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The Hell That Patriarchy Promises and Too Often Delivers: A Very Personal Review of Women Talking | Righting America

Susan Trollinger

Overhead picture of a group of women circled and holding hands while dressed in mostly black dresses; they are on a wooden floor with bales of hay next to them.
Still from the trailer to Sarah Polley’s Women Talking (2022).

I was silent for something like two years. He terrorized me. Central to the terror was that I never knew exactly when he would come after me. What I knew was that he would. It might happen in his home. He was my brother-in-law, so I was often there. Or it might be in a conference hotel stairwell. He was on the faculty of the rhetoric department at the University of Pittsburgh where I was pursuing my PhD, and he was an expert in classical rhetoric—the area within the discipline of rhetoric that was my joy. As I headed into that stairwell, he would follow me, letting me that he was going to “help” me get some ice. Or it might be in the burger joint in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning (at Pitt), where he would move into areas of conversation that sickened me.

Women Talking. A film about women in a remote and ultra-conservative Mennonite colony who have had enough. “The men” (as the women refer to them) have been “attacking” them—a euphemism of sorts for what these men (some are barely old enough to be called men) do. For years, they have been tranquilizing the girls and women (from age 5 to age 65) with sedatives made for cows, and then raping them. 

When these women dared to talk about what had been done to them, “the men” told them that they were demon possessed or just making things up. In the true story, upon which this film is based, as many as 151 women and girls in a conservative Mennonite colony in Manitoba, Bolivia were sedated, raped, and gaslighted. Miriam Toews, a Canadian Mennonite writer who tells stories about things she knows, wrote the award-winning novel upon which this Oscar-nominated film (directed by Sarah Polley) is based.

I spent 15 plus years among Mennonites, so I have some (limited) idea of the world these women inhabited. It’s a world of the faithful remnant. You are the chosen. That being so, there can be neither spot nor wrinkle. And if you’re like these women in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony, your job is to protect the fantasy that there is no spot or wrinkle. It doesn’t matter what the facts are. 

If you do find the courage to face the violence that has been done to you, as the women of this film do, you sing a hymn. It might be “How Great Thou Art,” or the Mennonite anthem (the hymn famously known among Mennonites as “606”) “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Or perhaps, one of my favorites: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Still, you are in this horrible economy. It’s an economy according to which God’s love for you is predicated on your loyalty to this “faithful remnant.” And loyalty means that whatever particular form your suffering takes, even if that involves being raped by your father or brother or uncle, you are to endure it. It is your cross to bear. More than that, you are obliged (unless you want to spend eternity in hell) to forgive “the men.” Seventy times seven.

In one of the opening scenes of the film, we are positioned  by the camera (in a manner reminiscent of Hitchcock’s innovative camerawork in Psycho) as if suspended from the ceiling over a young woman’s bed. Looking down, we watch as she comes to consciousness and sees (probably not for the first time) new dark bruises on her inner thighs and blood stains on her nightgown and sheets. What we don’t expect is the older woman, in her sixties or more, who runs into the bedroom in her plain dress and head covering, to comfort the young woman.

We might imagine that this film is about the horrors of a religious sect that pins its salvation on the suffering of women. And, to be sure, it is. And it is about so much more. 

This film has a lot to teach us about the complexities of women’s suffering under patriarchy, about how women have learned to punish one another for their suffering, and the incredible fortitude it takes to acknowledge the pain of the other—whether sister, mother, four-year-old daughter, or adolescent son. And to do something about it.

It would be pretty to think so (to borrow a line from Hemingway) that this story of women’s suffering under patriarchy were limited to ultra-conservative Mennonite sects. But, alas, it is not. 

By the way, the man who saw fit to terrorize me was not a Mennonite. Obviously, you don’t have to belong to a conservative religious sect to be a predator. Worse, and as Bill’s previous post made clear, patriarchy (of a particularly violent sort) is on the march. 

What is so remarkable about this film is that we spend most of our time with these women and girls (denied an education and therefore illiterate) in a hay loft as they work through the question of whether they should just stay and endure the abuse, stay and fight the abuse, or leave. They talk. They yell. They cry. They witness one another’s suffering. And then they act.

You get women talking. There’s no telling where that may lead.