Discover more from Not Your Helpmeet
What it's like to leave
And what Women Talking has to do with it
Things have been quiet around here because there was a death in my family and it’s taken me a month to get my thoughts together. Thanks for following along and for reading. Moving forward, I will probably follow a less strict publishing schedule to allow for more breathing room. There’s also a lot to read these days … a lot … and I want whatever I put here to be thoughtful, not something that meets algorithmic quotas. xx
Women Talking is a strange film. It’s moody and brooding. It has shockingly little action. Frances McDormand, despite having top billing, only appears in cameos. As most of you probably already know, it’s also about a group of women living in an isolated Mennonite community in rural Bolivia. The women are talking because they’re being raped at night, they have no memory of it actually happening, and they don’t know what to do about it. They have three options: stay and fight, do nothing, or leave. The next 90 or so minutes of this brief film happen 12 Angry Men-style, except their courtroom is a hayloft.
It’s a movie unstuck from time. The shockingly cheerful interruption of Daydream Believer played by census takers passing by remind us that this is indeed the late twentieth century. As modern people, it’s easy to say (as some of the reviews I read did), “well, of course they should leave.” Just pack up and go. Easier than staying there and dealing with all of it. But leaving is never the easy choice.
One of the top two questions I get when people find out I was raised Fundamentalist Baptist is a variation of “how did you get out?.” It’s sometimes phrased, “wow, you seem so normal”, but that’s really the statement version of “how did you get out.” I also sometimes get “how did you turn out like this?”, which is a kinder version of the same question. When I see questions like this on Reddit or in comments about the Duggars, it’s always a statement: “I don’t know why the older kids don’t just leave.” “If it were me, I’d just get a divorce.” It’s never that simple.
Cultish groups thrive because of isolation. You’ll often hear people from these groups refer to it as “separation”. It’s actually a whole doctrine:
“The doctrine of separation, also known as the doctrine of non-fellowship, is a belief among some Protestant religious groups that the members of a church should be separate from "the world" and not have association with those who are "of the world".”
Therefore, whole communities are established that operate as a world unto themselves. They teach you how to operate within that community– and only that community – and warn you that if you leave the community is to leave God’s will. As a result, all your relationships exist within that community. When you leave, you’re not just leaving the strictures and abuse, but you’re also leaving all the good things behind: the friendships, the rituals, the stuff of life.
And once you’re out, you’re out. Essentially dead. Or at least that has been my experience. I recently visited the church I grew up in for a funeral and only one person spoke to me. I saw hundreds of people that I knew and that I knew knew me, however, I was no longer one of the separated. I was one to be separated from.
I spoke to Miriam Toews about this back in 2019 when Women Talking was first released. We talked about August as a narrator, and her approach to telling the story (she herself is Mennonite) and her desire to humanize these women.
Me: “It's so easy to judge people for the decisions that they make. What made you decide to complicate this story and show that it wasn't as cut and dry [of a decision] as we may think as outsiders?”
Miriam: “… I think it is easy, like you were saying, for a lot of us, myself included, to say, like, get the heck out of there. Just forget it. Just leave or fight this. … But their faith and the tenets of their faith, pacifism are very, very important to them. … I know so many women, myself included, who've left these communities, and it's so difficult. That's the world that you know, and it's not all bad. They're the people that you love. Maybe also fear or hate or whatever it is. It's very, very difficult to leave because when you leave, it's quite impossible to go back.”
Later in that same conversation, Miriam talked about how arrogant it is for people to approach people from these communities and tell them how to think. She said, “Is a very paternalistic thing to think, let alone walk into one of these communities and say, ‘you're not living the way you should be living. You're not emancipated women. You're not free women. You're brainwashed. And you need to live the way I live. … You need to get educated, all of these things. That's incredibly arrogant and paternalistic to even think that”. She said she never wanted to imply what she thought the women should do or to give them an ending that aligns with what a secular, modern society would expect. These women had nowhere to go. It’s not that women in these communities don’t know they’re trapped. The problem is that they know they are and yet they have nowhere to go.
I’ve seen several reviews talking about how the movie should have had a more “modern” ending, which Miriam actually considered: “When I first started writing the book or first started thinking about the book, I thought, ‘I'm going to have this big revenge thing where the women just go crazy on these guys.’ But that was a completely stupid, emotional response. Because that's not what would happen. And that's not what should happen. Violence creates more violence. So does revenge. And it just didn't make any sense, given the context of the community.”
I found myself crying at various parts of the movie–it’s hard not to be moved by their harrowing predicament–in part because it reminded me so much of my own internal debates about leaving vs. staying. There’s a gut impulse when you finally decide to leave that makes you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start over. I still want that sometimes. But I can’t. It’s more complex than that. These are real people making real decisions (something else Miriam said during our conversation). You can’t just tell them to do what makes sense on paper. No ones’ life is that simple.
Leaving requires you leave a part of yourself behind. In the wake of #MeToo, we all seem to agree that we should trust women’s stories. We should also agree to let women – and men and other non-binary folx leaving these communities – decide what is best for them. It’s not our place to tell people how, when, or why to leave or to shame them if they stay. The book is more successful in conveying this, but the women’s salvation does not come from their ultimate decision. Their salvation comes from having the time and the space to talk it out and to decide for themselves how they should move forward.