Arts & Entertainment
2 min

An icon’s last words

Jane Rule takes the measure of her own life

A year after Jane Rule's death in 2007, a researcher discovered her unpublished autobiography, already titled Taking My Life, among Rule's papers at the University of British Columbia. Credit: Jane Rule Fonds, University Archives, University of British Columbia

Jane Rule. Author, activist, teacher, lesbian pioneer. For many, the name is synonymous with challenging social ideals, braving new frontiers, defying stereotypes and standing up for one’s integrity.

But the name Jane Rule is also tied, very deeply, to teaching. For decades she challenged university students and the world at large to expand their horizons, to think outside the box, to become more accepting of differences and to be more than what they were. And now she has issued one final challenge to readers everywhere.

Leaping far past the bounds of her works of fiction, Rule’s final writing effort, the posthumously published autobiography Taking My Life, transcends the typical standards of the genre and takes the reader on a journey into the formative years of one of Canada’s most notable gay authors.

Focused on the first 21 years of Rule’s life, the book — discovered, unpublished, amid the author’s papers a year after her 2007 death — is full of detail and intensely private recollections. While clearly autobiographical, Taking My Life unwinds a narrative that, in the reading, feels more like a vividly penned work of fiction than the story of the beginnings of an award-winning author, activist and teacher.

Written sometime after her retirement in 1991 as an attempt to rekindle her formidable personal fire, Rule examines, in microscopic detail, the complexities of her family relationships and her struggles to find herself in a world that despised who she really was.

With a surprising boldness she catalogues her early inseparability and later near estrangement from her brother, her struggles with grandparents, disputes with classmates, relationships with neighbouring children and the befuddling yet loving dynamic with her parents.

Moving forward through the years, the reader follows the teenaged Rule through the dark tunnels of adolescent rebellion, the boredom of a gifted student in a constrictive learning environment, past the metamorphosis of her first years in university, and straight into the wonder of love. The first stirrings of Rule’s attraction to women are described in amazing clarity, holding back none of the confusion, pain, turmoil or delight.

While the book is not focused primarily on queer content, it nonetheless offers long glimpses into the life and mind of a brilliant and acclaimed pioneer of the gay community, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the overall mindset of the period, the academic mind and the mind of Rule herself.

For many Rule fans, Taking My Life will be a departure, not only from the style of her fiction, but from her non-fiction as well. While the book mimics somewhat the frank style of the essays she wrote for The Body Politic and later for Xtra, her autobiographical honesty exceeds even those expectations, bringing us closer than ever to the life behind the legend.

In taking the measure of her own life, Rule challenges readers to examine themselves, to look at her words through their own hearts, and to examine their own relationships with the same honesty and integrity that Rule herself embodied so well.

In all aspects of the book, Rule’s incredible determination shines through, proving again and again that with nothing more than a solidly entrenched sense of morality and a little risk-taking, even those of us who might seem the most unlikely candidates can succeed beyond our wildest imaginings.