In Other Words
Miss Jane by Brad Watson, W.W. Norton & Company, 284 pages
Miss Jane is an unlikely novel about an even unlikelier subject. Set in rural, early 20th-century Mississippi, it follows the birth, life, and death of Jane Chisolm, a woman born with a persistent cloaca. An extremely rare disorder, the condition affects only females, leaving them without a vagina and only a small opening for waste, in most cases dooming them to lifelong incontinence.
But as author Brad Watson learned from this fictional study of his real-life great-aunt, who lived in the same era, the condition does not preclude anyone from the business of living. Though she is kept from attending school, Jane goes on to live a rather exquisite life, romping through the woods, raising peacocks, and for a brief run, even experiencing a sort of youthful, fully reciprocated form of romantic love.
As Ed Thompson, the doctor who delivers Jane, knows all too well, most infants born different in that era and place might not have survived their family’s shame for more than a few days. But the doctor hovers over Jane and her family, reassuring them that their baby girl is both a girl and otherwise normal in every other capacity. The family, having already lost three kids, is quite unprepared for Jane. Her conception came from a husband drunk on moonshine, a wife passed out from laudanum, and a sexual act that, in our own era, would have been considered marital rape.
But grace comes to Jane in the form of Thompson, the doctor who ends up adopting her. If there were a Nobel Prize for guardians tactfully delivering hard life lessons to vulnerable children, he would make the shortlist. “I need you to tell me why I’m the way I am, why I’m different or how I’m different. Why can’t I control myself?” Jane asks the doctor.
“I believe you have just about everything, if not everything, that any other girl has,” he says. “But on the outside you don’t have everything they do . ... What you have on the inside is just as complex — I mean it is just as much a wonder of a miracle of the human body as anyone else. But it didn’t get to finish putting itself all together, didn’t get to finish itself up and get everything right, before it was time for you to be born . ... But it does not mean that you are not a normal little girl. You’re just a little girl who has to deal with more things than most little girls. And that will make you strong. It already has.”
Much of the drama in this finely written novel emerges out of a young Jane’s encounters with nature. While her mom keeps her from school — “I don’t see the sense in putting you through it . ... Most girls, I’d say it’s a waste of time, anyway,” she says — to fend off taunts over Jane’s incontinence, she makes sure her daughter has a rigorous education in farming, animal husbandry, and medicinal plant gathering. All of these will be survival skills if she is to live out her life on her family’s farm estate without a husband or children.
So her mom takes Jane to the woods, where she learns to source chicory, primrose roots, wild onion, sassafras, teaberry, and rose hips. But in nature, Jane is always looking for an answer to the mystery of her body. Pulling her catch out the water, she watches the bass squirm in her hands as she frets about the fate of a fish born without gills, wondering “if it just floated to the surface of the water and died.”
The rural life also nurtures Jane’s emerging sexualilty. On her family farm, she raises peacocks, entranced by their exotic beauty and mystified by their “cloacal kiss,” a form of reproduction exclusive to birds. She contemplates and observes the mating habits of pigs and raccoons.
A few years later, as a teenager, the woods provide protective cover as she happens upon a young married couple, lost in their lovemaking. Jane feels completely entranced and ashamed that she cannot look away. Left utterly alone to learn about sexuality and baffled by the woman’s cries, she worries that her innocent act of teenage voyeurism has interfered with the couple’s effort to conceive a child.
The adult phases of Jane’s life don’t receive as much attention, the bulk of her breakthroughs and epiphanies having occurred to her, by necessity, as a young girl and teenager. Nearing the end of her life in the 1980s, as an elderly single woman living alone on her family’s farm, she pushes back tears and anger to politely decline the offer of Johns Hopkins doctors who promise a new surgery can reverse her condition.
“I must politely decline your offer to ‘fix me,’ so to speak,” writes Jane, in what could be a fitting anthem for her life of smiling stoicism. “I am now an old woman, I live alone on my family’s farm, and have no interest in going through such an operation as I see no need for it, and there is certainly not the desire.” — Casey Sanchez