‘Why would they need counselling if they weren’t even awake when it happened?’ asked Bishop Johan Neurdorf, the leader of the Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia. He was referring to the 130 women and girls in the colony who had been sedated with bovine anaesthetic and raped in their beds by a group of eight men. The women would wake up disoriented, bruised, bleeding, with their clothes torn and dirt and semen on the sheets. They didn’t speak about their assault to one another, but when they told their husbands and fathers, the men said the attacks were likely the work of ghosts and demons, punishing the women for their sins, or that they were lying to get attention or to cover up adultery, or that the stories were emanations of what some members of the colony called the ‘wild female imagination’. This went on for four years, from 2005 until 2009, until one day two men were caught climbing through a window into their neighbours’ house. (The men would spray anaesthetic through window screens to knock out the entire household and then sneak in.) The youngest victim was three years old; the oldest listed on the formal indictment was sixty. One woman went into premature labour after she was allegedly assaulted by her brother. An 11-year-old girl bled so much she had to go to hospital, where nurses – who spoke Spanish and not Plautdietsch, or Mennonite Low German, the only language the women of the colony know – treated her but couldn’t get across to her what had happened. Her parents didn’t explain either: they decided it would be better not to. The gap isn’t just linguistic, but cultural, or spiritual. During the trial the men, who were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison (the vet who provided the anaesthetic got 12), fell asleep, joked with the guards, made funny faces. Even if you spoke the same language, how could you possibly explain this? All the words that come to mind are insufficient – horrible, awful, tragic – or inhuman: patriarchal, systemic, fundamentalist. You might call it shocking, but people close to these communities say incest and sexual abuse are common. Why would they need counselling?
Like the Amish and Hutterites, the Mennonites emerged from the Anabaptist movement during the Reformation; they take their name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest from Friesland (now a province of the Netherlands), whose conversion was sparked by doubts about transubstantiation (‘a thought occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord’). Continually persecuted and forced to migrate, his followers split into many smaller groups; according to a survey conducted by the Mennonite World Conference in 2015, there are now more than 2.1 million Mennonites living in 87 countries. Beyond beliefs in pacifism, adult baptism and sanctification as a lifelong process demanding simplicity and service, interpretations of the faith vary widely; some groups exemplify the patriarchal, horse-and-carriage stereotypes adored by tourists who visit communities in the US and Canada, while others have more or less integrated into secular society, and allow women to take on leadership roles. (Early this year, a conference of Mennonite groups based in Pennsylvania split from the Mennonite Church USA because of the umbrella group’s support for gay marriage.) Their history of persecution plays an especially significant role for the more conservative communities like the Manitoba Colony. In such groups today men wear overalls and the women wear modest dresses and cover their hair. Education ends at 11 for girls and 12 for boys, who might get some lessons in English or Spanish. Cars, electricity and even rubber wheels on carriages are verboten.
According to a note at the start of Miriam Toews’s novel, Women Talking is ‘both a reaction through fiction’ to the rapes in the Manitoba Colony, and an act of ‘female imagination’. The title is descriptive: eight women of three generations sit in a barn, discussing what they should do in the aftermath of the arrests – something that never happened in Manitoba. Because of Toews’s light touch and the thorough reporting of Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, who covered the story for Time and later for Vice, it’s sometimes difficult to keep fictional and real events apart, though they pointedly diverge at certain moments. The novel begins just after the men have been arrested and taken on the seven-hour journey by (fast) horse and carriage to the city – it had become ‘apparent that the men’s lives were in danger’ in the previously self-policed community, which Toews calls the Molotschna Colony. The original plan had been to lock the rapists in sheds ‘for several decades’, but one of the women, Salome Friesen, a ‘formidable iconoclast’ with ‘vesuvian’ rage, attacked one of them with a scythe; drunk male relatives of the victims lynched another. (In reality, a man who was believed to have been involved in the rapes was caught and lynched in a nearby colony.) The women are holding secret meetings while the rest of the men of Molotschna travel to the city to post bail so the accused can await trial at home. On the group’s return – in two days’ time – the women will have to forgive the rapists, ‘thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven’, or leave the colony.
Christians forgive, but Anabaptists like Mennonites and the Amish practise forgiveness particularly aggressively. In the more traditional sects, it’s a requirement: if you don’t forgive those who have wronged you, God won’t forgive your sins, and believers take this literally. In Women Talking, when a substitute bishop preaches that heaven and hell aren’t actual places, but metaphors, he’s ousted from the colony, and the congregation agree they’d rather have no church at all than listen to his ‘blasphemous garbage’.
Toews’s fictional Mennonites are given a real provenance: they are descendants of conservative Russian communities in Ukraine, where German-Dutch Mennonites migrated in the early 19th century to avoid military service. According to the narrator – who is apologetically male – the fictional Mennonites, much like the real ones, come ‘from part of the world that had been established to be its own world, apart from the world’. Why is a man telling a story about women talking and not the women themselves? August Epp is ‘irrelevant for all purposes, other than that I’ve been appointed the minute-taker for the women’s meetings because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves.’ (He notes: ‘It’s not my intention to constantly point out that the women do not read – only when it’s necessary to explain certain actions.’) The reason the women need minutes in English isn’t totally clear to August, since they can’t read in any language, but Ona Friesen, Salome’s sister, a dreamy spinster who is pregnant with her rapist’s child, asks him to take them, and because he’s in love with her he agrees. Timid, awkward and mocked as an effeminate schinda (a man who can’t farm), August has followed the advice of a wise, ‘Ozymandias’-quoting librarian and returned to Molotschna after many years away. His family was excommunicated when he was 12, ostensibly because his parents were storing and disseminating ‘intellectual materials’ like art books; they moved to England, where he ‘spelled my name with rocks in a large green field so that God would find me quickly and my punishment would be complete’. (He tried to spell out ‘confession’ as well, but his mother noticed their garden wall was disappearing.) Following a nervous breakdown and a traumatising stint in prison – a former anarchist, he stole a horse during a protest in London – he resolves to kill himself, but the librarian, discovering him crying, intervenes, telling him he ‘had an unusually deep need to be forgiven, even though he had done nothing wrong’. Although he refuses to renounce his parents, as Bishop Peters, the leader of the colony, stipulates, August is allowed to return because he’s a teacher and Peters is ‘desperate to have the boys learn accounting’.
When we meet August on the first page, he tells us that the women of the colony have just voted on how to proceed. Their options, represented by drawings, were to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. There has been a tie between options two and three, neither of which seems quite to amount to forgiveness of the men’s assaults, an acceptance that they have serially and brutally raped nearly every woman and girl they know, including their own children, and will now walk among the women as if nothing really happened (except, probably, to shame the women, whom they now see as defiled). What’s more, other men abetted all this by telling the women they didn’t know what they were talking about, or that they deserved it. What would forgiveness look like in this context? In 2006, an Amish community in Pennsylvania attracted public admiration when its members forgave a school shooter who had killed five girls and wounded five others before killing himself; members of the community specified that this meant they had made a decision to forgive, not that they were no longer upset or angry. But the school shooter was dead. Beyond indicating a commitment not to retaliate, and perhaps easing tensions, the meaning of forgiveness here is hard to grasp. While it may involve notions of right and wrong, it doesn’t signify condoning, or justifying, or pardoning, or reconciling with someone who has wronged. As the Molotschna women point out, forgiveness cannot be coerced: ‘Isn’t the lie of pretending to forgive with words but not with one’s heart a more grievous sin than to simply not forgive?’ Ona asks. Forgiveness of others is sometimes framed as ‘self-care’ – if it’s not a matter of abandoning anger and resentment completely, it may help those emotions dissipate, leaving some kind of inner peace. But outer peace is really the point, and outer peace, the women agree, cannot be achieved by doing nothing. The women of two families, the Friesens (who mostly want to stay and fight) and the Loewens (who mostly want to leave), are chosen to debate the alternatives on behalf of the rest of the colony. The few ‘Do Nothing Women’ will not attend the meetings, preferring to leave things ‘in the hands of the Lord’.
Isolated and uneducated as they are, the women are pragmatic and logical in their deliberations. They can no longer take anything for granted, which means they must parse the implications of everything anyone says. This helps Toews, who also has the advantage of being funny, avoid regurgitating feminist truisms that, if they weren’t arrived at so innocently, might burden the novel. The women begin by considering whether, having been treated like animals, they should respond like them. They can think of animals who flee their attackers (horses) and animals who stay and fight (a mother raccoon who gruesomely avenged Peters’s dog’s attack on her cubs). ‘What are we supposed to make of this?’ Greta Loewen, the eldest member of that family, asks when that story is told. ‘Are we to leave our most vulnerable colony members exposed to further attack in order to lure the men to their deaths so they can be dismembered and delivered in parts to the doorstep of Peters, the bishop of our colony?’ Eventually they agree to postpone this discussion – besides, they’ve been treated worse than animals – and move on. Digressions (in the form of bickering) and interruptions (Ona vomiting, mischief from two 16-year-old girls and visits from ill and distressed children) take up time, threatening the women’s progress towards a resolution, and remind us that while this philosophical debate is going on children are sickening and laundry piling up. Time in Molotschna is supposed to be ‘irrelevant’ – ‘Peters isn’t committed to a conventional understanding of hours and days. We’re here, or in heaven, for an eternity, and that’s all we need to know’ – but it’s also running out. (We learn later that Peters has an illicit clock in his office, as well as a mobile phone he plays games on while the men are working.)
The pros, cons and realities of both staying and fighting and of leaving are listed. Staying and fighting is complicated, because the women do not believe in violence, because it would involve writing a manifesto of demands and because they might lose. They realise that one of their demands would be the right to think for themselves. Someone proposes that they make the men leave instead, which elicits laughter. The possibility that the accused rapists are not actually guilty gives them pause, but they decide they cannot worry about it, because they cannot know, and anyway even if they aren’t guilty of the attacks themselves, most of the men are guilty of not stopping them. An imprecise word – the idea that the women are ‘members’ of Molotschna rather than its necessary underclass – brings Salome to an angry recognition of their position in the patriarchy:
The entire colony of Molotschna is built on the foundation of patriarchy (translator’s note: Salome didn’t use the word ‘patriarchy’ – I inserted it in the place of Salome’s curse, of mysterious origin, loosely translated as ‘talking through the flowers’), where the women live out their days as mute, submissive and obedient servants. Animals. 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! We are not members … we are commodities. (Again, a translator’s note about the word ‘commodities’: similar situation to above.)
Slowly they start to circle their decision: to leave. Distance, they reason, is the only way they can eventually arrive at genuine, non-coerced forgiveness. If they stay Salome is certain she will become a murderer, the worst thing you can be, and the others will have murderous thoughts. Leaving is the only way they can honour their faith, protect their children and save their souls. August has a thought: ‘Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.’
When the abusive husband of one of the women returns from the city early to discover the women talking in the barn – they tell him they were just quilting – their resourcefulness shifts into high gear (or the horse-and-carriage version of high gear). They must lie and steal and use the tools of their oppression to their advantage. They need a map. They can’t read a map! August will get them a map, wrap it around some cheese, and make them a key for it. A route, or rather an anti-route, is plotted: avoid the city to the south and the neighbouring colonies to the east and west. The 16-year-old girls commit unnamed acts of compromised virtue in order to secure horses. The men with whom the girls compromised their virtue claim there’s a fire to the north; the women, seeing and smelling no smoke, wager they must be lying to keep the 16-year-olds – who, drunk on mistletoe vodka and adrenaline, have let slip the plan – from leaving. The bovine anaesthetic returns at the eleventh hour. The women are nervous, have no idea what to expect; the only thing they know for certain is that they can’t stay. The elder Friesen, Agata, is very ill and probably won’t survive the journey. ‘I won’t be buried in Molotschna,’ she tells her daughter. ‘Help me into a carriage now and I’ll die on the trail.’
A confession: I almost cried both times I read that line. But would these women really rally together in a secret meeting, conduct a civilised and democratic debate, and then, consciousness-raised and liberated, go off into the night with stolen food and money? We know they would not. A follow-up report by Friedman-Rudovsky in 2013 about the aftermath of the rapes in the Manitoba Colony revealed that the women had strenuously forgiven the men and continued not to discuss the assaults with one another; one mother said that she hadn’t told her daughter, a survivor, that she had been raped too. Mennonite communities from around the world offered to send Plautdietsch-speaking therapists to Bolivia, but the colony leaders rejected the offers without even telling the women they had been extended. Rumours were circulating that, although all the original perpetrators were in jail, the assaults had started again, ‘as if in a strange time warp’.
It’s a rare writer who can pull off an optimistic reimagining of such a story without succumbing to meaningless uplift or forcing a happy ending. Even in her handling of August’s love for Ona, which must remain unrequited, Toews does neither. The phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ comes from Coleridge – Toews used half a line from ‘To a Friend’ for the title of her previous novel, All My Puny Sorrows – and the idea is useful here. Both the women and the bereft August are challenged to keep their faith – or suspend their disbelief – despite the cruelties of their circumstances. Meanwhile, the reader is asked to suspend her disbelief – maybe by substituting it with some kind of faith in humanity – in this act of female imagination, beyond a point ordinarily required in fiction.
Toews’s use of August as narrator/translator reflects the relationship almost everyone has to Mennonites, and to small, insular, dying-language-speaking populations in general: mediators are usually unavoidable, and they can’t help giving their view. Toews herself grew up with Mennonite parents in Canada – her mother speaks Plautdietsch – but although she told the Guardian in 2015 she still considers herself Mennonite, she writes as both insider and outsider. While August may be suspect as translator of the women’s story, he’s just as much a victim of the circumstances of Molotschna as the women. The mediator feels he shouldn’t exist, or at least should be seen not to. More often than not, he finds his secular knowledge unwieldy; his anecdotes only appeal to Ona, who loves facts, which to her are like messages from the outside world. August fell in love with her at his mother’s ‘secret schoolhouse’, which was not a literal place but a discussion session she conducted for girls during milking, and their shared canon allows them now to exchange knowing glances across the barn when one of them quotes Virgil. Citing Coleridge on the rules of early education, August admits his love to Ona, who recognises the quote: ‘To work by love and so generate love. To habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth. To excite imaginative power.’