Thoughts on the election, forgetting, and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

18 November 2012

I don’t know about you, but this was one of my major responses to the election:

Yup, we’re still in 2012. Collective sigh of relief.

But I keep thinking back to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, written during that period of evangelical upswing, the mid-1980s. I hadn’t read the novel since I was a teenager, but picked it up again this fall as the birth control and rape conversations were flying fast & furious. The book is every bit as good as I remember, but for different reasons: whereas what I remembered was the horrifying future Atwood imagined, what I’d forgotten was the interior experience of its protagonist.

Because I think what is so chilling about this novel is how they got there, and what they forgot along the way.

Her name is Offred, and I beg you to read the novel just to find out how she has come by that awkward name. We never learn her real name. Offred’s job in this Christian future is to get pregnant on behalf of the high-ranking couple to whom she has been assigned. Like the story from Genesis in which Rachel cannot bear children for her husband Jacob, Offred has been selected to serve as the vessel for her master’s sperm and the baby that will be assigned to her mistress.

According to every single message within society, Offred’s subject position is God’s will.

As horrifying as that is, it’s worse to find two other crucial elements to the novel. The first is that she has forgotten how to live that other life, the life that existed before this new regime. For example, she encounters  a group of Japanese tourists who stare at them and want to take photographs:

I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. 

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

That’s what I worry about: that we are forgetting that making our own decisions about our bodies is both legal and a guarantor of women’s political and social equality. Instead, we’re getting used to a vast cultural and governmental apparatus making decisions for us. We’re getting used to entertaining seriously the notion that abortion is something to be debated — that it is inherently suspect, dangerous, traumatic. Not just abortion: also birth control. Also how to define “rape.”

We are forgetting what it feels like to reject those views. Texas women who undergo state-mandated trans-vaginal ultrasounds when they seek abortions are learning to forget that this is not necessary. Women who vote for libertarian candidates learn to think that those candidates’ views on state-mandated anti-abortion policies aren’t abhorrent and inconsistent with their political/ economic views. We’re told daily about the new varieties of legitimate or forcible rapes. We’re learning that birth control is the new battleground — that maybe The Pill and the IUD ought to be taken away from us.

The second chilling this about the novel is Offred’s fuzzy memories of the years before — how they looked past the ways their society was changing:

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’s mid-November, the worst of the crazies were not elected, but are we in 2012? The article in The Onion is not so sure. At the end, its interviewee explains that “while she was grateful upon learning what year it was, she had to admit that living in the year 2012 was still quite frightening.” Amen to that. Let’s not forget it.

27 Responses to “Thoughts on the election, forgetting, and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)”

  1. RAFrenzy Says:

    The coming economic crisis would have ensured the Republicans didn’t have time to focus on the abortion issue. Would love to see some passion about that.

    • Didion Says:

      You know, I’m not certain it would have distracted them from abortion — I mean, haven’t we had an economic crisis for the past 4 years? and in the meantime, abortion laws have become ever more draconian. Which reminds me to get one of those t-shirts that says, “You Will Not Find New Jobs For Americans In My Vagina.” Of course, I say this having lived in two of the craziest states — Texas and Virginia — where legislators are hardest at work on shaming women.

      • RAFrenzy Says:

        I don’t think we’ve had an economic crisis quite like the one coming. Hopefully, all of the politicians will wake up.

      • Didion Says:

        Ugh. Wake up indeed. Elections function as a grand distraction away from things that truly loom before us. (And this comment reminds me of the horrible, quiet doom in the film Margin Call (2011) — the question of what is most horrifying: that a company not know how dangerous its financial moves are, or that it would seek self-preservation at the cost of *everyone* else?

      • RAFrenzy Says:

        I’ll have to check out Margin Call. All I know at this point is government is too intrusive on almost every level and our representatives are mostly there for themselves. Can’t see much difference between them or Wall Street no matter who’s in the White House.

  2. eteokretan Says:

    Wonderful post. I loved that Onion article–it was perfect. I read a few comments on a conservative, religious website, all lamenting the results of the election. Many comments went straight for the explanation that, well, it’s the End Days, so just get ready.

    On abortion, one woman said that she had a dangerous pregnancy and very nearly died, and she concluded that she was perfectly okay with that. No abortion even to save the woman’s life. It’s becoming increasingly–and frighteningly–easy for some people to argue for that.

    I ought to reread The Handmaid’s Tale.

    • Didion Says:

      You do need to re-read it — it reads so differently now. Back then I think I thought of it as a kind of science fiction. Now I think, “Ahhhh!”

      And let’s not forget the news about the dead woman in Ireland that has been circulating. Ireland, where no abortion is legal — even one to remove the dead fetus that is killing a woman. Now we have a dead woman AND a dead fetus. Hooray, God!

  3. Listening to raving lunatics like Mourdoch and Akin, it was difficult not to think about our Atwood. Great post!

  4. Becky Says:

    In light of all that was going on, I did re-read the Handmaid’s Tale in August. You’re right, it does read entirely differently these days. The first time I read it, I was young and felt that my new abortion rights would never be questioned. How naive I was! These days, it seems entirely possible that someone would quash all my rights as a woman if only they could. I don’t entirely understand why this is so, the desire for power over others is not something I have ever desired. I have to get one of the t-shirts! I thought Margin Call was very accurate in that when I was in management/executive positions, it was every man for himself and there was always a scapegoat for what went wrong.

    • Didion Says:

      I know just what you mean. I can appreciate that people might have different opinions on abortion, based on individual morality and religion and other concerns. But these individuals want to eliminate all opinions other than their own, and they seem to see no end to their new religious republic extended over everyone. Meanwhile, some of the most important issues get overlooked, as RAFrenzy has pointed out. Yikes.

  5. This is a great post. Especially from a woman much younger than myself. To have had an illegal abortion in 1956, marched (where are those buttons) in D.C. more than once (choice, war), heard the screed from wing-nuts during this election: all came together not in a good way in 2012. Though relieved by Obama’s re-election and that women are now 20% of Congress, I continue to feel uneasy.

    Four days ago, in “liberal” Portland, Oregon, local free weekly reported that Planned Parenthood here was considering former GOP fund-raiser for new CEO. Had been a bundler for John McCain, just changed her voter registration from Repug to Independent! Wrote angry letter to PP, as many others must have also.

    Nothing reported in Oregonian, only daily still standing. One day later, PP announced it had decided to restart the search. Sidebar: trying to rent “Handmaid’s Tale” from Net Flix for over a year.

    • Didion Says:

      Well, I’m not that young. 🙂

      I appreciate the fact that my students are too young to know better. It’s easy to make pronouncements about the abstract notion of abortion when you have no idea about the particulars of real people’s lives.

      On that note, it’s also easy to say that no one needs feminism until you get a job and realize that the world is still full of people who will sexually harass you, pay you less, and treat you poorly simply because of your sex.

      And WHAT disappointing news this is about the Oregon PP. Honestly. Bipartisanship sounds great until one side dedicates itself wholeheartedly to dismantling your entire organization, as the GOP has vowed to do in many, many states. Honestly. I’m going to write them, too.

  6. clroche27 Says:

    Reblogged this on Generation: Handmaid and commented:
    Our thoughts exactly.

  7. Servetus Says:

    Maybe I need to reread it. I read it in the Fall of 1988 when it was an assigned reading for a course on “Freedom and Responsibility” that I was peer tutoring. I have never been a big fan of dystopian fiction, a sad fact that kept me away from the rest of Orwell for far too long, and I remember thinking the sex scenes were crazy and that the stuff about how credit cards and drivers’ licenses were just turned off was not plausible. Now that latter point seems entirely credible to me, which makes me wonder about the earlier one. On the whole I tend to like Atwood’s later novels better.

    re: forgetting — I believe in it, and yet I don’t think it’s possible that I will forget the things I heard and read people shouting this summer. I don’t want to be angry — but I have been significantly radicalized, and part of that is a consequence of conversations with my own friends of strongly different political views. Not sure how to deal with that yet.

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, I was defensive when I read it, too. It seemed so overwrought. I believed in a whiggish view of history. But I was probably 19 when I read it, and now … well, a lot of time has passed. When you read it, tell me what you think of the ending, which might be the most disturbing bit — yet simultaneously a cop-out.

      On forgetting: fear is a terrible motivator. I’ll never forget those immediate years after 9/11, when I felt genuinely afraid to speak my mind about US policies in the Middle East — or the US government, full stop. I remember at one point a lot of us in the department received very strange, fat letters from overseas, loaded up with stamps — and the first thing we all thought was, “it’s anthrax!” And I started to forget what it felt like to just have open conversations about politics, or open one’s mail without worrying.

      • Servetus Says:

        my defining memory of that period is the announcement that the State Department would have access as it pleased to information about what you had checked out of / read in the library, and that no one was allowed to tell you.

      • Didion Says:

        Ugh. Too right. And so we actually had to go through that thought process of thinking, “Well, is there actually anything in my record of books by 1) academics and 2) Swedish mystery writers that will set off alarm bells with the FBI?”

        On the other hand, I remember teaching about smallpox one week and worrying that my google searches would lead to an investigation.

      • Servetus Says:

        I wasn’t in danger in that job, but when I was teaching English comp they had to write essays about controversial topics and I ended up reading a fair amount of the prosecution of child p**rnography. I’m not sure I’d do that research on a university computer ever again, even though it was for work.

      • Didion Says:

        It’s true that I’ve become more nervous about writing things on university machines. And email. Remember when we thought email was private?

        And I try to remember what heroes librarians became during that period, when they found ways to protect people’s privacy. I still wonder how successful they’ve been.

      • Servetus Says:

        they’re not allowed to tell us 🙂

      • eteokretan Says:

        Re: Librarians as heroes. I remember a good friend who worked in the college library talking about how the staff had gotten together and made a plan for what they would do, what they would say, who would be responsible for dealing with any g-men who came by, etc. I wish I could remember the details of the plan. I just remember the expression on his face: determined, worried, grim, and a bit excited by turns. Excited to have a plan and be determined to do the right thing, no matter what, but terrified at the prospect of actually having to step up and deal with all of that crap.

      • Didion Says:

        Someone needs to write the history of librarians’ responses to that brave new world. That would be a bestseller.

  8. Hattie Says:

    Brilliant critique of a brilliant book.

  9. Didion Says:

    I almost forgot: check out the brilliant blog, which inspired my re-reading and has taken the book as a definer of an entire generation of young women. Absolutely crucial, well-informed, gorgeous.

  10. I’ve never read this book but now I really want to! Just from reading this post, I’ve learned that there are so many parallels. Great post!

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, it’s such a riveting read. Enjoy it, Grown Up Girl — and I can imagine you’ll be enjoying it again in 20 years when you read it a second time!

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