Note: What follows (with the aim of getting it out quickly, without the usual belabored perfectionism, a little rough around the edges) is adapted from this morning’s handwritten journal entry. As with the disclaimer attached to the TV series: Mature audiences only; readers’ discretion advised.
Invited over to youngest daughter Stephanie’s last night to watch the first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read the novel years ago, introduced it, I think, to her and Nadina. I remembered the dystopian premise and mood without a great deal of meaningful detail. Some details, now, have been updated to make it resonate all the more explicitly with our historical moment, but without harm to the story’s integrity. The author (Stephanie pointed out to me, she and Rachel having already seen the whole series) was allowed a role in the script: she stepped forward and slapped the face of the lead protagonist and handmaid-in-training—played by Elisabeth Moss—for not taking her cues with sufficient show of hatefulness.
So many disturbing scenes in these first segments, there’s no point in enumerating them. The ritualized sexual intercourse of the “commander” and handmaid could not be more antiseptic or less erotic. His zipper is open, instrument properly inserted (one presumes, for sake of the narrative) at the precise and proper point of access, but otherwise both of them are covered in all modesty; her head cradled by the barren wife whose legs might someday again be symbolically spread for the ritualized act of childbirth by proxy. The ritual is only sensual to the degree that a bowel movement is sensual—from her standpoint, at least, who perhaps derives more satisfaction from the latter, while the man in his procreative labor does enjoy some rudimentary orgasm.
But the sequence that finally brought me past moral disgust to the verge of tears is the execution of another handmaid’s judgment of “redemption” from the crime of “gender treason” (read: lesbianism), played by the actor (Alexis Bledel) formerly known as Rory on The Gilmore Girls TV show that Anita and I used to watch with our daughters.
The closing scene in that segment is sickening enough: when that redeemed captive of Biblical sin awakens in a sterile white room to discover that she has been surgically (and genitally) mutilated; so that, as the hateful matron puts it to her, while she can still experience the great joy of impregnation and giving birth to someone else’s child, she will no longer be tempted by physical desire for what she cannot have. But the really gut-wrenching scene, the one that had already devastated the father (and father-in-law) of Stephanie and Rachel, occurs just previous to that: the woman’s abbreviated last parting from her lover, cuffed hands clutched in the back of the penal van until the beloved one is ripped from her and she left screaming at the spectacle of rope being placed around loved one’s neck, her body lifted into the air by a construction crane.
Now, let’s be clear: whatever not-so-distant dystopia might actually threaten us, if the retrograde would-be theocrats and other powermongers of the moment get their way, it is unlikely that it will exactly resemble this one of Margaret Atwood’s imagination. But the defunding of Planned Parenthood; a return to back-alley abortions and increased maternal deaths (already the United States has greater child mortality—more in some states than others—than any other “advanced” Western nation); opposition, even, to the very concepts of contraception and family planning, unless for the wealthy and hypocritical and privileged; well, we already see how easily something like that might happen, and to no small degree already has happened to those women and families least equipped for survival in this country. However much American women might remain, superficially, free, they might be forgiven for feeling so perilously close to becoming—body and soul—tied to the will of the men who rule the roost at home or who pull the legislative and judicial strings in Washington D.C. and/or their state capitals.
But the real take-home here, from last night’s viewing, is the degree to which some women will stand against other women for their own security within an essentially and abusively patriarchal order. Not just the obvious fanatics like the hate-filled doctrinaire matron who seethes at the very thought of lesbianism, and enjoys the infliction of pain on other women with repeated, violent thrusts of a sort of electrical taser-stick to neck or shoulder or face. Nor just the genuinely religious women of our Heartland who, beaten down by economic and other exigencies, are persuaded to see the source of their problems in the liberal or culturally depraved other. But also the privileged wife (like the mafia wife on The Sopranos, who tries not to think about the murderous activity that underwrites her privilege) who is so pleased to flourish tender care on her husband’s almost subhuman sex slave so long as she might be going to bear her a child. How oblivious she is to the handmaid’s very human feelings as she listens to her mistress exclaim at how God-blessed she is to have her there to bear the child that, as soon as she’s done nursing it, will be ripped from her arms forever without a thought! And then, when it turns out that our protagonist is really not pregnant after all, how swiftly cooing wife turns into vicious hellcat, dragging the presumed tramp upstairs to her attic bedroom and throwing her on the floor, hissing: Things can get so much worse for you here!, or words to that effect.
Similar phenomena that continue to occur in the real world we inhabit include Blacks and other racial minorities who align themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, with the party or class of privilege. I suspect, too, that it is manifest, however precariously, in working- and lower-middle class individuals who still dream of winning the lottery or of acquiring celebrity status by means of reality TV. If we can still get rich, too, or can talk ourselves into still believing in that possibility, then what social or economic ill might we not tolerate in the spirit of selfish self-interest?
All of which brings me back to Orlando Patterson’s argument in his history of the making of the idea of freedom in Western civilization, which emerges from and is defined by its relationship to slavery. Numerous other writers and activists have made the point: that the relative prosperity that we defend was built on the backs of indentured servants and slaves. What has lately been unveiled (though not for the first time) as “America’s original sin,” which we continue to ignore at our own peril. The tragic secret of our history that resurgent voices of white supremacy—however rabid or muted the assumption of racial or cultural or class superiority might be, however conscious or unconscious.
This hearkens back to Jay-Z’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross, which I heard the other day on Fresh Air after he became the first rapper to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and what he said about his hip-hop version of “It’s a Hard-knock Life” from the Broadway musical Annie—and of why, despite the complaints of offended white pride by some detractors, there is nothing more natural than an African American Annie, given Black experience in the era between the post-Civil War overthrow of Reconstruction and the present era of police shootings of unarmed Black men and BLM.
The Handmaid’s Tale, in any case, is just one manifestation of humanity’s original sin of power and privilege built on the backs of others. And it is true original sin, if we may set aside the religious-mythological model that paints the woman as eternal temptress and authorizes condescending patriarchy to act on womankind’s behalf and for her good as established by the male to whom she is a help meet and proper. Take the issue of race and extend it universally, and we are likewise faced with our national sins of territorial and economic imperialism. The ecological sinning against Nature and against poor nations and Indigenous peoples whose mineral wealth we have robbed and will hold onto until it is pried (like Charlton Heston’s guns) from our cold, dead hands. The sin is original and sticks to us all to the extent that we stubbornly refuse to see that we are not a truly “exceptional” nation or “self-made” success story whose wealth and privilege do not depend to any appreciable degree on the labor and the exploitation of our fellow (and presumed lesser) humans.
This is the hard truth behind the increasingly—and inhumanely—punitive state in which our increasingly undemocratic handlers continue to sustain a perpetual-war economy by sending bombs to Saudi Arabia and by locking up the malcontents in our country, warehousing them in prisons rather than grant them the dignity of “socialized” healthcare and food and shelter for all. Even the squatters—“unworthy” poor, we are supposed to believe—who encamp in the house next door, with its overgrowth of grass and weeds, with its electricity and water cut until the state can finally evict them. If it were a national priority—if we were really pro-life instead of merely pro-birth, as the radical Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister has put it—we could guarantee a dignified life for all our citizens. And might be surprised at how many hopeless bums become respectable neighbors. It has been demonstrated, after all, even in this land of hard-wired libertarianism, that given their dignity, seeing to their basic human needs and giving them a hand up, without drowning them in punitive bureaucratic regulations aimed at reducing or withdrawing those benefits, the members of that potential community will make it a functioning and mutually-reliant, democratically-run space.
Even in conservative Republican Utah, in Salt Lake City, and outside of the theocratic strictures of traditionalist “United Orders,” it has recently been proved that, if you give the homeless a home and a social system to help them get on their feet, they will become grateful and responsible neighbors and citizens. Give them their dignity first, without strings attached, without punitive regimes—African Americans, Latinos, the Native or Indigenous communities, downtrodden and homeless, even poor and struggling Caucasians everywhere—and we might become a healed and sustaining community. But as long as we insist on separation, on greed and war and death, on law and order, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later, on the punitive economic regime of privilege for the few on the backs of the many, we will continue to unravel as a civilization and as a coherent, once-relatively-functional society.
All things are related. We sink or swim together. The power of the oligarchs and the militarists will have to be overthrown, since entrenched power will not give itself up easily. One hopes that it might be done nonviolently, by means of firm and multiplying resistance to the wreakers of under-acknowledged violence who are amassed against would be, small-d democrats. The odds are against us, and pessimism may be the most sane and realistic attitude to have in the face of potential nuclear and climate catastrophe. Especially if that realism awakens us to the critical nature of the struggle we face. But if we leaven that natural pessimism with a modicum of hope joined to enlightened, collective action of the many, then Naomi Klein (with her call to action against the multiple shocks that the world’s political and economic powers continually unleash on us) is right, and our future might indeed still be redeemable.