back. They don’t know who I am, but it always catches them off guard. Then I think, aren’t you supposed to be saving me?

But, I’m polite when I see them. Just like I’d be polite to a Dalek.

TBR:  Just curious:   Are Jehovah’s Witnesses permitted to vote or is this entirely outside any meaningful experience to them?

TD: No, God is going to kill all governments and non-JWs at Armageddon. That’s coming any second. Or minute. Or next year. Live every day as if Armageddon was coming today, that’s what they would say.

Voting is not believing God is coming to kill seven billion people. Voting is apostasy.

TBR:  You’ve been on the interview circuit for some time now.   What’s the strangest question you’ve been asked?   And what haven’t you been asked that you’d like to be asked?

TD: Actually, I have found all of the interviews very engaging. Everyone who has interviewed me has been a fan of the book and that has been very satisfying. I’m grateful that people are reading it and interested enough to ask me about it.

I love talking about writing, literature, and everything related.

I’d like to be asked by a Spanish publisher if they can translate the novel. My foreign rights agent is working on that and I really hope it happens soon.

TBR:  We do too!

Off the cuff  . . .
                —a favorite hangout in San Francisco
The Knockout, 3223 Mission St.

                —San Francisco versus New York
I’ve seen more of Europe than the United States and have only spent four days in New York once. I love New Yorkers. San Francisco is my home, it’s where I grew up and will always be home. I wouldn’t mind living in New York for a while. If this is a baseball related question, then San Francisco Giants all the way.

                —a few favorite living writers   
Michel Houellebecq, Etgar Keret, David Sedaris, Mark Z. Danielewski, Mark Haskell Smith, C. D. Payne, Irvine Welsh.                

                —a few favorite films
400 Blows, Wings of Desire, Liquid Sky, Fight Club, Trainspotting

                —3 things you’ve yet to do
Go to jail, die, learn Chinese