Friday, August 19, 2016
What I Read This Week
Brad Watson's character Jane Chisolm was born with a rare physiological defect that would affect her whole life, but never her spirit.
Based on research into the life of his great-aunt, Brad Watson's new book, Miss Jane, tells the story of a character whose courageous spirit belies a debilitating condition that might leave most females bitter and angry and, eventually, fodder for the madhouse. But Miss Jane overcomes her lifelong disability with grace and dignity and courage.
Brad Watson is as courageous as his great-aunt, taking on a subject that most men would not be able to even consider, much less write about. Miss Jane is born with a rare life-altering deformity called "persistent cloaca", the condition of being born with no external genitalia and only one small orifice for waste elimination. One in 20,000 females are born afflicted with this debilitating defect.
People born with persistent cloaca are, of course, unable to be sexually intimate, and suffer lifelong incontinence.
Jane is born in rural Mississippi early in the twentieth-century when there was no hope of corrective surgery, has one sister, and two older brothers who have left home by the time she is born. Forced to wear clumsy diapers, Jane attends school only briefly, as her condition is complicated and humiliating. An avid reader and a tireless explorer of the forests and fields around the family farm, she manages to educate herself to the strangeness and mystery of nature and of life itself.
When she's fourteen, she does as any other fourteen-year-old girl does: She falls in love with the son of a neighboring farmer. Sadly, eventually, she ends the relationship because she knows there will never be any possibility of a physical coupling or children, although she never tells him why. She leaves it to those in town who have always spread the gossip about her condition to provide him with an explanation.
Throughout her life her best friend and confidant is the doctor who delivered her and who first realized her difference. A widower, he spends much of his own life trying to get help for Jane, and corresponds with many other doctors in the hope that there will someday be a surgical method to correct her horrendous birth defect. She is closer to him than to her family members, and there are hints that the two might have had a romantic relationship if Jane had been whole.
She loses her father to alcoholism, and her mother, who freezes to death in a field, to the bitterness that marks her life as the wife of a farmer who loses many acres of the farm in the crash of '29.
She loses her best friend, the doctor, when he is seventy-four and she thirty-five. He leaves her his house, surrounded by woods, and his beloved peacocks, who takes the doctor's place as Jane's best friends. When she is sixty-seven years old, she receives a letter from one of the doctors whom her friend frequently contacted to see if there was any news of a procedure to help Jane. The letter says that there is now a form of surgery that could correct her birth defect. At first she's angry, bitter, as she walks alone in the woods, listening to her friend's peacocks' eerie cries. In the end she replies to the offer, writing that she thanks him kindly, but that she sees no need to change her life, nor has she any desire to let them "fix" her.
With prose that sounds like poetry, and with great tenderness, Brad Watson has brought to life a protagonist whose life is testament to the indomitable spirit of those who refuse to give in to adversity.
Watson is the author of a collection of short stories called The Last Days of the Dog Men, and the novel The Heaven of Mercury. The New York Times has called Brad Watson "A writer of profound emotional depths".
He teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.