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review: autobiography

Novelist Jane Rule in her home on Galiano Island, BC, in 2007

Jane Rule once remarked in an interview that the only good role models are bad ones – bad in the sense that you definitely don't want to be like them and so clear the way toward your own singularity. It's difficult, though, not to accord Rule the status of "the good example," simply because there is so much that is good and fearless and honest about the way she lived her life: as a Canadian writer and journalist, cultural activist, exemplary citizen, defender and spokesperson for gay and lesbian rights, generous friend and neighbour.

Known for her frankness and clear thinking, Jane Rule died on Galiano Island off the B.C. coast in 2007 at the age of 76, having published countless short stories, books of essays and several novels about lesbian love, in particular 1964's groundbreaking Desert of the Heart.

It wasn't until a year after her death, though, that Linda M. Morra, a scholar and researcher of Canadian women authors, discovered among Rule's papers at the University of British Columbia an unpublished autobiography titled Taking My Life. The discovery was an astounding one because it covered Rule's formative years to the age of 21, a part of her life she had seldom mentioned in her writing.

As Morra says of the manuscript in her enlightening introduction to the now-published book: "I marvelled: the scarcely marked-up yellow foolscap manuscript demonstrated the kind of confidence and precision with which she wrote."

Rule herself says in the opening pages that "writing an autobiography may be a positive way of taking my own life." Written, it seems, around the time she was contemplating retirement from writing in the late 1980s because of increasing debilitation from arthritis and because she had "said what she wanted to say and didn't want to repeat" herself, she nevertheless was feeling "directionless" and "stalled": "No plan for a story or novel can rouse my imagination, which resolutely sleeps, feeding on the fat of summer. And so, I take my life, with moral and aesthetic misgivings, simply because there is nothing else to do."

The result of her labour is a gift to us all.

Born in Plainfield, N.J., in 1931, the middle child of three, Rule was a large, awkward, willful, child – at 12 she was six feet tall – tomboyish, left-handed, "negatively self-conscious and sullen." Because her salesman father changed jobs frequently, she attended numerous schools and, until entering private school when she was 12, was very much the outsider. As Morra notes, Rule, even then, was intent on "finding individuals rather than institutions as sources for inspiration," and was fortunate enough to have had several teachers over the course of her adolescent education that could stimulate her "passionate intellect," who taught her with an "attention and precision" she had not known existed. As Rule tells it, she was a challenging student, high-spirited, easily bored, defiant of authority, hating the deflation of "being caught out by adult superiority, a secret or a discovery turned to nothing in its light."

But her nurturing and generous family – both parents and a large, involved, extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – provided Rule with a moral centre and a lifelong passion for justice. In later years, she became a spokesperson against the homophobic attitudes of the 1970s; she wrote a years-long column in the gay magazine Body Politic; she served as a defendant in the Little Sisters bookstore pornography trial. Indeed, she immigrated to Canada in 1956 because of McCarthyism; gays and lesbians were suspected of being communists; homosexuality was still a criminal offence; intellectual repression was the norm.

Of her sexuality, she writes, "There was no one moment when I confronted it," though she recounts years of "denied feeling, of silence." Then, at 16, in love with painter Ann Smith, who was older and married – her vibrant picture of Rule graces the book's cover – she first felt "the ache in my gut turn to fire" and gradually came to realize that she had "no taste for men, except as friends."

In Taking My Life, Rule the realist has illuminated with insight, joyousness, tenderness and even pain the influences that were to shape her as a writer and as a sexual being. It's an absorbing read. Her great openness about relationships, her insistence on the creation of community, her pursuit of truth – she "studied the great (male) liars in college in order to find out how to tell the truth" – is very much in evidence here.

"If it's real in the world," she has said elsewhere, "you'd better understand it." Thanks to Linda M. Morra's discovery, Taking My Life can only increase our understanding of the pragmatic and compassionate Jane Rule.

M.A.C. Farrant's latest book is The Strange Truth About Us: A Novel of Absence.