Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale

Straight off the bat, I’m just going to say it: Margaret Atwood makes me cranky. She’s been, like, the Grand Dame of Canadian Letters since forever; frankly, I haven’t drank that Kool-Aid in a long while. Books like Oryx and Crake and The Heart Goes Last are both half-baked flans, where the premise has promise and there are cool details that occasionally make you go, “oh, that’s nice,” but mostly it’s half-sentences and plots that sort of chug dutifully until they expire at the end of the contractually obligated 310 pages. For a Governor General-prize winning writer, her most recent stuff is not…very…good.

Anyway, Hulu recently turned her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale into a mini-series, and all my friends are like, “This show!” And I just can’t. But not for the reasons you might think! When it comes to intense movies and TV, I’m a major wimp. Heavyweight champion of wussiness, that’s me, and now that I’m 33, I don’t actually apologize too much for that. I made a decision a few years ago to avoid media that stressed me out—I skew to an anxious/overthinker place naturally, and adding scary movies or violent TV to the mix meant nightmares and being scared of the dark as a grown-ass woman. So, I made the very adult decision to avoid that scene, and just re-watch Galaxy Quest for the forty-fifth time.

(In case you’ve been under a rock: The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of the Republic of Gilead, formerly the US, where Offred, our narrator, lives as a handmaid, a so-called “womb on two legs,” in service of a high-placed party official and his wife. Due to a glut of infertility [always the woman’s fault, never the man’s, of course] and birth defects, women who had had children before society was, shall we say, restructured, are recruited into the handmaid role, with the idea that they will bear children for these couples. They are storks, kind of, only they have hearts and feelings and memories along with their uteruses, and Offred tells the story of her daily life in Gilead and how the whole goddamned mess came to be.)

Now that we’ve taken that little detour into my fearful psyche, let’s return to the first time I watched the trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale, which features a very gentle but unmistakable rape scene, an attempted escape from something terrible, and the scream of a child being separated from her mother. And my gut clenched and I thought to myself, “…nah.”

But I like being part of zeitgesity things, and I figured there was an easy work-around: just read the book! Or, in my case, re-read it. I’d first devoured The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, when I went through a dystopian kick (The Stand and 1984 and the parts of Brave New World I could tolerate), and I figured a quick and breezy revisit to the source material would bring me right up to speed.

Atwood’s current writing may be milquetoast, but her 1980s writing, where she earned her name and her laurels, is astounding. The Handmaid’s Tale is terrific, and I mean that; it’s also excruciating to read as a parent, an experience that I hadn’t anticipated being quite so gutting.

I read the book over the May 24th weekend, in a cabin at friend’s place, the baby sleeping in a playpen beside me while I read by the light of a headlamp. It’s not a long book—the action takes place over a few months, maybe, with flashbacks—and written in an urgent, immediate style: the sound of a whispered secret from someone you didn’t think knew your name. Offred can’t quite believe she is where she is, and she casts about for a foothold—memory, a meaningful glance, clues about her predecessor, a slogan scratched in wood—that will help keep her sane.

Obviously, themes of fecundity and pregnancy loom large. It’s unclear if Offred has delivered on her role in previous postings—her current commander is her third, and all the handmaids’ movements are tightly regulated and controlled. Has she had babies, and had them taken from her? We don’t know. Her only purpose is to get pregnant, delivery a healthy baby, nurse it for a short while, and then hopefully do it again for someone else. We do know that, before Gilead was created, she had a child, a husband, a normal life. A life that looks like mine. Offred, now, doesn’t know if her daughter is a live or dead, if her husband languishes in a jail cell or rots face down in a forest. Friends, family, loves have all been disappeared from her life.

And there is, of course, the question of babies. We know exactly where babies come from in Gilead: they come from under the modest red dresses of the handmaids. We don’t always know where they go, though. And as someone who suffered through a difficult birth, the idea of doing it again, unmedicated, for a child I would not be allowed to love, is a horror beyond compare. I spoke with a birth trauma specialist and she said that many women think they’re dying during childbirth; it’s so common there’s even a name for it, in the woo-woo birth community. The idea of entering the underworld, again and again, for no baby to call your own? No wonder the handmaids are kept from the knifes and the ropes. No wonder Offred can’t bring herself to name her lost daughter, the baby she wanted, the child she knew and loved.

It’s impossible to read The Handmaid’s Tale and not think about what’s going on in America these days, the attempts (both successful and not) to regulate women’s bodies, their access to birth control, their access to abortion, and their ability to choose their children. There was a recent bill passed in Missouri that allows employers to fire women who have used birth control. Women have been brought to trial for stillbirths and miscarriages in Mississippi. Indiana has eighteen different restrictions on abortion access. Who knows what will happen with Trump, who once said on national television that women who have had abortions should be “punished”? Or Pence, who has said that Roe v Wade belongs in a trash heap? The demand for babies isn’t the same in America as it is in Gilead—the US tends to care most about people while they’re in utero, and then a rapid decline once they’re on the outside—but restricting access to reproductive services hamstrings women just as much as a big white bonnet.

So: read The Handmaid’s Tale, if you like. It’s sad and scary, horrifying and beautifully realized. It’s written in the dreamy voice of a woman who finds herself in Hell, and whose only escape is in her own mind—sanity is rationed, she says, and perhaps her rations aren’t quite enough. And if you are, like me, a parent, be prepared for your blood to run cold and your skin to prickle, just like it would at any good horror story. A warning for my fellow wusses, my thin-skinned peeps, and my flock of mama birds.

About the Author

Kaitlyn Kochany
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Kaitlyn Kochany is a Toronto-area freelance writer and editor. She had her son, NS, in January 2016, and has been trying to sleep and write since then.

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