Why I Have to Look away from The Handmaid’s Tale Sometimes, and Why That’s a Good Thing

Last week, as I was watching “A Woman’s Place,” the sixth episode of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I was struck with a realization: I had not watched a single episode of the show without flipping through the social media feeds on my phone or my laptop simultaneously. So I started to think about why…Why might I might be avoiding focusing myself entirely on this show, a show that I gave high praise to and found fascinating for so very many reasons?

The answer was deceptively simple: I was, in fact, avoiding focusing myself entire on this show in order to avoid the trauma of doing so. As a woman, the show terrified me. So I did what I do when I need a distraction…I pulled up a social media feed that I could passively scroll through or easily put aside while I was watching, redirecting my attention when my psyche could not (would not) devote itself to the images on the screen.

I promptly expressed this opinion on Facebook with a short status update, written while I was watching that sixth episode. And then something happened. Other people (mostly, though not entirely, women) start expressing similar opinions. They also had a difficult time watching the show, and some of them felt unable to watch at all. It turns out, there were quite a lot of us who agreed that the show is well done, the story well plotted, but perhaps so well plotted and shown at such a frightening moment in American history (though not just American, I’m reminded, as I see the news of the Manchester attack, so obviously an attack on girls) that to actively watch the show is to feel an open wound be poked and prodded for approximately an hour at a time.

To watch The Handmaid’s Tale, we must confront our current situation, must confront past atrocities, too. Although in some ways the premise of HT is speculative fiction, casting forward and asking “what if” questions, in other ways the work is a reflection of past horrors. Atwood has said as much:

I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents.

To watch The Handmaid’s Tale, I must confront a world in which all of these things have happened, are happening, will happen.

And maybe it’s selfish, maybe it’s just human, I don’t know…It’s most certainly indicative of my position of privilege and my position in history that I don’t regularly worry about these things…But as I watch, I do wonder. I wonder what I would do if it were my child torn away from me; if it were my husband shot by police, presumed dead; what if it were my body forced to endure the cold, casual rapes of the Ceremony and bear children in a world where most births result in death.

In Gilead, there is only room for the white and the privileged, the able-bodied. I’m inclined to also attribute the overwhelming whiteness of the community to this kind of thinking as well, but as Angelica Jade Bastien points out in an excellent piece for Vulture, it’s a bit difficult to say if this is intentional or just a result of the “colorblind casting of the show.” In a more concrete way, we are assured of that differences are not welcome in Gilead when Ofglen is caught in a same-sex relationship. She is called a “gender traitor” and forced to watch as her lover is executed, then sent to be tortured. Ofglen isn’t executed because, as a childbearer, she is too valuable to execute. We are again assured of Gilead’s low-tolerance for differences during the banquet scene in “A Woman’s Place.” Serena Joy forces Aunt Lydia to send home the girls who bear obvious marks of their punishments, the “bruised apples,” refusing them admission to the party in order to preserve the appearance that the handmaids don’t mind being treated like walking wombs.

And that is a difficult thing to focus my attention on. My medical history of severe preeclampsia, delivery by C-section at 32 weeks, makes it likely that any pregnancy would involve similar issues. At a time when maternal deaths in the U.S. are on the rise and healthcare is becoming more and more difficult for women to access, the idea of another pregnancy is, frankly, terrifying. My first pregnancy could’ve easily resulted in my death or the death of my child. Almost did, in fact. The specialist I was sent to in my 30th week not only did not send me to the hospital when he found that my diastolic BP was over 200, but he did not even report this to my OB. When I tested positive for protein in my urine and told her what my BP had been, she had me go directly to the hospital, where a group of nurses hovered over me and pumped me full of magnesium sulfate, administering steroid shots that would develop my child’s lungs enough for him to breathe without assistance when he was born almost a full 8 weeks before he was supposed to be.

In a place like Gilead, where medical care is next to nonexistent, my child and I would not have lived. In this world, as it exists, if I did not have access to the medical care that I was given, my son and I would have died. As it was, we were lucky enough to have a good doctor and for me to have good insurance that covered almost all of my birth expenses, leaving us with less than 2K to pay off from my hospital stay and surgery. The bills for my son, who spent 5 weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, would have been astronomical, but we were lucky that he was eligible for assistance. One set of parents were not so lucky–they had been billed for hundreds of thousands in medical bills for the one of their twins that had died shortly after delivery and were caring for the twin who clung to life. Another baby, almost ready to go home one day, was back on a ventilator the next day. Those were days of tiny triumphs and gaping sadness, the NICU a place that was all at once beautiful, fragile, resilient, clinical, and strange. And that NICU was a place that would not exist in Gilead.

There is no room for the fragile in Gilead, no room for those who need a little help. No room for difference, either. There’s no room for art or books or magazines or medicine or technology. Offred’s claustrophobic world, her vision literally limited by her bonnet, metaphorically by the strict parameters governing where she can go and when, those things leave no room for what does not fit the status quo. It is this claustrophobia, this insistence on woman as womb that is perhaps the core of the issue, the reason I cannot focus my entire self on the entire show. But this is indicative of something the show is doing right rather than something it is doing wrong. I should be frightened of that, and I am.

 

On Turning 33

A few weeks ago, I turned 33. Sam and Little Jedi and I had lovely dinner together and some scrumptious cake, but mostly things were calm and relaxed. Very different from some of my past birthdays (pleasantly so!), but I did find myself contemplating birthdays past and thinking about age and aging. Age is, after all, just a number, and what we consider “old” has changed drastically over the centuries and across cultures. Thirty-three, at this point, is still pretty young.

But our thirties are an age that we expect to see people doing certain things by. I see lists all the time about “30 things to do before you’re 30” or “20 things to do in your 20’s.” Of course, many of these listicles are lighthearted, and many of them revolve around life experiences. Although these lists are often gendered, they are much more expansive than they might once have been. But they’re still expectations–and they are gendered. Now I’m not saying that goals and expectations are inherently bad things. On the contrary, goals are often ways of categorizing what we most want to achieve with the finite amount of time we have, and expectations can be powerful motivators. It’s basing goals on an age and gender that I dislike.

At 33, I find myself: married to a wonderful man; the mother of a beautiful, smart, and emotionally astute 7 year old. I own my car, and even if I do rent my home, it’s a lovely one in New Orleans; I’ve had the chance to travel in Europe and throughout much of the U.S. So what if I don’t own a home or if I am still paying off student loans? Does it really matter that I still can’t wing my eyeliner or that I’m not trying too hard to avoid getting wrinkles? Who really cares if I can’t plan and cook a 5 course dinner party? Why do we evaluate ourselves by this kind of criteria?

So in the spirit of the day, I offer you short list of all the things that I think you should do, not before you’re 30, but just…Whenever you are, whomever you are, and however you are:

1. Make an effort to stop internalizing what the lists say. You’re probably never going to completely stop caring about some of this stuff, because we are immersed in gender and age expectations from the time we are born. Recognize that because of culture you WILL feel pressured by lists, by film and media, and even by people you know. Listen to those voices, but don’t let them become your voice.
2. We’re done here.

When Getting to School Is A Fight For Your Life

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from Rose B. Fischer. I am incredibly honored to have her posting here in such an open, honest essay about her experiences. Please be aware that this post contains frank discussion of physical abuse.

(Content Warning: Descriptions of physical abuse.)

The little yellow bus—commonly called “the retard bus” by my peers–was my only way to get to school. My mother took the car to work with her at 5:45, and the “regular” bus didn’t have a wheelchair lift.

The little yellow bus pulled up at precisely 7:30 every weekday morning. It would honk once, idle for five minutes, and if I wasn’t outside by then, the driver would leave.

This was the mid-80s, well before the ADA, so I was lucky to have the little yellow bus at all.

[Read more…]

Feminist Friday Open Thread

Darlings,
There will not be one of our regular feminist Friday posts today, but I will be back next week with a traditional post. I’ve spent the week watching the news, reading, having difficult conversations, and making some plans for future action. Oh yeah, and I’ve been working, both in and outside of my home. Consequently, I didn’t manage to get a post written, and I am exhausted.
pablo
And I think it’s important to talk about how we get exhausted, because we do get exhausted, all of us. And there’s a long way to go yet. So today,  I need to step away from my computer for a while today and practice some self-care. I need to spend the day reading a good book (right now I’ve got the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books on tap, as I’ve just finished the super-fantastic Netflix adaptation) and snuggling with the pup. We’ll have coffee tomorrow, and I’ll finally get ’round to all those comments that are in the queue (god, I’m sorry guys—I’m just overwhelmed, but I see you all, and I

So while I am off here, I’d like to suggest something else…Go find a feminist writer that you haven’t read before and read a post from her instead. And feel free to suggest pieces in the comments section–especially pieces that address intersectional issues like race, class, disability, and LGBTQIA rights. Because the way to do this is not for us just to talk in a vacuum, but to bring more people into the conversation, not for us to yell so loud that we are unable to hear the voices around us, that we drown them out.

The Truth About Children and Domestic Violence

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from Rose B. Fischer. I am incredibly honored to have her posting here. Please be aware that this post contains frank discussion of abuse.

Whenever I hear a car door slam, I break into sweat. My breath catches in my throat, I clench my fists, my stomach tightens, and I have to talk myself down from the edge of a panic attack. As a child, the slamming of the car door meant my dad was home from the bar. He would stomp inside, shove the table, scream and yell, usually break something, and then my mother would storm out of the bedroom. She would scream back at him, and the arguments would last for hours. My siblings and I would lay awake in our rooms, too scared to move, even if we had to go to the bathroom.

One night, my dad smashed our aquarium. He wanted to get back at my mother, and she always liked to watch the fish. We lost the whole cabinet and the chair to water damage, but the deeper loss was my sense of security.  For all that my dad was a loud, belligerent drunk, that was the first time I saw him willfully destroy something for spite.  It wouldn’t be the last.

I moved out of my parents someone I was 19. That same year, I got married, and my husband started abusing me. It wasn’t like my father at first. His abuse tactics were mostly covert, emotional manipulation, crying, lying and gas lighting me. Over time, he escalated into physical abuse.  First it was just unwanted contact. He would slide his hand up my shirt in public when I had asked him not to. He would pinch or slap me on the ass, or pinch my nipples.  When I asked him not to, he would laugh and tell me that I was too sensitive.  I knew that he was doing it intentionally to upset me but that didn’t make it easier to cope with.  Eventually it became unwanted sexual advances.  I couldn’t say no to him without a three-hour fight that would end with him pouting in the corner and threatening to kill himself.  Finally he stopped listening when I said no at all.

Then, the physical violence moved out of the bedroom.  He dragged me out of my wheelchair and tried to choke me.  I only saved myself that night by getting my hands around his throat and choking him instead.  Another time, he was angry with me for something minor and threw a coffee maker at my head.

That was the last straw. I left him that night, and I’ve never looked back, but my struggles were far from over.

I don’t know when car doors came to be such a problem. I have some trouble with loud noises of any kind, but most of the time I can control my reactions. I know enough about PTSD symptoms and how to manage them that I can pretend to be fine even when I’m not. I can de-escalate myself and calm down without much trouble. Car doors are another story. That sound can send me over the edge without warning.

I think I first noticed it in my mid-20s. I had been living on my own since I was 19, and gradually I realized that even though my father was nowhere around me, I was still always afraid if I heard a car door slam. I didn’t know much about PTSD at the time, and I didn’t realize that children who witness domestic violence have a much higher rate of PTSD symptoms than soldiers or war veterans.  Everything I knew about PTSD at the time related to vets.

I also didn’t understand that PTSD can sometimes develop or worsen when a child grows up and leaves the domestic violence situation. The reason for this is that when you’re in the situation, your mind compartmentalizes so that you can continue to function.  When the immediate danger is removed, you can start to experience more symptoms.

I wish I had understood this sooner.  By the time I learned that I had PTSD, my symptoms had gone on unchecked for years and were so out of control that I never let anyone into my home.  I still have anxiety about that, and I find it difficult to go out for more than a few hours.  If there’s a possibility that I might have to stay longer, I need to have a “plan” to get myself out of the situation safely, even if I know there’s no danger.

None of those things have much to do with my father or my ex-husband, but I think as I got older, my home became my safe space. Leaving it or allowing people in meant that I had to prepare myself for possible dangers. I didn’t realize that was happening until it was so bad that it was impossible to ignore.

I’m sharing my story because, most often, when we speak of domestic violence, we speak of partner-violence, or more specifically, violence perpetrated on a woman by a man. Domestic violence encompasses much more than that. While women are statistically more likely to be targeted by male abusers, many men have also been abused by a partner or member of the family. Children are the silent victims of domestic violence. We know that they’re present, and that domestic violence is often a cycle perpetuated through generations, but we don’t invite people who witness domestic violence as children to share their stories and we offer little, if anything, in the way of treatment for them.

We’re the people who understand domestic violence most intimately. It was our cradle, our coming of age, and too often, it becomes our prison.  I want that to stop.  I don’t want another child to grow up terrified, and I don’t want a single survivor to panic over something as innocuous as a car door.


Rose B. Fischer is an avid fan of foxes, Stargate: SG-1, and Star Trek.  She would rather be on the Enterprise right now.

Since she can’t be a Starfleet Officer, she became a speculative fiction author whose stories feature women who defy cultural stereotypes.

To support her artistic habits, Rose has a paying gig as a Digital Creativity Consultant. She works with female and nonbinary creatives to help build powerful online presences that remain in line with her clients’ artistic visions.

You can find her on The Evil Genius blog.

How Purity Culture Almost Destroyed My Life…Twice

Purity culture nearly ruined my life.

I grew up in church. We lived in a small, Mississippi town in the 1980s/90s, the place my father grew up. The entire family went to that church–my grandmother, my aunt, my nuclear family, and even some 2nd and 3rd cousins. We were there every time the doors were open…Literally. On Sunday mornings, we would attend Sunday school at 10, then sit through the church service from 11-12. We’d go home for lunch, and sometimes a friend would come over to play for a few hours. Then it was back to church at 4:30 for children’s classes and another church service from 6-7. After services many of those nights, I would go home with my grandmother and aunt, who often ordered pizza and had dinner with our pastor and his wife. On Wednesdays, we went to prayer meetings from 7-8. During the summer, there was always a week of Vacation Bible School and then another week of summer sleep-away camp.

The church we attended held many of the standard fundamentalist Christian views–especially those of the time. I can remember hearing about the evils of rock music. (When I was very young, much of the ire was directed at Ozzy, who bit the head off  of bats. Later, that disdain and concern would turn to Marilyn Manson, who destroyed Bibles onstage and was always to be found in dark clothing and layers of makeup.) When a new youth pastor introduced Christian rock, some of the church goers were upset. I remember not celebrating Halloween, because it was The Devil’s Holiday. We had an evening hay ride and bonfire in the woods to compensate for the loss of trick or treating–supervised by our parents and church elders, of course.

Sex was something that there was almost a blanket of silence about, though. I barely remember discussing sex with my parents, but I think the conversation was mostly too little, too late. Not that I was having sex (indeed, no–not until I was 19), but I’d already figured out how sex worked long before we discussed it. This was because sex wasn’t often discussed in our house or in our church…even in our community. And when it was, there were very certain parameters for the discussion:

We’d talk about abstinence. In church, we learned about the value of purity: purity of heart and purity of body, which seemed to equal a kind of purity of spirit, of soul. At our local high school, the True Love Waits group gave a presentation to the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was a member, except that it was an organization for Christians that many of my friends belonged to…I was certainly not an athlete. We were all encouraged to take vows that we would wait until marriage to have sex.

We’d talk about repentance. In church, we were told that we’d all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We were told that if we’d sinned in this way, we could become new again in God’s eyes if we only repented and then continued to abstain.

And we’d talk about consequences. So, so much talk about consequences. Disease a possibility. I remember mapping out how quickly disease could spread. Oh, but there was also the possibility of creating another human…And not being married to that baby’s other biological parent was considered a serious moral failing in our community, not to mention a hardship that extended from mother to child, an assumption that the child’s life would also be difficult. This was compounded by the occasional pregnant girl at school, a cautionary tale walking around with a burgeoning belly, the way the hushed whispers followed those girls.

Complicating this was some family history, maternal guilt and pressures. Secrets I am not at liberty to tell because they are not mine, but secrets that nonetheless affected my life. And then there were rules…So many rules. Rules about what to wear, who to be (or not to be) alone with, what time to come home, what to do while I was out…So many rules.

Only in retrospect does any of this sound extreme. It’s easy to miss the signs when you’re immersed in something.

By the time I was in college, I’d moved away from my hometown, stopped going to church. I’d met people who were different than me, many of them radically so. I’d studied literature and history at a college level. I’d had my first tastes of alcohol, of love, of freedom, of real joy and of real tragedy. But it wasn’t easy, this moving away from my upbringing. It came in fits and starts, with a lot of internalized guilt and shame. I drank a lot, often getting overly-emotional. At one point, I could drink a fifth of alcohol and keep drinking. For all intents and purposes, I was an alcoholic.

I almost destroyed myself. But somehow, I finished my undergraduate degree and moved on to graduate-level courses.

When I moved to attend graduate school, I was in an off-phase of an on-and-off relationship that had pretty much defined my undergraduate career, spanning from the end of my sophomore year of college until I graduated. Eventually, we’d find ourselves in another on-again phase.

And at 24, I’d find myself unmarried and pregnant.

I was terrified. No, I was not a child–not in the typical sense of the word. But my parents were still very much in charge of my life, helping me pay my way through graduate school so that I could focus on the very real task of getting a degree. I had finished course work for my master’s degree, but I still needed to write a thesis and defend it before I could graduate. And my parents were angry. My mother said we’d have to get married, and my dad said that mom was only wanting the best for us, did not want my child to be a bastard. I was unsure of what to do, but my boyfriend said we’d get through it. We were planning to get married one day anyway, we’d just wanted to wait longer.

And so, I married my son’s father. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to each other, but we were also unsuited to be married to one another. It didn’t take us long to figure out that we were wholly unsuited to one another once we lived together, either. We were married for less than a year, tired of the arguments that had defined our on-and-off relationship. We knew it was unhealthy to raise a child in the turmoil of our arguments, and so we decided not to. We’d raise him together, but separate.

But that was a difficult goodbye. It felt like a death, and in a way it was. It was the death of a relationship, the closing off of a life I thought I was going to live. I didn’t want to be a divorced woman or a single parent. I didn’t want my child to grow up in a “broken home.”

It almost destroyed me, that loss of the dream of a nuclear family with biological mother, biological father, and biological child. That loss also freed me.

But here I am, 7 years post-divorce. I am remarried to someone who I could not imagine life without, someone who is not only a partner to me but an amazing 3rd parent for my son. We have a good relationship with my parents, who have helped me immensely, especially during the time when I was a single mother going to graduate school. And there’s my son…My beautiful boy with a big heart. He has two fathers.

And all is as it should be, finally.

What Having a Disability Taught Me About Bodily Autonomy

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from Rose B. Fischer that kicks off our Feminist Friday postings here at Part-Time Monster. The weekly posts will aim to generate conversation about feminist issues, paying particular attention to intersectional issues. I am incredibly honored to have her posting here about such a deep and personal topic.

I was born with cerebral palsy.  I have limited use of my legs and my lower leg muscles are basically nonexistent.  When I was three, neuromotor specialists began recommending a daily routine of physical therapy to help maintain my level of mobility.

The exercises I’m supposed to do feel like someone is trying to rip my legs apart on a medieval torture device.  As a toddler and young child, I was never given an option to refuse this treatment.  I have no memory of anyone explaining the benefits of this therapy.

I was told I had to do my exercises.

That’s it.

[Read more…]