1886 words (5.4 double-spaced pages)
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The Clan of One-Breasted Women by Terry Tempest Williams
In our current society it is established that faith is equated with a type of blind acceptance of all that the church or institution stands for. Having faith is still viewed as a wholesome characteristic, though it is more and more becoming correlated with negative connotation that is commonly attached to a thoughtless, dogmatic approach an absolute obedience of all tenets regardless of conscious thoughts and appeals. In a similar regard, patriotism has become an exemplar of modern faith because it calls for unchallenged compliance with both the laws of the government and their unjustified actions, especially during times of war. Primarily this absolute-authority mindset was instilled within the general population because of the principle of sovereign immunity that was instituted long before the United States was even founded. While widely accepted during the beginning of this country, landmark atrocities initiated by the government, regardless of rationale, emphasized this question of immunity to the people and the court system, eventually leading to revolutionary judgments against the government. Before this, especially during the Cold War, the government fought extensively to keep a jaded population through propaganda. When we view the history of both religion and government, the ideals behind true obedience are strongest when they allow for active engagement on behalf of the citizens, permitting them to question deeply and ultimately follow their consciences. One individual, who had the tragic benefit of being involved with an example of the landmark atrocities the government inflicted, came to the realization that, no matter what obstacles one faces, obedience must first be to yourself. The author of the personal narrative The Clan of One-Breasted Women, Terry Tempest Williams, comes from a lineage of individuals that, because of governmental bomb testing during the mid-twentieth century, developed various types of cancer. Her physical ailments aside, Williams battles with vast inner-conflict, for her Mormon religion prevented her from speaking out and stating her struggle to the world. Overcome with frustration of misplaced authority, due to both her religion's suppression of ideas and governmental jargon, she finally offers her emotional pleas through a subtly persuasive narrative. By presenting only very common and well-known historical context, combined with personal examples through a narrative approach, Williams is targeting a large percentage of the population, especially women and those that lived through the events she speaks of and . Terry Tempest Williams indulges the reader with an aggregate of sympathetic narrative snippets, structural and stylistic shifts and a display of oppositional thinking, relating perspective and illustrating an alternative to blind obedience and emphasizing the need to civilly speak out against it.
Williams' work contains constant narratives of her own personal struggle against breast cancer and its effects on those dear to her, enveloping readers emotionally while, through abrupt statements, simultaneously redirecting them towards future solutions. Her account commences immediately with a declaration of the author's horrific family history: "I belong to a Clan of One-breasted Women. My mother, my grandmother, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead." (Williams 281). The initial strategy that Williams employs instantly evokes feelings of sympathy within readers because her purpose is more than an individual quest; her plight stems from the involvement of her entire family and is aimed at helping more than just those like her. By writing these sympathetic statistics, Williams creates a strong connection with the reader, which she will eventually mold into support, and also adds tonal direction. After quickly introducing readers to her situation, though, she draws the attention away from her specific struggle and refocuses it on the purpose by adding subtle undertones to accounts of history, such as when she concludes her background simply with "This is my family history" (281) and adds further comments on how "Cancer was part of life" (282). By not employing poetic and melodramatic language in the beginning to exploit the inhumanities of her situation, Williams motivates readers to seek deeper understanding within the paper more than their initial ideas of mere pity. Because the audience is not expecting such blunt statements and descriptions concerning her horrific past, she causes readers to understand that the concentration is not on what has happened to her in the past, but what must be done in the future. While the content of Williams' background alone establishes sobering sympathetic emotions within readers, she explicitly directs her focus in order to prepare the audience to receive a more involved perspective.
Furthering the introduced perspective of her situation, Williams constructs very specific imagery that familiarizes readers with the injustices inflicted upon her, giving them a more basic/conscious perspective and sequentially urging them to question blind acceptance of authority. She employs specific, connotative imagery to an overall minimal, though effective, degree when she describes what she has gone through. For example, in one passage Williams vividly details her experiences with cancerous patients and how she "
bathed their scarred bodies, and kept their secrets. [She] watched beautiful women become bald as Cytoxan, cisplatin, and Adriamycin were infected into their veins. [She] held their foreheads as they vomited green-black bile
" (285-286). This particular excerpt presents a sense of terrible familiarity on behalf of the author, lending credibility to her plight. When readers can actually feel her pain and share her grief, they can gain a much closer perspective of the issue. Also, it adds individualistic perspective to a people that the government has gone to great extents to dehumanize by defining as collateral, such as when the Atomic Energy Commissioner, Thomas Murray, stated that "[the government] must not let anything interfere with this series of tests, nothing.'" (284). In the face of such grave atrocities, Williams reveals to readers her perspective, equipping them with a deeper understanding and justifying the necessity of questioning authority.
Now qualified to properly assess based on Williams' personal perspective, readers are introduced to some of the governmental jargon that she so vehemently wants to speak out against so that they can comprehend her frustrations more effectively. Though not direct quotes, Williams captures the basic overall opinions of the government when they describes how her home area is "virtually uninhabited desert terrain" (287) and consists of only "low-use segments of the population" (283). Because these expressions are not actually quoted from governmental or historical experts, they further contextualize the prevailing mindsets of the time period, giving insight into how the government persuaded the people to believe. By seemingly diminishing the level of respect for herself and others in her situation, readers obtain a deeper understanding of the unjust circumstances surrounding these happenings and instills a desire for change in the audience. Through the contextualization of governmental jargon, readers have an overall feeling of unjustness, captivating them within the sober tone of the paper and creating a frustration that will call them to speak out.
After establishing the specifics of her obstacles, Williams strategically structures her narrative by interjecting realism with a dream sequence and blurs fact and fiction, once again stressing the importance of her ideals over her actions and applies them to a much larger realm. The narrative commences with a relatively brief "family history" (281) and then explains the very real events and context of her situation. After a physical break in the writing, she continues with "One night, I dreamed
" (287), thus starting a dream sequence that, near the end, assimilates all too well into the overall story, adding confusion. Williams then instigates her conclusion, stating "I crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site" (289) and finishes the story back with real world events. At first her dream sequence seems obvious enough, but towards the end it begins to become quite realistic and flows directly into what Williams and her peers truly did. Obscuring the dream is conducive to her purpose because it emphasizes that it is not her particular actions of civil disobedience that should be realized throughout her readers, but the ideals behind them. Further, Williams is not just setting this portion of her narrative apart physically to add emphasis to the contents, but to highlight the shift in her style of writing. While beginning and ending her work by educating readers through actual personal conflicts, in the center she turns these experiences into a story. Through her story-telling elements, Williams introduces many aspects of a Native American mythical fable as "Shoshone grandmothers" (287) sing on a mesa and "stretch marks [appear]" (288) because "the land [is] losing its muscle" (288). Because Williams alludes heavily to Native American lore, she is pulling readers' mindsets to the roots of America, when the citizens ruled and could question the authority they established. Also, by involving vastly different cultures and traditions in her story that was supposed to be centered on her own specific actions, Williams automatically opens up her meaning to a much larger and broader spectrum of thinking. Through the same means of adapting her situation to one that is not her own, she is portraying that her ideas of standing up and speaking out can be applied to any circumstance. Williams creates a structural and stylistic shift, from a narrative to a story, in order to accentuate how her ideals of civil disobedience can, and were, not only actualized, but can be applied to any conflicting situation
Near the end of her narrative and after she has civilly disobeyed the government, Williams is stopped and frisked, being found with only "a pen and a pad of paper" (290). When questioned, she replies that these are her "weapons'" (290). Similar to how her particular dream is applicable to a much larger realm of though and practices, Williams physically arms herself with the ability to compose and persuasively relate her story and, more importantly, how she can think through ideas and apply them in a broader array of ideas and civil actions. By adding familiarity and perspective to a situation that is already known to a certain extent, readers are better able to comprehend the unjustness of the government and how, through her subtle tone and imagery, blatant the need for change is. Each individual strategy Williams employs serves a specific and progressive purpose, whether it is causing readers to sympathize with her, relating a personal perspective or aiding them in better understanding not only the need, but the plausibility of action. She yearns to reclaim real faith, obedience to any institution based on trust and knowledge, from the pitiful, perverted state it is currently in. In order to be truly patriotic, one must question the practices of the government openly, for this will lead to a more unified and collective society. Ultimately, Williams writes these words and constructs her strategies in order to negate the predominant thought that dogmatic faith, in the sense of blind absolute obedience, should be tolerated and that the general populace must stand up, speak out and call for action.
Williams, Terry Tempest. "The Clan of One-Breasted Women." Refuge: An Unnatural History
of Family and Place. New York: Pantheon, 1991. 281-290.
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"The Clan of One-Breasted Women by Terry Tempest Williams." 123HelpMe.com. 25 May 2015