When I need to make some sense of the meanest, most tragic aspects of human nature, I turn to the Canadian writer Miriam Toews. Toews has written novels about loneliness and depression and suicide and devastating family secrets with nuance, demystifying the most taboo subjects with both empathy for her characters and compassion for her readers.
Her latest book, Women Talking, is a tour de force about morality and female rage in the face of religious fundamentalism. Based on real-life events, the novel explores the aftermath of sustained abuse in a Bolivian Mennonite colony called Molotschna. For years, women and girls of all ages in Molotschna would wake up tired and sore, bleeding and scared, not knowing what had happened to them. Church elders blamed their discomforts on their “wild female imaginations.” It was later revealed that eight men in the close-knit colony had used animal sedatives to knock out the women and rape them repeatedly in the middle of the night. Eventually the men were convicted in Bolivian court, but rumors out of the colonies indicate that the rapes are still continuing.
Women Talking takes place after the men have been imprisoned, and gives the girls and women of Molotschna their own voices, imagining how they can even begin to cope with such betrayal. Women from two of the colony’s families meet secretly in a hayloft to decide what they should do — whether to stay and fight (the members of their colony consider themselves to be pacifists, and the women are supposed to be submissive) or to leave the colony altogether (they have no maps, they are functionally illiterate, and they only speak Plautdietsch, a Low German language spoken by Mennonites). The women are spiritually, emotionally, and quite literally lost. An educated man named August Epp, formerly excommunicated from the colony and now returned but in poor standing in the community, is invited into the space to take the minutes of their meeting, and it’s through his narrative over the course of two days of talks that we learn and become captivated by the women’s stories.
Although Women Talking is a departure from the usual fictional format — more philosophical debate in the face of ultimate betrayal than a traditional narrative — Toews’ main project is to process the ugliest moments of life through fiction, a skill that she’s honed throughout her career.
Raised as a Mennonite herself in the Manitoban town of Steinbach, Toews, 54, now lives in Toronto and has let her faith lapse, but her writing reflects how much she continuously grapples with her past. “My hometown is a tourist attraction,” she tells me over the phone in March, even though the citizens of Steinbach drive cars rather than horses and buggies. “It’s an oddity to see these people living the way that they do. They’re human beings, but it’s easier to think of them as this simple, God-fearing community, pacifists who shun modern technology. I get the appeal. But there’s a dark side.“
In Canada, one of Toews’ most well-known books is A Complicated Kindness, a seemingly autobiographical novel published in 2004, in which she offers a primer on Mennonite ways through her enormously appealing 16-year-old protagonist, Nomi. Nomi, too, is uncomfortable with being the main attraction for gawking tourists or, as her elder sister says, being put “on display as backward Jesus freaks.”
As a stand-in for the author, Nomi has an acidic wit and a keen eye for calling out hypocrisy. She sets the scene perfectly in the beginning of the book: “Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewelry, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over.”
Nomi is aware of the insularity of her community and how even the most typical forms of teenage rebellion feel transgressive. “But that’s the thing about this town — there’s no room for in between,” Nomi thinks. “You’re in or you’re out. You’re good or you’re bad. Actually, very good or very bad. Or very good at being very bad without being detected.” Only on my second reading of A Complicated Kindness did I find an offhanded mention of a neighbor’s child who lives in the Bolivian colony, with the implication that the stifling world of Toews’ plucky teenage protagonist was nothing compared to the provinciality of the colonies.
Nomi’s mother and older sister have run off, leaving her to deal with her bereft father, trying to take care of both him and herself. If Nomi portrays the rest of her family with more compassion than an angry teenager might, then A Complicated Kindness is a prototypical Miriam Toews novel. So much of Toews’ work features her actual family in various forms: We meet versions of her mother, father, and older sister over and over again in her novels, and she’s forgiving and admiring of all three even as they suffer under the weight of their religion. Toews’ father, Mel, was a charismatic teacher who’d dealt with bipolar disorder his entire life before ultimately killing himself. Her sister would also kill herself a decade later.
In a stunning work of imagination that is categorized as a memoir but lives somewhere in the murky realm between reality and fiction, Toews writes in her father’s voice about his own life and experiences in her 2000 book, Swing Low. “Is depression in part a result of not feeling at home in this world, and blaming yourself for it?,” asks Mel, struggling with being an active, observant member of his community. It’s an act of generosity on Toews’ part to imagine her father’s point of view and revisit his casual cruelties and to forgive them, and to honor him, and to attempt to understand the world through his eyes. In the book’s prologue, Toews writes, ”he found a way to alleviate his pain and so have I.”
The death of Toews’ sister Marj in 2010 is the focus of her 2014 novel All My Puny Sorrows, in which one single heart-wrenching line captures the central conflict: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” The problem of suicidal depression is often unsolvable, and yet once again Toews’ writing provides comfort. Her jokes are wry and plentiful, and she allows for glimpses of future happiness to shine through in the dark. Her love for her sister lights our way through the novel.
In the fallout of grief and survivor’s guilt, much of it stemming from the oppressive fundamentalist religion she grew up in, Toews still sees the good in parts of her upbringing. It’s evident that she respects how much her mother, Elvira, continues to find comfort in being a Mennonite. “She’s useful in many ways when it comes to my writing and specifically this book,” says Toews. “She’s very much connected to the religious Mennonite community. She is a member of a very liberal, very nurturing Mennonite church.”
Toews looked to her mother for guidance of all kinds when she began writing her latest novel, Women Talking. “She knows a lot of the history of Mennonites. She gave me a few very specific details like what the women in the colonies would be wearing, for instance. The specific type of dress and the panel in the front of the dress to hide and erase any hint of breasts.” Elvira was a social worker and a therapist in their hometown, and although her work is strictly confidential, Toews tells me her mother “heard a lot of stories from women who migrated from some of the colonies in Central America,” and heard even more about the goings-on in the colonies through what Toews laughingly refers to as “the Mennonite grapevine.”
“I have so much support from my family,” Toews says when I ask her how she took care of herself while writing such a dark book. “I make sure that I connect with them and remind myself of how lucky I am to have the life I have. But I think about these women all the time. During the actual writing it was necessary to keep their pain, that particular agony, inside of me while I was writing. So the writing itself was more difficult than any other writing I’ve ever done.”
In Swing Low, Toews writes a lovely line in which her father describes Elvira: “Her faith in a loving and forgiving God is strong, but she worships laughter.” Humor is a touchstone in Toews’ work, a way to mitigate darkness and crises of faith, a balm even in the world of Women Talking. Even as they deal with PTSD and ponder the enormity of the evil that has been done to them, the women are still sharp, laughing hysterically at silly jokes and revealing insuppressible wit in their conversations. A recent New Yorker profile of Toews by Alexandra Schwartz focuses on the Plautdietsch term “schputting,” meaning “irreverence directed at serious or sacred things.” Schwartz writes, “In conversation, as in art, Toews is a schputter; she likes to puncture anything that has a whiff of pretension or self-importance about it.”
Humor helps alleviate some of the pain in Women Talking, and Toews’ decision to use August Epp as the narrator helps provide some emotional distance in a situation in which a first-person point of view would be too claustrophobic, too near to the trauma. Toews doesn’t want to reenact the crimes in Women Talking so much as document their fallout. So we listen in on the women’s conversations along with August and process their grief with him. When one character, Salome, asserts that the entire colony of Molotschna is built on the patriarchy, it is goofy, sweet August who puts the word “patriarchy” in her mouth, at least in the meeting minutes. The women may not have the vocabulary to express such a concept, but they know it in their gut. “As they talk and clarify and circle around and around,” Toews tells me, “they’re understanding themselves in relation to the Bible, to the Scripture, to the men. They’re beginning, and realizing the role they’ve been kept in — with no agency, no voice — and how that might have come to affect these crimes.”
The women must try to reconcile their fierce devotion to God with their disgust for the elders who run the colony. “They are beginning to understand, but within the context of their faith,” reiterates Toews, “which was a really important piece for me when I was writing. That they would examine this because they want to keep their faith, but at the same time they want to protect themselves and their children.” They have entire lifetimes of indoctrination to undo, but they don’t want to turn their backs on their religion, a friction Toews well understands. Even now, says Toews, “I hear so many Mennonite women saying, ‘It’s in the Bible — wives submit to your husbands, and children submit to your fathers.’ They wouldn’t necessarily say that the Bible condones patriarchy, but they actually are saying that. They’re absorbing it. But they’re also beginning to put words to their gut feelings. I wouldn’t call it being radicalized, that’s for sure — but there’s that tingly feeling of coming to understand.”
“Gaslight” is a term the women don’t know either, but it’s the one that comes to mind when the elders in the colony suggest that repeated rapes and abuse might have been nothing more than “their wild female imaginations.” “It’s very easy to buy into it when your survival is at stake,” says Toews. “It’s Stockholm syndrome. If every time you think or say ‘Hey, you know, I think something happened to me’ you’re laughed at or mocked or silenced or not believed, or even punished or blamed and shamed, then the tendency would be to stop talking about it and to say, ‘I guess I’m just imagining it. I don’t have to confront this.’ You know from experience that there’s no recourse. That groupthink and the silencing, especially in the colonies, when everyone kind of knows but doesn’t really, when you’re even suppressing your thoughts, your memories. What are you being forced to reduce yourself to when even your thoughts are policed?” The dialogue Toews creates in the book allows the women to experience a kind of freedom, and to imagine what further emancipation could feel like.
Toews says that Mennonites all over the world were horrified when they heard the news of the crimes in the colonies. Still, Toews says, “I think there was and continues to be a concerted effort to keep quiet about it, to sweep it under the carpet, to deny the fact that it happened and that it was serious, or that it was exceptional. There were people saying, ‘These types of things happen in every kind of society’ without looking at the culture of the remote colonies — the male entitlement and the submissive roles of women.”
The fates of the real-life women who inspired Women Talking are unclear. “There are rumors that these types of rapes are still occurring,” Toews tells me. “When I’m doing readings Mennonites will come and give me updates, and there’s always news coming from these places. From what I understand, the men are still in prison. Some people say that the colonists themselves are paying the Bolivian justice system to keep them in prison as a way to show, ‘Okay, they’re gone. Problem’s over. Leave us alone.’ But it’s difficult to know exactly what’s happening.”
Toews is encouraged by the Mennonites who are talking about it. “Many are attempting to at least think about it and acknowledge it. There are Mennonite men who are engaged in a type of soul-searching and needing to know why this happened.” The individual responses of some members of the church are inspiring: “I know a woman who organized a kind of prayer group for women from all different kinds of Mennonite churches. It’s a beautiful thing — it brings women together to talk about it. The efficacy of prayer is up for debate, but just the fact that they were coming together collectively to do something was wonderful.”
Toews began work on Women Talking well before the #MeToo movement caught on in a global way, but she is imbued with the hope that the women of Molotschna and anyone so ill-treated and dehumanized can find peace in community.
“That people are thinking of the book within the context of #MeToo is good,” says Toews. “If there’s something that can be taken from the book to generate discussion around it, then I’m happy. It’s just a book, just one of so many about rape and the patriarchy. But it’s good if it can be a part of the conversation.”
One of the characters in Women Talking, Salome, attacks one of the accused rapists with a scythe after finding out that her 3-year-old daughter contracted a sexually transmitted infection and was denied medical treatment by the bishop of Molotschna. It’s this, and Toews’ description of Salome through August’s eyes, that makes me think of Lorena Bobbitt, the ’90s tabloid fixture who was abused by her husband for years and became infamous for cutting off his penis in 1993. “Her rage is barely suppressed, vesuvian. Her eyes are never still. Even if, one day, she runs out of words like a woman is said to run out of ‘eggs,’ I believe that Salome will be able to communicate and to give life, fearsome life, to every emotion stemming from each injustice she perceives.”
“I think we could all relate to the desperation of it,” Toews tells me of Bobbitt. “You could say, ‘Shy didn’t she just leave him? Why don’t women just leave rather than resort to this type of violence? But that’s often far less of a possibility than being violent. You know you’ve had enough and you erupt. There’s nowhere to go and there’s no way to get out of wherever it is you are.” Nowhere is this more clear than in a community like Molotschna in which religion dictates that women must be faithful to God and submissive to men.”
But Toews once again asserts that religion isn’t bad in and of itself, that faith itself is good, that being critical is better. Her writing is a coping mechanism and a plea for tolerance in the face of religious extremism. “I like the idea of August representing all men,” Toews says of the novel’s narrator. “He can record, but the women will do the talking and the planning and the acting. He can sit and he can listen and he can learn.” ●
Maris Kreizman’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Times, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Esquire, GQ, Out magazine, and more.