Warning for discussions of rape.
The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale I was in high school. I received a copy of the book for Christmas. It’s the same copy I read from this week. Like many books I first read as a teenager, I don’t think I fully understood the relevance of the book the first time I read it. But, with every reading the book grew more real.
The story follows a woman in a post-coup United States, now called “Gilead,” a theocratic, totalitarian state. The protagonist, Offred, is part of a class of women assigned to have children for elite couples who can’t conceive.
This time, reading it was different for me. I read the book armed with Atwood’s thoughts on the novel, Handmaids Rising and I now live just a few bus stops from Cambridge, where the novel is set. The biggest catalyst for my reading is the show coming out on Hulu this month. It’s been getting a lot of buzz. Considering current events, I don’t think it is any accident people have taken a renewed interest in the novel.
One might argue that the events of the tale are far fetched. It is, after all, speculative fiction, (I have a hard time calling it science fiction but that’s another conversation.) I would like to argue, all the events of the book are possible. In Handmaids Rising, Atwood tells the reader, “one of my rules was that I would not put any events in the book that hadn’t already happened [in history].” Everything in the book has already happened to somewhere. Some of the events of the book are currently happening in the US.
In her review, Atwood discusses the actions of an aggressive regime. Controlling reproductive rights (Atwood uses the phrase “women and babies,”) is a huge part of what a totalitarian regime does. It was not only access to abortion at risk in Atwood’s universe. It was the right to reproduce when you want and with a partner you choose (this February, Arkansas passed a law allowing husbands to veto their partners abortions, even in cases of rape.) It was the right to your child after it’s born (several states in this country allow a rapist to sue for custody of a child conceived in rape.) Atwood asks the reader, “Who benefits?” What do these conservative lawmakers have to gain from re-victimizing rape victims? This goes beyond reproductive rights. They are the focus of this novel, but Atwood points out many freedoms denied to the people of Gilead. Those same freedoms are under attack right now: access to education, the right to a clean and safe environment, and the right to privacy.
A part of the book that stuck out to me was the idea of “freedom to and freedom from.” Aunt Lydia was the character that trained the handmaids. When justifying the regime, Aunt Lydia stresses that before maidens had the “freedom to.” The freedoms to say what they want, go where they please, and do what they want. This freedom came with danger, though. In Gilead, the women have “freedom from” what is insinuated to be harassment and assault. She encourages the women not to “underrate it.” I doubt that was of much consolation to women forced into sex slavery. It is that idea of “freedom from” that reminds me of some contemporary laws. Take The Patriot Act, we surrender our privacy to feel safer- or was it taken from us? Either way we are giving something up to gain a sense of security. Are we really safer? Or are we just under someone’s thumb, another step closer to an authoritarian regime?
I don’t mean to insinuate the United States will become Gilead. What I want to communicate is that, “it can’t happen here” is a dangerous mentality that leads to complacency. It is very recent history that rights have been denied on the basis of gender, race, and sexuality. This year, Katherine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon 50 years after she was attacked for doing so while being a woman. It is in living memory that women could legally be fired for getting pregnant, or more unthinkably, aging. This is not ancient history. These freedoms are very much at risk.
I’m glad The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a lot of attention recently. Awareness is power. Knowing what rights are at risk, and that they need to be protected is essential for maintaining our civil rights. I think reading this book would help instill that.
I encourage you to read this book if you haven’t already. I can’t wait to see what Hulu does with the show. I’m excited that Atwood has a cameo. Thanks for reading!