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.