Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, Book Review, Political Critique, Trump, Women's Oppression

Participating in Our Own Oppression & the Age of Trump – The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

I am fascinated and infuriated by Presidential politics.  It’s difficult to be someone from a swing state living in California, a culture shock I never anticipated.  I struggled to find someone to spend election night with me this year and when I finally did it was someone else from my home state.

Presidential politics are so important in Ohio that the first election I voted in sparked the disintegration of my high school relationship.  He was for Bush and the war in Iraq; I wasn’t. Shortly after, I went to college to GREATLY expand my liberal horizons and he enlisted in the military.

This Presidential election, though.  Oh man, this is something else, isn’t it?  I’m disturbed.  We have accepted someone who is on his third marriage with multiple children, who has publicly flip flopped on even his party affiliation, who regularly says racist and sexist things to the point of actually describing sexual assault, who tries to dismiss this sexual assault discussion as “locker room talk” as if it being an aspect of culture should be something acceptable, who will not release his tax returns, who has so many when-has-this-ever-flown-before qualities about him as a candidate (and human) that this has become my worst run-on sentence ever, as a LEGITIMATE candidate. Someone we might hand nuclear codes to in just a few weeks.

Trump, Clinton, debate, election, political critique

Listen, friends.  If you are conservative, I get it.  If you’re third party, I get it.  Wanting this particular man to be President?  I don’t get it, and you are just going to HATE this post.

A friend of mine from college (two blog shout outs in a row, Ben!) and I talk about Trump often in the context of whether he is the voice of cultural beliefs or the one influencing them. In truth he’s probably a little bit of both, but I find him to be much more the latter. The louder someone in a position of power preaches hate speech, the more others believe it’s okay for them to say it, too.  And round and round we go.

Ben would argue these beliefs wouldn’t be so embraced if they didn’t already exist in culture.  True, but they might not take on the same life if not for Trump.  Thanks to him and the bigotry disguised as honesty that he’s inspired, the societal progress of hatred this election cycle could take years to be undone.

I skipped the final debate last week.  I felt momentarily exasperated most likely because I am still so sick.  My pain has remained steady long enough that I may need radiosurgery on my trigimenal nerve, and I’m having ablation re-done on 2 ribs in December.  Cram in everything before that out-of-pocket max runs out Jan. 1st!  But despite my good solid reasons for skipping the debate, the Ohioan inside me felt guilty and somewhere around 9 p.m. I was tucked in bed with the transcript.  Reading it was so much worse than watching it would have been.  I suddenly found myself with the opportunity to read the same disgusting lines over and over again.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, Book Review, Political Critique, Women's Oppression, TrumpAs I was thinking about the impact of Trump, as both a candidate and a societal force, this quote from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood came to mind: “Is that how we lived, then?  But we lived as usual.  Everyone does, most of the time.  Whatever is going on is as usual.  Even this is as usual, now…Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

My fiancΓ© bought me this book about a year ago.  I started it before I had vertigo and finished months later just as the shingles pain was beginning.  Reading it in the midst of this election year could not be more timely, and if you have time to get it in within the next couple of weeks I highly recommend it.  I feel I’ve read a fair amount of Atwood (five books, three of which comprised the MaddAddam series) and this was by far my favorite.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic dystopia where women are valued based upon either their ability to conceive children or their rank as a wife.   The protagonist is a handmaid named Offred whose sole societal role is to become pregnant and provide her offspring to a high-ranking couple.  The book is as much a commentary on current society as it is an excellent and fascinating story in its own right.

Those within Atwood’s fictional culture argue that its rules value women and their ability to provide life to the highest degree.  Yet said value is entirely defined and controlled by men, upon whom there are nearly no restrictions.  This contradiction is the norm.  As Offred said, nearly anything can be considered the norm when you are in it.

Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, Book Review

Margaret Atwood

But perhaps most relevant to our current situation are those whom Atwood names “the true believers.”  Offred walks on eggshells regarding her own beliefs and desires when speaking to other women in the community, worried that any one of them might be a true believer in the system and report her.  Men in this world didn’t have to patrol women at all times; the women proved they would also regulate one another.  And this willingness of “true believer” women to participate in their own oppression isn’t something that is unique to the fictional futuristic creation of Margaret Atwood. It happens now.

And we pretend it isn’t real.

There are so many recent examples, but let’s consider the infamous tape released just shy of the second debate.   Feel free to watch yourself if you haven’t already seen it or read a transcript.  Warning: it can and has been triggering for victims of sexual assault.  In it, Trump describes how easy it is to kiss or grab a woman without consent when you’re famous.  Trump didn’t directly apologize for the comments.  Instead, he dismissed it as acceptable locker room talk.

We easily forget that women grow up hearing the same societal beliefs that men do.  On a regular (sometimes daily) basis we are reminded that we’re too promiscuous, that we aren’t sexy enough to be desirable, that we’re such sexual objects our clothing is distracting to boys, that we should make an effort to be excellent mothers, and that we should simultaneously desire careers.  There’s more, but you get the point.   If you condition someone enough, the odds gradually increase that she will buy into it.

Just as women were willing to report other women in Atwood’s dystopia, women are willing to regulate one another in our own reality.  We rush to the defense of our male friends accused of rape and call the woman a liar ourselves, no matter how statistically unlikely.  We call other women both sluts and prudes.  And once we’re older?  We judge the women who choose to stay home and raise their children just as much as those who never want to have children.  We judge a woman’s worth as a woman based on subjective “success” as a mother.
women for Trump, female trump supporters, female oppression, women's oppression, Trump, election, trump supporters, book review, HandMaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, political critiqueWe females do all of this because our culture taught us that such oppression is “normal,” and so we embrace it without even realizing it.  Forget Trump saying sexist things about women – we will do it for him!  Once we take into account how freely we regulate one another without a second thought, how can we possibly find it surprising that there are still women voting Trump after listening to a tape in which he essentially described sexual assault?  How can we be shocked that they also define it as locker room talk?    There are so many women still supporting him!  Just as easily as we judge one another, so we blindly support a man who may run the country despite the fact that he has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for women in just one leaked tape.  (Which is to say nothing of his long history of sexist comments.)

Let’s not pretend that women who support Trump are stupid.  I’m so tired of hearing that.  They’re not.  They are simply the products of the culture that we created.  We are responsible for them.  We are all responsible for women’s participation in their own oppression.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t offer us life lessons that I can provide to you here, though I wish it did.  In fact, the entire time I was reading it I kept thinking, “How can she end this?  How are we this close to an end without an end it in sight?” And then it didn’t really end. There was no clear notion of how to escape the society, or how the society could eventually escape its own culture.  Probably because such a simple answer doesn’t exist.

But here’s what I know – what I can offer.  After so much feminist theory in college that I was near a postmodernist meltdown.  You can work everyday to be mindful of your own thoughts and change them little by little.  Then try to get others, in as non-confrontational a way as possible, to be aware of their own culture-imposed thought patterns.  And try to be as sane as you can in the fucked up mess we are constantly within; in the era of a Presidential candidate who’s talked about grabbing pussies.  Then hopefully all of those baby steps eventually add up and change occurs, so slowly we barely notice it.

The reality is women have only been able to vote in the U.S. for less than 100 years.  Culturally speaking, that’s not a very long time at all.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and we’ve still got at least that far to go.  To bookend us with The Handmaid’s Tale: “Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money.”  Hoard your sanity.

dear mr. you, mary-louise parker, book review, book cover

The Importance of Reading Female Authors – Dear Mr. You, Mary Louise-Parker

This post took over a week and it was worth every minute.  I’ll provide you warning (for those that want to skip straight to the bookish information) that it’s split between a rambling status on my life and health and a review of the best book I read this year.  On second thought, I guess I didn’t really need to warn you.  This is, in fact, a blog dedicated to both.

Private Practice, Addison Montgomery, Shonda Rhimes, TV show, shingles

Private Practice

When I started writing, I was laying in bed watching Private Practice for the second time. I’m not even sure I put it on because I enjoyed it.  I talked before about an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and the way I watched it when in pain as some type of weird catharsis, and it seems I replaced that episode of Grey’s Anatomy with Private Practice as a whole.  Because I got shingles again.

I’ve been MIA because it’s like a living hell.  Truly.  My last procedures worked so well, I had almost forgotten.  This March, I got vertigo and couldn’t read or write; it took up the vast majority of my 2016 and I thought, well, this is it – this is the problem of the year.  A few months, it’ll be done.  But then the shingles.

The difference between now and 2013 being that I got a minor rash this time.  To tell you the truth, I thought my acupuncturist hit a nerve because my face felt numb after a session, and I was putting ice packs directly onto my face at night.  I thought I had what amounted to freezer burn on my face, but it turns out those small red spots were shingles.  Look at those spots! Would you have guessed?

Shingles, shingles spots, shingles rash, pain, postherpetic neuralgia

Shingles Spots – Left of My Eye in Photo

The worst part of shingles on your face is not being able to put on your reading glasses (for me, anyway, since I need reading glasses).  Right now I’m suffering through eye strain to write this because I miss it.  I miss you, faceless reader and subscribers to my blog.  I miss our conversations and I miss the relationship to books that we have.  The rash is now gone, but the pain remains.  My very great new neurologist tells me that because I got a rash this time and I actually feel like I’m improving this likely won’t result in postherpetic neuralgia as on my ribs and will resolve on its own (though there is no guarantee).  However, the time frame is weeks – maybe over a month.  So I’m waiting it out.  Waiting out the resolving.

And in the meantime in bed with Private Practice I heard these lines: “I would like to think that pain is what helps us grow.”  “Well maybe I don’t want to grow.” I agree, Violet.  I don’t want to grow anymore.  I feel like I’m all done growing from my pain.  I want to finally be able to read the Obelisk Gate (which I’ve had on my bookshelf since its release date) and fucking exercise for the first time in months because I’ve gained 10 pounds and I miss my pants fitting.  But I’ll grow anyway.  And I’ll make myself walk and get through work and look forward to seeing Kamau Bell this month and marathoning scary movies for Halloween and maybe finally seeing the Winchester House for a scary night tour because that’s what you do.  That’s how you deal with being sick.  Baby steps and a hope figurine.

I’ve resorted to audiobooks which I genuinely hate.   I can’t immerse in them.  But they get me through my book junkie days. And there are so many books from when I was doing ok that I haven’t even told you about yet.  Like Dear Mr. You, the most surprising delight of the year.

I watched a TED talk  just before the 2015 holidays about the way in which literary journals determine what we later read in book form, and because they do we might read less diversely; in particular, we may read less by female authors.  The idea is that we want to believe each journal would publish the best works received, but given human bias and reading preferences as to what defines “good,” how likely is that, truly? She encouraged readers to step outside of whatever their reading comfort zones may be, and after watching it (before resorting to audiobooks) I began exclusively reading female authors.  And one of my first selections was Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker.

Christmas books, book haul, Dear Mr. You, Mary Louise Parker

Christmas Book Haul

Dear Mr. You is a non-fiction collection of letters to the men of Mary-Louise Parker’s life.  Per the book jacket, they “range from a missive to the beloved priest from her childhood to remembrances of former lovers to an homage to a firefighter she briefly encountered to a heartfelt communication with the uncle of the infant daughter she adopted.”  And they are brilliant.  My mother purchased this for me at Christmas because I love Mary-Louise Parker as an actress (I will discuss Angels in America with anyone who feels like listening to me), but as it turns out she held literary accomplishments far prior to my knowledge of them, including writing in The Riveter, Bust, Esquire, and Bullet. And it’s funny because that’s exactly what this TED talk was about.  Sure, Mary-Louise Parker probably could have gotten a book deal without first being taken seriously in the literary world.  But she moved through the ranks as a legitimate author, not writing any star-studded autobiography in the traditional sense, likely because of her movements in that arena first.

Her writing is, for lack of any great symbolism, beautiful.  Breathtaking.  She writes the way I want someone to talk to me before I fall asleep every night.  And in such a way that makes me think that even if the subject were awful I would have been enthralled with every word all the way to the end.

The first letter to her deceased father ends, “We all miss you something fierce, those of us who wouldn’t exist had you not kept walking when an ordinary person would have fallen to his knees.  To convey in any existing language how I miss you isn’t possible.  It would be like blue trying to describe the ocean.”  And just like that I found myself invested in the emotion of her life while knowing very little about it, scooped up and surrounded by her sadness.

Sometimes I marked passages only for their beauty, as she wrote to Man out of Time: “Scientists can’t agree where speech evolved from so no one can arrive at what makes a particular communication successful.  This is something I would never want to know the secret to any more than I would want to know on which day I will die; but its’s a subject I could pull apart for hours without getting bored.  I love attempting to describe a thing, but I might love even better the fact that the more words you have available to encode with when you attempt denotation, the farther away you can sail into ambiguity.  I could go on about you forever and that might only make you less clear to someone discovering you through my words.” How endlessly I could read and re-read her description of lack of description.

And not only was I wrapped up in her own emotion, surrounded by her beautiful writing, but swallowed up in the memories that her writing inevitably invoked.  I thought about the lovers from my drug-induced early 20s in her letters to Risk Taker as she described his responsibility to the audience when he performs because “risk creates intimacy.” Or in her letter to Blue, explaining that he could take “anyone’s idea of modern life and set in on fire decades before anyone dreamed up Burning Man.”

There is so much I want to quote to you!  How much is too much?  I felt her pain – my own pain – in the disintegration of what felt like it would last forever as she wrote to Popeye, “You said you would love me until you were ashes…I wrote about us while you were away in a notebook that eventually saw the end of us, but the last I wrote about that time was in ink; it was hurried, angry scrawl reading: Time, that cold bastard, with its nearlys and untils.  I think, what a shame.  Time should weep for having spent me without you.”

I’ll spare you the full paragraph quotation, despite the fact that I want SO BADLY for you to read about how she describes the “less fortunate” and hates the way people write about the “less fortunate” to prove her brilliance to you, but I felt my sister in the description of her adopted child’s uncle. In the way in which she became aware of how intertwined her child would be in families and cultures, both multiple.

Mary-Louise Parker, book review, Dear Mr. You, actress, author

Mary-Louise Parker

This isn’t to say I learned nothing about her life, if your goal were to have a better understanding of Mary-Louise Parker’s life. I learned about college and the way she trained with her movement teacher.  I learned about her family’s intricacies, both her parents and children.  I learned about her relationship to AIDS in the 80s, the friends she lost and drag queens she loses herself amongst today.  Her disgust for those referencing the Bible or the American Psychiatric Association to put down the expression of love in those that she loves.  About her lovely neighbor in the country who taught her how to live in the country.

But learning about her life clearly wasn’t the purpose.  When writing to the physician who saved her life after she became septic and nearly died in the hospital, she told a tangential but significant story about a close friend:  “My friend lived next to the World trade Center and I was on the phone with her while she saw people jumping, close enough to see the color of their socks.  Her husband urged her to move away from the window.  Why are you doing that to yourself, he asked.  She said Someone has to watch them.”  The raw tangential emotion related to this experience of dying seemed so much more important than the actual experience of dying to Parker.  In fact, emotion and the act writing of it seemed to be more thematically important throughout her book than not only her experiences but even the very structure of writing letters to men.  How refreshing.

I did, I think it’s worth noting, have a PTSD episode reading about her experiences with physical abuse.  The chapter to Cerebrus (funny as perhaps what I would name my own abuser) begins, “This is a once upon a time that happened too much.  I’m telling this grim tale to you three.  Well, Konnichiwa!  Remember me?  I’m the gal who sat dumbly in a living room on the Upper East Side while one of your kind lifted me off the couch by my hair in the few seconds it took your wife to go fetch more pistachios.  Didn’t you.  I put my fingertips to my scalp and they came away bloody as you whispered, ‘Keep your mouth shut about this.’ Didn’t you.  Now don’t be frightened.  This isn’t an indictment. This is addressed to you, yes, but also to myself, because guess who stood for it?”

In fact, reading this is perhaps the first time I realized I had PTSD.  Just this past week, actually, I was speaking to one of my best friends from college, whom I knew when I was dating the man in question, and I told him about the abuse for the first time.  It took him a moment to to find his footing in the conversation and grasp what I was revealing.  I surprised even myself in that moment with how well I had kept it all a secret.  And it was somewhat therapeutic for me to read about Mary-Louise Parker emotionally saving herself in the end. But the chapter is in no way lacking in description or length, and it took a lot of treading through to finally find the salvation.  I’m not sure if this is a trigger warning to anyone interested in her work or just me still wading through my own emotional reaction, but like the emotional themes in Mary-Louise Parker’s book, I don’t think the  “what” is something I need to be able to identify right now.

This comfort with lack of identification, lack of “normal” themes, makes me feel almost whimsical about her book when I try to name my response.  Down to the last sentence, when she explains why she writes, maybe why she wrote this book, I feel romantic at the thought.  About the ability to feel without the detailed description of the thing itself.

Was there anything I read that I didn’t like?  Sure. The letter to NASA, while clever, felt a little out of place to me.  But it doesn’t come close to bringing down my five star rating.  Mary-Louise Parker is an amazing writer and an amazingly strong woman, giving glimpses of pure emotional vulnerability without revealing all of the agonizing details of her life.  What a feat.

Instagram, Dear Mr. You, blog post, book review, Free REad and Write, Mary Louise-Parker

Maybe a part of me loves that although we have lived different lives in different decades I feel a kinship with her.  Is that because the design of this book is such that anyone might feel kinship, or do I really purely relate on this level of crazy casual sex I had in college, this question of God, the personal nature of adoption to my life, the impact of medical personnel when feeling disconnected to your body, this pattern of abuse?  Or are those just the most important letters I pulled from it?  What would you pull?

Or maybe part of it is that this book made me feel like I just completed a therapy session and now I want to write ALL THE LETTERS of my own.   To the man who I’m engaged to about why marriage makes me anxious.  Is it harder to marry when you’ve created an entirely independent life for yourself at the age of 30?  Why doesn’t society allow me to speak about this without implying I’ve chosen the wrong person?  And to the man who physically abused me and to the other one who caused even more lasting damage when he did it emotionally.  I may suffer through illness now but I will never allow such suffering like that in my life again.

Or maybe it’s just that there are so many parts, so many reasons, to love it.

This post is not to say that The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin wasn’t probably my FAVORITE book that I recently read (it was, and I’ll make sure to tell you all of the reasons why).  But the book that hit me the hardest?  The one I would have to choose if describing “best?” That award goes to Mary-Louise Parker.  Without question.