Miriam Toews' new novel Women Talking is Mennonite #MeToo
August 27, 2018 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Miriam Toews' new novel, Women Talking has been described by some as Mennonite #MeToo. It was inspired by the horrific sexual assaults in the closed, ultra conservative Mennonite Manitoba Colony in Bolivia: men in the community drugged and raped over 100 women and girls in the community nightly over a period of years. Initially, the community's male elders dismissed the women's reports as either fantasy or the work of Satan, but eventually eight men were caught and convicted (previously on Metafilter). “I’ve always been trying to challenge the patriarchy, specifically of my Mennonite community, but I’m concerned with the suppression of girls and women especially, and any place in the world that falls under fundamentalist, authoritarian thinking,” says Toews. “I think in my work, and in my life, I’ve always been attempting to, as they used to say, stick it to the man.” [Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault, mention of suicide.]

From the book's preface:


Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia named the Manitoba Colony, after the province in Canada, many girls and women would wake in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night. The attacks were attributed to ghosts and demons. Some members of the community felt the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as punishment for their sins; many accused the women of lying for attention or to cover up adultery; still others believed everything was the result of wild female imagination.

Eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them. In 2011, these men were convicted in a Bolivian court and received lengthy prison sentences. In 2013, while the convicted men were still in jail, it was reported that similar assaults and other sexual abuses were continuing to take place in the colony.

Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (9 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Toews' last novel, All My Puny Sorrows absolutely destroyed me. It was beautiful but so emotionally taxing that I can't bring myself to read it again. I have to wonder if I have the emotional reserve to tackle this one.

Strangely, and somewhat maddeningly, this novel won't be available in the US until April (!) of 2019, so I guess I have some time to find out.
posted by dis_integration at 9:20 AM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just became the 291st person to put a hold on this at my library, so I probably won't be able to read it before April 2019 either. "I look forward to reading it" is probably not quite accurate, but she sure does great work.
posted by ITheCosmos at 9:34 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

In this recent AskMe question, Eyebrows McGee brought up another relevant Mennonite/MeToo connection, involving prominent Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (long article, short follow-up article).

The twist here is that he seemed to be trying to create a create a sort of theological framework to justify what most of us would recognize immediately as abusive behavior.
posted by flug at 10:37 AM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Do you or does someone you know have access to public information (press clippings or releases, student newspaper articles, court records, public statements) about abuse in the Mennonite church that need to be better known so that abusers can be held accountable and not move from church to church, institution to institution, community to community? Consider submitting them to The MAP List, a volunteer-run online "resource for the healing and prevention of sexual violence among Anabaptist Mennonites." Do you or does someone you know have a personal experience of abuse or harassment that has not yet become public or that you do not wish to make public at this time? Consider reaching out to the MAP List so that the person who has abused or harassed you can be put on "the list behind the list." Indeed, you may well discover that the person is already there and that you are not alone. I am not directly involved with the MAP List but know several volunteers well and think very highly of their work.

If you belong to another faith tradition and have a story about abuse or harassment to tell, consider contacting the SNAP network.
posted by sy at 2:07 PM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

I know sexual abuse occurs outside of organized religion, but, isn't it time to rethink the whole 'religious institution' idea? Maybe try a few centuries without any, see how it goes?
posted by signal at 2:35 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's almost like secluded communities created under patriarchy and dedicated to outmoded culture and technology are bad for the people involved.
posted by Megafly at 4:20 PM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

I grew up in an MB church. This didn't happen to me personally but it doesn't surprise me. Sex-related incidents were not uncommon, especially involving perpetrators in positions of power.

We need to stop treating people's position as a blanket excuse. We need to stop acting as if theology takes precedence over the well-being of individuals.

The bible is no more a reasonable guide to sexuality, power, and gender than it is a science textbook.
posted by allium cepa at 9:36 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I grew up in Mennonite Brethren church in Manitoba (Canada), and my cousin is Miriam Toew's cousin.

When I was a young teenager, the youth pastor would take me into his office, and tell me intimate details of his sex life with his wife. Two other youth ministers would often chase and tackle me, with their wives looking on. I knew at the time it was wrong for them to do that, but the one time I tried to tell my mother about it, she brushed me off.

When I was fifteen, I attended a cousin's wedding, and while in the greeting line, in front of hundreds of guests, the groom kissed me on the lips. Nobody took any notice.

I don't think this behavior was exclusive to the Mennonite church, I heard about it from every girl I knew, in any church, in any secular organization (schools, universities, workplaces etc). What makes it more egregious is that people view spiritual organizations as safe(r) places and a haven from the ills of the outside world. The Mennonite church may have a worse problem at the moment with regard to sexual abuse, because it is opposed to women in leadership positions, and promotes sickening gender essentialism, homophobia and anti-intellectualism that is endemic within the church (Mennonites conform most closely to American evangelicals in these views), which compounds the problem.

But far worse than the predatory grooming that these men did to me, was the brutal bullying I received at the Mennonite junior high I attended based on my delayed puberty and interest in books.
posted by nanook at 8:07 AM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you for sharing your story, nanook; I'm very sorry you were subjected to that abuse.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:56 AM on August 31, 2018

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