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Two things occurred to me after I sent out my question--both which didn't necessarily ring true--though I never noticed them before in my thirty-plus prior readings of The Handmaid's Tale (what can I say? I love a novel with a good rallying cry. I like to alternate between reading The Handmaid's Tale and Egalia's Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg).
The first is the idea of the world outside Gilead. Where was Amnesty International? Where were world governments disgusted by this treatment of women? I could believe it if no one knew enough to step in--think completely closed society--but there were Japanese tourists in Gilead. Remember the scene when she was shopping in town and the tourists came to gawk at them (er...sort of like American go and gawk at the Amish...er....)? If they were allowing tourism to continue, where was the righteous anger? Where was the action?
Beyond that, we really don't know if fertility was affected in other countries--was this extreme taken solely to produce white children in America? I was thinking of it in contrast to the book we read last year--Children of Men by PD James--and that desperation for children in order to continue the human race. As opposed to Gilead which was essentially a hysteria to produce white children who spoke with an American...or Gileadian...accent. Right? Because England was where refuges ran therefore the same system wasn't in place overseas. What was wrong with little white babies with British accents? The racism was disgusting, but it's the accentism that is making me wretch (um...just in case humour doesn't come across in an online book discussion, that was meant to be tongue-in-cheek).
The other thing that didn't ring true were the men. I am so done with the portrayal of men as indifferent during infertility. From the books that imply that men enjoy infertility (they get to have all that sex!) to the ones that simply dismiss them outright (infertility is a female issue). It's not just that infertility itself is 30% female-factor and 30% male-factor (with 40% mixed or unexplained), but the emotions are 100% shared between men and women. In this book, only the women give a shit about infertility. The men could care less about children and parenting with the exception of the power they gain from having a handmaid succeed. The men aren't anxiously asking her what's up or encouraging her along. The Commander doesn't seem interested in children at all nor does Nick. It's definitely a female-centric book, but the narrator gives us the thoughts of people that she couldn't possibly observe (the conversations between the Wives, for instance) so why not make some assumptions that take male emotions into account?
Men and women may express their feelings differently, but I don't believe for a second that I care more than Josh about having a child. I don't believe that infertility hurts him less. I think we process our emotions differently and I think I may discuss mine more therefore it appears as if it is affecting me more. But all I need to do is see the bow of his back or the lines that appear between his eyes to know his true emotions. I have yet to meet the man who wanted to parent but was indifferent to infertility. I just get so cranked out when male feelings are dismissed or belittled. And I don't even have a penis, so I imagine men become even more cranked out than I am right now.
So...your thoughts on that?
I'll keep my answers to my questions brief since I've gone on and on about small discrepancies (after throwing the whole list out of whack!):
People very often cope with death or uncomfortable situations by resorting to euphemisms. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood quite deliberately chooses instead to refer to infants with disabilities, or infants that have died, through the use of a dysphemism (an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression substituted for a pleasant or inoffensive one) - "shredder." How did this term affect you? Did you even take note of it? Why might Atwood have chosen such a word? How does it reflect or not reflect the contemporary discourse around pregnancy loss, still birth, and infant death as you may have experienced it?
Someone in Group A (I'm sorry, I've forgotten who) had a quote from Atwood that said that she didn't include anything in the book that wasn't easily imaginable based in today's society and I think this is true too. I think that general society knows how to act when a woman loses her husband yet at the same time, can't wrap their mind around mourning the loss of a child. While younger widows are encouraged after a mourning period to "date again" no one thinks twice about saying to a woman who just lost a child (whether it was a miscarriage or late term loss or stillbirth or neonatal death) that she could try again or "just adopt." Until the child has been living for a bit, I don't think our society knows how to mourn. And with that, I think you get this concept of the shredder--that children can be lost one day but found the next and the gain cancels out the loss. Anyone who has lost a child (in utero or out) knows that this isn't the case at all.
Aunt Lydia promises the girls that "Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will be come ordinary." Has infertility ever become ordinary or commonplace to you? Do the shots and procedures and blood draws feel more familiar than life before this time? Can a person truly get accustomed to anything?
Yes and no. The first time I had to give myself an injection, I was panicked. It never became commonplace, but it became easier after that first time. So yes, I became accustomed to it. And certainly, there is a rhythm you enter where the morning blood draw becomes one more thing on a to-do list (until you're waiting the results around noon). But at the same time, no. No, I'm still not used to treatments and all it brings. If I was, I wouldn't be so panicked about my appointment next week.
I was quite bothered that the Handmaids took on the names of their Commanders (Ofglen, Ofcharles, Offred). Seems so domineering, de-personalizing -- another tool in taking power away from women in Gilead. So archaic, even. Then I realized that we do the same in our culture, but with last names. Does this make it okay? Even women who keep their maiden name (no pun intended) after marriage tend to refer back to their father's name. Do our customs continue to de-power and de-identify women? What would a culture that values the matrilineal look like?
In Judaism, which is matrilineal in a sense (Judaism is passed through the mother), there is still this patriarchal naming system (more for ceremony than for day-to-day life): It's Melissa daughter of R. Which means my siblings and I still share this same formal name even though my day-to-day last name has changed due to marriage. It has never bothered me--I'm someone who changed my name with marriage--but then you ask the question and the wheels start turning...
I've always felt as if names have this great power and it's strange how women go through life with their identity tied to this one name and then they shed it--they shed that identity in a way--to take on this new name that doesn't feel quite right. It's like putting on someone else's clothing.
We made this really conscious choice to only give our kids a single name even though it's popular in America to give Jewish kids an "American" name and a "Hebrew" name. Our kids only have a single name, a Hebrew name, that is easily spelled and pronounced in English. I felt like it gave them a chance to create this single, great identity without feeling this pull to have to fit a single identity into many names. Does that make any sense? I mean, Moon Unit Zappa was bound to have a personality that formed somewhat out of this name and how the world interacted with that name. But what if she was Moon Unit sometimes and Sarah at other times? How could the Sarah and Moon Unit sides of her personality exist?
Which goes back to the same idea--how can we be one name until marriage and another after? Unless we change drastically with that ceremony so we fit our new name?
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