Book Review: 'When Women Were Birds' by Terry Tempest Williams

A story about the diarist as published in the April 2012 issue

by Liz Welch
when women were birds image
Photograph: Bryan McCay

On her deathbed, Terry Tempest Williams’s mother said she was bequeathing her journals to her daughter. When Williams went to retrievethem, she found three shelves of beautiful clothbound books—all their pages empty. “The blow of her blank journals became a second death,” Williams writes. In truth, the journals inspired her to write her own memoir, including, pointedly, a series of blank pages, followed by poetic vignettes exploring both the author’s life and her mother’s. While Williams has kept a journal since childhood (“If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist”), her Mormon mother was private, a womanwho wouldoften say, “I don’t like people knowing my thoughts.” Yet Williams finds many ways to convey the essence of this quiet but strong woman, quoting passages her mother underlined in the feminist texts she studied later in life. As Williams’sstories and insights fill in the blanks of her mother’s history, they also help her realize that the refusal to commit feelings to paper can be as powerful as any written memory. The journals are not only a gift, she discovers at last, but “a celebration.”

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First published in the April 2012 issue

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