To be honest, I don’t know why I offered to host the book club this month. It’s on Handmaid’s Tale because we’re on a dystopian kick right now, after reading Brave New World last month. When everyone said they wanted to read Handmaid’s Tale next, I offered to have the ladies over and to lead the discussion. At the time, I thought it would be a good idea to maintain as much control as possible. But that was crazy. I should have skipped book club this month altogether. You see, I have a history with this book. I was married when it first came out, but not to the man I’m married to now. And if I’d been living in the world of Handmaid’s Tale, as a citizen of Gilead, I’d have been hung by now for adultery and for murder, because twenty years ago, I had an abortion and then I had an affair.
It was 1985. Reagan was in office and the Moral Majority dominated society. The country was divided between the “Morning in America” crowd and the rest of us. It seemed like the Moral Majority’s voice was louder, I guess because there were more of them than were of us. They were the “majority” after all. The ERA had been defeated and feminism was experiencing a backlash. And there I was, a Japanese woman with only one child, a daughter whose birth had nearly killed me. I was married to Ken, a white man who thought I should be grateful, because if I was with him, maybe then I wouldn’t experience so much racism. It was only forty years post WWII, after all, which in the scheme of things, isn’t that long, especially when it comes to changing people’s attitudes against a population they’d thrown into internment camps only a couple of generations ago.
I wasn’t in love with Ken. Still, I thought I’d struggle along for the sake of our daughter, Tia. Then I became pregnant again, but the pregnancy was troubled from the start. I constantly had a fever and couldn’t keep any food down. After two months, the doctor determined it was an infection of the amniotic fluid, and too much damage had been done. I could continue with the pregnancy, but my baby and I were at an extreme risk, and he said I should terminate. It was the hardest decision I’d ever had to make, but the trauma of my first birth and almost dying was still fresh, and I needed to stay alive for Tia.
Ken didn’t understand. He said he would never forgive me. But I went with my doctor’s advice and got the abortion. Walking past the line of protesters who called me a murderer when I approached the clinic’s doors killed my soul. Afterwards I grew depressed and I needed a friend. Maurice was an EMT at the Mayo Clinic, where I worked as a nurse. He was there for me when no one else was, and after several months of leaning on each other, we fell in love. Knowing and loving Maurice helped me understand that with Ken, I’d been living a lie.
Maurice and I fell into an affair and I acted cowardly, keeping our relationship a secret and not coming clean. It’s just, I’d worked hard to establish the life I was living, with my career as a nurse at the Mayo Clinic, where Ken was on the board of directors. Maurice and I had to sneak around or risk losing our jobs. Worse though, I risked losing Tia.
Eventually Maurice and I were found out. I had to tell Ken because our secret would be revealed anyway. He didn’t take it well.
It was like everything was coming together and falling apart, all at once. I’d read about Offred’s experiences in this dystopian world, and they were scarily close to my own. Coworkers and neighbors who’d I thought were my friends shunned me for being an adultress. Maurice and I heard the racist slurs whispered at us, judgement for being a mixed-race couple, neither of us white. We both lost our jobs. Heck, we were practically driven out of town. It’s not like their were mobs chasing us with torches or burning crosses in our front yards, but our cars got egged and someone was constantly calling the cops on us, once because we had people over and were playing music (not even that loud) after 9 PM, and once because we hadn’t yet shoveled our sidewalk two hours after it had snowed.
But none of that compared to what Ken did. He told everyone I’d had an abortion and I was an unfit mother. He tried to keep Tia from me. A nasty custody battle followed and I was only saved by doing the one thing I had sworn I would never do: putting Tia on the stand and having her say she’d rather be with her mom. Eventually, Maurice and I moved from Rochester to Minneapolis, bringing Tia with us. Offred may have had no respite from Gilead, but we could at least find a more diverse place to live.
This time in my life was so long ago, but I think about it now, as the book club ladies settle in my living room, nibbling on the cheese and crackers I put out, and sipping their wine. There’s the obligatory chitchat, but I’m anxious to dive right in. Might as well confront this head on. “Tell me, Ladies, what did you think was the most oppressive part of Gilead’s society?”
Hazel, the founder of our little group, answers immediately. “Definitely not being allowed to read. I couldn’t imagine it.”
Leah, who, like Hazel, is in her early thirties, responds. “Seriously? I mean, not being allowed to read would be a huge deal, but to me, the constant rape, and not having your own name or identity, or not being able keep the children that you bore, or the threat of being hung for going against Gilead - that all would be way more oppressive than not being allowed to read.”
“I don’t see how you can separate it,” says Kayla. “There is no ‘most oppressive’ part. Just the fact that you could be hung for adultery or homosexuality…” she shakes her head as her voice trails off. “It’s horrifying. And something like that could happen here so easily.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Jessie. “Our country isn’t perfect, but I don’t think something like that could happen in America, at least not easily.”
“You really don’t think so?” Febe asks.
Febe is beautiful, smart, and so young. I remember her saying she’s from Iran, and I know from speaking to Hazel, who had her as a student and is now her legal ward, that Febe’s had a tough time and that her parents were involved in the Iranian revolution. The idea of the country she immigrated to becoming more restrictive than the one she escaped must be terrifying.
“Look,” I respond, trying to reassure Febe, “there is no way something like Gilead is going to happen here.”
“I disagree,” says Kayla.
“Me too,” states Leah. With her nose ring and bohemian vibe, she seems like the social protest type. “George Bush is constantly trying to insert God into government, and if he succeeds, what’s next? Women’s rights could be stripped away.”
“I suppose,” says Hazel, who, with a concerned look on her face, keeps glancing at Febe. “And I get what you all are saying about oppression.” She looks at me. “What do you think, Annette? You must remember when this book first came out? What did people think of it at the time? Did it seem realistic, or was it an outrageous nightmare?”
“Well…” I draw a deep breath. “Keep in mind, in the book, Gilead was precluded by the infertility crisis. People were panicked that the human race might die out, which is why the extreme restrictions against women were drawn, and in that scenario, I suppose they didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.”
“Sure,” answers Hazel, “but what about real life?”
I draw a breath. “In real life, there was the AIDS crisis, and the beginning of global warming, and the threat of nuclear war. So I suppose back in real-life 1980s, none of what Gilead decreed seemed that farfetched.”
Febe speaks. “Then, why are you so sure that we could never be like Gilead in this country?”
I could tell her the truth. I could explain that I had to escape the conservative community where I lived in Rochester, after Maurice and I lost our jobs and I was shunned for being an adultress and for having an abortion. I wasn’t always sure we’d survive it.
Yet, we moved to a diverse neighborhood here in North Minneapolis, and we both found new jobs and we started over. Most importantly, I got to keep Tia. Was it easy? No. Was it possible? Yes. And more than that, it was worth it.
Leah speaks before I can form my thoughts into words. “Maybe it’s just how the book was written that makes it so plausible. Offred’s narration reads like she’s my best girlfriend confiding in me, and the revolution happens so gradually, I don’t know, I could see it happening.”
“Yeah,” says Kayla. “And the way women like Aunt Lydia fell in line and betrayed other women all seemed so plausible. I hate to say it, but I totally think under the right circumstances, that it could happen here.”
I find my voice. “You don’t understand,” I state “Twenty years ago, I was Offred. I lived in fear of losing everything, including my daughter. But I survived and I didn’t lose her, because no matter how bad things get here, there’s still way more hope here than there ever would be in Gilead.”
I have the ladies’ attention.
“Please Annette, if you're willing, tell us everything,” says Hazel.
So, I do.
Host your own 20th Century Book Club and discuss Handmaid's Tale. Find a book club reader's guide bookclubz.com/discussion-guides/the-handmaids-tale
20th Century Book Club is about a fictional group of women, discussing real (fictional) books. Every month you'll see the story of their book club meeting, plus you'll have access to the book information and reader's guide if you'd like to do your 20th Century Book Club. Scroll all the way down to see the cast of characters and their profiles!