When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice

Sarah Crichton Books

The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates

Terry Tempest Williams’s 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’s 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 fifty-four 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?”



Read an Excerpt


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 the same 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




  • 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.



Praise for When Women Were Birds

“The writing of Terry Tempest Williams is brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder. She’s one of those writers who changes peoples’ 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

“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

In the Press

Author Terry Tempest Williams considers the riddle of women's silence | The Salt Lake Tribune
CONTENT=Terry Tempest Williams is the kind of reader who writes "Yes!" in the margins of her favorite books.
- Salt Lake Tribune
Book Review: 'When Women Were Birds' by Terry Tempest Williams | Health, Beauty, Fashion, Love, Careers and more - MORE Magazine
A story about the diarist as published in the April 2012 issue
- More
'When Women Were Birds' review: Exploring the mystery of mother's 'paper tombstones' | OregonLive.com
One month after her mother died, missing her voice terribly, Williams found three shelves filled with journals in her family home: "I opened the first journal. It was empty.
- The Oregonian
'When Women Were Birds' by Terry Tempest Williams - Boston.com
Terry Tempest Williams's new memoir begins with this stark, bleached declaration: "I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died." The mother had bequeathed to the daughter
- Boston Globe
Terry Tempest Williams - When Women Were Birds - Oprah.com
How a mother's bequest taught her daughter to think differently about writing.
- Oprah.com
Terry Tempest Williams Talks About Her New Book, 'When Women Were Birds' - The Daily Beast
Utah author Terry Tempest Williams talks to Susan Salter Reynolds about her Mormon childhood, the power of memory, and her reaction to a life-threatening illness.
- Daily Beast
When women were birds: Reading blank journals - Nonfiction - Salon.com
A writer makes sense of the rows of empty cloth-bound diaries her mother left her
- Salon

Reviews from Goodreads



  • 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.




Download PDF



Go to website


Sign Up


Available Formats and Book Details

When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice

PEN Center USA Literary Award Finalist