When Women Were Birds Fifty-four Variations on Voice

Terry Tempest Williams




Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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Terry Tempest Williams' mother told her: "I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone."

Readers of Williams' iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.

"They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother's journals were blank."

What did Williams's mother mean by that? In 54 chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question "What does it mean to have a voice?"


Praise for When Women Were Birds

"Williams displays a Whitmanesque embrace of the world and its contradictions . . . As the pages accumulate, her voice grows in majesty and power until it becomes a full-fledged aria."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Williams is the kind of writer who makes a reader feel that [her] voice might also, one day, be heard . . . She cancels out isolation: Connections are woven as you sit in your chair reading—between you and the place you live, between you and other readers, you and the writer. Without knowing how it happened, your sense of home is deepened."—Susan Salter Reynolds, The Daily Beast

"Time, experience, and uncanny coincidence spiral through these pages . . . When Women Were Birds is an extraordinary echo chamber in which lessons about voice—passed along from mother, to daughter, and now to us—will reverberate differently in each inner ear."—The Seattle Times

"In some ways When Women Were Birds functions as a detective story, an attempt to solve a mystery, But it's also a realization that often there are no answers. there's only the present."—The Salt Lake Tribune

"A lyrical, timeless book that rewards quiet, attentive reading—a rare thing."—The Huffington Post

"The writing of Terry Tempest Williams is brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder. She's one of those writers who changes people's lives by encouraging attention and a slow, patient awakening."—Anne Lamott, author of Imperfect Birds

"Much more than a brave and luminous memoir, When Women Were Birds is a set of blueprints for building one of America's most impassioned and audacious writers, as well as a transcript of the moment when she stepped determinedly into the full power of her own voice. In Terry's magical equation, rage + confusion + grief + accountability = love. At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night."—Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

"Somehow, miraculously, Terry Tempest Williams has done it again: written a book that no one else could have, that tells the truth about our lives. If you want to understand how a writer finds her voice, read this gorgeous book."—Sue Halpern, author of Can't Remember What I Forgot

"When Women Were Birds is a wise and beautiful and intelligent book, written for the women, men, and children of our times. It vibrates with the earned honesty of a great soul. It is a gift, passed on to readers with the same spirit of love and generosity with which it was first given to the author by her mother. A remarkable journey, a remarkable story."—Rick Bass, author of The Wild Marsh and Winter: Notes from Montana
"Williams narrates stories that range wide and run deep . . . Here, readers get a Terry Tempest Williams who is at the top of her game, the master of her craft . . . a gift from a writer who knows how to split the world open."—Cheryl Strayed, Orion
"An elegiac exploration of nature, creativity and Mormon female family relationships. After her mother's death from cancer, Williams discovered that the journals she had left behind did not contain what she expected. This prompted the author to conduct a reflective search. In numbered sections of varying lengths, memories intersperse with mentions of the journals, whose 'harmony of silence' haunt her as a poetic refrain. Williams recalls her bird-watching grandmother, Mimi, her mother's originality, and events that would guide her toward becoming a writer and a naturalist. Declaring that 'Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives,' Williams considers the work of, among others, Gustave Courbet, Robert Walser, John Cage and Wangari Maathai; music and birdsong; poetry; creation myths; birth; personal accounts of marriage and work; and the importance of empowerment both as a woman and as a wildlife advocate. She draws intelligent connections between varied subjects, with emphasis on voice and silence and how the two richly inform one's inner life. Over the course of several decades, the ability 'to speak through our vulnerability with strength' became a hard-won realization. A graceful examination of how grief inspires a writer to merge private and public interests."—Kirkus Reviews
"Williams is shocked to discover her deceased mother's unwritten memoirs—shelves-worth of blank pages. Under such unpromising circumstances commences a kaleidoscopic celebration and palimpsest—all metaphorical clichés but apt—on finding a voice and woman's identity beyond the silenced, selfless existence informed by children and a husband—even a family brimming with love. The empty pages of a journal manifest a hermeneutics of suspicion: the white upon which to project a lifelong journey of self-discovery. In 54 meditations (one for each year of her mother's life, and of Williams' life to date), we learn about an unusual (patriarchal) Mormon background and an upbringing that included a season of homeschooling in Hawaii, encounters with a husband-and-wife team of John Birchers while teaching high school biology, a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the meeting of her future mate over a discussion of books and birds. Among deep influences are Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmentalist Wangari Maathai; Hélène Cixous; Clarice Lispector; the secret-women's language of China, Nüshu; and the soaring operas of Richard Strauss. 'If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently,' Williams declares in her bighearted, deliberative hymn: old themes newly warbled."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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....

Read the full excerpt



  • Terry Tempest Williams reads from When Women Were Birds

    Terry Tempest Williams reads the first chapter of When Women Were Birds

  • Terry Tempest Williams on Memory, Mormonism and Voice

    Laura Flanders interviews Terry Tempest Williams on GRITtv.

  • Terry Tempest Williams reads in Bellingham, WA

    Terry Tempest Williams reads from "When Women Were Birds" June 21, 2012 at ?Bellingham High School? in Bellingham, Washington. This presentation was sponsored by North Cascades Institute and Village Books as part of "The Nature of Writing" series and was attended by more than 400 people.



  • Terry Tempest Williams

  • Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Leap, An Unspoken Hunger, Refuge, and, most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. She divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.

  • Terry Tempest Williams © Marion Ettlinger
    Terry Tempest Williams




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