Jane Minshall conquered despair to discover joy in writing

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A WOMAN whose daughter died suddenly at 15, who subsequently suffered years of debilitating grief and illness, who learned to smile again while belly-dancing in Dubai and has now become a bestselling author, wants to share her story.

Former Oakham School language teacher and editor of Embrace magazine Jane Minshall, 53, who now writes and teaches dance as Jae de Wylde, lived in Rutland for 17 years and now lives at Morton near Bourne with husband Martin.

Her novel The Thinking Tank is currently No 27 in Amazon’s women’s fiction top 100, Summertime Publishing named her its bestselling author of 2011 and The Gulf News, Dubai’s top newspaper, recently ran a two-page feature on her in its weekend magazine.

Until then she had been reluctant to tell her story, not wanting people to feel sorry for her or to be thought using her daughter’s story to sell her book. But after receiving many touching comments on the feature from all over the world she has changed her mind.

“People have said my story has inspired them, that it has been life-changing for them and they can move forward from their own personal grief. If I’ve helped one person it’s been worth it,” she said.

Jane’s daughter Rowena Crabb, a pupil at Oakham School, died of sudden adult death syndrome on January 4, 1999.

Jane and Martin were in Houston, Texas, visiting his son for new year, while Rowena and her sister Rebecca, then 13, were with their father Sam in Edinburgh. She received the phone call from her ex-husband at 4am.

“Rowena had been leaning over the bath, changing the water in Teeny’s (her pet goldfish) tank, when she’d collapsed.

“Sam tried to resuscitate her but she died on the way to hospital,” Jane said.

She flew straight to Edinburgh and went to see her daughter in the hospital’s chapel of rest.

“She was wearing a red sweater I’d bought her for Christmas. She looked like an angel, with her hair fanned around her face. I combed her parting straight, as she would have wanted. Why? I then asked, breaking down.”

Tortured by nightmares, Jane was prescribed anti-depressants and signed off work.

“There was a huge gaping hole in our lives where Rowena had been. She wouldn’t want us to be unhappy I told Rebecca, but I didn’t know how to smile any more.”

She returned to teaching after three months but became severely depressed and had to leave.

“Two years after Rowena died I fell apart. I had a breakdown and became agoraphobic and in a very dark place.” She suffered years of numbing grief before going for counselling.

“It took a marvellous friend, Bronwen Blenkin, to literally drag me out of the house and take me to a psychotherapist.”

My therapist said I could let Rowena’s death destroy me or pick myself up and move on.

“It sounds simplistic, but it was a pivotal moment. It made me focus on things differently. I realised that by making the most of what I had I would be honouring Rowena’s memory.”

She got a job as a copywriter for a travel agency and went on to be editor for Embrace magazine, a sister publication of this newspaper. At the same time she developed Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a disorder of the nervous system that causes pain in the limbs. After spending two hours a day, five days a week in a hospital oxygen tank to repair damaged tissue, the year-long treatment helped and the solitude inside the tank inspired her novel.

“It was to be based on a mother and daughter relationship and deal with issues of belonging, love and loss,” she said.

In 2007 Martin was offered a job at Dubai British School. Jane hesitated but Rebecca, by now studying fashion at Leicester University, told them to go.

“It was the new beginning I’d been longing for and from day one I loved it. Nobody knew what I’d been through. The sunshine lifted my spirits, I felt like me again,” Jane says.

She joined a belly-dancing class thinking it would be fun and she might make friends.

“I hadn’t expected it to be such a wonderful release. For the first time since Rowena’s death I was smiling. I booked up for the next class and the one after that.”

Before long she was teaching her own classes and working on her novel, “Something that had been tapping on my shoulder for years. With every word I wrote, I felt Rowena urging me on,” she says.

A disciplined writer, she spent five mornings a week sitting in Dubai coffee shops writing 1,500 words and then dancing in the afternoons.

She wrote most of the book there in three months, but some of it in Spain where they would holiday to escape the intense Dubai summer heat.

They moved back to England in 2009 and bought the house in Morton.

“We absolutely love it. The village is super-friendly, we have been made really welcome,” she says.

With Martin now Middle East director for a careers organisation, they still spend three months a year in Dubai.

“The Thinking Tank was published in October and when it went straight in at No 33 on the Independent Booksellers’ Chart, just behind Jamie Oliver’s latest, I couldn’t believe it.”

Jae is a nickname she has had since schooldays and de Wylde comes from her being half Dutch. There are two more novels in the pipeline, one a sequel and one set in Paris.

“It’s sheer joy writing a novel - I consider myself so blessed in how it’s all turned out.

“I believe the universe works in mysterious ways and that Rowena is still with me. You never get over the death of somebody that close, you just have to find a new normal in life,” she says.

Still suffering fibromyalgia, she has pain in her legs, hands and face that requires ongoing treatment. And she still has Rowena’s own story about a girl who wanted a pony that she wrote and recorded aged ten.

“The cassette is kept in a bank safe for security. My love for her will never fade but her loss drove me to fulfil my dreams. By loving life I’m honouring Rowena’s memory. It is the least she deserves.”

She is always willing to discuss her novel at reading groups free of charge and in schools as it’s on the AS-level syllabus.

Contact her at www.jaedewylde.com and she is on Facebook and Twitter and has a blog - http://lifescrappystuff.wordpress.com