Witness to Atrocity: On Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”

By Ryan ColemanDecember 22, 2022

Witness to Atrocity: On Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”
IN A SECTION of memoir in her 1997 book Life and Death, Andrea Dworkin writes that “[l]iterature is always simpler and easier than life, especially in conveying atrocity.” In the most practical sense, this is true. How can crimes of unimaginable scope, duration, and brutality be imagined except by shrinking them down to manageable, tangible size via storytelling? It is perhaps an easy thing for a writer like Dworkin to say, given her virtually unparalleled clarity, force, and righteousness among 20th-century prose writers, especially on the subject of mass violence. But does the fact that atrocity must be recreated or represented in order to understand it, castigate it, educate about it, break paths of justice away from it, and so on, really mean that it is in any way “easy” to represent? Or is it simply that we don’t have a better way of getting to that processing stage? Even Dworkin shied away from recreating atrocity in her work, preferring to barrel through hastily erected representations of it in order to spur her readers into political action. This hastiness testifies to Dworkin’s pureness of heart, but it also speaks volumes to the true elusiveness and difficulty of looking at atrocity head-on.

Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel Women Talking takes on the same issues that Dworkin bravely confronted in her work, namely the plague of misogyny and its most crudely literal weapon, rape. But rather than proceed through the work of representing these atrocities in order to envision solutions, Toews lingers on the process, allowing a series of extremely tough questions to develop, like pearls in an oyster: How can unimaginable mass crimes be imagined, if they can be imagined at all? What happens to those who witness whatever form that imagination takes? What share of responsibility does the author take in what happens next? Sarah Polley’s cinematic adaptation of Women Talking asks somewhat defanged (you could say “simpler and easier”) versions of these questions, but, as a result, she yields more provocative answers. In her meta-examination of this imagining of the unimaginable, Polley gives a great gift to contemporary feminist consciousness and to the field of witnessing and testimony. But she leaves her audience in a precarious position, one not easily resolved by whatever entertainment, inspiration, or outrage her film inspires.

Women Talking imagines the immediate aftermath of the real-life revelations that shook a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2009. Five years of constant, unexplained “nocturnal attacks,” experienced by over 100 women in the colony, were at last identified as the work of nine men — the women’s husbands, brothers, neighbors, and friends — breaking into their homes at night, sedating them with a belladonna-derived animal tranquilizer, and raping them. After the furor of scandal breached the walls of the isolated colony and began to spill over to neighboring Santa Cruz, the rapists were handed over to Bolivian police — for the men’s own safety. “[T]hey will be lynched,” the husband of one of the victims told Time’s Jean Friedman-Rudovsky in a pretrial report. Toews’s novel picks up in the imagined space of two panicked days, between which the men are carted off and, bail having been posted, will return. Alone for the first time in many of their lives, the women take a vote to determine how they will react: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. With the vote evenly split between leaving and staying, eight women from two prominent families meet in a hayloft to deliberate.

The experience of reading Women Talking is grueling. Beyond the subject matter, the form that Toews chooses to tell this story is ponderous and opaque. At first glance, the structure is simple. Eight women from the colony, called Manitoba in reality and Molotschna in Toews’s fictionalization, speak for two days in a hayloft. They take breaks to eat, rest, pray, sing, comfort each other, and tend to their children, but the pressure is on to make the scariest and most consequential decision of their lives, and by virtue of how little time they have, the conversation that ensues is dense, rapid-fire, and relentless. The women have invited August Epp (Ben Whishaw in the film), the boys’ kindly schoolteacher, to take the minutes of their meeting. Because women in this community are not taught to read or write, they must concede to at least one male interloper; thus, the novel is narrated and the women’s testimonials are transcribed by August.

Although the conceit is simple, the alternating frustration, exhilaration, tedium, sharp intellectual stimulation, moral turgor, and profound vexation induced in the reader testify to a much deeper structure at work. But unlike Toews, who resolutely denies the reader any reprieve from the crushing discursive force of her story, Polley strings up various sources of relief and diversion to keep her audience engaged, be it an appropriately mournful, Academy Awardsy score or the frothy star turns of the buzzier members of the cast, Jessie Buckley (Mariche Loewen) and Claire Foy (Salome Friesen).

Although Polley’s film compromises in several small but key ways on the force and ingenuity of Toews’s novel, her Women Talking is still a punishing experience. Watching Women Talking can feel like being suspended in the amniotic oblivion of a deprivation tank — the conversation swirling around you, stunning you with provocative idea after idea, each retreating as soon as you grasp for it. Though the questions its characters ask are challenging and provocative, they are often so big as to feel impenetrable — or, worse, meaningless — speeding at such a velocity as to feel imperceptible.

Questions like Ona Friesen’s (Rooney Mara) “Surely there must be something to live for in this life and not only the next?” and, again, Ona’s “Is forgiveness that’s forced upon us true forgiveness?” are compelling no matter your background, but they’re especially interesting given the eschatological fervor of the Anabaptist faith and women’s rigidly enforced subservience within the Mennonite community. Questions like these are worth dwelling on, but Women Talking hardly lets you. As soon as Ona proposes writing a manifesto of sorts, detailing their hopes for a self-sufficient women’s community, Mariche castigates her as a “dreamer,” and the subject is dropped. Whenever the elder Greta (the magnificent Sheila McCarthy) interjects into the caustic conversation with an anecdote about her horses, the women grumble that she’s taking them off course. In the unfolding of an anecdote about steadying the horses by fixing her eyes on the horizon, Greta momentarily coheres the disjointed shambles of the conversation into a helpful heuristic — only to be shattered again by the interruption of a needy child or a sudden swelling into hymn. En route to the terminal station of decision, the conversation gets derailed, rerouted, submerged into aphorism and allegory, abstracted by repetition, and split through the prism of misinterpretation.

“We are wasting our time by passing this burden, this sack of stones, from one to the next, by pushing our pain away,” Greta says to end one of the frequent bouts of bickering. It is a great analogy for the painfully fixed witness position Women Talking locks you into: watching helplessly as eight perfectly capable individuals, whose thinking has been hyper-clarified due to the extraordinary demands made upon them, struggle to keep their conversation focused on the present and pressing, as a flood of unconscious need and intense psychic pain rages around them, threatening to swallow them whole.


Still from Sarah Polley’s Women Talking.

In her preface to the novel, Miriam Toews writes that “Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.” It certainly took imagination to end the story with all the women agreeing to leave the colony — depicted with a breathless, almost saccharine sense of profundity in Polley’s film — when, in real life, they all stayed. Even after eight of the nine rapists were given lengthy prison sentences, women in the colony continued to report being raped. In truth, the purest, most profound act of female imagination wasn’t the creation of the book or the film but, rather, what the characters desperately try and fail to create within the text itself.

Women Talking can most powerfully be read as a parable of the impossibility of conceiving atrocity. “We are women without a voice,” Ona says in the book in response to being called a dreamer:

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.

It is hard enough to reconstruct the details of a direct act of violence when it is visited upon you in a conscious state — the physical pain, the shock of violation, the incredulity that your invisible yet sanctified bubble of invulnerability could burst so easily. It takes days, weeks, and months to heal the literal wounds, and then there are the emotional and psychological ones. Especially in the case of rape, the assailant is overwhelmingly someone the victim knows. It recalls one of the most plaintive, heartbreaking cries in cinema, Mia Farrow’s “This is no dream! This is really happening!” in Rosemary’s Baby. It is to suddenly and brutally be confronted with the fact that love is not, in fact, boundless and invulnerable. Worse, that love can be fashioned into a mask concealing hateful antipathy and resentment. Worst of all: That love can persevere through violation. Or, put more directly, that you may not be able to bring yourself to hate the person who raped you.

This agonizing journey from safety to terror was even worse for the real-life women of the Manitoba colony. Their attackers were their most immediate kin, and, by virtue of everyone in the colony sharing some basic blood relation, there is no one else. The women have no third party — no social workers to consult, hotlines to call, or impartial witnesses to help process the raw and broken script of trauma. Even if they found a sympathetic outsider, they wouldn’t be able to speak to them without a male interpreter. The women of the Manitoba colony aren’t taught Spanish, but only Plautdietsch, a dialect of Low German shaped by Dutch that has been the native tongue of the Mennonite diaspora for hundreds of years. The rapists also always struck at night, only after sedating the women into the deepest state of unconsciousness. On a basic cognitive level, how do you process a series of traumatic events that you have no memory of? In her reporting, Friedman-Rudovsky notes that colony leadership had an answer to that question: there’s no need to. She writes that “some of Manitoba Colony’s male leaders have suggested that because the women were usually sedated during the rapes, they have no psychological wounds.”

Beyond the cognitive, cultural, and linguistic barriers, the scale and duration of this atrocity are, on an epistemological level, virtually inconceivable. Women and girls as young as three and as old as 60 were raped continually, as frequently as every night for weeks, for almost five years. Analogy and metaphor fail to articulate the experience of confronting this enormity. Even words fail.

How incredible, then, if one were to read Toews’s book and Polley’s film as attempts to conceive this inconceivability, that the author and director chose to do so with only words. Both Toews and Polley afford the reader and the viewer only as much clarity as the women can afford each other through strained conversation. Then it is only natural that the form this conversation assumes is so unwieldy, elliptical, and ultimately unsuccessful, and that their failure to answer their own questions constitutes the success of the book, and, to a lesser degree, the film. The arguing, cutting each other off, building off each other’s points but in divergent directions, being called to order, sundering into aphorism, and surrendering to emotion when they should be making a simple decision — stay or leave — is itself the primary work of Women Talking, not the making of a decision or the answering of any of the questions raised. All of this is what it takes to put a face and a name to atrocity, and it was never going to be enough.

It is clear from the women’s conversation, with its constant erring from practical strategizing into painful and desperate processing, that their trauma demands to be remembered, and, in fact, understood. Yet the mountain of obstacles to attaining this understanding makes it equally evident that understanding may not be possible. Psychologist Dori Laub and literary critic Shoshana Felman explore this paradox in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, concluding from volumes of clinical research and observation of patients coping with significant trauma that “there can be ample record of historical events which caused trauma, but until a survivor tells someone else what happened to them, outlines the shape of the absence inside them, the trauma can’t be known.” Because of this, “the testimony to a trauma” not only “includes its hearer,” but also, “by extension, the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event.” Thus enters August.

Those who have read Women Talking will experience whiplash within the first few seconds of the film, when the narrator’s voice they hear is not August’s, as it is in Toews’s novel, but that of Autje (Kate Hallett), Mariche’s daughter and one of the two young girls present at the meetings. It is strange on its face that a book called Women Talking would not only be narrated but also mediated by a man. August chooses what we hear as well as how we hear it; remember, he’s also translating the women’s conversation from the highly aphoristic Plautdietsch into English, essentially midwifing it into legibility for the reader. Toews’s August frequently digresses in his narration, interspersing the minutes of the women’s meetings with his own internal pleas for Ona’s love, memories of the colony prior to the traumatic revelations, and, most crucially, admissions that so much of what the women say is difficult to directly convey.

Polley seems to have identified August as a last vestige of male control that, when shucked off, gives the viewers of her film full, unmediated access to the women’s powerful private community. But what she’s really done is misinterpreted a thematic commentary on and formal exploration of understanding atrocity itself as a barrier to understanding atrocity. Swapping him as narrator was presumably an effort to render the film more legibly “feminist,” to let the women talk for themselves, but it marks a massive reduction in the text’s complexity and a hobbling of the power of its conceit.

At the end of the story, when the women have decided to leave, Salome returns to the hayloft one last time, where August is mournfully ruminating. August tries to entrust the minutes of the meetings to her, “for Ona,” whom he has always loved. “But you know she can’t read them,” Salome says, handing them back. “Her child will read them,” he insists, and, for once, Salome softens. With an enigmatic smile on her face, Salome says, “No, August, the purpose was for you to take the minutes.” In the novel, she takes them (“Unless we have nothing else to start a fire,” she jokes), and in the film, August keeps them.

In both, however, the point is clear: the women did not seek in August a means of preserving history. They sought a witness, someone to watch as they created among themselves an impression of the crime that robbed them of sleep, sanity, and security, someone outside of their experience to look to when they began to doubt it. “He sees it too, it did happen,” they could say, just by looking at August. It’s an odd power balance, but it is balanced: August determines how we come to know the women, but they use August to know themselves.

Sarah Polley preserved this final moment in her film, but fundamentally altered the narrative scaffolding that Toews erected beneath it. This does not change the moment’s meaning, but it does have a profound effect on the other witnesses in the room — the viewers of the film. By eliminating the mediator through which the women can be known at all, essentially relegating him to the role of a 21st-century male ally, Polley erases the fact that the revelation of trauma itself is an act of messy translation. Where Polley’s film says, “This is what happened,” Toews shows you how the story of what happened is written. This small difference makes Toews’s novel, in comparison, the mysterious and precise account, acknowledging Laub’s contention that the witness to testimony is in a way its co-author. Though Polley follows Toews’s story closely and reproduces a tremendous amount of its power in her retelling, she ultimately makes herself her film’s only author. Though it yields less for her viewers, it ironically insulates the women even further from truly being known, which may be the most compassionate gesture one could make to them, however incidentally it was made.


Ryan Coleman is a writer from the San Gabriel Valley.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Coleman is a writer from the San Gabriel Valley.


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