Why It’s Painful to Watch The Handmaid’s Tale

Watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is proving to be a very traumatic experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it to the end. Let me share a little bit of the reason why, although it is far bigger than the examples I mention below.

It’s not surprising that when the book was published in 1985, it was banned in Romania. This, despite the fact that it was set in America (we liked showing the corruption and failure of capitalist society) and  showed the pitfalls of a society heavily influenced by religion (religion is the opium of the people and us Communists were proudly atheist).

Scene from the recent TV adaptation on Hulu.

It’s obvious, however, that the Republic of Gilead symbolises any totalitarian state which imposes a single way of thinking, is harsh with anyone who dares to be different and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. Above all, it provided a striking parallel to Romania itself, that ‘paradise’ where everybody knew their place and worked for the greater good, and enjoyed the illusory safety of law and order (never mind how it was achieved). It was also one of the few countries of the world at the time where the state controlled women’s reproduction. The reason behind it was to produce enough citizens to lead the socialist revolution and build our glorious communist future.

I was a product of the law, one of the so-called ‘decreței’ (children born following Decree 770 introduced in 1967), banning any form of contraception and abortion. My mother suffered from heart disease and the doctors were not sure it was wise for her to have a child. She had me, but her health deteriorated sufficiently after that, that she was allowed to get away without having any more children. Other women were not so fortunate. There were only a few cases where you might be exempt from the rule:

  • if you were over the age of 45
  • if you already had 4 children (later raised to five)
  • if you had a life-threatening disease and would be unable to bear to term
  • if your pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (but see below about pregnancy tests for 14 year olds)

Contraceptives were not available at all and any doctors or nurses found giving them out (let alone performing abortions) were imprisoned.

Families continued to attempt to obtain black market contraceptives from abroad (there would be day trips to special markets for these in Yugoslavia), but many of them had expired or had potential side-effects, since they were given without any medical supervision. Plus you were always in danger of getting caught smuggling them in. Many women died or were permanently damaged having illegal abortions.

Stadium celebrations for national day under Ceausescu.

It was worse, of course, for those who could not afford children or smuggled contraceptives, since your extra bonus from the state for being a ‘heroine mother’ (additional benefits) only kicked in once you had eight or more children. Many women tried to disguise the pregnancies for as long as possible, wearing tight corsets or drinking strange concoctions to provoke a miscarriage. As a result, there was a high proportion of children born with malformations, health problems, general failure to thrive. Most of them ended up in orphanages, as did the children of women who had illicit affairs with foreign students (any physical contact with foreigners was punishable with imprisonment), especially when it was obvious that the child was mixed race.

From the age of 14 until 45, all women were required to go twice a year to have a gynaecological test. In fact, if you went to the doctor with any other ailment, you were sent to have a check for pregnancy anyway. Of course, if you were pregnant, you were then strictly monitored to make sure that you carried to term. If you suffered a natural miscarriage, you could be taken to court and had to prove your innocence.

Head down, blinkers on, pretend not to see a thing…

So that is the general picture. We all knew someone who had suffered from this law. A family friend who was a nurse was constantly persecuted and questioned, although she had only once referred a woman who fitted the legal criteria for an abortion. The wife of another friend, who was a talented professional singer, died following an infection after an illegal abortion and left behind two young children. (The reason I mention her profession is because there was the mistaken belief that only the poor were subjected to these harsh conditions, but it affected everyone.) Two of my classmates were forced to marry in the final year of high school when she could no longer disguise her pregnancy, but their child was born with severe birth defects and died less than a year later. Their marriage only lasted two years.

So there was suffering by proxy and also the direct experience. I was 14 when I returned to Romania and had barely ever kissed a boy, let alone had sex. Yet there I was, obliged to go through the rough handling by (always male, as far as I can remember) doctors. I will never forget my first time there, which marked the end of any trusting relationship with my mother.

Pioneers and Falcons, the glorious future of the Socialist Republic of Romania, archive image from latrecut.ro

I had scoliosis, but before I could get a referral for physiotherapy, I had to undergo the obligatory gyno-examination. A whole generation of doctors had not used contraceptives for 20 years, so they were very ignorant about anything to do with birth control or even developments in female sanitary products. Sanitary pads and tampons were not available in Romania until after the fall of the Wall, so the brash middle-aged gynaecologist had no idea that I was using Tampax or what effect it might have on the female anatomy. Of course, he didn’t bother to ask any questions, although I was so young.

So, after much prodding and shaking of the head, he turned and said to my mother: ‘So… she’s been a bit of a naughty girl, hasn’t she? No longer a virgin, I can see…’

The most painful part about this is that, despite all my protests, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my mother (who has an almost grovelling belief in the infallible god-like nature of doctors) believed him and lost faith in me that very day. Everything that followed, all the policing and monitoring, shaming and punishing, reading of diaries and interference in my private life even after I left home has come about as a direct consequence of that day.

It’s very difficult for me to talk about these things, even though I believe we should never forget the mistakes of the past if we want to build a more humane future. Alas, I don’t think I have many illusions left that personal stories give us an insight or change people’s minds. Even celebrity stories are just there for titillation and tut-tutting.

But fiction can. Especially when it is well-written. If the book and the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale can alert those who have not lived through this trauma to fight against such extremism, they will have done their job. Even if I cannot watch it to the end.

I’ve just been made aware there is a documentary about abortion policy in Romania, directed by Florin Iepan. 

http://abortionfilms.org/en/show/3487/das-experiment-770-gebaren-auf-befehl/

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Ms. Adler?

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There is no mystery to what book blogger and literature student Elena likes. Her Books and Reviews blog states quite clearly that it’s ‘crime fiction, women’s representation and feminism’ which rock her boat. I love the fact that she reads and reviews so-called serious literary fiction but finds crime fiction equally riveting and worthy of recognition. It’s thanks to Twitter once again that I got to know Elena – where she is better known as Ms. Adler (see the Sherlock reference below to understand why). I’m delighted to welcome Ms. Adler to my blog to answer some questions about her reading passions.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

When I was 12, I was at that awkward reading stage where children’s books were not enough and adult books were too grown-up for my taste. I was given three anthologies of classical novels adapted as comics and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quickly became my favorite. After reading it a few times, I asked my parents to buy the novel for me and I have been a crime fiction fan ever since.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love reading contemporary crime fiction because the authors are still alive. It thrills me to know that such works of art are being written right now, while I am writing my own academic articles or watching TV. I find it very inspiring! Also, I get to talk to them about their writing, their inspiration and their characters… I think that is a luxury.

I also have a more than a soft spot for women investigators. Actually, I am pursuing a PhD on women investigators. It is very easy to see them working long hours and suffering from everyday sexism, which is something that, as a young woman, one can very easily relate to.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

I loved Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. I think crime fiction is about much more than merely solving crimes and Hilary nailed the social criticism part. I am a huge Kate Atkinson fan as well, because even though Life After Life is not typical crime fiction, it overlaps with the social criticism. Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly has a delightful psychopath as a main character.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I think the Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson would be in competition with the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. Two very different styles, but equally good. Atkinson is much more philosophical and explores psychology, while Cornwell has been exploring forensic science since 1990. I grew up with CSI on TV, so reading about how DNA and mobile phones were once not part of crime-solving amazes me.

girlonthetrainWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I have been hearing about a new novel, Girl on the Train published by Transworld that I can’t wait to read. Mind you, I usually spend two hours a day commuting by train, so I think it could very interesting to see how someone like me would fit on a crime novel. Of course, my To-Be-Read pile is huge. My lovely boyfriend is in charge of buying me all the Scarpetta books in the series as I read them, so I have two Scarpetta there. Mason Cross’s The Killing Season is there as well; he created a kick-ass FBI female detective! (Could you name another FBI female agent? I could not).  [Clarice Starling is the only one I can think of.]

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I am a die-hard fan of Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood. Anything they will ever write will be a favorite of mine. Alias Grace and Life After Life might be the best books that I have ever read; I never get tired of recommending them to others.

I am an English literature graduate, so I love postcolonial literature (produced in territories that were once part of the British empire), because it deals with very complex constructions of identity, especially for women. My latest discovery, and one I had the pleasure to meet in person, is Australian author Simone Lazaroo. She writes about moving to Australia from South Asia and how her looks did not fit into “Australianess”. These works usually remind you that racism and prejudices are still part of people’s lives.

Philosophy comes high on my list for everytfeministsundays2hing: personal interest, reading, classes that I dream of attending… So I try to incorporate as much philosophy as I can to my reading. My latest was Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the construction of gender in our society (and how to defy it).

Finally, I’m all for empowering contemporary women writers, so I try to read as much works written by women as I can. I think there is still a gap in the industry even though I mostly talk to female publicists, publishers and authors. I think the stories women have to tell are still considered “by women, for women” and it is not fair at all. I am so excited for the initiative #ReadWomen2014! It really tries to fight bookish sexism by creating an online community that reads, reviews and recommends women writers. We have the power to change things and initiatives like this one gives us back the power to do so.

 

Thank you very much, Ms. Adler, for your very interesting self-portrait as a reader. Incidentally, for those of you who share a passion for women writers and feminist literature, Elena has created a weekly meme, Feminist Sundays, a place of tolerance and mutual respect in which to discuss feminist issues (and sometimes just downright funny things in advertising!).

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. As usual, if you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions! I will be taking a break with the series during August, because of holidays and other commitments, but that just means you have a longer time to ponder these questions.