I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 12 years old in the late 1980s. I discovered it on my mother’s bookshelves, and I was fascinated by the story, not scared as much as I should have been but stilled by possibility, intrigued. I surely didn’t understand a lot about the book (much as there were things that went way over my head when I read her copy of Fear of Flying), but I carried it with me as I grew. From this and other books, I decided I was a feminist. I also decided I wanted to write books of my own like Margaret Atwood. In my latest novel, I used an epigraph from The Handmaid’s Tale, and the light flickering in my heart when the author (through her assistant) gave me permission to use the quote was glorious.
After watching the first three episodes of the Hulu series last night, I wonder if this book influenced the kind of woman I decided, young, I wanted to become: independent, ignoring traditional gender roles, not under the thumb of any man. I didn’t want to marry, but falling in love and wanting to give my boyfriend health insurance changed that, so after a quick visit to City Hall married I am today—together going on 23 years; we would have been together no matter a piece of paper. But when I was young, when I didn’t see marriage in my future, my ambition was to be a professional woman as well as a single mother. I decided as a teenager that I didn’t want children after all, and I’ve stuck to that over these decades—it’s always felt to be the right choice. I wonder now how I came to these decisions so young and if the books I read—The Handmaid’s Tale high up among them—led the way. The ambitions I built for myself were men’s ambitions, the dreams giant dreams I was determined to go after even though I was small. Even though I was shy and quiet and if you’d known me then, you may not have realized I had it in me. Oh did I. I’ve since reached a number of those dreams and stared those ambitions in the face. I’m living the life I told myself I could even though there were men in my life who said it wasn’t possible, who laughed at me. I would have died if forced to fit the ideal of a “woman” for someone else.
When I was 12 years old, The Handmaid’s Tale felt far away—it felt like an other reality, impossible to ever find ourselves in now. I didn’t understand so much. Last night, as I watched all three available episodes in a row before bed, the reality on the screen didn’t feel as far away as I expected and remembered. It didn’t feel so impossible and other. When women were dismissed from jobs that male coworkers could keep I bristled. When women’s bank accounts were closed and the funds given to male spouses or male next of kin, I felt alarmed. When women were no longer allowed to own property, to have any control over their own lives in the first of many growing ways, when women were accused of being “gender traitors,” and more and more, I began to see how something totalitarian and terrible could come to pass perhaps here, perhaps one day, and never before did I feel that after the few times I reread this book over the years. Naive? Or, since the election, has the world I know changed that much?
The adaptation is a good one so far, and I usually hate when a novel I loved is brought to the screen.
Did you watch it?