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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Book Tour #8: The Handmaid's Tale

Intrigued by the idea of a book tour and want to read more about The Handmaid's Tale? Hop along to more stops on the Barren Bitches Book Brigade by visiting the master list in the post above. Want to come along for the next tour? Sign up begins today for tour #9 (The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler with author participation!) and all are welcome to join along (see the post above to sign up). All you need is a book and blog.

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 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?

For many, many more mind-blowing questions and answers, jump up a post to the list and go to another blog. Better yet, join along too for the next book by signing up through there and read along next time with your own contributions!


bleu said...

I have not read the book and have no intent actually. I was intrigued by the question of name and name change.
I came out very late in life, I was 30 when I could fully announce it to myself. After that I was shouting from the rooftops as coming out to me was the difficult part. My mother guessed during that year and I confirmed but my father by accident later that year. At that point I was disowned, lawyers called, writs drawn up and forced to sign disowned. My family is not religious, just bigoted to a degree rare and huge. He feels all homosexuals should be put to death.
I digress.
I began using different names after I came out, experimenting, exactly for what you mentioned. I HAD changed significantly and didn't feel a fit with my first name.
When I decided to have a child on my own I knew I would never want it to have my father's name and my middle name is another name I shared with him so that had to change as well. I legally changed my name twice while pregnant, hormones were flaring and my first choice had a name related to an old gf. I then chose a family member who had passed when I was young middle name as my new last name. It fit, it sounded nice, and it had history I was proud of. It was also on my mother's side. I kept my birth first name for partial legal reasons and added Bleu as my middle name. A friend had given me that name ceremonial years earlier and I had gone by Bleu for a long time. The few friends IRL who knew my birth name hated it and easily switched.
I feel all of the herstory and history of what went into my name adds to the importance of giving that name to my children. I also felt that way about naming my son Bliss Om. There is a part of what shapes you, or even what doesn't shape you by your name.
My mother was born with her Mothers first name and Jill for a middle. I never heard her referred to anything but Jill my entire life. I believe she legally had her first dropped some time but I know not when.
In the gay community because of our lack of ability to wed legally int he US names come up a lot. Also because of stories like mine of families disowning it also happens. One trend I love seeing more of is when couples create their own family name to share with themselves and their kids. It is a decisive step and it is entered into for what you so aptly described, to signify that change, that partnership each is entering into equally and that they are different after.

Anyhow I love how your mind works and how you always get me rambling along incessantly.

Drowned Girl said...

It was me with the Atwood quote about everything in the book being true or at least possible. Scary, eh?

Re things becoming normal... one thing that is now "normal" to me, is I tend to assume that women with just one child, or large gaps between their children, have suffered infertility or loss. So much so, that I was quite surprised to go on a playdate with little DG last week, to a schoolfriend (only child) and realise that in fact, her parents had split up when she was a baby, and that's why no siblings...

Rachael said...

Interesting about names....

I wondered about the men, too. I'd like to write it from their perspective. Mind you, they certainly had a lot more freedom.

Barb said...

I read the book before the booklist, so feel I can comment on this one! :) I did like the way it opened my eyes to many different issues and possibilities. She's pretty genius IMHO, even though I don't always "enjoy" her stories.

Anyway, for the men in the book.. I agree with you on some levels. She could have explored the male psyche a little more. However, she really seemed to write the book more for the woman pov. I also felt while reading it that perhaps she was trying to make the men in power more one dimensional as a metaphorical device. I think the men in power were more symbolic, and the women were the true "people" in the book. I just assumed that these men were the "bad" men, and that good ones did exist. I think those men served to symbolize a corrupt govt, blind power, and male domination. I think basically, it just wasn't her intention to explore male issues. But I do completely understand your point.

As for does infertility become "ordinary?" For me it has. It has become part of who I am, and thus, I have found it easier to cope. It no longer dominates who I am, but is another aspect of me. However, that only goes for each level that I have achieved comfort with. When we have to move to another type of treatment, or have a new diagnosis, the adjustment period begins anew.

Thanks for the thought provoking questions!

Samantha said...

I thought about the name questions as well, although I didn't answer it. I chose not to change my name upon marriage, basically because I was comfortable with it, and didn't want to call myself something else. The other reason I didn't was that I didn't ever want to be called Mrs. John Doe. No identity. I remember working in an archives processing papers where the letter from a Mr. John Doe indicated that Mrs. John Doe died. A year later, he was again mentioning a Mrs. John Doe. It seemed like the same thing with Ofglen. Without a stable name, your identity is gone.

That said, I realize I still have my father's name, and my children, assuming I have any, will probably take my husband's name. That part doesn't really bother me so much, as much as it felt important for me to keep a single name throughout myself.

I also agree with you about the lack of exploration of the men's side of things. Their roles in society seemed to be almost as unpleasant as the women, in some ways, but that wasn't really the books focus.

loribeth said...

Your initial two points are well taken!

Re: the first question on "shredders" (ugh) -- I did notice the term, & it made me wince. Made me wonder what happened to the poor wee ones bodies after they passed -- makes them sound like so much disposable garbage. :( Yours is the first post in this group that I've read; I'll be interested to hear what others have to say on this!

I did find it interesting, however, that although babies born less than perfect were considered "shredders," Handmaids were forced to carry all pregnancies to term.

Re: names -- I took my dh's name when we got married, 22 years ago. While the idea of keeping your own name was already around then, very few of my friends, who were getting married around the same time, were keeping theirs. I considered hyphenation, but my dh's Italian name & my Eastern European name seemed like a weird combination (although I've seen much more unusual ones in the years since then!). And finally, I did not relish the thought of trying to explain to my very traditional Italian father-in-law, who had been the soul of generosity to me and welcomed me wholeheartedly to the family, why I was not going to take his name.

Interestingly, I've had to defend my decision to some of my co-workers, who did keep their names. To me, it's all about choice. I fully support their choice to retain their birthnames; why couldn't they support mine?

Lori said...

Word choice: We use dysphemisms in war, too, as a way of distancing ourselves from the horrors we participate in. We call the other side "The Enemy" to dehumanize; Atwood does the same with "shredder." Somehow makes the outcome less tragic...?

Ordinariness: The daily parts of IF (shots, medical interventions, the cycle of hoping/waiting/being disappointed never became ordinary.

But now, 7 years later, IF is really not a big deal. It is what brought my children to me, and I wouldn't trade my reality for any other outcome.

Patriarchal names: I chose not to change my name when we got married. Then, a year later, we moved to an Arab country. I thought, "I'd better change my name to his so that we appear in all ways to be married."

Well, that's what you get for not doing your homework. As you pointed out, Mel, the Semitic tradition is different; in this case girls keep their father's last name.

Becoming another named person did feel weird. Like I was trying on new clothes (which eventually do fit).

I DO like having the same last name as the rest of my family.

deanna said...

The term, "shredder" seemed so out of place to me. In this society that revered children and fertility, it seems logical that they would have mourned even the smallest loss. I was totally shocked by the term itself, but also by out of place it was in that setting.

I agree that a name is no simple thing. I like the unity of sharing my husband's last name, but even as a little girl, I knew I wasn't prepared to give up my own name. I never liked the confusion of hyphenated last names, so I decided to keep my maiden name in the middle. My legal signature has two middle initials, but most of the time, no one knows it's there except me. And, I'm okay with that.

Pamela Jeanne said...

I agree with your point that men's emotional needs are completely overlooked in IF. Thankfully I have a guy who can express himself but I worry for those who can't and submarine their feelings.

As for dysphemisms, I'm happy to say that society has shown itself capable of coming around, albeit slowly on that score. We no longer here the terms "cripple" or "retard" to refer to people who have physical or mental disabilities. I can only hope that the sensitivity continues to extend to conditions that still have dysphemisms.

Finally, as for names, I have two. I use my given name for anything work related and my married name for anything social. It allows me to mix and match my identities. I like the dual approach, but then I'm also a Gemini ;-)

The Dunn Family said...

So much to respond to! As far as the name thing goes, I think as many people commented (i've read so many of the posts now, I'm confused about who said what!), it's the choice to keep or not keep my name that is really important. I took my husbands name. It's funny, because our first names only have a one letter difference, so it's almost like we have the same name! But I really wanted to take on his name, to me it represented creating a family unit. But I have no issue with anyone keeping their name. As long as we can choose, then it's all good in my opinion.

As far as infertility becoming ordinary, it never really did for me. Maybe because we didn't deal with it for that long. But it definitely shaped me. It's part of who I am, hell, it's how I created my family! I wouldn't change the journey even if I could. Which I'm sure you understand. Because if I didn't go through IVF, I certainly wouldn't have my twins. They are fully a product of IVF. Maybe I would have had the same kids, years apart. But that wouldn't be the same as what I have now.

Bea said...

The world outside Gilead is sadly too reflective of the world as it is today. People are too willing to fall back on cultural relativism - when one of our citizens was executed in Singapore for drug smuggling (2005/06) a national talkback program asked for opinions. All callers vehemently denounced using mandatory capital punishment for drug smuggling, but when asked whether the Singaporean government ought to change its laws, they backed off, saying it was "ok for them" even though it was "very wrong".

We should be careful judging other cultures, and even more careful interfering, but saying it's "wrong, but ok for them" is what allows things like Gilead/the Holocaust to happen, not to mention wrongful death sentences. Sadly, this is what we are all too prepared to do.

About the male thing - I felt like the book was *about* women, but that the regime still oppressed men. They were also assigned a strict role, which included not being "invested" in childbearing beyond doing their deed. This very much reflects what we expect from men as far as fertility, regardless of its truth. The cracks showed in the affair The Commander tried to start with Offred, the trips to the whorehouse, and the participation of males in the resistance. We didn't see the full extent of that side of the story, because it wasn't "about" the men.

It's interesting what you say about names and getting used to things, because I see both things differently. As far as names, it's almost like one isn't "enough" to contain all the facets of my past, present and future selves. As far as getting used to things - I really got the sense, after Jester, that you could get used to anything. It wasn't that it didn't bother me any more - I was physically ill with grief - but I knew what to expect, and that I would cope until it was behind me. If that makes sense.


Bea said...

P.S. Good luck for your appointment.


Paranoid said...

Great point about the lack of international response to what happened in Gilead. Although I was struck by the lack of internal resistance to what happened, I never even thought of what the rest of the world thought or why they weren't helping.

Hekateris said...

I hate this book with the heat of a thousand burning suns.

Just thought I'd mention that.

Ms. Infertile said...

Great respones.
I completely agree about the lack of understanding of men's feelings on infertility. People tend to think that it doesn't affect them at all. I know how much my husband wants children when I look at him. I am surprised when people make comments such as, "oh he seems so committed to having a family to go through all those IF treatments with you" and after our loss when they said, "now is J helping you with things?" Like he didn't need any help emotionally himself?!
On the IF becoming ordinary - sadly for me it has. I realize that it is now just something I do; woven into my daily life.