‘Taking My Life’ by Jane Rule

Jane Rule is arguably the most significant lesbian writer of the twentieth century. If it were left to me as final arbiter, it would not even be arguable.  Rule’s first novel, Desert of the Heart (Talonbooks: 1964), and its film Desert Hearts (1985), remain iconic in lesbian culture.  Memory Board (Naiad Press: 1987) is easily the finest novel to emerge from the 1980s.  (Full disclosure: I was editor for this novel and Rule’s final work of fiction, After the Fire [Naiad Press: 1989]).  In the context of her times, Rule’s work was unimaginably courageous and often controversial within the roiling politics of her own gay and lesbian community.

American-born in 1931, she exiled herself to British Columbia during the McCarthy period and in her adopted country was eventually embraced as one of Canada’s great writers. For any reader, to spend time immersed in the rich prose of any of Rule’s seven luminous novels and her extensive collections of short stories and essays is to be in the company of an idiosyncratic intelligence possessed of uncommon wisdom and a rare, clear-eyed, expansive, and utterly compassionate view of the world and how lesbians and gay men fit within it.  Her death in 2007 extinguished a voice like no other.

Except, as it turns out, it didn’t.  Discovered among Rule’s papers in 2008, Taking My Life is an astonishing surprise.  Because she continues to speak to us one more time, and because she reveals, with her usual humor and candor, events in the first twenty-one years of her life in America that are foundational to her future life as a lesbian woman and a lesbian writer of fierce political belief. Bountifully illustrated with photos, fastidiously edited and annotated by Linda M. Morra who discovered the existence of the work, the pages of this book are a feast for Jane Rule admirers everywhere, not least because they are filled with revelations that explain why she left this work to be discovered posthumously.

A personal story: Jane lived on Galliano Island off the coast of British Columbia in the worst possible climate for someone cruelly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. In the spring she would come down to Borrego Springs with partner Helen Sontoff for a few months in the California desert, and turn into a comparative gazelle in the dry warmth.  As her editor on the novel After the Fire, I visited her in her desert trailer to discuss the book, and at some stage I asked out of concern for her, “This climate is what you need.  You’re American by birth—why not move here?”  Always a thoroughly intimidating figure, she drew herself up in her chair , looked at me narrowly through those trademark heavy black-rimmed spectacles, and stated in her gravelly voice, “I couldn’t possibly deal with the politics.”  I swallowed my impulse to retort, “Fuck the politics!” Not just because Jane’s tone closed the subject, but it was the only conceivable answer from someone whose entire life had been the embodiment of living her beliefs.

With the ironic play on suicide of its title, Taking My Life reveals Rule’s relationships with her parents–a father who was away to war, an often frazzled mother moving her family from one city to another during changing and difficult times—and primarily older brother Arthur, who was the first intimate companion of her childhood:  “…we could discuss all manner of things, from why brown cows gave white milk to what God tasted like when the grownups ate him.”  Arthur’s increasingly inexplicable estrangement from his family pervades Rule’s early years with the anguish it brought to her.

As do her early struggles with her extraordinary height and low-pitched voice, her dyslexia and misadventures at school, the night terrors that pursued her into her teen years until one late stormy night when, in a vividly described scene, she literally turned and faced them head-on.  Then came her discovery of her intellectuality at Mills College.  And throughout these pages, the growing defiance and self-assertion that would serve Rule so well as a writer embroiled in some of the most tumultuous history of the gay and lesbian community in the latter years of the 20th century.

Jane’s emerging sexual self will be of compelling interest to lesbian readers: her first tentative footsteps, the intricate subliminal dance with teachers, the ensnaring relationship with a married woman.  This particular rite of passage could not be more poignant in its frank revelations nor more indicative of those starkly homophobic times.  One of Rule’s short stories, “In the Attic of the House” (Outlander, Naiad Press: 1981), is one of the most powerful and shattering stories in lesbian literature in its depiction of the price some of us have paid to love one another.  In the pages of this memoir lies the genesis of that story.

And the genesis of a lesbian writer who belongs in the pantheon of our great writers.  This posthumously published memoir, with its illuminating and indelible coda to the life of Jane Rule, is a publishing event of the very first order.

Taking My Life
by Jane Rule
Introduction by Linda Morrow
Trade Paperback, 9780889226739, 280pp.
September 2011