Book Review: Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2019)

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

A horrifying, based-on-a-true-story addition to the growing body of #MeToo literature.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against girls, women, and children, including rape.)

We won’t have to leave the people we love? says Neitje. Greta points out that the women could bring loved ones with them. Others question the practicality of this, and Ona mentions, gently, that several of the people we love are people we also fear.

Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not harm another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year-old child.

Mariche can contain herself no longer. She accuses Ona of being a dreamer. We are women without a voice, Ona states calmly. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams— so of course we are dreamers.

Between 2005 and 2009, a group of nine men raped hundreds of women, girls, and children in an isolated Bolivian Mennonite settlement called Manitoba Colony. In many cases, the men – fellow believers and members of the community – were related to the victims, who were their sisters, cousins, aunts, nieces, etc. Using belladonna procured from a veterinarian in a neighboring Mennonite colony, the men blew the sedative through doors and windows, incapacitating entire households, and then spent the night assaulting their victims, alone or in groups. Victims would wake up sore and bruised, sometimes with dirt, blood, and semen staining their sheets, or with grass in their hair. Many of the victims had no memory of the assault, while others recalled the night’s events in fragments and flashes.

Though many of the women and children were reluctant to recount their experiences (the children, especially, lacked words with which to describe what had been done to them), the sisters – Mennonites refer to all members of the community as “sisters” and “brothers” – began to whisper amongst themselves. Word spread, as it always does. The leaders of Manitoba Colony – men, them all – dismissed the women’s experiences as “wild female imagination,” or punishment wrought down by God or Satan for unnamed sins. The perpetrators were given otherworldly origins: they were demons and ghosts, whose manifestations for which the women were ultimately responsible. Or the women were simply lying, either to cover up adultery or for attention.

The rape ring was finally uncovered when two men were caught trying to break into a neighbor’s home in June of 2009. They gave up a few of their friends, and so on, until nine men – between the ages of 19 and 43 – were implicated. The trial took place in 2011; the rapists were sentenced to 25 years apiece, while the veterinarian who supplied the drug got 12 years. Officially, 130 victims were identified during the trial, but the number is likely much higher. The case shone a light on domestic violence and sexual assault in conservative, insulated Mennonite colonies. Indeed, in a follow-up visit to Manitoba Colony for Vice in 2013, journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky discovered evidence that the mass rapes are still happening. (Google “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia” to see the report, as well as a two-part documentary available on YouTube.)

The fact that the case even went to trial is remarkable in itself. While Mennonites, like all religious groups, have various factions and adherents ranging from liberal to more conservative, the Manitoba Colony is on the extreme end of the spectrum. Mennonites have their origins in 16th century Netherlands; due to religious persecution, its converts spread around the globe over the intervening centuries. Named after the Canadian province they fled in the early 1900s, the Manitoba Colony eventually settled in Bolivia thanks to an agreement with the country, that they would be largely autonomous and free to govern themselves. In terms of law enforcement, except in cases of murder, the Manitobans are free to handle crime as they see fit.

Manitoba leadership only turned the rapists over to the Bolivian government for their own safety: they were afraid that, if the men remained in the colony, they would be killed by the victims’ male relatives. With no police force or judicial system, local ministers “investigate” and mete out punishment for wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, crimes of this nature largely go unpunished and tend to reoccur.

Enter Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, which the author somewhat cheekily describes as “both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.” (Burn.) In this reimagining of events, the rapists were indeed turned over to the Bolivian government (in this case, it was because of Salome with a scythe, vs. men with pitchforks, which I love). However, the colony’s remaining men, having had a change of heart, have traveled to the nearest city to post bail for their brothers. (This plot hole is my only issue with the story: why bring the accused back to await the trail date when they were sent away for their own safety? Is it because they recanted their confessions?)

The women have two days before they return, rapists in tow. Two days to decide what their response should be.

They have three options, as they see it:

1. Do nothing.
2. Stay and fight.
3. Leave.

And so eight women climb into a disused hay loft for a surreptitious meeting/debate. Eight women, and one man to record the minutes – because women, only schooled to the age of twelve, are not taught to read or write. Luckily, the man is sympathetic to their plight, and a bit of a rebel/outcast himself. A group of sisters who have already thrown their caps into the do-nothing camp? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong; Women Talking is not heavy on action. While I’d argue that it is suspenseful, the tension is understated: what will the women do to defend themselves, if anything?

There’s a lot of talking in this book: as another reviewer noted, it’s right there in the title. And probably this isn’t everybody’s thing. But I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. And, when it was over, I spent a few more hours reading about the case online. It’s horrifying, not just in the sheer scope of abuse, but in the bizarre stories used to explain it away. (Rape apologism on LSD.) Perhaps most horrifying is how completely the women were – are – trapped by circumstance, as becomes evident as the narrative unfolds.

Not only are the women illiterate (by design), thus unable to read a map; they have no idea where they live in relation to the outside world. Their colony is remote and they have only horses and buggies for travel. They speak only Low German in a Latin American country. Leaving is difficult, while fighting arguably goes against their pacifist beliefs. But staying and continuing to endure the abuse? Being forced under threat of excommunication to forgive their rapists? Unthinkable.

What is their duty to God? To the patriarchs of their colony? To their community? To their faith? To their children? To themselves?

As I devoured the book, I found myself wondering just how much of it is true, and what is merely artistic embellishment? As it turns out, most of the more outrageous details are fact. The youngest victim was a three-year-old toddler (though it’s unclear if she actually contracted an STD, as Miep did in the book). The women were denied counseling by the colony elders, on the reasoning that, if they were unconscious and unaware during the attacks, what harm could it have done? (In fact, Low German-speaking counselors volunteered to visit the colony and work with survivors, free of cost; colony leaders turned them away without so much as mentioning it to the women.) The women were “encouraged” to forgive their attackers; if they failed to do so, they received a personal visit from Bishop Neurdorf, “Manitoba’s highest authority.”

An especially appalling detail, not mentioned by Toews: Old Mennonite women are not allowed to testify (nor vote, hold office, etc.). At the trial, the victims’ male relatives had to offer testimony on their behalf. Women were not allowed to speak of the violence inflicted on them – not even at the trial of their oppressors.

So as bad as Women Talking is, I have to believe that the reality is so very much worse. Especially since the hayloft meeting – the most hopeful part of the book – is a flight of the female imagination, so to speak.

Also, Toews spent the first eighteen years of her life in a Mennonite community, so I’ve got to trust that she knows that of which she writes.

While it’s tempting to blame the mass rapes on the Mennonite religion – and, indeed, the patriarchal power structure, fear of outsiders, and physical and linguistic isolation of the colony certainly contributed to the sheer scope and longevity of the crimes – rape is … everywhere. As I write this review, a NYT piece just broke a scandal involving the systemic rape of nuns by priests, who then forced their victims to abort the resulting pregnancies (just proving that their opposition to abortion is less about babies and more about power over and control of female bodies). There’s even a great moment when Mejal “not all men”s the proceedings – to which Ona replies: “Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

Anywhere that women (or girls, or boys, or LGBTQ people, or the disabled, or POC, etc.) are dehumanized, objectified, and othered; anywhere that one group is given total or near-total power over others; anywhere there is inequality and certain segments of the population are marginalized, discriminated against, and disbelieved, there will be rape. Whether it’s an isolated Mennonite colony in eastern Bolivia, or a college dorm room in Columbus, Ohio. In the office of a powerful Hollywood producer or the Oval Office.

The question becomes, what are we – you and I – going to do about it?

There’s nowhere to flee, and “nothing” has been the status quo for far too long.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)