I Covered the Story That Inspired 'Women Talking.' Here's What I Wish More People Knew
Credit - Michael Gibson—Orion Pictures
Midway through 2009, I awoke to a stranger-than-fiction story in the local press in Bolivia, the country where I had been living and working as a reporter for four years. A group of eight Mennonite men from an isolated off-the-grid colony named Manitoba had been brought to the local police station by members of their own community. They were accused of raping more than 100 women over the course of several years. Their 2011 trial, which I covered for TIME, surfaced the horrific details: the men had turned a cow anesthetic into a spray that sedated humans. For years, they sprayed it into bedroom windows at night, before climbing through to rape the women. In the morning, the survivors had no or few memories of what had occurred. Their bodies were often bruised; their sheets bloodstained. The colony’s men, I was told, insisted that the rapes were figments of the women’s “wild female imagination,” or, perhaps, the work of demons.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is the premise for the novel-turned-film Women Talking (book by Miriam Toews; film by Sarah Polley). The plot begins with the rapists having been carted off to jail (for their own safety) and the women of an “isolated religious community,” wrestling with the decision to stay and fight, or to leave. The entire novel and film are, as appropriately titled, women simply talking.
My connection to Women Talking’s origin story goes deeper than just covering the trial. After that initial reporting, I couldn’t get Manitoba out of my head. I wanted to know how the women were faring. What, if anything, had the colony done for them, and for itself, to heal? Given the nature of Mennonite communities in Bolivia—reclusive, hostile to outsiders—my best shot at getting answers would be to live in the colony itself for a short period, so the women could get to know me and, hopefully, trust me enough to open up. I had built a good relationship with one family in Manitoba when I covered the trial, and they graciously offered to host me and my brother Noah, a photojournalist and videographer, in January 2013 for our follow-up piece.
What Noah and I uncovered, which was published in Vice later that year, was devastating. There was no healing process. Women had been refused counseling because, the reasoning went, they were passed out when the events occurred. Survivors had been told to forgive or face eternal damnation. We also unearthed rampant incest throughout the colony. And we broke the story that the rapes had not stopped when the group of nine was caught four years prior. My article and Noah’s accompanying documentary remain the most deeply reported work about the rapes and their aftermath, and the only documentation that brings to the fore perspectives of the women themselves beyond short interviews outside a courthouse or brief visits to the colony.
Ten years later, I sat in a theater in my hometown of Philadelphia watching Polley’s Women Talking, failing miserably to hold back tears. I had recently read the book, but being hurled back visually to the scene of the crimes was overwhelming. My mind raced to “Liz,” the woman I grew closest to in my reporting. I thought of her quick wit and quick hands, moving deftly through her sister’s hair as she braided. The film’s flashbacks to stained sheets and black and blue limbs took me to “Sara,” for whom the rapes became so frequent that washing the blood out of her linens in the morning became a routine.
Also overwhelming was the fact that the nuances of the stories that I helped the world understand were alive on the screen, but most people likely didn’t know that. While Toews’ book opens with a “Note on the Novel,” which summarizes the real-life events inspiring her book , the opening credits of the movie merely state that it is based on the novel. There is no mention of the women whose lives inspired the book, or the journalists who amplified those women’s voices. (Responding to a request for an interview with Toews, her publisher Knopf Canada said in a statement that “Miriam’s own knowledge of those events came not through reading Jean’s journalism, but through a more direct, specific, and personal connection to the community itself, which predates Jean’s stories on the subject.”)
Read More: A Horrific True Story of Rape in a Religious Colony Becomes Thought Provoking Fiction
However the story came to Toews originally, I worry its visibility is fading. Many of the interviews I’ve read and watched about the movie have omitted the history, even as the filmmakers make important points about how women’s voices and experiences ought to be centered. (Polley declined to be interviewed for this piece.) To be clear, I am glad both the novel and the film exist, as I believe fiction—which they both clearly are —is a powerful tool for humans to grapple with our most existential questions. The discourse in Women Talking evolves into a moving reflection on the complexities of—and choices between—faith, love, safety, democracy, and forgiveness. But what I’ve been thinking about since the book was published and even more so as the story has reached a wider audience is the foundation of truth upon which they rest, and how important it is that it’s recognized and shared.
With Women Talking receiving critical acclaim and awards nominations, including Oscar nods for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, it is likely that even more people will become familiar with the fictional version of this story. But here’s what I want them to know about the real one.
First, the rapes happened to real people, in a real country. In the movie, the location of the colony is ambiguous (and the one briefly appearing non-Mennonite character speaks English, which signals a place other than a South American Spanish-speaking nation). The women are clearly part of a conservative religious order, but the word Mennonite is never uttered. Polley’s publicly available interviews offer some insight here: In the era of the #MeToo movement, she wanted the film to have broader resonance. “The film is told in the realm of a fable,” she recently told PBS Newshour. Polley said she took it out of a specific place and time so as not to give viewers permission to say that the story’s central issues are ones that concern only hyper-isolated communities.
This is understandable, but having spent considerable time with the women who endured the horror that’s depicted on screen, I still worry about the true story being lost, the specifics subsumed by the takeaways. Without any geographic or historical context in the film, and when the real atrocities are not regularly discussed in cast and filmmaker interviews, where does that leave Liz and Sara? What would they think of a film that depicts women going through their own real personal hell, but in a way that unmoors it from the actual events? How would they feel seeing their colony’s history represented without direct acknowledgement? I, sadly, can not ask them. I moved from Bolivia to Vietnam shortly after reporting my piece for Vice, and could not maintain contact with women in Manitoba, as they have no cell phones, internet access, or landlines, and if I were to write them letters in Spanish (which a few of them speak), they wouldn’t be able to read them.
Read More: The Harrowing Story Behind Sarah Polley’s Buzzy Drama Women Talking
I also want viewers to know that there are powerful throughlines of truth in the novel and film, such as the nods to incest, and the questioning of whether they jailed the right men. Related, it’s important more broadly for us all to remember that, in an age when so many beautifully done movies are “based on real events,” rarely do those events simply happen. Often, we learn about compelling stories precisely because there are reporters who build trust, establish relationships, investigate and then elevate the perspectives of those we might not otherwise hear. Journalists help us as a society make sense of events big and small, day in and day out. Recognizing the interconnection between fiction based on real-life and journalism does not diminish the hard work of screenwriters or novelists who take the stories to another level. Quite the contrary: giving the audience an understanding of how stories, be they real or fictionalized, come about should be all of our jobs as media-makers.
In this case, Toews says she heard about the situation in Manitoba independent of my reporting and, according to her publisher, referenced my work and other journalists’ when speaking about what happened there. But as this movie gets more attention, I believe it would be a missed opportunity not to continue to highlight the journalism as well, as it crucially paints a fuller picture of the reality. Actress Jessie Buckley’s mention of the Vice article and the real women in Bolivia on Stephen Colbert’s show is an example of how seamlessly and effectively this can be done while still shining a light on the art.
There are other things you might be wondering from me, and I admit I don’t have all the answers. I watched Women Talking with a close friend and she peppered me with questions when it ended. One stuck out: “I know that was all made-up,” she said as we drove home, “but do you think the women you reported on had these thoughts and just didn’t say them to one another? Do you think there’s any scenario in which that kind of conversation could have taken place among them?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. As close as I was to some of the women in my piece, their old-colonist Mennonite world and mindset was, and still is, very foreign to me. Liz’s face rushed to my mind: freckled, inquisitive, guarded. I imagined her and her sisters and her mother in a barnyard loft, exploring what it might feel like to have power over their own future and fate. “I hope so,” I said.