It happens gradually. So gradually you don’t think to protest until it’s too late. One by one rights diminish, disappear. It’s for your protection, for the security of our great nation. Surely you want to be safe?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred tells us the story of exactly what happens when citizens in a democracy stop paying attention, stop protesting, let their fears overtake their humanity. Freedoms are the first to go. And you think, as cherished as those freedoms are in a democracy, that just wouldn’t happen. But you’d be mistaken: internment camps, McCarthyism, the Patriot Act, TSA, DHS, and other “security measures” prove otherwise.
I first read Atwood’s book in the early 90’s. It won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s also a banned book. It had been so long since I read it, that I wanted to read it again for this year’s Banned Books Week and before watching the recent Hulu series based on it.
Gilead is a dystopian society where fertile women serve as surrogates for the barren wives of powerful men. This is what it is to be a Handmaid. The other options are death camps, servitude, prostitution or execution, unless you can escape to the free north with the aid of underground rebels. Offred becomes a Handmaid to most powerful Christian in Gilead and his wife Serena Joy. She remembers life before Gilead, her husband, her child, before she was just a vessel for childbirth.
Atwood’s writing is prose at its finest and she skillfully lets Offred tell her story in a way that never reads as science fiction, but as possible reality. A way of life let go through inaction, through complacency to a new way of life as sheep to slaughter.
She loses her job. All women do. Women need to be at home protecting the children. She loses her bank account. Don’t worry your pretty little head, her husband will handle the family finances and she’ll be taken care of. People turn on each other instead of organizing to combat the piling injustices. Secret police are everywhere. Under his eye.
The last chapter of the book is an anthropology conference where PhDs are discussing Offred’s found record of what happened when America became Gilead. It is a chapter read with a mix of relief that humanity prevailed and despair that life could all too easily be discarded long enough to destroy generations. We can believe she escaped and lived to tell her story.
Women’s reproductive rights, the Tea Party, religious fanaticism, racial intolerance, terrorists so branded because of a belief in a different prophet. Do you see warning signs? Are you awake? Do you feel safer? Protected? Isolated? Angry? Decide while you still have choices, options, a vote. Praise be.
And always read banned books. Words are freedom.