Women Talking:  An Anabaptist Fable for our Times?

This week Anabaptist Historians welcomes Dr. Kimberly D. Schmidt. She divides her research interests between Amish and Mennonite women’s social history and women’s histories of the Southern Cheyenne. For over twenty years, Dr. Schmidt worked as a history professor and Director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center.

Women Talking:  An Anabaptist Fable for our Times?

Kimberly D. Schmidt

Miriam Toews’s novel that became an academy-award winning movie (Best Adapted Screenplay) has generated much debate among the Mennorati on websites and in social media. Toews presents a story drawn from real-life events that transpired between 2005-2009. In a remote Bolivian Old Colony Mennonite community women were drugged and violently raped. For years they woke in semi-stupor to injury and pain. Some women were impregnated. After a perpetrator was caught, he confessed and identified seven more perpetrators. A number of women came forward, eight men were convicted and are serving twenty-five year prison sentences–the longest sentence allowed under Bolivian law. These real-life events form the backdrop for Toews’ story. The “Ghost Rapes,” as they came to be called, have justifiably horrified the world and Toews’ novel struck a powerful chord. On Facebook and other social media sites some have argued that the book and movie are, as the novelist claims in an introductory note, “an act of female imagination.” While based on recent, real events, proponents argue that Women Talking is not a documentary but a fable for our times. Is Women Talking a powerful fable? If it can be argued that it is a fable, perhaps it is an Anabaptist fable. Could Women Talking have been written by someone unfamiliar with Mennonite culture and history? There are several aspects of Women Talking that seem to be taken straight out of Anabaptist theology and history.  

The Mennonite emphasis on the congregation as the discerning body provided the narrative arch. The women worked through their choices and differences in a group setting. Women confronting violent abuse addressed their anger, confusion, and heartbreak not from positions of weakness but from the strength that comes from collective discernment. It was a priesthood of believers that met, in this case a group of women, who talked, listened, reflected, argued, comforted, guided, prayed and sang together. No one woman had the leading voice. There was no one leader (priest?). There was no one protagonist or heroine and no one villain. It was a community where all were heard and no one’s voice was dismissed.

The women met in a hayloft. That’s not the first time women of Anabaptist traditions have met in secret. In early Anabaptist history, Mennoists and other early Anabaptists met in haylofts, caves, boats, and “around the distaff,” that is, craft production or what might be considered sixteenth-century corollaries to modern-day sewing or quilting circles.1 The women in Women Talking, like sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, used a women’s craft meeting to disguise their secret meetings. However, Elisabeth Harder Schrock, who worked extensively with women in the Bolivian colonies during the time of the Ghost Rapes noted that women’s gatherings and craft circles in Bolivia are not regulated by men. It’s not unusual for Old Colony women to visit and share work and meals with no males present. There is not necessarily a need for secrecy when women meet together in contemporary Old Colony society.”2 Meeting in secret seems particularly drawn from Anabaptist history and not contemporary practice.   

The women were closely related by kinship networks and relationships interwoven by years of living in close community with one another and through the generations. These identities are still often used to place Mennonite individuals within a matrix of family, extended family, church, and community, even by those who live on the margins or who have rejected much of Mennonite belief. These closely woven connections informed the women’s actions. When the women in Women Talking fled they left not as individuals or small family units but as a large collective–reminiscent of the numbers of extended Russian Mennonite families that came to the United States and Canada during the 1870s. Entire churches packed up and left southern Russia for the Great Plains of North America. The last, powerfully visual scene in the movie is of women leaving together in a long line of horses and buggies. They packed up their bundles of clothing, blankets, cookware, bibles, and canned goods (zwieback?), hitched their horses to buggies and one following the next left in a long solemn line. Flight or immigration in large family groups is a time-honored Anabaptist tradition and the end of Women Talking should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Anabaptist and Mennonite history. 

The women’s final decision, to leave the colony, was informed by their deeply felt religious beliefs in forgiveness and healing. They had to leave so that they could heal and learn to forgive. The choice to flee is particularly emblematic of Anabaptist and Mennonite decisions. As I’ve written elsewhere, Helena von Freyberg, a woman who chose flight, should be as celebrated as the martyr Dirk Willems.3  Willems turned back over a frozen pond to save his jailer who had fallen through the ice. He was recaptured and burned at the stake. In contrast, von Freyberg kept running. She was a prominent noblewomen from Kitzbühel, a town in Tirol, Austria. Her family castle is still extant and Mennonite heritage tourists can visit the homeplace of a woman who not once but three times outwitted local Catholic authorities and fled to Augsburg via Constance. She escaped from certain persecution to relative safety and died peacefully in Augsburg in 1545. In all three locations: Kitzbühel, Constance, and Augsburg, von Freyberg harbored Anabaptist refugees, hosted meetings in her home, and strengthened her community.

The book and movie were in many ways authentic to an Anabaptist ethos of community discernment and community action and both media (book and movie) portrayed the confusion, heartbreak and anger of forging a healing path away from abuse. There were several moments in the movie so authentic, so real, that I broke down. For example, the conversation between Mariche and her frail, elderly mother who offered to accompany her home to protect her from a violent husband could have been a word-by-word rendition of several conversations between my own elderly, frail mother and myself. Several scenes in the movie were closely and powerfully felt. 

In spite of heart-rending identification, there are areas in which Toews’ narrative and public pronouncements so blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction that I have started to question her intentions and ethics. And here is where the argument as a Anabaptist fable for our times breaks down.

The novel’s setting is very specific to time, place, and recent memory. Places are named. There were news reports. Toews presents not a fable but a dystopian novel based on real-life, not that long ago, violence against women. This is no Margaret Atwood tale set in some distant future with characters we don’t know. There are a few places where Toews’ blurs her novel’s telling with the truth. She gave a 2018 interview with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in which she made several claims, as if they were true, as if they were facts. 

For example, Toews asserted in her novel that Mennonite women in the Bolivian colonies are illiterate. Toews repeated this claim as if it’s fact during the CBC interview. Actually, many Bolivian Mennonite women are avid readers. Their favorite books are about the Titanic and Ben Hur.5 Harder Schrock noted to this author that many women are their community’s scribes, recording weddings, births, funerals and keeping their families in touch through lengthy letters.6

In Women Talking, women can’t travel; they are forced to stay on their farms. Toews claimed in the interview that women were “prisoners in their colonies.” Actually, Mennonite women in the Bolivian colonies love to travel. Harder Schrock noted how she often passed buggies filled with women and children traveling without men.7 In the book and movie they are so isolated that they don’t know how to read a map. In fact, globes were provided to most Bolivian schoolrooms by Mennonite Central Committee.8 Travel is a central aspect of life and it’s not unusual for families to carry passports from two-three different nations. The repeated references both in the book and movie and in Toews’ CBC interview to how Mennonite women don’t know anything about history and cultures other than their own are, quite simply, completely false.

If this is a fable what do we learn from it? That all men almost without exception are evil? The book/movie paints all men in the colony as evil, except for August, who is demasculinized both in the book and in the movie. As a teacher he occupies the lowest rung in Old Colony society. He can’t farm, so he must teach.9 In Toews’ interviews and in the book, all the other men were monsters who ignored and downplayed women’s pleas for help and discounted women’s experiences. In fact, the chemical concoction used on the women was also used on the men. Entire families were drugged so that the women could be raped. The rapes resulted in widespread fear. Men put up bars on windows, razor wire around homes, locks on doors, and installed alarm systems. They did their best to protect women in the colonies. The colonies raised $400,000 to keep the perpetrators in jail–not to bail them out, as read and seen in Women Talking.10 However, during the CBC interview Toews asserts that males completely dismissed the women as making things up. 

This kind of narrative is not only too easy–women good, men bad–but it fails to truly help women who are being victimized. Only rarely are abusers simply and purely evil. Many abusers have some redeeming qualities. This is what makes it so hard for some women to leave (I speak from experience). Empowering to me, and I’m sure to other women, would be narratives that delve into complex, nuanced characters for not just the women, but also the men.

In interviews and in the book, Toews hid behind fiction, behind “an act of female imagination” to vilify an entire group of people. She simplified, as she amplified, the very real events. What is the human cost to this kind of writing? What are the ethics of writing a supposed fiction about recent non-fiction trauma? I am concerned that her telling, as provocative as it is, could actually harm the women involved and result in even more trauma. The women involved will likely never see the movie though they might read the book. We will likely never hear their voices nor their responses to the book and the movie.

If Toews had refrained from making erroneous claims in her interview, it would be easier for me to accept the book as an act of female imagination, of female empowerment, and as a fable about surviving abuse. However, she crossed the line when she misrepresented colony women and men in these key ways during the interview. As an abuse survivor I look for the day when our stories embrace the complexity and subtlety of abuse dynamics.

In the end and at the end, Toews offers healing to the women in the novel, if not redemption to the community. Through collective action and in a spirit of forgiveness the women chose to protect themselves and their children and in a time-honored Anabaptist tradition, they fled and perhaps that is the moral of the story. Perhaps this is where I can accept the story as a provocative myth, as a powerful Anabaptist fable. 

[1] Jeni Hiett Umble,  “Meeting Around the Distaff: Anabaptist Women in Augsburg” in Schmidt, Umble and Reschly, eds., Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2002),121-135

[2] Email correspondence with Elisabeth Harder Schrock, March 17, 2023.

[3] “Run, Dirk, Run! Wrestling with the Willemas Story,” in Cameron Altaras and Carol Penner, eds. Resistance” Confronting Violence, Power, and Abuse within Peace Churches (Elkhart, IN: Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 2022), 238-249

[4] “Helena von Fregberg of Münichau,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, eds. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Kingston, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 124-135.

[5] Presentation by Willmar Harder, Dorothy Nikkel Friesen, moderator. Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas, (Feb. 24, 2023). Harder is a former Mennonite Central Committee worker who worked and lived in the Bolivian colonies during the time of the Ghost Rapes. He presented material prepared by himself, his wife, Hannah Neufeld, and his sister, Elisabeth Harder Schrock.

[6] Email correspondence with Elisabeth Harder Schrock, March 17, 2023.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willmar Harder presentation.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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