When Joanna Jepson emerged from corrective surgery as a young woman she discovered what it was like to be considered “pretty” for the first time. Born with a congenital deformity that left her “beak-like” upper jaw, with protruding teeth, hanging awkwardly over her lower, Jepson survived cruel taunts in her childhood. One peer wrote in a letter: “Can Opener! You are so ugly why don’t you just kill yourself.”
Now a Church of England priest who became the first chaplain to the London College of Fashion, Jepson is most famous in the British media for her legal challenge to the abortion of a 28-week-old foetus diagnosed with a cleft lip and palate.
This termination, plus those of foetuses with Down syndrome – which Jepson’s brother was born with – has led her to ask whether those living with such conditions might, in the eyes of the law, be considered worthless. Her memoir, A Lot Like Eve, tackles this and other questions – would, for example, a new jaw “really be the foundation of a different existence?” – with a gentle grace and honesty.
Jepson grew up in an evangelical home in England where she attended the Good News Crusade Bible Camp, spoke in tongues, and witnessed traumatic exorcisms. Banned from a school theatre trip that featured wizards, she remembers: “This is what it means to be set apart for Jesus: sometimes it feels like a punishment.”
Although she ultimately rejected this brand of Christianity, Jepson never chastises but rather describes her loving parents with affection. She also never belittles her teenage desires: to be accepted by her peers, to be considered attractive by boys, to get into a nightclub underaged. Yet overlaying this is religious guilt. In particular she struggled with the right to put her salvation – a new chin and a new smile – in her doctor’s hands above God’s.
Weaved throughout are passages from Genesis; Jepson sees a peace in Adam and Eve’s nakedness, “at home in your own skin… not cringing in shame” and unadorned by fig leaves, clothes or make-up.
That this message grates with the memoir’s front-cover illustration – a sketch of a glamorous, beautiful girl – is frustrating. But Jepson never lectures or says that looks aren’t important; she examines her own choices and feelings. This is her book’s great strength: avoiding preaching even as it gives due importance to matters great and small. EA
Bloomsbury, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 11, 2015 as "A Lot Like Eve, Joanna Jepson ".
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