Don’t think Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision is realistic? I was raised in a conservative Christian cult where women were viewed as submissive birthing vessels.
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It was a cold morning on the campus of the little Christian college I attended in Western Pennsylvania. Along with about twenty other students, I’d trundled in and unwrapped my coat and scarf. Now we all sat there sipping our coffees, waiting for the hardest class of the year to get rolling.
Our literary criticism professor paused as he announced the optional reading titles on our list for the next week, a funny look on his face.
“This one,” he said, “you may not like. It was written in 1984, published in ’85 or ’86, and was a reaction against the rise of the religious right — against the values that places like our school stand for. It’s pro-feminist, and anti-complementarian — against traditional gender roles. It sort of parodies what we believe in, in an interesting way. I’m curious what you’ll make of it.”
The shade thrown by my usually soft-spoken professor caught my attention. I had to read this book.
And so I did, unwittingly cracking open the beginning of the end for meek, conservative Christian me.
* * *
The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly simple dystopian one: A young woman is re-educated by the new totalitarian (and Christian) government regime to be a childbearing surrogate for the wife of a high-ranking military official. She tells her story after the fact, a narrative recorded on audio tapes found years later in someone’s attic. Her name is Offred, literally of Fred, having no name of her own anymore in this new society. It takes place in the U.S., post-Constitution, post-democracy, post-liberal humanism. Women are chattel. Religion is god. Order comes above all else.
To the average American in 1985, it seemed pretty far out there, an unlikely vision of future written as a warning. It’s been controversial since it came out, making ALA’s one hundred most banned books list between 1990 and 1999, but that was because of the sex scenes in it and the way it depicted Christianity. It wasn’t really taken seriously as political foreshadowing.
But for me, when I read it for the first time, it felt like a prophecy that echoed rhythm of the world I had been raised in, reflecting the vision my church and community had for the future of American culture and politics.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.
Women in this world were treated much like those in The Handmaid’s Tale — most, like my mom, didn’t have their own bank accounts, didn’t have their own email addresses, and couldn’t leave the home without permission from their husbands. They were called helpmeets, a word taken from the King James Version of the Bible, which refers to wives as created to meet the needs of their husbands and be helpers to them.
I even participated in a super-conservative worship church dance troupe for young women, called His Handmaids — again a term taken from the Bible, from the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel telling her she’s going to be pregnant with the Messiah, which some translations open with “I am the Lord’s handmaiden, let it be unto me as you say.”
Just like Offred, women existed within the community to serve higher purposes than our own desires. Young girls who led the congregation wore white dresses and were stripped of identifying features — no jewelry, no nail polish, hair tied back and not in the face — while wives were submissive helpers to their husbands, with my mother used as the fertile ground for my father to breed a quiver full of Christian culture warriors.
And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my thirteenth birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.
* * *
We were not alone, either. My situation grew out of a larger movement in the conservative Christian community to be more invested in politics and cultural affairs on the national level. This push was led by the “Moral Majority,” a group of Christian leaders founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, which sought to take on Washington to bring Christian ethics to bear on policy at a national level.
The Moral Majority focused on issues related to their priorities for promoting and protecting traditional family values. They celebrated Ronald Reagan’s presidency and encouraged his refusal to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was killing thousands, largely because they saw it as fundamentally a judgment from God on the “immoral” behavior of homosexuals. According to historian Rachel Coleman — a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, who is also a Quiverfull Daughter and whose research focuses on twentieth century history of childhood, children, and religion — it wasn’t until kids started getting affected and dying from infected blood in transfusions that the issue was seen as valid. As a result, President Reagan eventually did act, releasing a series of PSAs about the epidemic…but these were all focused on kids, the future of the religious crusade for a Christian United States.
Also part of this movement was the rise of Operation Rescue, a Christian group that encouraged protest (and, loosely, some terrorist-style) tactics against abortion practitioners and those receiving abortion services. In the wake of Roe v. Wade passing in 1973, the Moral Majority hit on abortion as the issue that would most viscerally and immediately grab the attention of their audience and rally support and action at the grassroots level. We still see this struggle impacting negotiations on the Hill today, as abortion remains an impossibly hot-button issue, regularly derailing policymaking. Shock-and-awe tactics with grisly photos of dead fetuses and terror of increased government oversight on family-related issues drummed up droves of supporters buying into the agenda of the Moral Majority.
This terror-based approach to protecting the “traditional family” and “family values” had a watershed affect, driving the Right to work against civil protections for sexual orientation and gender presentation, creating a fear frenzy that drove the War on Drugs to incarcerate an entire generation of young black men, while causing Christian universities (led by my alma mater) to seek legal exemption from being under Title IX if they would surrender access to federal funding.
This collective terror also allowed Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority to lobby successfully against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. The United States is one of the last remaining countries in the world without a constitutional clause that protects the rights of women as full and equal citizens with men, and this prevents us from participating in key international coalitions against gender discrimination (like CEDAW, which we haven’t ratified either). The Moral Majority effectively took the United States backwards a century policy-wise — and we still haven’t fully recovered.
It was during this rise of the Moral Majority that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I was born, the first of what would be nine kids, just about five years after the book was first published.
Atwood has given many interviews about the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale and her creative process for it, but the thing that stands out to me the most is her comment that she made a rule for herself not to include anything in the novel that hadn’t already been done by some society, somewhere. Nothing was new.
And so, as I read the book for the first time that cold morning in 2010, the fictional world sounded a whole lot like my real life.
* * *
My ex-husband, who I met at that same little Christian college and who had also grown up in the same group of churches, wanted nothing more than to be a father, to have 10 kids and to homeschool them. When our marriage was careening to an end, we were sitting in a car outside his family’s house when he asked me if I might consider having a baby with him to rekindle something.
We’d chosen to wait initially for a host of reasons, the strongest one for me being that I had been raising kids for the last ten to twelve years of my life and couldn’t see myself having the energy to plunge back into the world of poopy diapers and snotty noses. Two years into our marriage, I’d had a few pregnancy scares and each time as I waited for my period, I had had nightmares and panic attacks, unable to shake a deep-set terror of being trapped at home with a baby and no life outside the home. I would wake up crying and shaking from a dream about being pregnant, and the next morning he’d make me coffee and listen to my stories and try to assuage my fears.
So when he asked me to have a kid to save our marriage, I was stunned. “Are you serious?” I asked.
“Don’t be that way!” he responded. “I just think that I could love you again if you were a mother.”
Speechless, I told him to get out of the car. “I’m not discussing this,” I said. “There’s no way in hell I’d bring a kid into this mess if we can’t fix this on our own.”
It was our last big fight. We stopped communicating shortly thereafter, and the next time I had a real conversation was at the courthouse after our divorce hearing. He asked me to go to lunch, and I said no.
Because I was running late for my gynecologist appointment to get myself an IUD.
* * *
Offred learns early on that she is not the first Handmaid to be given to the Commander’s household to bear a child for him and his wife. The last one, she gathers from bits of gossip here and there, committed suicide.
In her room there is a little cupboard, and on the back wall of the cupboard is scratched nolite te bastardes carborundorum, which is bad Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Offred assumes this message is left for her by the last Handmaid, a hand of camaraderie offered to her from beyond the grave.
When I ended my relationship to my father shortly after I got divorced, it was because he and I reached a crossroads where he had to choose to treat me according to his religious ideology or to treat me like a human, his daughter, his firstborn. He chose his ideology, and continued to use it to manipulate and mistreat myself and my mother and my siblings. We stopped talking, and I got my first tattoo — a black armband with script, “N.T. B. C.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Don’t forget you are human. Don’t forget what you have overcome.
Offred never tells the reader her real name — she only says she had another one, once. Under the new regime, her name is that of the man for whom she exists as a birthing vessel. It’s not important, she doesn’t exist as an individual anymore, her life is not her own.
When I got divorced, I repudiated the worldview that had been imposed upon me, rejecting a life where I existed only according to my relationship to my father or my husband. I took a new last name, a family name from further back on my grandmother’s side, naming myself to own myself. That was also the year I got my own bedroom for the first time, coming full circle out of a universe where my identity could not exist on its own terms, and carving out for myself a place in the world, a home, a name, a future that was my own to direct.
* * *
Today, Donald Trump is President of the United States, and there is increasing “constitutional anxiety” on Capitol Hill — what will he do next? The 24-hour news cycle is high-strung and exhausted, shrilly reporting on his tweets and Melania’s whereabouts and Ivanka’s so-called feminism.
Mike Pence is second in line for the presidency, and if Trump is impeached, we will have instead of an incompetent egoist for a president, a calculating and careful man who leaves a legacy behind him of anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant policy-making. VP Pence is exactly the kind of man the Moral Majority of 1985 would have hoped to elect, as is demonstrated by their rallying around anti-minority and anti-choice legislators and policies and foundations.
The Quiverfull movement was created for this kind of world. I was raised to be a helpmeet in a world like Offred’s, and watching (white, middle class) liberals around me be shocked and unnerved by the election results has been curious for me. Didn’t they know this has been in the works for decades? I didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did Trump, and nor did The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood recently wrote about the book in the New York Times, in anticipation of the new mini-series coming out on Hulu today, starring Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. In it she says:
Is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.
The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale during the time of the Reagan presidency and the Moral Majority was an apt collision of vision and fears expressed through fiction — the release of the new mini-series timed at the end of the first one hundred days of Donald Trump, U.S. President #45, is a powerful piece of foresight on the behalf of the studio which created it. Americans are more politically engaged than they have been in years, and we would all do well to pay attention to this “antiprediction” of a TV show in hopes that we can learn from it and resist the fruit of 1980s Christian conservative thinking running our government today, and save the future of our democracy.