When Women Were Birds, the latest book from Terry Tempest Williams (TTW), is a wonderful, painful, poetic, and intensely personal meditation on Williams’ life: her femininity, her spirituality, her relationship with her mother, and more. Her work resonates with me because, like TTW, my family has been affected by cancer–cancer that was likely caused by exposure to radiation. “Clan of the One-Breasted Women” was the first beautiful thing I’d ever read that spoke directly to that experience.
My own grandmother died after a painful, decade-long battle with cancer at the age of 54. I gasped as I read that TTW’s mother also died of cancer at 54–an age that becomes painfully young the older I get. My grandmother’s youngest sister was also afflicted with cancer and did not survive childhood. Her siblings, who lived to adulthood, got cancer too. The doctor said the type of cancer indicated that the kids “must have gotten into something.” Indeed, they lived along a river in Northeast Oregon, with an air stream that carried plutonium from Hanford, Washington. Though it was over 100 miles away, the pollution seeped into the atmosphere and even caused green snow one winter. Locals were unaware of it’s toxic nature.
Williams reminds us that silence and secrecy have long plagued the female experience. But within a family, women also navigate the most beautiful and painful experiences together: the loneliness and intimacy of marriage, the pain and power of childbirth, the joy of children, the suffering of disease; death. TTW navigates this territory with raw honesty and vulnerability. In addition to her connection to the women in her family, she reveals her own unique path, her own choices.
Like Williams, I have often felt that I have very few role models. I am a woman who has chosen a somewhat unconventional life. I tend to give less energy to relationships (although, at times, my love for Z has been completely consuming), and I currently have no children. I have not always understood my path, but it is one that has clearly deviated from my peers. My friends from high school have careers, yes, but they have also invested their energy profoundly into their husbands and their children in ways that I have not.
My nearest role models are women in my field, colleagues and former teachers. Even still, I’ve yet to meet one whose relationship to her partner and to her children, or lack thereof, has really reflected my own choices and relationships. This is a theme that TTW explores in When Women Were Birds. In the early years of her marriage, her inclination not to have children (at least not right away) made her different from her peers. And yet, like me, she does not seem to reject or disidentify with her femininity or her capacity and potential as a mother.
In a world where these stories seem too few and far between, her admissions are brave. It is this bravery that allows her to share her fear in enduring a hemangioma in her brain. For a writer, a woman whose world is in her thoughts and creativity, I cannot imagine the trauma, fear, and doubt involved in recovering from such an injury. But she does recover–though changed, perhaps–and the eloquence and insight in her book is a testament to that.
I first discovered TTW sometime during my undergraduate degree. I was struck by the accuracy with which she addressed the themes that most interested me in my own life. She feels like a kindred spirit, and I think that’s the sign of a great artist: she shares her secrets with the reader, and the reader has the same secrets, and then everyone is united in realizing how much we are the same.
After finishing the book, I remembered a bird feeder that was still boxed up in the basement from my recent move. I brought it upstairs, dusted it off, and filled it with fresh sunflower seeds. It now hangs on my front porch, waiting for birds.