When Women Were Birds
What seems like an age ago, I was in an environmental nonfiction class in which I was assigned Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. A memoir chronicling the rising of Great Salt Lake alongside the disturbing deaths from cancer of several of the women in Williams’s family, including her mother, it is an interrogation, on one hand, into the possible correlation between the deaths and fallout from atomic bomb testing, and on the other, a larger examination of our human relationship to the natural world.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice continues to grapple with the loss of Williams’s mother as well as what she describes as a “second death”—the realization that the many journals her mother left to her (and that she promised not to read until after her mother’s death) were utterly and completely blank. Haunted by these shelves full of pristinely white pages and their reminder of her mother’s absent voice, Williams undertakes an exploration of voice, her own and others’, at age fifty-four—the same age at which her mother died, and the organizing principle of the book.
Williams explores through these fifty-four sections moments from her past in which her voice was flawed or listened to or doubted or ignored altogether. The snapshots reveal ways in which women’s voices (for it is a feminist argument) are so often dismissed, demeaned, or stifled. From her father telling her, as a child, that her prose was “a bit flowery” to being blatantly ignored during a Congressional hearing, there are many scenes that mark moments of a containment of the female voice. There are also moments, gladly, of triumph, ranging from Williams’s joy in using her voice after overcoming a lisp to her efforts to compile a book essays from nature writers of the West for Congress in defense of saving almost 4 million acres of Utah’s wilderness from development (that is a truly awe-inspiring story and an example to take to heart). There are also some comic moments, for good measure, including how upon her marriage in the Salt Lake Temple, the only word Williams could think of was “fuck.” “’In the beginning was the Word,’” she notes. “Nobody warned me about which one.”
As in Refuge, Williams writes with potency and conviction. Although I personally find her prose at times too insistently poetic, I am frequently moved by passages such as this:
What I came to appreciate was how the transgression of Eve was an act of courage that led us out of the garden into the wilderness. Who wants to be a goddess when we can be human? Perfection is a flaw disguised as control. The moment Eve bit into the apple, her eyes opened and she became free. She exposed the truth of what every woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal. We just have to make certain we do not betray ourselves. For a woman or a man to speak from the truth of their heart is to break taboo. The mask is removed. The snake who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was not the Devil, but her own instinctive nature saying, Honor your hunger and feed yourself.
Beautiful passages like this abound, but with each chapter as its own discrete set of memories and stories, it is sometimes unclear where this memoir is ultimately leading. Williams does, however, address her own ambivalence about her larger argument in a final section: “I thought I would proclaim as a woman that we must speak the truth of our lives at all costs. But what I realize…,” she admits, “is that I will never be able to say what is in my heart, because words fail us, because it is in our nature to protect, because there are times when what is public and what is private must be discerned. There is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer.”
I appreciate this complex destination to all the sections that precede. As much as her mother’s blank journals trouble Williams, she ultimately respects this choice, understands that silence in that realm might have offered its own kind of power. And while I wholly endorse her decision to celebrate the mystery contained in blank beauty of those journals rather than mourn an absent voice, I am nevertheless grateful that Williams has chosen — at least with these pages — otherwise.
Williams, Terry Tempest. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. New York: Picador, 2012.