Growing up Tony Dushane constantly lived in fear of the looming apocalypse. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, the religion demanded a strict discipline of guidelines, and prohibited virtually all non-secular arts, entertainment, and creative outlets. After leaving the faith as a young adult he began finding solace—and inspiration—in the literary arts, ultimately culminating in the release of his debut novel Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk by Soft Skull Press. The story is the coming of age tale of Gabe, a teenage Jehovah’s Witness dealing with the alarm and anxiety of girls, high school, and the impending doom of Armageddon. DuShane masterfully captures not only the discoveries and frustrations of growing up religious, but also the quintessential self-consciousness embedded in all adolescents. After a reading at the celebrated City Lights Bookstore, he took a few moments to answer some questions on his book, religion, and how Jack Kerouac came to change his life.
By drawing events and feelings directly from your own real life, how much of the character of Gabe is you, and how much of him is fiction?
His obsession with women, his masturbatory issues, his thinking God was going to kill him at Armageddon, that’s all me, I went through all that. After doing draft after draft though Gabe became his own person. He’s real to me, but he’s an entity now. What people read now is their interpretation, but when I was writing it he was my bro—if we were in a fight I’d have to throw down to protect Gabe.
Having a story told through the eyes of a teenage protagonist, did you feel the book would be received as a young adults’ title, or does it have certain elements you feel would transcend and connect with broader audiences?
I just think it’s the overall theme of repression. There were some epiphanies in my life where I was like, “We all felt fucked up as kids, and it wasn’t just cause I was a Jehovah’s Witness, it’s cause we were teenagers!” And knowing that I wasn’t alone in this, and getting out and having friends that were outside the Jehovah’s Witness to talk to. So that really helped me, and I workshopped the book with a lot of other writers that have nothing to do with Jehovah’s Witness to make sure it was a compelling story with real characters.
When did writing become an outlet in your life? When did it hit that you felt right doing it?
I would write poetry and short stories when I was younger but it was secular and I was still a Jehovah’s Witness so I didn’t feel writing was right for me then, I felt like I was being a little secretive about it. When I was twenty-one, broke, and living alone I started going to the library and started looking up psychology books to get a grip on what was happening in my life. It was pretty close to the poetry section and I would end up in there reading anthologies of Black jazz poets, and then I found out about the Beat Generation and I found all this stuff that just bypassed me.
I remember the day I called the main library in Burlingame asking for a copy of On The Road. They didn’t have it but another branch did, but they were closing in fifteen minutes. I didn’t have a car so I literally ran across town to check it out cause I knew I had to read it, and that was a breakthrough, it just talked to me like nothing else.
What about it struck a chord?
The authenticity. I think it saved my life to know there’s more to our world than what I had in my limited experience. I knew about punk and music, but man, when words came, when they spoke to me, I was like “Yeah!” They were just hitting me in my heart. It was better than the first time I had sex…and the second time. And actually a lot of times I had sex.
You touched on it at the reading, going to Gilman, watching bands like Operation Ivy, how did punk music and culture have an influence on you?
To be honest, I wasn’t in any way a cool punk. I was always the scared Jehovah’s Witness kid standing in the corner while everyone else was throwing each other, but I kind of liked that scared feeling. I’d thrive off the energy. I used to listen to bands like that all the time on my headphones all through the night, and we were advised as Jehovah’s Witness not to listen to the radio at night because some of “Satan’s music” could get into your head. But I would listen to college radio, and KFJC came in really good when I lived in Millbrae, and I’d just listen to that. And you know what? They were right, satanic music will totally get you out of the Jehovah’s Witness.
During the reading you mentioned there had been some backlash from the religious community, can you delve into that some more?
Unfortunately I think Jehovah’s Witnesses get scared of apostate literature. It’s drilled into you like a prison sodomy rape that you do not read apostate literature, and pretty much anything written about the Jehovah’s Witness that isn’t published by them. So it’s all grouped into this one thing, and they would label me now as an apostate, and that’s fine they can label me whatever they want, but I feel bad that they’re not looking at it and saying, “Let’s see what this book says,” and then afterwards just saying they didn’t agree with it.
But there are teenagers out there that were like me as a kid, and if I found this book as a kid it would be under my mattress along with that Sears lingerie page I pulled out. I wrote this book, and I don’t want to get all Oprah here, but I kind of wrote this book for the child inside, and I wish I could give it to my fourteen year-old self. There’s a lot of people really passionate about it, and I’ve gotten emails from people who say they really connected with it, that they got to laugh at experiences that were really painful.
So to wrap it up I have one more question. Would you consider Jesus your homeboy?
I think he had some good ideas, but he’d probably kick my ass.
Interview and photos by Sean Logic