‘Women Talking’ Traces Web of Faith, Forgiveness, and Rage | Sojourners

‘Women Talking’ Traces Web of Faith, Forgiveness, and Rage

Like the author Miriam Toews, I remember when I heard the news about the “ghost rapes” in Bolivia. I was in seminary training to be a Mennonite pastor. Toews, an ethnic Mennonite who fled her closed community decades before, was living in Toronto. But we shared a visceral and knowing horror as we learned of the events that unfolded in the Bolivian Manitoba Community, events that later inspired Toews’ 2018 novel, Women Talking, and a recent film by the same name.

Intense persecution of Anabaptists from our founding in the 16th century into the 19th century led Mennonites to flee Europe for refuge in the Americas. Many Mennonites settled in Canada and the United States. Others cloistered themselves in Mexico before seeking greater religious freedom in remote colonies in Paraguay and Bolivia. Today, these communities still largely isolate from those beyond their sectarian borders, speaking the mixed German and Dutch language of Plattdeutsch, restricting the education of girls, and operating within an intensely hierarchical and patriarchal structure.

Survivors of sexual abuse in Mennonite and other Plain People communities often point to this combination of power, patriarchy, and isolation as the catalyst for the kind of abuse that is common in these communities but unfolded with exceptional horror from 2005 to 2009 in rural Bolivia.

During those years girls and women, ranging in age from 3 to 65, awoke in their beds to discover they had been raped and sexually violated in their sleep. The women reported waking up aching and bleeding. Some noticed their underclothing was inside out or ripped. Others had vague memories of pain but recalled that they were unable to move in their sleep and could not clearly remember events the next morning.

For years, the women were dismissed, their stories labeled an act of “wild female imagination.” At other times they were told demons were at work. Some called these “ghost rapes.” The mystery was solved when an elder followed a young man one night; earlier, the elder had noticed that the young man got up late morning after morning, unusual for a community that began its work at sunrise. When the elder caught the young man about to enter another home, he locked the young man in a barn while they decided what to do.

Eventually the community discovered that a group of men were using a powerful spray, used to anaesthetize animals, to incapacitate the women and rape them in their sleep. The men were handed over to the Bolivian courts, put on trial, and are now in prison. I know less of what has happened to those who survived the brutal attacks. In a 2009 interview, the father of a survivor explained, “The ministers are still deciding what to do.”

In her novel, Toews fills in the gaps by imagining a response to this devastation if women — and not the male elders — decided what to do. Both the novel and the film version, recently nominated for an Academy Award, offer a pretext: This is a “work of female imagination,” a nod to the dismissive response of the original stories of the actual women in the community. Most of the book and its film adaptation take place in a barn where the women have come to an impasse in deciding if they should forgive the men, stay and fight back, or leave the community.

After a vote offers no clear consensus, the women appoint a few of themselves to work through the decision while the men are away bailing out the perpetrators from the local magistrates. The women have two days to decide the fate of their traumatized community of women.

I flipped back through the pages of Women Talking after seeing the film. I recalled how Toews construction of dialogue between the women felt remote. We read that, Salome “responded that her opinions should not be slotted under hoary Old Testament headings, please.” The novel is written as the minutes of the discernment meeting and is interrupted throughout with explanations of culture and dress. Since the women are illiterate, the minutes are penned by August, a tutor who returns to the community, decades after his family is forced to leave. In the novel we are with August — observers, parsing together the narrative, feeling our way along.

But for me, in Sarah Polley’s screenplay, the observational distance is gone: August is another character rather than a mediating voice; The actors fill in the bodies that blended together in the novels. Claire Foy, in the role of Salome, pulses with rage for the crimes she has endured and struggles with the hopes for her own son’s redemption. “We know that we are bruised and terrified,” she wails to the women in the barn. Her dialogue offers a less accurate depiction of the communal language of the Bolivia Mennonites, but we gain an emotionally broad and charged character. Because we can see the colony, there’s no need to pause for explanation of custom or culture. We are in the thick of it, sitting among the women tracing the lines of the complex web of faith, forgiveness, rage, and self-protection.

I knew it would be difficult for me to see Women Talking on screen. In some way, the minute-taking lens of the novel spared me from the close-up devastation I experienced as the film unfolded. What happened on the screen happened in a specific place to a particular group of women. But I also knew that I was part of the story of the women atop hay bales in the barn. This is the story of millions of women who struggle through the aftermath of sexual trauma and wonder what they are losing of themselves, what must be lost, what remains, and what is possible. This is the story of our sons, our fathers, our brothers.

Much of what the world beyond my tradition knows of Anabaptism is sourced from Amish romance novels and cookbooks, obscuring the often brutal and destructive forms of power and violence harbored in these communities. Polley’s screenplay keeps us from dismissing the Manitoba colony as a curiosity to peer at in judgment. Instead, we were invited to wonder: What if we have much more in common than we imagined?

Women Talking answers that question. Patriarchy and violence have a common cadence — whether they run through the Catholic Church, L’Arche communities, Plain Mennonite colonies, or the lecture halls of John Howard Yoder. Those who endured sexual violence discover how to survive, how to protect themselves, and what parts of their lives they cannot let go. Who is redeemable? Who is guilty? How are victims and perpetrators made? What is the place for our searing rage, and what will we do to keep ourselves from being destroyed? Women Talking takes us into the deep, gut-wrenching turmoil of these questions as they circle and sit, as women hold space, and one another, through the unthinkable.

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