Skip to main content
opinion
Open this photo in gallery:

Author Daniel Allen Cox narrates I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, in a Montreal recording studio.Alison Slattery/Alison Slattery

I have a complicated history with lecterns. When I was 13, I stood at one at a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and gave my first Bible talk as part of my training to become an effective door-to-door minister. I bobbled the words of Ezekiel profoundly as a congregation elder graded me on the Speech Counsel Sheet, a paper grid with comment boxes for “pausing,” “fluency,” “repetition for emphasis” and other criteria hellish for stutterers like me.

This past spring, I spent eight afternoons at a lectern that held something very different: a tablet bearing a digital copy of my first book of non-fiction, I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness. Instead of a Kingdom Hall, I was in a soundproof recording studio, walled in corrugated foam, on the 26th floor of a tower in downtown Montreal. There, I recorded a stutter I’d never intended the audience of my memoir to hear.

Books we're reading and loving this week: Globe staffers share their book picks

I balked when first asked if I wanted to narrate the audiobook – my first. My editor and I had just sewn up the final changes on the manuscript, and I was afraid that if I opened it up to scrutiny again, I’d want to tinker. I was also afraid of what my stutter might inflict on me, my collaborators and eventually my listeners. I can often avoid blockages by substituting words and sounds that trip me up. But when I’m reading a text word-for-word, there’s no escaping the obstacle course of my mouth; I’m doomed to what I’ve committed to the page.

A deeper problem: wanting it both ways. I knew I’d want to give a seamless performance that listeners could enjoy, all the while stuttering authentically. But I couldn’t imagine how this balance was possible, so I almost said no to narration.

As a child I was told that my stutter would be “cured” in the paradise Witnesses believe is coming at any moment to replace this wicked world, when humans would supposedly reach physical and spiritual “perfection.” In the meantime Jehovah would be compassionate regarding my speech.

My time in the Jehovah’s Witnesses was limited, since my sexuality was forbidden. Even before my formal disassociation from the group at 18, I had begun to chafe against a religion intent on stamping out any queer sounds and queer desires. I stopped going to speech therapy sessions, which had come to feel infantilizing, and within a few years was sleeping with men.

The Librarianist author Patrick deWitt on success, and the mystery of what readers want

But even after I left the Witnesses, accepting my speech would remain a struggle. When I was touring my first book, I’d have friends read from it at events while I watched alongside an audience who couldn’t understand why I was sitting with them and not on the stage. Some interpreted it as performance art. A reading series in New York asked me never to come back. After one such disembodied reading in Vancouver, a friend took me aside gently yet firmly and told me that people want to hear my story in my voice and that I was depriving myself of an experience. I remembered all this when I was struggling with my decision to narrate I Felt the End Before It Came and realized I’d already fulfilled my lifetime quota of refusing to speak. So I agreed to a trial recording session, which I soon figured out was an audition. I got the gig to narrate my own life.

Open this photo in gallery:

Supplied

The director, Lisa, could sense all this history right away. Working remotely through my headphones, she led me through vocal warm-ups that consisted of a murmuration of hums, a susurration of sibilants and deep hushes of breath that unsettled me. She guided me on how to massage my jaw muscles so that they didn’t lock up. At first I was suspicious of these exercises for resembling my childhood speech therapy sessions too closely, until I began to recognize their somatic value. If I was to speak about childhood trauma for four hours at a time, I had to prepare my throat, lips and tongue for the work. The body is an assemblage of writer’s tools.

Whenever I was lost in syntax or didn’t know where to pause and ran out of breath mid-sentence, Lisa would suggest I scan the line and plan which words to stress. By the time she pulled tongue twisters from chapters I’d read in previous sessions and asked me to repeat them in our warm-ups (“Post cult adult life! Post cult adult life!”), I had completely relaxed in her care. This was the speech therapy I had needed years ago.

Rémy, the sound engineer, was also helpful in surprising ways. One afternoon, he told me his observation that, when I sit, I stutter less but sound less animated. And conversely, when I stand, I stutter more – almost as if I’m on guard for what’s coming my way – but I’m also more engaged with the text. He said the trade-off was mine to decide, and it was validating for me to hear that stuttering more heavily might be the better choice for certain chapters. How we recorded – me sitting for most of the first sessions, then standing toward the end – mimicked the arc of the book, which opens with setup and finishes with me finding my voice as a writer amid the turbulence of my life.

There were other factors at play, of course. I didn’t stutter much in my very first session; maybe the more I became acclimated to the studio and bonded with Rémy and Lisa, the more comfortable I was revealing my true self. There was no one to tick boxes on the Speech Counsel Sheet or use theology to make me feel small or broken. Whatever the case, I learned more about speech and voice during these eight afternoons than I had in years.

I also learned a lot about how my body processes trauma. Early in recording, I made a joke about the Kleenex box in the sound booth. Were people crying while reading their audiobooks? But on the last day of recording, as I narrated the acknowledgments, I was the one in tears. Rémy later told me that he recorded it all in case I wanted anyone in the acknowledgments to hear my emotion. Yes, I was crying for them, but also out of relief – not that the recording sessions were over, but that I had chosen to do them.

Jennifer Vanderbes’s deft and thorough Wonder Drug maps the thalidomide tragedy

My producer, Nathaniel, understood my concerns about the balance between authenticity and hitting my marks. He informed me that the essence of postproduction lives in this fulcrum. He told me about the editing team’s efforts to preserve my unique speech patterns while not giving the recording less post-production care than other audiobooks. The team created a special workflow for my essay on stuttering, and Nathaniel sent me an audio file so I could hear the results. Recording had had nothing to do with a perfect, mellifluous take; rather, it was the composite work of finding a balance. It turned out I could have it both ways. Just like my friend at the Vancouver reading all those years ago, the audiobook production team couldn’t imagine a performance where I wasn’t being myself.

On the shoulders of three angels – Lisa, Rémy and Nathaniel – I could turn toward the microphone and let it all out. In that little cubicle in the sky, I would not be afraid of the unholy things that unspooled from my mouth. In turning my back on perfection, I had attained something higher.

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.

Interact with The Globe