When Women Were Birds:
Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Audio Book available from
The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates
Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.”
Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.
“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.” What did Williams’s mother mean by that? In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?”
“The writing of Terry Tempest Williams is brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder. She’s one of those writers who changes peoples’ lives by encouraging attention and a slow, patient awakening.” —Anne Lamott, author of Imperfect Birds
“Much more than a brave and luminous memoir, When Women Were Birds is a set of blueprints for building one of America’s most impassioned and audacious writers, as well as a transcript of the moment when she stepped determinedly into the full power of her own voice. In Terry’s magical equation, rage + confusion + grief + accountability = love. At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
“Somehow, miraculously, Terry Tempest Williams has done it again: written a book that no one else could have, that tells the truth about our lives. If you want to understand how a writer finds her voice, read this gorgeous book.” —Sue Halpern, author of Can’t Remember What I Forgot
“When Women Were Birds is a wise and beautiful and intelligent book, written for the women, men, and children of our times. It vibrates with the earned honesty of a great soul. It is a gift, passed on to readers with the same spirit of love and generosity with which it was first given to the author by her mother. A remarkable journey, a remarkable story.” —Rick Bass, author of The Wild Marsh
More Reviews and Interviews
A review of When Women Were Birds by Kelly Blewett in Book Page, can be viewed here.
Article in the Salt Lake Tribune: Terry Tempest Williams reflects on the riddle of women’s silence, by Elaine Jarvik, published on April 6, 2012.
Review in the Boston Globe, by Judy Bolton Fasman, April 12, 2012.
When Women Were Birds: a Review, by Gayle Brandeis, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 2012.
'When Women Were Birds': Grappling with a mother's parting gift, in the Seattle Times, by Barbara Lloyd McMichael, April 15, 2012.
'When Women Were Birds' review: Exploring the mystery of mother's 'paper tombstones', by Marc Covert, published in The Oregonian, April 21, 2012.
“When women were birds”: Reading blank journals, A writer makes sense of the rows of empty cloth-bound diaries her mother left her, by Susan Salter Reynolds, Barnes & Noble Review, published in Salon on April 28, 2012.
Adding words to pages that were blank, a review in the Deseret News, by Jerry Earl Johnston, published May 2, 2012.
NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge, Terry Tempest Williams on When Women Were Birds
When Women Were Birds: a Review, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, in Spirituality and Practice.
WHYY Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane interviews Terry Tempest Williams on her mother's mystifying bequest, May 17, 2012
WAMC Northeast Public Radio Book Show on When Women Were Birds
Terry Tempest Williams Talks About Her New Book, ‘When Women Were Birds,’ by Susan Salter Reynolds, published May 22, 2012, in The Daily Beast.
An Hour With Terry Tempest Williams: Access Utah Tuesday, Tom Williams interviewed Terry Tempest Williams for UPR, Utah Public Radio, recorded on June 12, 2012.