When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice


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?


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. 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 promise me that you




  • 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

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

“This poetic memoir continues the work Williams began in Refuge....Williams explores her mother’s identity—woman, wife, mother, and Mormon—as she continues to honor her memory....A lyrical and elliptical meditation on women, nature, family, and history.”—The Boston Globe

"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

“A beautiful, powerful, important book….Nothing I’ve ever read has done this to me. Is this what religious people feel when they pray, I wonder? ...Terry Tempest Williams has written something that has revealed me and affirmed me and changed me. In sharing her voice, she has summoned mine.” —Rebecca Joines Schinsky, Book Riot

"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

"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


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.




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When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice

PEN Center USA Literary Award Finalist