The Case of Jane Chisolm versus Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay

The Case of Jane Chisolm versus Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay

Jane Chisolm was inspired by my Great-Aunt Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay, born in 1888 on a farm in east-central Mississippi. She died in my nearby hometown of Meridian in 1975.

I have only one personal memory of ever seeing Aunt Jane. When I was a boy, my mother’s extended family gathered every Sunday afternoon at my grandmother’s house. We children ranged the hundred or more acres that included the pastures, the cow pond, the pine grove beyond that, and the large old barn, complete with tall hayloft that looked out onto the pecan grove, which in those days still bore nuts that crunched beneath our feet in the thick, coarse grass.

The highlight of every visit came around three or four in the afternoon, when Uncle Tommy would open the general store he operated across the road and treat us to Nutty Buddies, Eskimo Pies, and Popsicles. One day, when we were waiting around for that hour, a car came up the red dirt road and parked beneath the live oak. A man got out, went around to the passenger door. He leaned in and came out with his hands under the arm of an old, thin, frail-looking woman, dressed entirely in black, her long gaunt face vaguely obscured by a black lace veil pinned to the front of her little black hat. An uncle trotted over from the house to help, and the old woman was carefully conveyed across the yard to the house, the men’s hands gently gripping her bony elbows and resting against the small of her back. All we children had fallen silent and still as we watched the grave and strange processional.

One of my cousins whispered: “That’s Aunt Jane.”

“Who?” someone else said.

“Granddaddy Spurge’s sister,” another said.

Then we kept quiet, watching. We knew there was something remarkable about this old woman, this frail relic in black. Our parents would say, vaguely, when we asked, that “something was wrong” with Aunt Jane. Though what that might be we had no earthly idea at the time.

Years later, I was going through a box of old photographs and came across a black-and-white snapshot of a pretty girl wearing a dark dress and wide-brimmed hat, looking back over her shoulder at the photographer. Her expression and pose struck me as flirtatious. When I asked my mother who it was, she said it was her Aunt Jane. Great-Aunt Jane.

I was surprised. From what we’d heard over the years, Jane’s “problem” was in some way urological, and prevented her from having a romantic life. But this picture looked like it could have been taken by a boyfriend or lover.

My mother’s response to this surprised me even more. There were community dances back then, she said, and Jane loved to go to them. She was quite popular with the boys.

“How could that be?” I said. Whatever Great-Aunt Jane’s “problem” was, I knew it included lifelong incontinence.

My mother couldn’t answer that.

“But nothing ever came of it,” I said. “With a boy or man, I mean.”


That’s when I became fascinated with my Great-Aunt Jane and what her life must have been like. What her condition may have or could have been. How she managed it. How she managed being a person who found a way to enjoy the early, flirtatious part of courtship but no doubt had to back away from it at some point and become an “old maid.” Not only an old maid, but an old maid with what was, in that day, considered to be a shameful secret.

When we found that photo, I was in my early twenties and already divorced. I’d married when I was in high school, hormones raging. My girlfriend got pregnant, we ran off, the marriage lasted just four years, and now I was a very miserable, very young man, wracked with guilt yet still obsessed with love, love, love, even if that obsession was cloaked in sorrow and an enormous sense of failure at such an early age. Something in me looked at that picture of a jaunty young Great-Aunt Jane—who would live a life without sex, apparently without romance or romantic love, who “squeaked when she walked” (as my mother said) because of the rubber underpants she wore over a diaper of some sort—and was deeply intrigued. The joyful pursuit of sex, romantic love, lust, had ended up making me feel like a lout and a fool and, to some degree, a pariah among people my age, almost all of whom had no idea what I was going through.

I never really stopped being curious about Jane. I never forgot the photograph. Never stopped being deeply curious about the story behind it.

At one point I wanted to find Jane’s grave. My mother said it was in the cemetery in town, and told me how to find it. But all I could find was a small headstone marked “MARY ELLIS CLAY / JAN 14, 1888 / FEB 6 1975.” I went home and told my mother and she said, “Yes, that’s Aunt Jane.”

“So her name wasn’t really Jane?”

“I guess not.”

“Well, how did she come to go by ‘Jane’?”

My mother just shrugged and said, “That’s just what we always called her.”

Around that time, when I was in my later thirties and trying to make a second marriage work (it had taken me twenty years to get up the courage to try that again), I started seriously thinking of writing something about Jane. Of trying to figure out her mystery, her story. I published my first two books with W. W. Norton, and when my editor asked what I wanted to write next, I answered after hardly even thinking about it: a novel inspired by my Great-Aunt Jane. And I signed the contract.

I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.

First of all, no one knew exactly what was “wrong” with Jane. It wasn’t spoken of among people, even relatives, with any candor. Jane did not discuss it with anyone. My mother didn’t know. Distant relatives in Texas, children of her siblings, didn’t know. Her medical records had been disposed of or destroyed. The rest home where she’d lived out her last days was defunct and I couldn’t find anyone who’d worked there. All I had to go on was the fact that, in her last days, she’d told my mother’s older sister that she had only one opening for the elimination of waste. My aunt had asked her straight-up about her mysterious condition, and all Jane said in reply, after a moment, was, “I only have one.”

“One what?” I asked my aunt.

“One opening ‘down there,’ ” my aunt said. “I guess.”

I had that to go on, and the fact of her lifelong incontinence. And nothing else, really. Add to that the odd disappearance of the photograph that first fascinated me. When I mentioned it to my mother, she couldn’t recall our having found it. She didn’t remember it at all. I couldn’t believe that I had simply imagined it. It had vanished. If I’d believed in ghosts (and I’m not sure I don’t), I might have wondered if Jane’s ghost had stolen it, a photographic record of the best time in her life, the time between when she was a little girl and when she was—well, an “old maid.” The time of her social life, perhaps her brief romance. Relatives I spoke to (including my mother) recalled Jane as a cheerful person, someone who didn’t seem emotionally affected by the inconvenience of her condition. Who did not seem lonely—though she lived alone, on welfare (after that became available in 1935), and had no close friends we knew of outside of our extended family. Who never, in their memory, seemed sad.

But no matter how strong an individual, could all that possibly be true? Strong people often are people who suffer as much as the next person but believe that good character should prevent them from seeming to feel sorry for themselves. And self-pity was not, not even remotely, a characteristic trait in my mother’s extended family, the hearty Clays of Kemper County, Mississippi.

I tried to begin writing the novel, but after several false starts realized I could not know how to write it until I knew—with reasonable certainty or even likelihood—just what Jane’s condition had been. Without that knowledge, I could not know what her daily life, her whole long life, may have been like. My mother had told me stories of growing up on her family’s cattle farm, where they also grew cotton, tobacco, and corn. I began “my” Jane’s life in 1915, to take advantage of that (my mother was born in 1929, and not much had changed in such a place between ’15 and ’29). But the real challenge for me was not so much place and time as it was the reality of a girl, then woman, facing the challenges Aunt Jane must have faced every day.

I learned of and read Hugh Young’s pioneering book on urogenital abnormalities—Genital Abnormalities, Hermaphroditism and Related Adrenal Diseases, The Williams and Williams Company, 1937—and his research into surgical procedures used to correct them. Many conditions seemed like candidates for Jane’s condition, but as far as I could tell none really matched up. I read Young’s autobiography, but found no clues there. I wrote emails to Johns Hopkins, where Young did his research and practice, but received no replies. A Harvard pediatrician I talked to wondered if it weren’t Klinefelter Syndrome. I said I’d already ruled that out. Then he said, “You’re from the South, right? Mississippi?” And went on to inquire as to whether there had been the habit of inbreeding in my family. I wrote to urological organizations and received no replies. A urological surgeon in my hometown told me I would have to talk to a pediatric urologist. I tried to speak to the only pediatric urologist in my area but received no call back. I was ready to make an appointment with the man, but was frustrated and turned (of course) to the Internet.

I narrowed the options down until I came across a condition called “persistent cloaca.” It’s a very rare condition, occurring once in some 20,000 births. It happens only to girls. It can happen without the presence of fistulas (which often cause troublesome and dangerous infections, and Jane seemed to have gone through life very healthy, her inconveniences aside). With persistent cloaca, the patient has all the urological parts any healthy woman has, but instead of manifesting themselves in the “normal” way, they are tucked up inside.

These days, a child born with persistent cloaca would have the possibility of immediate surgical treatment. But it would not have been an option for my Great-Aunt Jane. The first successful surgical procedure performed on a patient with persistent cloaca happened in 1982. Aunt Jane died in 1975, at the age of eighty-seven.

Now that I knew (or hoped I knew) with as much certainty as possible what must have been “wrong” with Jane, I was still faced with the question: How to write the life story of a girl, then a woman, who lived her entire life with such a condition? And in an early twentieth-century rural setting, at that? What would her daily life be like? How secluded a life would she lead? How would it affect her psychologically, especially if she turned out to be the strong, loving, cheerful woman those few relatives who remembered the real Jane said she was? And, most intriguing, how did she manage to go to those dances, and be popular with boys for a time when she was in her late teens? How would it affect her, having found a way to do that, when she had to back away from such inter-sexual socializing? How would she face the long life ahead of her, essentially alone? And how in hell would I find a plot for a novel in all that?

I wrote more drafts of this novel—at least three times as many—as I have any short story or any novel I’ve worked on. My novel The Heaven of Mercury went through something like eleven or twelve major drafts (drafts in which I made significant changes, additions, or deletions). Miss Jane went through a number closer to thirty, and that doesn’t count all the false starts I banged out before I settled on what her condition must have been and how I ought to best approach the writing of the book.

I had a hard time getting into her head, under her skin. She was the most elusive of characters, having lived a life entirely unlike mine, the opposite, almost. A life that, although social enough with her extended family, still held its unmentionable secret close. If the most my great-aunt had ever said to anyone about her condition—aside from, perhaps, her mother and her doctor—was what she said very late in life to my mother’s sister, how alone must she have been, at her core? At some point, though, I realized that she must have had some version of a sexual existence, a sex life. Everyone does, in his or her own way. And of course I had never forgotten the “lost” snapshot photograph, the story of her going to dances as a teen. I began to write into that. I still wasn’t really getting well enough into her head and heart, but it was a small breakthrough. I was encouraged by my editor, and later by my agent as well, to go deeper into the novel’s supporting characters. I’d been working so hard on getting into my “Jane” that I was neglecting the others in the story. It was easier, once I eased up on Jane a bit, to do that. And this opened up my sense of the narrative voice in the novel. Once I was able to write better paragraphs and scenes and chapters from the point of view of other characters, I was somehow able to loosen up and write more intimately about Jane herself. When they became more real for me, I was more able to begin inventing the details about my character Jane, less inhibited by what I knew I didn’t know about my great-aunt.

So I went back into her chapters, exploring significant moments in her life, and gradually the writing became more interesting, and I felt an increasing sense of freedom. Finally, a fictional character had begun to emerge from what I suppose was the oppressive shadow of her model, or inspiration, that great and moving mystery that had been the life of my great-aunt. It was only then, after years of feeling thwarted, feeling that I may have made a big mistake and chosen to write about someone I could never understand, that I knew I could finish the book.

Letter from Wyoming

Before I moved to Wyoming in 2005, I was – like a lot of people outside this region, it turns out – not quite sure just where it was. As for its character, no idea. We have our stereotypical notions of better-known states like Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. They exist in our imaginations as real places of this or that kind. I don’t think you can say the same about Wyoming. For a couple of years, almost everyone who called or emailed would ask, ‘How’s Montana?’ They couldn’t ever quite remember that I was in Wyoming. It’s like a state covered with one of those mythical invisibility suits. You look at it, but you don’t see it, you don’t really register that it’s there – or you do, because it’s beautiful, but you think it’s Montana. I’d bet that a lot of people who vacation in Jackson Hole don’t really think of the fact that it’s in Wyoming, most of the time. As soon as they get off the plane and onto a pair of skis, they think they’re at a resort somewhere in western Colorado. They can’t quite fathom, really, that the place is in Wyoming, because no one can quite ever remember that Wyoming exists.

This suits me just fine. It’s why I came here. I was looking for a teaching job in the desert southwest, which seemed to me a great isolation but now that I’m here I believe I overestimated the southwest that way and underestimated Wyoming. This is a state that covers half a million square miles on which live just over half a million people. There aren’t really any ‘cities’, with apologies to Laramie, Cheyenne, and half a dozen other urban centres: there are just a few big towns and one resort. I’m living a happy accident. There were no jobs advertised in the desert southwest that year. This was the only job I applied for. I got lucky. I didn’t really want to go anywhere at the time.

I admit that I’m a misanthrope. Once, standing on a sidewalk in Oxford, Mississippi with my friend Tom Franklin, the brilliant fiction writer who lives there among other brilliant writers (I’m not kidding or being ironic), I was invited by someone to attend a party later that evening. I mumbled something non-committal. Tom grinned and said to the inviter: ‘He doesn’t really like people.’

This isn’t exactly true. I like a lot of individual people, and some couples, and I suppose some groups – but I’m suspicious of groups. I am tired of cocktail parties (although I usually have fun while I’m there) and the small talk, and it’s true maybe that I’m not the most trusting person I know. Much of my misanthropy manifests itself in feeling crowded. Crowded roads, streets, towns, stores, airwaves, telephones, emails, and so on. It all makes me nervous. I was craving some kind of escape.

I think most people who live in Wyoming need a lot of space, or they wouldn’t live here. Unlike Mississippi, where I grew up and where it’s either warm or beastly hot for all but about three months of the year, in Wyoming it is warm only about three months of the year, and the rest of the year it is either cold or very cold. Such a climate tends to repel most people, and that’s fine since I believe that people here want Wyoming to remain wide-open. Southeast Wyoming, while it has beautiful mountains nearby with lots of bike and hiking trails and campgrounds and big game hunting and excellent trout fishing and the only research university in the state, is pretty much an off-the-radar part of an off-the-radar state, and I think everyone but the real estate developers want to keep it that way. Even in the South these days, the interstates are crowded. You can’t find a non-crowded interstate east of Austin or Abilene, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska; or Galesburg, Illinois. When you cross that imaginary line, driving west, it’s as if someone unwound an overly tight Ace bandage from around your head, unscrewed a clamp from your heart.

Last weekend, we snowshoed the Little Laramie trail in the Snowie Range of the Medicine Bow National Forest, a good long two-hour hike, stopping every hundred yards or so to pick ice balls from the dogs’ paws, dodging the occasional cross-country skier gliding down through the lodgepole pine forest. The sky was overcast and gray, a light snow falling, about eighteen degrees Farenheit. Kind of perfect. Views of the Centennial Valley from the trail at 9,500 feet range for some thirty miles across the prairie back toward Laramie, at 7,200 feet, the eye resting on the Laramie Range to the east. On the way home, the wind was up, and the snow blowing across the road obscured it at times, a brief white-out, but blew on by in a few seconds, out into the rolling grasslands south of the two-lane highway, where small herds of pronghorn picked through the snow for the scarce but most nutritious plants. When they’re really on the move, the pronghorn out here seem more plentiful than the cattle and sheep, and maybe they are.

With the mountains and national forest land within half an hour of town, there’s a lot of good hunting and fishing and a lot of wildlife. We’ve seen moose, elk, more mule deer than whitetail, badgers, fox, coyotes, golden and bald eagles, marmots, jack rabbits. I haven’t come upon a mountain lion, or a black or brown bear, or one of the notoriously solitary wolverines. But there are more than 600 species of wildlife in the state, and I recently read that the insects in a square mile of prairie here outweigh all mammal life by several times. There is a mountain ridge west of town that looks from a distance like a long narrow escarpment, but when you ascend it you enter what seems a vast, hilly, borderless wilderness that is disconnected from the rest of the world. No one is allowed there, legally, for several months in late winter and early spring because it is a sanctuary for the local wildlife. During hunting season, elk and deer hunters pitch large canvas tents with stoves they’ve hauled up with horses, and the camps stand for weeks.

I don’t know how the settlers survived winters here. They were more severe than now just thirty years ago, regularly dipping to forty or fifty below. The people who settled this land are so much tougher than I’ll ever be that I cannot really comprehend it. Even in these milder times, we’ve just gone through a few weeks of waking up to twenty-five or thirty below. The ever-present wind is notorious, gusts often clocking in at fifty miles per hour (with no storm in sight), and the Big Hollow prairie between Laramie and Centennial is said to be the largest valley in the country carved entirely by wind. The snow’s deep.

The old-timers in Laramie call this population control. But I’m here for now and I don’t really want to leave. It was one day a couple of summers ago, driving that same two-lane between Laramie and Centennial, that I looked to the north and saw the long, high, rolling hills there and thought for the first time I understood what Hemingway’s character meant when she said the hills (albeit in Spain, in his story) looked ‘like white elephants’. They do look like some sort of colossal, vast-bodied, mythical dormant beasts.

This is a beautiful place in all seasons, no matter how harsh the winters are, the blessed character-testing winters. The summers are the best I’ve known, and everyone lives for them. The autumns are often longer and milder than you would think, although this past autumn was cut short in early October. People adjusted, after a little grumbling, put away everything but the winter clothing, got out the snowshoes, skis, heavy boots. Spring may not arrive in earnest until July. And then, the farmers’ market finally starts up again, people revel in the mild dry heat (and, yes, big skies full of blue and bright-yellow light), and try not to think about how soon the market and the summer will be gone again for most of the year.

Published in Granta