When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

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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 ...

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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

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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?”


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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone." What author Terry Tempest Williams (Crossing to Safety; Refuge) found in those three bookshelves of beautifully-bound journals would dramatically reshape her own life. When Women Were Birds unfolds its inspiriting lessons in fifty-four self-contained chapters.

Sallye Leventhal

Publishers Weekly
Williams, the sensitive author of Refuge, 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’s 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. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
An elegiac exploration of nature, creativity and Mormon female family relationships. After her mother's death from cancer, Williams (Finding Beauty in a Broken World, 2008, etc.) 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 ("People like Wangari don't die, that's how irretractable and resilient she was to me"); 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.
From the Publisher
"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


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374288976
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/10/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 608,837
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 7.71 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Refuge, Leap, An Unspoken Hunger, The Open Space of Democracy, and, most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. The recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Fellowship in creative nonfiction, she divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.

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Read an Excerpt

When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice
By Terry Tempest Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Terry Tempest Williams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374288976


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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2013

    Be sure you have a copy of your own!

    This book is so wonderful. I took a looooooong time to read it because it was so thought-provoking and exquisitely written. You can leave it on your nightstand to read and savor when you have time. And, mark it up (mine is peppered with post-its and lightly penciled notes)! In sharing her story, Terry Tempest Williams invites one to think on a deeper level and to quietly examine one's own life journey as well as that of the natural world. I will keep this book forever. I have not loaned my copy to anyone, instead I have purchased it for friends to experience themselves.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2012

    Haunting and beautifully written.

    I took this book to the beach with me and was mesmerized by the beautiful versing and how well woven the threads are that hold this book together. Terry Tempest Williams is a very insightful writer. I recommend this book to any woman seeking to find her voice and let it be heard.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2012

    If you are a fan of Terry Tempest Williams, this book provides more insight into her life.

    A short book but full of poignant insight into the Clan of One Breasted Women. Even more than that, a glimpse of educated, indepentant Morman women strugling to remain true to their faith, their families and most importantly to themselves.
    Surprises start from the begining and make your heart ache along with Terry's longing to understand a mother who cannot answer.
    A Teton Valley, Idaho fan

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 21, 2013

    I could't get into it...I 'm sorry I can not recommend it

    it was highly recommended by people I respect and I attempted to return to it 3 times.Whatever I read, was nicely written,I found the protagonist story (I assume it was autobiographical), uninteresting,mildly insightful and the journey itself,as well as the narrative didn't hold my interest.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    Worse Book Ever Read

    I could not even finish this book. I am an avid reader and found the book to be horrible.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    Worth your time

    I enjoyed the musings, even the commentaries. I learned quite a bit. The musings gave me much food for thought. I anticipate great discussion at book club.

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  • Posted May 31, 2012

    Great writing, sharing it with my sister

    I'm glad I ordered it. Got both hard copy and e-book. Good premis and well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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