A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
"Brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder."Ann Lamott, author of Imperfect Birds
"I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone." This is what Terry Tempest Williams's mother, the matriarch of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah, told her a week before she died. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as it was to discover that the three shelves of journals were all blank. In fifty-four short chapters, Williams recounts memories of her mother, ponders her own faith, and contemplates the notion of absence and presence art and in our world.
When Women Were Birds is a carefully crafted kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question: What does it mean to have a voice?
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When Women Were BirdsFifty-four Variations on Voice
By Terry Tempest Williams
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Terry Tempest Williams
All right reserved.
WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS (Chapter 1)
I AM FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OLD, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother's tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in thesame way she was living, consciously.
"I am leaving you all my journals," she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. "But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone."
I gave her my word. And then she told me where theywere. I didn't know my mother kept journals.
A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.
On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth--shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother's journals were blank.
WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS Copyright 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams
Excerpted from When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams Copyright © 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
Terry Tempest Williams's unconventional, beloved memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place paid homage to Williams's mother, who developed cancer as a result of nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. Her mother told her, "I am leaving you all my journals. But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone." Williams easily found the three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound diaries, but she soon discovered that all the books were blank. A stirring meditation on the messages conveyed in those seemingly empty pages, When Women Were Birds explores the shaping of a life through fifty-four precisely honed chapters, each with its own unique wisdom. Through evocative scenes, captured in lyrical words, Williams has created a work that startles and illuminates.
The discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading group's experience of When Women Were Birds. We hope they will enrich your journey.
1. Terry Tempest Williams describes the gifts of her relationships with her mother, Diane, and grandmother Mimi. What legacies have been passed to you by the women in your family?
2. Discuss the beauty and symbolism of birds, including the various birds described in the book, from the owl to the falcon to the thrush and the bunting. What would your life look like if you could "fly"? What songs would you sing at dawn and dusk?
3. When Women Were Birds explores the power of silence and emptiness, with analogies that include John Cage's music and Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings. How did you interpret Diane's blank journals? What does your interpretation say about you? Which of Williams's many interpretations resonates with you the most?
4. In chapter 31, Williams reveals that a man named Joseph terrorized her when she was a teaching assistant in the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho. How would you answer the questions she poses in that chapter: What are the consequences when we go against our instincts? What are the consequences of not speaking out? What are the consequences of guilt, shame, and doubt?
5. The owners of the Jeffs school forbade Williams to practice environmentalism or teach biology. How did Williams develop the courage to become an activist, despite so many restrictions on her freedom early in her career? What factors lead to engagement, personal as well as political?
6. Discuss the landscapes that Williams calls home. What are the patterns that connect throughout the book regarding our relationship toward place? What different meanings do Utah and New York have for her? The desert and the sea? How does home contribute to voice?
7. What role does the Mormon church play in Williams's life? How is her depiction of the LDS religion and its influence different from others you've seen?
8. How is Williams transformed by her night in jail (chapter 41)? What common threads run through the factors she lists: suspended license, no money for the fine, thinking she can cope with being locked up for just one night, believing that she deserves to be punished? Imprisonment and freedom are parallel themes within When Women Were Birds. Where else does this imagery emerge?
9. Shadow and light loom large in When Women Were Birds. Williams also appreciates the Japanese greeting "How is your honorable shadow?" and recounts Strauss's opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow). How do these echoes of identity and psychological inquiry come to life in the book?
10. How does Williams's relationship with her father compare to your own relationship with your dad? What did her father teach her about men?
11. What does the book say about the experience of solitude versus being in partnership? How would you describe Terry and Brooke's marriage? What levels of self-awareness does Williams receive from Brooke and Louis? How does her definition of love develop throughout her lifetime?
12. How was your reading affected by the book's form and design, with passages enough to carry you through a year and chapters that bear unique, variable patterns? What do these precise pieces create as a whole?
13. In chapter 54 (both versions of it, LIV and LIV[E]), Williams must face the uncertainty (of mysteries) of mortality, but she acknowledges the empty page that accompanies the start of each new day. What inspiration do you take from these scenes? How can the book help readers reclaim a voice?
14. What is the relationship between voice and silence? What do you think Williams meant when she said, "If only my mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter"?
15. Discuss this book's relationship to Williams's previous books that you have read, particularly Refuge. In what ways might this book be its sequel? How has Williams's voice changed throughout the years? How do you see your own voice evolving? Collectively, what freedoms do Terry Tempest Williams's writings provide?
Reading group guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.