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Taking My Life

By Jane Rule

Review By Cameron Duder

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 176 Winter 2012-2013  | p. 185-7

In 2008, when researching Canadian women authors, Linda Morra discovered an unpublished autobiography written by Jane Rule in the 1980s, just before her retirement from writing, in which she recounts with frankness and humour her life up to the age of twenty-one. Taking My Life is a fascinating account of Rule’s early years and a glimpse into the influences on her development as a writer.

Jane Rule was born in 1931 in Plainfield, New Jersey. Her family moved often because of her father’s employment, and the book describes their relocation to California, to Chicago, to Missouri, and then again to California. The importance of place in Rule’s life is apparent throughout, particularly in her memories of the family summerhouse, “South Fork,” where her strong connection to nature was established.

Rule was a keen observer of people, and the book is peppered with witty anecdotes about family interactions. She writes extensively about her brother Arthur, whose erratic behaviour and callousness caused the entire family great distress, and reveals the pain she felt as their closeness declined and he became indifferent towards her. Rule subjects herself to similarly detailed observation, and she is very candid about anxieties she suffered as a child and her struggles in adolescence. She was mocked about her height — six feet at age twelve — and her deep voice, and she stammered when nervous, resulting in her being fearful and socially awkward.

Rule’s intellectual and moral development is a recurring theme in the book. She was intellectually curious, but she had little tolerance for subjects she saw as of little use. Even as a teenager she had a clear sense of purpose. To the Dean of Mills College, where she enrolled as a student a month before her seventeenth birthday, she said “I [want] to learn to understand and then tell the truth. I [want] to be a writer” (117). Although her anger towards authority and her impetuousness meant that her interactions with teachers and peers were not always smooth, Rule inspired considerable affection and her transgressions were often treated leniently.

During her adolescence, Rule gradually became aware of her desire for women. At sixteen, she formed a relationship with an older, married woman, Ann Smith, whose portrait of Rule is the book’s cover image. Although it was an ambivalent and only sometimes sexual relationship, it was with Ann that she came to the clear realization that she was not attracted to men.

Unlike many a lesbian woman, Rule did not have schoolgirl crushes but rather wanted to be “in the literal sense of the word, remarkable” to her teachers (82). She became close to several of her female teachers who shared her intellectual and artistic interests. She responded to good teachers and luckily had several. She wrote, “I was arrogant and hopeful, willing to earn their attention with hard work, passionately loyal to those who taught me well, disdainful and rude to those who didn’t” (81). The bluntness for which Rule was known later in life is clearly evident here, in these stories about her younger self.

Taking My Life concludes when Rule is a young adult and has gone abroad with her lover Roussel: “In the cold winter flat … I made my first real home, learned after a fashion to cook, to entertain friends, to live with a lover and to write my first, unpublishable novel. In that process, I also began to learn how to live with the baggage of my life, its rhythms of failure and rebirth” (227). Morra suggests that Rule’s autobiography should be seen as a Künstlerroman, a story of Rule’s “moral, intellectual, artistic and sexual development. If we accept it as a Künstlerroman, it becomes evident why Rule would conclude [it] with her twenty-first birthday: she had come of age, and had grown into her calling as a professional writer and mature adult” (232).

Taking My Life greatly increases our understanding of the formative years of an author whose contributions to British Columbia were social, political, and legal, as well as literary. In addition to her writing, Rule became known for her speaking and activism on lesbian and gay issues, in particular the Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium legal case against Canada Customs. Rule would eventually publish numerous novels, short stories and essays, but she regarded her first novels as unpublishable. Her breakout work, Desert of the Heart (1964), which proved to be her most famous novel and in the 1980s was made into an internationally celebrated film, was not published until Rule was in her thirties. By the age of twenty-one, however, Rule had known she was a writer. Taking My Life helps us understand how she got there. 

Taking My Life
By Jane Rule
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011. 277 pp. $19.95 paper.