When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother was dying, she told her daughter that she was leaving her journals to her, with one condition — that Williams wait until after her death to read them. Williams honored her mother’s wish and when she finally opened the journals she was shocked to find that every one of them was blank.
When Women Were Birds is a memoir that explores this extraordinary gesture, one that Williams chose not to write about until she turned 54, the age her mother was when she died. The book’s subtitle, “54 Variations on Voice,” refers not only to her mother’s age, but to the book’s structure, which consists of 54 short chapters. Some chapters contain stories from Williams’s childhood and give glimpses of Williams’s mother, the kind of stories you would expect from a traditional memoir. Others contain lists of words, excerpts from letters, quotations, notes, photographs, and even blank pages. It’s an intimate, fragmented book, written not to tell a story but to hint at stories untold.
Williams admits that when she first discovered her mother’s empty journals her disappointment was difficult to bear: “The blow of her blank journals became a second death.” She had hoped that the journals would reveal her mother’s private life and thoughts, but instead Williams was left with even more questions. She wonders if her mother’s refusal to keep a journal was an act of defiance; as a Mormon woman, Williams’s mother was expected to keep a journal. “All Mormon women write,” Williams explains, “This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives. Keeping a journal is keeping a record. And I have hundreds of them, hundreds of journals filled with feathers, flowers, photographs, and words. Without locks, open on my shelves.” For Williams, a writer, her journals are a refuge, but perhaps for her mother, not writing offered a great feeling of protection, of privacy. “My mother’s journals are her shadow. They hold her depth and substance and her refusal to be known.”
Williams has said that she wrote When Women Were Birds as a way to explore voice, but instead she ended up writing about silence. To write about silence sounds like a zen koan, and there is something meditative about this book, especially in the way it avoids storytelling and even analysis. And yet it is compelling, drawing you in by the weight of its questions and the open, searching mind of its author.