The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood wasn’t on my to-be-read list until last year. I had heard of it, but had no idea what it was about. I still didn’t know what it was about when I decided I should read it, but it sold out when Donald Trump was elected president, and that made me curious.
It’s a dystopic novel about a theocracy taking over America. As a handmaid, Offred isn’t allowed to go out alone, read, or possess anything except her strict uniform and her Pass. When she does the shopping, another handmaid accompanies her and she passes over vouchers with pictures of food on them. Once a month, she participates in a ceremony to impregnate her so she can be a surrogate for her Commander and his Wife. The ceremony was inspired by the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 30, one of many scriptures the regime manipulated for their own purposes.
As she tells the story, Offred shares snippets of her life before: her husband Luke, her lost daughter, her feminist mother, and her friend Moira. It was a time when she had her own job and family, when she could wear whatever clothes and make-up she wanted. At first, it seems like a story set long ago, but with every detail it becomes clearer. This isn’t the past for us, it’s the future.
One of the most powerful things Atwood does in this novel is to subvert the timeline. By tossing us into the middle, she shows these rules and lifestyles as “normal.” Only when Offred finally tells us when the change took place do we see how quickly it became so.
The women have little choice in the matter and are constantly told it is better this way. “Look at how it was before,” they’re told. “Women being raped and murdered all over the place. This way protects you.” Meanwhile, women who were actually raped are told they were to blame for it.
There is some resistance: an underground network and a rebel army. But most people in Gilead are just trying to survive. Except the Commanders, whose power allows them to flagrantly break rules with no consequence.
It is easy to read The Handmaid’s Tale thinking this could never happen, but the first step was to designate an entire group of people, legally, as second-class citizens. And if we aren’t all free, none of us is truly free. That includes our transgender brothers and sisters.
No one should feel like there is something wrong with them for existing. Transgender people are not a burden. And if we live in a country where this can happen, it isn’t truly the land of the free. Don’t tell me it is when people with the bravery to serve are denied because of who they are.
If you choose to read this book, don’t start with the mindset that this could never happen to us. Do not read it believing we have it easy because “things could be worse.” If you read this book, do so with the realization that many women now are forced into abusive relationships or desperate lifestyles because of a power imbalance. Realize how many people choose the military in an effort to escape poverty whether they feel called to it or not. And realize how many people were just called a burden and not deserving of the chance to serve by the president of the United States.
Ordinary, as Aunt Lydia says, is what you are used to. Let’s not let this become ordinary.
You can also donate to the Transgender Law Center if you want to make a difference.