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On Women Talking and the Unreliable Narrators of Post-MeToo Literature

Can Sarah Polley’s Film Adaptation Capture Miriam Toews’s Feat of Storytelling?

When I first heard that Miriam Toews’s indelible 2018 novel, Women Talking, had been adapted into a major Hollywood film, packed with icons including Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy, I had one of those classic book lover’s pangs: please get this right. With Toews herself credited on the screenplay and a cast of such caliber, the film is poised as a major inflection point in mainstream feminist cinema, sharing the marquee with She Said and Tár in Hollywood’s latest attempt to reckon with themes of #MeToo at the movement’s five-year anniversary.

It’s fitting for Women Talking to have this platform. Toews’s novel topped bestseller lists in 2018, bringing renewed attention to the true story on which it is based: the mass drugging and raping of over 150 women and girls in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia between 2005 and 2009. The real-life Manitoba colony, fictionalized as the “Molotschna” colony in Toews’s story, broke into global news in 2009 when Bolivian authorities arrested a group of men from the colony on rape charges.

The course of testimony in court would reveal not only the scope of the crimes and the number of victims (as young as toddlers and as old as grandmothers), but also that the attackers used animal anesthetic to drug their victims before tying them up and assaulting them. In 2011, seven men were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, along with an eighth man convicted of supplying the drugs.

To make a work of art about the specific horror of sexual violence of this magnitude would be one thing. What Toews has done is not that. Hers is a story of aftermath, of making sense of the senseless, and so it is designed to work on us as readers, unsettling stereotypes of religious fundamentalism that make it easier to overlook the possibility of justice.

In someone else’s hands, this story’s violence risks being explained away as an extremist aberration, but thanks to Toews, we meet recognizable women who have momentarily traded in their endless farming and domestic duties for a different kind of work: that of collectively imagining their way into a future without fear of violence. The novel makes it possible to listen more closely to these survivors, who have much to teach us about the emergent themes of post-MeToo feminisms: from weaponized faith and internalized oppression to strategic resistance, intergenerational struggle, and men’s allyship.

That’s also why I am eager to find out whether a film adaptation of the novel manages to translate this feat of storytelling. As a teacher of contemporary feminist literature, I feel strongly that Women Talking’s revolutionary messages hinge on its ingenious literary structure—on the careful way Toews tailors her narrative for a new feminist age.

To make a work of art about the specific horror of sexual violence of this magnitude would be one thing. What Toews has done is not that.

Her literary innovations are also what situate her book firmly in a milieu of post-MeToo literature, whose turn toward the subject of sexual violence excavates the topic in fresh ways and in direct response to the uprisings of 2017. This generation of books, which we might loosely call “MeToo Lit,” seems in agreement that the old tropes and caricatures associated with stories of abuse—the tragic, broken victim; the forceful, psychotic perpetrator; the blameless, incredulous observer—are not only insufficient, they’re part of the problem, holding hostage our cultural imaginaries and allowing the continued belief that sexual violence is an individual pathology rather than a normalized form of social power for which we are collectively responsible.

To write about rape culture then, as opposed to rape itself, means eschewing morality tales and the incredulity they evoke. Instead, the subject of these books becomes not the possibility of such horrors—How could they have done it?—but the mechanisms by which we, society, remain disbelieving—How do we keep letting this happen? By knowingly capitalizing our unwillingness to believe, feminist authors help us evolve past stories of perpetrators and victims and instead acquaint us more fully with the machinery of our own limited imaginations.

Among other devices, feminist authors of this new wave employ the tried-and-true artifice of the unreliable narrator in service of a new wave of consciousness about rape culture’s imaginary. In their stories, the unreliability of women narrators does not reinforce sexist bias; rather, it undermines that bias by simulating its workings on us as we read. This approach reveals a new sensibility that I call post-reliable: that is, these authors knowingly extend the unreliable narrator to encompass, and make visible, the gendered nature of reliability itself.

Because of course, outside the pages of novels, victim-survivors of sexual violence are consummate unreliable narrators. They are made so by a culture that undermines their authority over their own bodies, desires, and memories. If the feminist adages “Trust women” and “Believe survivors” reveal anything, it is that largely as a society, we do not.

This generation of books seems in agreement that the old tropes and caricatures associated with stories of abuse are not only insufficient, they’re part of the problem.

It is cause for hope that the most successful examples of this post-reliable MeToo literature demonstrate fiction’s potential to transform this attitude. Take Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise, which won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction. It’s the tale of an edgy high school theater class and their unorthodox teacher in the 1980s. A third-person account of events in the opening chapter ends abruptly, though, when a second chapter wrenches us out of the story and introduces a new narrator, who moves between an “I” and a third-person “Karen”—the name she was given in the first chapter but which, she says, is not her real name. That all three sections of the book have the same title—“Trust Exercise”—supplies an uncanny meta-narrative, a frame inviting us to exercise trust even as our narrators steadily loosen our grasp on the facts about what happened back in the day.

Trust Exercise is interested in dynamics that obfuscate truth and justice in cases of abuse. Choi keeps us so preoccupied with dynamics among those harmed that the perpetrators themselves never even have to defend themselves. In fact, we haven’t even noticed them, for we are too distracted by our inability to find a stable narrator who can point us to a sympathetic victim. Without a reliable moral center, our desire to trust women coexists with our disturbing inability to.

Unlike Trust Exercise, where we are left to imagine the full extent of the abuse at its center, Women Talking must construct a narrative that responds to what Toews knows is the plainly horrifying facts of her source material. Her first act of framing, then, is a prefatory author’s note, which, after summarizing the real-life events, calls her novel “an act of female imagination.” This turn of phrase is a reference to a major 2013 VICE story called “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia,” where a journalist found that male leaders of the colony, who were content to attribute physical signs of the women’s abuse to ghosts and demons, referred to the women’s reports as “wild female imagination.”

Women Talking and Trust Exercise address very different kinds of stories—one hidden from view, the other conspicuously shocking. But both books acknowledge the psychological conditions of being made an unreliable narrator of your own visible and invisible wounds. Both, then, are post-reliable in their refusal to let the burden of proof obfuscate the moral stakes of the problem.

With her post-reliable structure, Toews can conjure a timelier set of questions about survivorship, allyship, and authority.

Alongside Toews’s and Choi’s novels we might place a few more post-reliable narrations of abuse published in the last handful of years. There’s Anna Burns’s Milkman (2018), where spiraling syntax and nameless characters mirror the conniving distortions of living in a culture that gaslights you. Burns’s narrator, an 18-year-old Irish woman during the Troubles, is unreliable to us despite her best intentions: not because she’s lying but because she has learned not to know; knowing anything threatens her family’s lives.

Then there’s Sara Sligar’s Take Me Apart (2020), where a close-third narration of an archivist obsessed with setting the record straight is complicated by the discovery of a first-person diary, whose confessions transform the archivist from bystander to accomplice. There’s Kate Reed Petty’s True Story (2020), which plays with a new genre in each chapter, from horror to mystery to the college essay, all structures that dramatize the artifice of narrative to remind us that the story of what happened doesn’t have to be true to be permanently destructive.

Even major works of feminist nonfiction from this same era, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s spellbinding memoir In the Dream House (2019), or Lisa Taddeo’s narrative reportage Three Women (2019), participate in a kind of narrative knowingness that characterizes this post-reliable movement.

And it’s this knowingness that we can hear in Toews’s framing of her novel as “female imagination,” the very same “wild female imagination” that was weaponized against the real-life women on whom her characters are based. Her book fights back by uplifting the imaginative, agonized reasoning of her characters, who are grappling with their options for the future after learning that no one with power is going to take measures to stop the violence against them and their children.

This is another important literary frame for the novel: Toews centers the entire story on a two-day period of deliberation among a group of women who have called a clandestine, emergency meeting. We discover in the opening pages of the novel that when the eight perpetrators were discovered, the colony leadership planned to manage justice in-house, but “it soon became apparent that the men’s lives were in danger” when one was attacked with a scythe and another was hanged to death. At the time of the novel, the men have been sent to the city to be arrested, “for their own safety, presumably.” Word reaches the colony that this exile is temporary—some of the other men of Molotschna plan to bail out their brothers and bring them home to be “forgiven.” Desperate, the women decide to vote on how to proceed. They conceive of three possibilities going forward:

1. Do Nothing.
2. Stay and Fight.
3. Leave

As the women can’t read, one of the teenaged girls illustrates the options for them, and ballots are cast. The group is cleanly divided between options 2 and 3—and so the debate begins.

Containing the story to these two feverish days of deliberation is already a way to get to the heart of the matter: how do we determine justice on our own terms? But Toews’s masterstroke of post-reliability comes in her choice of narrator. With notable irony, this story called Women Talking is narrated by a man.

The film is poised as a major inflection point in mainstream feminist cinema.

His name is August Epps, a native of Molotschna who was forced to leave the colony at age ten when he and his parents were excommunicated. After a period of time “in the world,” he has returned. Now, his childhood best friend Ona, who is pregnant by one of her rapists, has beseeched him to take minutes on their secret meeting. Toews’s novel consists of those minutes, and nothing more.

August has biases shaped by more benevolent forces than the other men who spent their adolescence in the colony: his empowered mother, his respect and affection for Ona, his passion for facts. But despite his earnest attempts at transparency from early on, his unreliability is apparent—and literally structural. The women need a man to be their minute-taker because they are illiterate. The Mennonites in Molotschna (and in the real Manitoba) speak Plautdietsch, a medieval, unwritten dialect. August, their amanuensis, must therefore translate to English before he can scribe. His translation, in addition to being a metaphor for the chasm of empathy the book hopes to bridge in an otherwise gender-segregated colony, is the filter through which we are required to hear the women’s voices.

What makes Women Talking an exemplar of this post-reliable mood, then, is that the central mystery of Women Talking is not whether the rapes happened, nor why or how. August isn’t there to learn any of that, either; he’s there to observe, to help, to show solidarity. Instead, the device of August’s unreliability forces us to depend on him. Wondering whether we can put our trust in August is a gripping way to think about faith in a book about religious fundamentalism gone wrong.

With her post-reliable structure, Toews can conjure a timelier set of questions about survivorship, allyship, and authority. The novel focuses its attention not on heroes or villains, though new kinds of each may emerge; instead, it hones in on themes befitting our post-MeToo world: agency, solidarity, accountability, healing. “Time will heal our heavy hearts,” Ona’s outspoken sister Salome says at one point. “Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving those goals.”

“But not all men,” another woman points out, as August scribbles away. “Perhaps not all men,” Ona concedes, “but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

It would be easy for those who read the press about this case to dismiss the eight perpetrators in this story as monsters belonging exclusively to the Mennonite culture. But Toews’s novel does not let us off the hook that easily. After all, the same religious faith that forged the attackers is the same tool helping these women carve out a path forward. So while the ideologies of the colony, pernicious and otherwise, are uncovered in the course of the two-day debate, our understanding of them only imbues the women talking with more authority, more agency. That’s because the primary bias before us is August’s, whose time outside the colony makes him our proxy. The book is a study of that bias, and so it is not just about these women talking but about the rest of us, listening.

August’s presence in the foreground does not let us forget that the question of whether to “stay and fight”—to stay in community with men whose sexual predation has been learned and even fostered—is not an abstract one, not for any of us who have survived the patriarchy thus far. The isolated, illiterate women at the center of Toews’s novel may live under a particularly chilling form of patriarchal authoritarianism, but by the end of the novel, it is hard not to recognize their world as our own—and that a more insidious and genteel form of the same patriarchal impunity is alive and well in secular society.

It is Toews’s narrative framing of this story, and not her direct retelling of it, that does the most productive feminist work, so I will be eager to see whether the film can do the same. As critic Ryan Coleman reported at Lit Hub from the Toronto Film Festival in September, director Sarah Polley made some key changes: August remains in the story (played by Ben Whishaw), but he’s not our narrator. The film is instead narrated, as CrimeRead’s Olivia Rutigliano shared with me, from the voice of two young women in the colony, who address Ona’s unborn child in the second-person “you.”

In the book, August’s abiding love for Ona contributes to his unreliability as a narrator—we can’t help but notice when August notices (and scribes, with an adorable attempt at dispassion) Ona’s pregnancy symptoms, which occasionally interrupt the flow of dialogue in the meeting. Her pregnancy, then, embodies the stakes of the “stay or go” debate at hand. More than anything, it is a chilling reminder of her ordeal, the horror of which is amplified by August’s lovingly vigilant gaze.

I can only speculate that Polley kept August in the story to this end: his gentle masculinity, and his loyal service to Ona, make him a stark foil for the other brand of manhood that has taken hold in Molotschna. I can also see how this unborn child serves the story as an addressee. At once a product of the attacks and a promise of new beginnings, the future child symbolizes both horror and hope. But the novel’s ability to balance the two implications ensures that we don’t mistake hope for justice. Especially given the recent overturning of Roe, we must be mindful of stories that turn babies into tidy sources of healing for their survivor-mothers. That said, I’m intrigued to see what kind of feminist message is possible when the young women get to narrate—and get to determine what version of the story reaches the next generation.

Emma Staffaroni
Emma Staffaroni
Emma Staffaroni teaches literature and gender studies, most recently in Andover, Massachusetts. In addition to feminist literature, she works on transgender-inclusive school reform initiatives. Her literary commentary can be found on her blog, Staff Picks.





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