My book club recently read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a futuristic novel wherein women’s reproductive rights, as well as the women themselves, are controlled entirely by those in power. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time and appreciated this opportunity, though I ended up quite disturbed—not just by the tale, but by our obliviousness at times to the possibilities of what could potentially become us. During our club discussion, one of the women commented that she couldn’t understand the point or purpose of writing such a book as she felt it was too far-fetched. I was startled by her remark because I easily viewed it as a cautionary story, one that had presented what could happen if we ignore history and current events.
One pivotal passage for me in the novel was this:
“Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.” (56-57)
Are we like the fictional characters in the tale? Are we ignoring our past? Giving little heed to the present, assuming the emotions, like the incidents, are too isolated to matter? Pretending that nothing like this could happen to Americans? Consider how Atwood alludes to the past that created her present in the novel. Her female protagonist and friends were stunned by what seemed so sudden, because they had ignored the signs of violence as not pertaining to them. Instead, they saw the turmoil as separate, as “out there.” The powerful zealots who brought down the government “blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” Later, the media controlled everyone, telling people to stay calm. So the people in the story allowed themselves to be manipulated under a totalitarian regime that was only supposed to be temporary.
But the villains of Atwood’s novel weren’t Islamic fanatics. No, they were closer than that. They were a sect of Christian fundamentalists, religious extremists right here on our own American soil. Atwood published this dystopian novel in 1985 (Canada; US and UK in 1986), and there’s an excellent article by her published on October 14, 2011, in “The Guardian” where she addresses some of what was going on in her life that led her to write The Handmaid’s Tale. However, I found it rather curious how well the topic of Atwood’s novel fed into the non-fiction I was reading during the same time period, especially since I wasn’t the person to select this novel for our book club.
One of the books I had started reading was Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. Many theories abound regarding what happened to drive the witch hunts that took place primarily between 1560 and 1760; this particular author, Anne Llewellyn Barstow, looks at the atrocities of that time through the lens of being a “legacy of violence against women.” In this respect, one of the driving forces was for men to control women’s reproductive rights; patriarchy and religion joined hands to incite terror among midwives, and that “one must acknowledge that ‘wise women’ such as folk healers and diviners were useful, sought-after members of society, pre-1550.” (9) Considering how The Handmaid’s Tale addressed the control of women’s reproductive rights, I found the synchronicity of subject matter remarkable.
The other book I was reading was Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern, published in 2003. The author doesn’t just address Islamist terrorists, but also those from other religions. And, as it happens, Stern writes about two militant Christian groups in the United States that remind me of the tone in Atwood’s novel. One was a religious fellowship—where the women submitted to their husbands and “called them ‘lord’ as a sign of respect, in imitation of the way the biblical Sarah referred to her husband, Abraham” (22)—planning to poison major-city water supplies, and the other was a “pro-life movement that supports murdering doctors and attacking abortion clinics (147).
Those are historical glimpses, but the current political drive by the Republican party to overturn Roe vs. Wade is stronger than it has ever been. Further, many American citizens are simultaneously appalled by how some other cultures treat their women while demanding that American women give up their own reproductive rights and bodily control.
It seems to me that The Handmaid’s Tale remains a powerful and valid story, a cautionary tale. The protagonist Offred becomes simply an incubator, all her rights stripped from her, even her name. Women become possessions named by the duties they perform rather than the human beings that they are. I think we have to stay alert and know that it is always possible for the present to become the past—or worse, the future as depicted by Atwood.
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Darla Graves Palmer is a writer and healer, offering thoughtful perspectives through several blogs, including from kitsnk9s to puspavat, on the Gaia Path, and HolistiCARE.
28 thoughts on “Ignoring Isn’t The Same As Ignorance by Darla Graves Palmer”
Our country is deeply divided. We may have won the most recent Supreme Court decision regarding Roe vs Wade, but the damage is already done. Abortion clinics have been closed and it will take a long time to reopen them. Our country is deeply divided and there are too many guns out there, especially in the hands of the right wing and the police.
Thanks for the important reminder to keep on keepin on.
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Thank you for your thoughts. The division is indeed wide, but I hope that we stop ourselves before instigating any kind of deeper civil “war” … I’ve been reading “This Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust and hope we don’t escalate to the point where people feel there is no going back.
we have not yet read the book as a group but it definitely sounds interesting. The points raised in the passage are relate able. Yes we tend to ignore certain issues around us not because we are ignorant but because we live in another fairy tale world where the news paper headlines don’t affect us but it does not mean we do not talk about it or read the whole story. Some chose not to.And yes we are ignoring our past because if we didn’t we would know how to deal with emotions now, we would know how to deal with such tragedies instead of ignoring them. And a big factor that seems to be controlling our emotions now is social media, does that also contribute to being ‘ignorant’?
I have used social media as a way to educate myself. I’m discerning for sure – but the internet has made available more information than ever before from sources that don’t get airtime in the mainstream.
true but that takes us back to the subject ignoring is not the same as ignorance.. we know that there are sources out there that dont get airtime but we choose to ignore them. If more people knew what other informed people knew we would know how to handle certain situation instead of using social media as a platform to vent without proper knowledge of event or the history of certain events.
Thank you for your thoughts on how “ignoring our past” is not helping us. My view of social media is that it often doesn’t allow for the necessary pause to reflect. Sadly.
The really sad part is that too many people on social media only believe what they read in memes without taking the time to see if those memes are even true. We have so much knowledge right at our fingertips and very few take advantage of it. There is no excuse to be poorly educated anymore.
I read this book in the 80’s when it first came out, I was a brand new mother and it was chilling to me. I read it again a few months ago and it seems even more relevant now than it did then.
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I also read the book when it first came out, and found it scary…perhaps because it seemed to be happening “for real”. I think it is a “prophetic” book…presenting a future that could be made possible by our own choices and inaction. And today, I find Donald Trump and his kind to be more dangerous than any Muslim. Will people wake up in time to resist?
It’s not just Trump, but all of the things leading up to what is happening now.. the rights of women for birth control and abortion, the rape culture, conservative religions who think we all should give up our own thoughts, feelings, needs and ideas to serve their collective good. That again, women are thought of as second class citizens and are expected to abide by that. The selfish attitude that way too many people think they want. But one thing I got out of this book was be careful for what you wish for.. because it was obvious that the men were just as unhappy with the way society evolved as the women were… too many rules, too much hate, too much control. Yes, will they wake up before it’s too late or will they continue to believe “it will never happen here..”
Thank you for commenting. I’m really disturbed that the book seems even more relevant now to you. :(
“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”…working at denying the signs of violence that are all around us is what terrifies me the most. On my blog I wrote about Violence and the Fourth Of July this past week. As part of that article I told a story about a mother, a dear friend, who was ignoring the signs of violence in her own home – who complained about the jokes her father and adolescent sons made about the different ways they could blow up geese at the dinner table… and whose new position on guns was that people needed to have them because the world was too dangerous… (her sons are steeped in the gunning culture) deeply disturbed I included this vignette in the post of my struggle with violence and my response to it…this woman does not read my blog but someone else around here clearly did and sent my friend the link apparently. After reading the story she texted me that I was no longer welcome at her camp. Horrified, I apologized for everything except actually writing what I did, recognizing that to do so would be a form of self betrayal because it is EXACTLY this kind of story that might help to breakdown the denial around normalized violence and what we are doing to perpetuate it…I begged her to see the vignette in the larger context of violence…no go. The friendship is over and I am responsible for the words I wrote. If I had to do it over what would I have done differently? I would have spoken to my friend about my distress – actually I had planned to do this this last weekend (the family only comes on weekends) but never got the chance. I see it everywhere…violence ignored on every level. After all “boys will be boys” I’m told.
Thank you for your insights on violence. I’m so sorry about what happened with your friend; so sad that she couldn’t understand how important it is to *not* ignore violence. Thank you for standing with integrity, though, on this issue.
Darla, I appreciate your remarks especially because I did stand in my own truth – and it cost me a friend. We just cannot go on ignoring what’s happening – violence is everywhere.
Sara, I am sorry that you lost your friend, but I think you were right in your assessment. I too am bothered by the gun culture in this country. The hunting culture here in Maine really gets to me.
How kind, thank you. I too am distressed to have lost a friend, especially because she was unwilling to discuss what I wrote. It suggests that what I said hit home…But that wasn’t even the point… we need to start seeing how violence permeates even the most caring of families… normalizing violence, allowing it to slip in through the cracks without speaking out is to participate in the spreading of more violence. How I wish I was not saying this but I do think that it is up to women to start saying NO. I am grateful for the many emails I have received regarding this post. Some women ARE paying attention.
Maine’s gun culture has gotten totally out of hand, from my point of view… but then you know that story as I do because we are living it.
Thank you for writing about this – I remember the novel well, and there was also a movie made of the novel in the early 90’s. The movie is also chilling, and it perhaps is a commentary on the times that I do not think the movie would be made today. I love Atwoods relentless and often ironic wit.
Such a society could happen, just as fascism can happen, or corporate takeover of what we have assumed is a fundamental democracy. Such subcultures already exist, in a way,right here in the U.S. – witness the recent scandals about arranged polygamous marriages of girls as young as 13 in some rural Morman communities. History demonstrates that it happens all the time. It’s also been demonstrated that when any form of fascism occurs, whether the Nazis or the Taliban, the first things that are removed are rights of women, and the intellectual and educated elite.
I guess, for me, like Susan B. Anthony, I feel it’s not a time to be polite and nice. It’s a time to speak clear and loud. Patriarchy has essentially reduced women to breeders – this has been made pretty or justified in many ways, but in essence, that’s what it is. It’s deeply embedded in patriarchal culture and religion, the obsession with abortion, or even taking away birth control reflects it.
Thank you for your response and for pointing out that “such subcultures already exist” around us. And, yes, I agree that we have to each of us find our way of speaking up on these issues. I’ve always been a non-confrontational and introverted sort of person, but these past few years I’m finding more courage to speak up and I hope others do, too. Thank you for speaking up, Lauren.
You always write the most thoughtful and thought provoking reflective art. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Renate, and I deeply appreciate your encouragement of my writing these past several years. Blessings!
It’s a book that cuts very close to the bone, closer today than when originally written I think. Also in Australia where we seem not to have the same level of very right wing fundamentalist Christianity, yet here also they have become and increasingly so, a force to be reckoned with.
Thank you for commenting. Why do you think it’s a growing force, even in your country?
This book by M. Atwood has always intrigued me, but it also scared me!
I would have to check medical books but once upon a time in college, my dear friend was raped. She was horrified when she went to the clinic a month later, already having early morning sickness. She wept and told me somehow she would get in trouble from her parents, the old accusation “She/you asked for it.” My Mom was a high school teacher and said she would drive her and I up to another city to have an abortion. The thing I heard at the time from a graduate student in biology and medicine was that the spinal cord is not connected to the brain until around 4 months, which comforted this girl since her family was Catholic. “Brain dead” people were allowed to be taken off life support, premature dead at birth babies weren’t blessed by Priests. When she has her abortion, she was almost 3 months along but the brain may not have been receiving blood yet. This is not verified. Just check if you are curious. I trusted my “source” at the time.
I’m so sorry for what your friend endured, and sad at how little some members of our society have changed in this respect.
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Thank you so much, Darla. I will let her know that her story is still relevant and meaningful. Both her parents have passed away and never knew her private anxious moments and how it impacted her life. hugs xo