Back in January, I read Miriam Toews’s novel Women Talking about a series of sexual assaults in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia in 2009. I finished the novel in a single day, and the following evening I drove to a film institute in Philadelphia and watched the Oscar-nominated film.
The film is an extended conversation by conservative Mennonite women related to the topic of abuse.
I do not need to tell you that I wept in the back row of the theater.
This essay is my response.
First appeared on March 22, 2023, at ChristAndPopCulture.com.
At first glance (to a Mennonite), the film Women Talking is just another depressing media depiction of Mennonites as uneducated women who get raped. Representation matters, we are told (in university, or somewhere), but because conservative Mennonites rarely participate in public discourse, many times our stories are told by others. And there is a discomfort we feel when we notice that stories “about us” are being written, acted, and distributed by those who are not stakeholders. (The Hasidic Jewish community’s anxiety about Netflix’s Unorthodox? We get it.)
The film’s content is shock factor alone. Women Talking is based on a 2018 novel by Miriam Toews about actual events at a remote Russian Mennonite colony in Bolivia where, from 2005 to 2009, over one hundred women and children were mysteriously raped. Elders in the ultra-conservative Mennonite colony dismissed the acts as being committed by the devil or as “wild female imagination.” Victims awakened to blood, bruises, and headaches with no memory of the events, and it was discovered that community members were using an animal anesthetic to tranquilize victims before abusing them. In 2011, seven men from the community were sentenced to 25 years in prison by Bolivian courts on charges of rape.
Miriam Toews reconstructs this colony in her novel and imagines a conversation among the women (survivors of abuse), upon the realization that men from their own community had committed these acts. Several women (four from the Loewen family and four from the Friesen family) are selected to meet to discuss a plan of action while the men are away to post bail for the perpetrators. While the novel is based on actual events, the women meeting is Toews’s fiction. The women must decide if they will forgive the men and receive them back into the community. (And the stakes are high—they are told that this is the only way for them to go to heaven). Thus begins their multi-day theological, psychological, and emotional deliberations, as they consider three options: to do nothing, to stay and fight, or to leave.
Sarah Polley (who millennial evangelical audiences remember as the Canadian child actress from the Road to Avonlea series) created the screenplay, masterfully transposing the novel to film. She also directs the film, which features a star-studded ensemble cast and was nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Picture and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The conversation, in both the novel and the film, is recorded by August, a male schoolteacher elected to take minutes of the conversation. (In the remote, ultra-conservative community, the women have not been taught to read or write). August is deemed unthreatening by the women because he is in some ways on the margins of the community. He and his parents were excommunicated years ago and moved to England, where he attended university. After suffering a nervous breakdown, August returns to Bolivia and is instituted as schoolteacher (but not without much suspicion). He has an inability to participate in the respected economics of the colony—farming—and when August forgets himself and shares a few too many “facts,” some of the women remind him of his worthlessness to the community as a farmer. (This is one of the reasons why August is not invited along with the “real men” to town.) The community’s attitude toward education has meaning within the Old Colony Mennonite community and other conservative communities at large (especially in regards to sexual abuse).
Novelist Miriam Toews herself is of Russian Mennonite origin from Steinbach, Manitoba, and her parents participated in the Kleine Gemeinde denomination, a community she left when she was eighteen years old. She nevertheless references this Russian Mennonite culture of origin in some of her best-selling Canadian novels, and she remains one of the most well-known contemporary Canadian novelists of our time. (She also occupies a seat of prominence within Mennonite literature, a relatively small canon that is well-loved by those who know it.) Yet Toews describes herself as a secular Mennonite, and there is great distancing between her and, say, those veiled Mennonite women that sell you cheese at farmer’s markets. Indeed, conservative Mennonites (particularly American ones), if they have heard of her work at all, tend to dismiss her novels as something written by one of those “angry, ex-Mennonites.” (That is, her work is not widely read among those she writes about.)
Thus the anxiety about stories being told by outsiders. But I must say, Claire Foy and Michelle McLeod bring a believable physicality to their roles, carrying themselves like they could hoist a hay bale, and I am here for it. Indeed, Mennonites are amused to see the “Queen of England” wearing a cape dress and head veiling, yet the costuming department achieved commendable, authentic representations of Old Colony Mennonites, the least distracting Mennonite costuming I’ve ever seen. Moreover, Ben Whishaw, who plays the colony school teacher August, is ridiculously believable as a Russian Mennonite and absolutely nails the performance.
Peripheral aesthetics aside, there is, for Mennonite audiences, a palpable unease, as the community depicted in Women Talking seems extremist to conservative Anabaptists (like comparing the Westboro Baptist church to the SBC). [GR1] That is, the realities of conservative Mennonites on a broad scale are not reflected by the film, especially concerning literacy for women. (To know this, one would have to be familiar with the sheer diversity of conservative Mennonite and Anabaptist groups across North and South America, each with slightly different origins, histories, customs, and milieus.) Yet I am aware of the incredibly complexity regarding education in conservative communities, so that while general literacy is enjoyed, certain educational experiences (like those taken for granted by broader Western society—high school and university) are not guaranteed for all conservative Mennonite women (and men, for that matter). Therefore, while certain particularities of Sarah Polley’s Old Colony Mennonites are not shared by conservative Mennonites broadly, there remain thematic elements from the novel and film that are strikingly significant for the conservative church today.
Which brings us to the topic of sexual abuse. As painful as it is for this to be the topic which shoves Mennonites into view, we cannot ignore the realities. The film is not just a horrific news story from 2009. Dynamics within the conservative Mennonite church are not unlike dynamics within the Southern Baptist Convention. If we live in a world where there is methodical uncovering of systemic sexual abuse in the church (not to mention lively conversations around gender and power), then the conversations that Toews creates in her novel (and that Polley extends in the film) are of untold worth. These conversations offer space for lament, for Mennonites (conservative or otherwise), evangelicals, ex-vangelicals, and greater society.
Toews frames the novel as “a work of female imagination,” a turn of phrase that references the elders who had dismissed the abuse as “female imagination.” (“Female imagination? I will give you female imagination,” Toews seems to say.) Toews thereby redemptively creates within the female imagination, asking, What might women (particularlythese women) say, if given the floor? And why does it matter, to hear women talking? This is Toews’s genius. Her work is so elemental, so basic to the experience of being a human, that the conversation she creates in an ultra-conservative Mennonite community in Bolivia somehow involves us all.
While the screenplay differs in noticeable ways from the novel, there are cinematic moments lifted directly from the novel that extend a social conversation strikingly relevant to conversations about sexual abuse and gender politics in the church. These moments offer much-needed space for lament for Christian audiences. Those who are listening to sexual abuse survivors within faith communities or who are listening to those have been hurt by abuses of power in the church may resonate with the following five observations, which are points of similarity between the film and the novel.
First, in both the novel and the film, audiences feel shock, incredulity, horror, and empathy at the outrageous circumstances certain sexual abuse survivors find themselves in. Probably the most severe circumstance is Salome’s 4-year-old daughter Miep, who has contracted an STD from attackers. We watch Salome struggle to access and administer antibiotics for her abused child, and we are incredulous at this mother’s reality, because we are part of her community as mothers. In this moment, she is not “other,” despite her traditional dress, her head covering, and funky adventure sandals, but we are joined to her through the universal experience of motherhood. (I say this as a single woman who counts many mothers among my close friends). We lament and grieve her reality, feeling simultaneous horror and empathy. And we are reminded of countless related stories of personal acquaintances, of female caregivers, who have similar walks of pain, living in outrageous day-to-day realities due to sexual abuse in the church.
For some Christian audiences, the most moving scene of the film is Salome carrying Miep on her back for a day-and-a-half journey to procure the only medicine available for her child: animal antibiotics. Salome, who has been raped herself, presses on along a wide landscape, resolute to provide for her child, and this scene is overlaid by the women in the loft chanting repeatedly from Psalm 145: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in lovingkindness and forgiveness . . .” The cinematic result is an image of God as this mother, a mother who would go to the ends of the earth for her child. (This image is not lost on audiences, despite the fact that our movie director Sarah Polley is an atheist, and our novelist Toews is, at best, an agnostic.) Those in the church who are listening to sexual abuse survivors are reminded of (and comforted by?) the image of God as a mother, as provided in Isaiah 49:15 and Isaiah 66:13.
The second similarity audiences notice between the novel and film, which bears significance for conversations in the church, is the diversity of responses among women. Salome attacks one of the accused with a scythe. Ona asks deep theological questions (before vomiting because of her new pregnancy from attackers). Mejal has taken to smoking cigarettes, and suffers from PTSD attacks. The two teens present seem entirely bored by the conversation. Mariche acts out of fear, which is expressed as anger and suspicion. (In Mariche’s softer moments, she feels generational grief for her teenage daughter, while also angrily defending herself: “Who are any one of you to pretend I had a choice?”) Greta is an elderly woman of faith who is keen to tell quaint stories about her horses Ruth and Cheryl at seemingly inopportune times. Other women, like Scarface Janz, do not care to participate in the conversation at all, telling the women to “Want less!” and marching off after one of them says, “Surely there is something to live for in this life, not only in the next.” She ultimately refuses to leave the community and forbids her daughters to leave when the entire female community packs up in buggies and carriages.
Each of the women is suffering and coping differently. There is a broadness and diversity in the women’s experiences, realities, and responses that those who listen too often miss. In the loft, the women somehow manage to incorporate all of these different voices into a single conversation that reflects the whole. The women allow for and tolerate these differences, and they do not stiffen morbidly into despair, nor find themselves unaffected by others’ pain. In the same way, those who are listening to women in community are asking this question: how do we maintain curiosity toward each other, rather than feel threatened?
The third similarity between the novel and the film is the powerful moment when the women say what it is they want. While it is repeated throughout the novel, it is not until late in the film that Mariche, bearing the visible scars of physical abuse, verbalizes for the group what it is they want: their children to be safe, they want to keep their faith, and they want to think. Watching Mariche finally put language to what it is that she wants is a kind of therapy not provided for the real-life women of the Bolivian Manitoba Colony. (Mennonite organizations sent counselors to the colony, but the bishop denied them entry, saying, “Why would [the women] need counseling if they weren’t even awake when it happened?”)
It is a holy moment in a counseling room when a person finds language to say what it is they want. It is an important beginning in the move from passive to active existence. The women, it is certain, view this listening as an act of Christian service, and they mark the meeting’s importance and solemnity by washing each other’s feet. One of the older women points out that what they will accomplish by listening to each other (and making a decision) is an act of service, just like Jesus offered to his disciples when he washed their feet.
In the conservative Mennonite church, feetwashing is a common practice that is observed twice a year at communion. Indeed, Mennonites do not eat the bread and drink the cup without physically washing each other’s feet. Since communion is practiced as little as twice a year, communion and feetwashing bring great solemnity. (At least, as solemn as feetwashing can be, since it happens in church basements with little plastic tubs and old towels and probably some pantyhose, and you’re paired with literally any lady in church.) But this physical emblem for hundreds of years has formed the Mennonite social imaginary, and it is this physical practice that “bends back on” and forms conservative Mennonites toward a life of gritty togetherness, of “rolling-up-the-sleeves” service, and of unawareness of (and indifference to) social class. How appropriate that feetwashing be featured in a Mennonite novel/film, and how ironic/damning/timely (given the current realities of sexual abuse in conservative Mennonite spaces) to align feetwashing with the Christian act of service of listening to what sexual abuse survivors want and need.
Audiences must also reckon with the list Mariche gives. The women want their children to be safe, they want to keep their faith, and they want to think. Many lines from the film speak to the great injustice of not being believed, an unacceptably common experience for sexual abuse survivors, both inside the church and out. Mejal, upon coming to after a PTSD attack, says that the men “made us disbelieve ourselves,” a greater tragedy than the abuse itself. And when some of the women begin deliberating over which men are guilty or not, Claire Foy (playing Salome) delivers her most powerful performance in a passionate speech:
“That is not our responsibility. Because we aren’t in charge of whether or not they are punished. We know that we’ve been attacked! By men, not by ghosts or Satan, as we were led to believe for so long. We know that we have not imagined these attacks! That we were made unconscious with cow tranquilizer! We know that we are bruised and infected and pregnant and terrified and in pain, and some of us are dead! We know that we must protect our children, regardless of who is guilty!”
This is what the women mean when they say that they want to think. When those in power categorically deny one’s experience, it is the ultimate degradation, an erasure of personhood and a denial of humanity. “Are women human?” Dorothy Sayers asked in her scintillating essay from 1938. Somehow, in some Christian communities, we are still asking this question! This list—to be safe, to keep their faith, and to think—is crucially important for church audiences to reflect on. Psychologists who work with sexual abuse survivors tell us about the unfathomable damage that is done when church leaders (who are supposed to represent God to their members) abuse parishioners, and/or dismiss allegations. What options remain for those who have been abused by those whose gender has held leadership in the church, as in the case in traditional communities? The fact that these women are resolute that they want to keep their faith but feel like they have no options within current systems is something that we should all be writing down.
A fourth moment shared by the novel and the film is Ona’s question to August, the male schoolteacher: “How would you feel if in your entire lifetime it had never mattered what you thought?”August, in front of the women, responds, “I am not here to think. I am here to take the minutes.” But Ona (played by Rooney Mara), with her piercing depth, doesn’t let go: “But if, in your entire life, you truly felt that it didn’t matter what you thought, how would that make you feel?”
This moment is an invitation for lament for Christian audiences. The number of men who are not aware of the number of women in Christian communities who identify with this statement would surprise you. There are degrees, to be sure, but I am transported to my teenage years. I am in the bedroom of an out-of-state Mennonite friend who has been sexually abused by her father. I recall vague details involving a shower. I have to use that shower that night. I lock and relock the door so many times. It is the only night of my life that I do not take a shower. My friend and I stay up late talking about all the things that teenage girls talk about, even theology. Regarding one issue, my friend says, “I don’t know what to think. When I get married, I guess I’ll just believe whatever my husband believes.” Anger and rage boil inside me – for my friend’s circumstances, her pain, her daily reality, the patriarchy that allowed the abuse to happen, and for the residual view of her own mind, and her own thoughts. I never forgave my friend for saying that.
Toews and Polley nevertheless ask women (and men) to reflect on this reality, of living in a world where it does not matter what women think. This is where Toews’s and Polley’s message becomes universal. The novel/film does not relate only to Old Colony Mennonite communities in the Americas; this is a reality of women worldwide. And very interestingly, this was passionately pointed out to me by a young conservative friend who I was telling about the film, who said, “Then this movie must be about the whole world! This is the reality of women caught in human trafficking in Asia, it’s the reality of Muslim women in Afghanistan, and it’s the reality of women in refugee camps in Lesbos.” (She said this having recently returned from non-profit work in Greece, where waves of conservative Mennonites have been joining relief efforts.) She went on, “When we lose the fight for equal pay for women in the west, for example, we’re losing the fight for women in Afghanistan and Asia. It’s the same insidious force at work, suggesting subtly in one part of the world and blatantly manifesting in other parts of the world that women are only good for the pleasure and work their bodies can give to men… that their minds, ideas, and creativity are insignificant, or at the least inferior, and that men ascribe to them their worth, their male bosses in one part of the world and their pimps in another part of the world.”
A fifth similarity shared by the film and the novel, one that has meaning for church audiences, is a certain kind of pacifism in its view of gender. This is the new voice that Polley and Toews add to current conversations about abuse, gender, and power. In this pacifism is a kind of fairness, equity, and justice (toward men) that audiences are surprised to reckon with. Salome becomes upset that boys over the age of 12 will not accompany the women and children leaving the colony. She argues that her 13-year-old son and others his age should be allowed to accompany the women if they are willing. Youthful boys are considered full men in the community, as Toews’s chilling line points out, “Fourteen-year-old boys are expected to give us orders, to determine our fates, to vote on our excommunications, to speak at the burials of our own babies while we remain silent, to interpret the Bible for us, to lead us in worship, to punish us!” (Conservative Mennonite readers will lament this recognizable hyperbole, if not actual reality.)
The women turn to August, the boys’ teacher, to ask if boys of that age are a threat to the women. August’s answer is beautifully nuanced, and any educator will resonate with his response. While he doesn’t ignore the realistic threat of boys that age, he believes the boys are teachable and can be taught. August references Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he says, “Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.” By this, audiences are reminded of the great responsibility of education of boys at this age in these contexts, who, against all that is wise and loving, become disproportionately enamored with strongman political characters and misogynistic social media personalities. Let me be clear: educators who are forming the loves of young men are “doing pacifism” even as they lament what is. This is a solemn love, rooted in pacifism.
Audiences are pushed even further when Ona asks, “What if the men are innocent?” That is, the women are in this situation because of “circumstances of the colony,” and the men, too, have acted in this way because of “circumstances” which allowed the abuse to proliferate. Ona says that these men, at birth, are as innocent as the baby growing inside her body. Some women agree that “men and women are victims of the circumstances of the colony.” But others resist: “It is men who prevent us from achieving these goals!” They are refuted with “Not all men.” (“Not all men,” that eternally reinvented hashtag used for a variety of agendas.) This is a kind of pacifism that audiences are not prepared to reckon with. First, it sounds too eerily familiar to that farcical forgiveness that lets perpetrators off the hook or attempts to “rehabilitate” the perpetrator inside the church. This is not what Toews and Polley mean. Rather, here there is a pacifism made possible by an unselfish matriarchal feminism with far-seeing eyes and a love of sons. Salome’s advocacy for her son and Ona’s clear-eyed regard for the basic humanity of men reminds us how these systems hurt men, too. We imagine, with female imagination, how much both men and women stand to lose when they are chained to systems that do not lead to human flourishing. Here there is an empathy for the perceived social “enemy,” something that is so hard for modern (female?) audiences to swallow. We resist Ona when she asks if the men are innocent, and we are faced with pacifist theology, which allows for love for the enemy and the evildoer, and asks how to bring shalom.
The film ends with an uncomfortable suspension of disbelief. The women are packing up into carriages and buggies, resolute in their mission to leave, to regroup, and maybe, perhaps, to begin again. But we know that these women did not leave the colony. This is a work of fiction, and the only thing that has been accomplished is that we have listened to women for two hours. We will get up from our seats, walk out of the theater, and go home to our own communities. We will think about women in circumstances like these who not only have participated in female imagination but who make difficult decisions to leave contexts which feature abuse, silencing, and an indifference toward the way taken-for-granted circumstances affect women. All of us look at the churches we attend, and we notice movement, migration, arrival, and dispersal. (Some of this movement is due to post-COVID fallout, but some of it is due to issues related to women, abuse, and gender.)
Greta, one of the elderly characters, tells a story of her horses, Ruth and Cheryl, who become very skittish on the road into town, which is marked by deep gullies on either side. She says that when she looks into the distance, instead of the road right in front of her, she feels safe and is able to drive them better. She encourages the women with these words: “Leaving will give us the more far-seeing perspective we need to forgive, which is to love properly, and to keep the peace, according to our faith. Therefore, our leaving wouldn’t be an act of cowardice, abandonment, disobedience or rebellion. It wouldn’t be because were excommunicated or exiled. It would be a supreme act of faith. And of faith in God’s abiding goodness.” This, too, is a kind of (surprising) pacifism that somehow holds us close, those who lament the realities of sexual abuse in our communities.
Toews gives us August, that Mennonite school teacher, whom we listen alongside. The world of Mennonite literature gives us another Mennonite school teacher through the poetry of Jean Janzen. In her poem “Learning to Sing in Parts,” Janzen references traditional hymn-singing with a school teacher character (her father) who teaches students how to sing in four-part harmony. The school teacher sees singing and “holding against the other pitches” as a metaphor for both separation and co-existing in the world, an important theme for conservative Mennonites. But in the poem, while the “harmony” exists in a schoolhouse far away from “the world,” there is still a harmony, a sound, that slips out:
“How to hold against the other pitches?
This is the world’s secret, he confides,
to enter and be close, yet separate.
That room musty with chalk and sweat, closed
door, and still the harmony slips out
escaping like most secrets do. Alone
at the end of the day, the schoolhouse empty
and shadowed, my father wonders, can it
This is what happens in Women Talking. There are sounds that slip out. And some of the notes are very much in tune.
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