Over the last couple of days I devoured Terry Tempest Williams' new book When Women Were Birds.
Devoured is the right word. The meditative form of the book was, as my friend Alex Caldiero has said, "the food that fits the hunger": "Fifty-Four Variations on Voice."
Devoured is the right word because I was hungry for this women's voice: "I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. . . . 'I am leaving you all my journals,' she said, . . . 'But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.'" She looks at them a month after her mother's death and they are all blank, empty, untouched.
Twelve blank, white pages follow before variation II begins: My mother's journals are paper tombstones.
Devoured is the right word because Williams describes a life hungry for voice, a voice silenced by male politicians and by male church leaders and even by a crazy man intent on sacrificing a supposed virgin Williams with an ax.
I'd like to quote the entire book.
From Variation XXV:
[In the Mormon temple experiencing a ritual "endowment"]
"As I listened to this biblical text being read on the eve of marriage, the only word inhabiting my mind was fuck. I blushed. This was not a word within my vocabulary as a chaste nineteen-year-old woman. Shocked by the betrayal of my own imagination, I tried to clear my thoughts, keep my countenance clean and pure. But the word kept pressing me, fuck, fuck, a word I had never spoken out loud. . . . 'In the beginning was the Word.' Nobody warned me about which one."
Devoured is the right word because Williams' experience here is my own. The last time I entered a Mormon temple, there for the marriage of my oldest son, I was asked to be one one of two official witnesses to the ceremony. The man performing the ceremony began with something like "before Gods, angels, and these witnesses. . . ." My mind flooded with profanities of the worst (or best) sort, uninvited, disturbing, and revelatory of what my subconscious already knew: this place and this ritual was antithetical to the person I wanted to be.
From Variation XXVII:
"My body is my compass, and it does not lie. As women, we are quiet about our personal lives, especially when it comes to sex. We are quiet because there is a history of abuse and harm committed toward those who tell the truth."
. . .
"When we were children, we visited Mother in the hospital. We were told she was having 'corrective surgery.' Later I learned she made the decision to have her tubes tied, not a common practice among her peers. 'Freedom,' she said.
"Birth control gave me my voice. It is perhaps the only thing in my life about which I have been utterly responsible."
. . .
"If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.
"What a woman never forgets is when she allows a man to make love to her, she enters a pact with angels that should a child be conceived in that moment, she holds the life of another. A man can come and go, he pulls out and walks away. But a woman stays. . . . Until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds."
My mother's journals tell me nothing.
My mother's journals tell me everything.