“Jane, a Memoir” by Jane Stanley is about many things.
First, it is structured around the author’s five marriages; four sections chronicle the ups and downs of each one (two to the same husband).
Second, it is an equally detailed account of her development from an insecure child into a self-confident woman.
Third, it evokes the history of Mississippi, especially Gulfport, during Stanley’s lifetime.
Anyone who grew up in Gulfport in the 1940s and ’50s will recognize many details of everyday life.
Two problems that have persisted throughout Stanley’s life are often alluded to, racial and gender discrimination.
Even as a child, Stanley senses what is at stake and in her small way struggles to change prevailing stereotypes. As her grandmother — a major influence in her life — tells her early on, the right thing to do is not always the safe thing, a lesson Stanley never forgets.
In addition, the book is a meditation on Stanley’s spiritual growth. She is careful to make a distinction between religion (which in her view often imposes restrictions on human beings) and spirituality (which entails freedom).
Stanley comes to terms with her spirituality through dedicated study and through living sensitively and in the moment. She gives an account of her decision to establish an interdenominational ministry, the obstacles in her way, and her final success.
This memoir is very well written, for the most part in a dryly humorous conversational voice. The paragraphs are short, and much of the text in dialogue. Here is a writer who relishes the English language and has given careful attention not only to the presentation of individual episodes but also to connecting them into an overall pattern.
The book makes us laugh, cry and think — often all at the same time. Some events are amusing because we can imagine similar things happening to us. Among the most moving passages are the deaths of Stanley’s grandmother and mother. When two of her sons tell her things about themselves she would rather not hear, we are touched mainly by Jane’s unconditional love for each of them.
Occasionally the reader wonders about the reality of some of the events reported. For example, the climax comes when Stanley, alone in a forest, is wondering what to do with her life. At this point she sees a lone deer standing motionless; she questions it, and by nodding its head it seems to answer her.
Did this actually happen? We want to believe it did since almost everything else is so realistically presented. But Stanley may be using a way of writing that she finds in some Bible stories: they are meant to be taken as metaphors for a larger truth.
References to food are made throughout the book: its preparation, consumption, and sharing. This is not incidental. The church Jane has established in Gulfport is called “The Nourishing Place” because people who come are freely served food. Jane gives the concept of communion a special meaning. It is the actual “consuming” of food among people; when we eat together we become spiritually connected to one another.
“Jane, a Memoir” is a story of self-discovery, a journey to enlightenment. It concerns a person who lives through a number of crises — economic, emotional, and spiritual — and overcomes them all. It is in the great tradition of Western confessional literature. Not everyone in the book is shown positively, but Jane is most critical of herself. On every page, the reader is impressed — almost overwhelmed — by the honesty and courage it must have taken to write this book.
Only someone who is being totally candid, we feel, could write as succinctly, directly and assuredly as this.
Why would a writer be so willing to explore her psychic and emotional depths and to tell the unvarnished truth about what she finds? The answer must lie in the author’s love — for herself, her family, her friends, her congregation, strangers, her God, and not least her readers — that comes over loud and clear. We feel she loves us so much that she is willing to hold back nothing about herself, to help us better cope with issues in our own lives. Sometimes love has prevented Stanley from seeing things clearly, but by the end of the book, it has become a positive force, perhaps the positive force, that has shaped her life.
The book can be purchased from the publisher at www.nautiuspublishing.com or from The Nourishing Place, 606 Tennessee Street, Gulfport MS 39501 (or P.O. Box 7785).
Jane, a Memoir
by Jane Stanley
Oxford, MS. Nautilus Publishing Company (5 South Lamar Blvd., Suite 16), 2017. $17.95. 288 pages.