Just Jen chronicles author Jen Powley’s life with multiple sclerosis. Forthright, illuminating, and frequently moving in her narration, Powley addresses the clichés of typical illness stories upfront. Facing the reality of her diagnosis as a teenager, she understandably asks, “Why me?” But as she creatively approaches the barriers and limitations of a society not designed with her disability in mind, she turns the question around, to ask, “Why not me?” Powley distinguishes herself through her philosophical approach to her illness, focusing on building a life rather than praying for a cure.
In the early years, typical fears about growing up are coloured by the specific and practical need to strategize about symptoms. We witness her progress from figuring out how to hide her disability to accepting support and mobility aids that help get her through her many adventures. From rural Alberta, Powley goes away to school, first in Edmonton and then in Halifax, where she ultimately settles.
Powley comfortably inhabits many roles: student, writer, artist, disability and environmental advocate, boss, friend, lover, partner, colleague, sister, and daughter. Throughout, her experiences offer universal insight into human relationships. Her frankness about desire, including the complications and delights of sex and romance, are as relatable as they are refreshing, offering a necessary counter to mainstream depictions of people with disabilities as asexual. On the subject of her writing process, Powley describes her preference for human assistance over technology. Form and content become entwined: the assistants the author colourfully depicts are shown as essential to the act of writing itself.
But no amount of resourcefulness or determination can shield Powley from the mental health issues that often accompany diagnoses such as hers. She opens up about her struggles with an eating disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation, as well as her experiences of discrimination and isolation. She provides context with useful statistics about the barriers and abuse faced by Canadians with disabilities.
At its core, Just Jen is a story about realistic hope. Powley shows us what it means to fully engage with the world on our own terms.