Handmaid’s Tale Book Tour Post

Regular readers: pardon the repetitive information in this post.

Thanks to Julia, I decided to reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Actually, I didn’t decide to reread it, I decided to read it but it didn’t take long before I realized I’d read it years ago. In any case, after I finished I decided to take it all the way and participate in the blog book tour for which Julia had read it in the first place.

Here’s a message from the organizer:
Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation!)

Different bloggers received different questions. Here’s my crack at answering the questions I received:

Q1: In Chapter 12, Offred is talking about her body and states: “I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” Dealing with infertility we face many challenges, and one is coming to terms with our bodies’ short-comings. How do you view and deal with your body now, compared to pre-IF (or lack of knowledge on IF), does it determine you, and do you accept it or avoid it?

I am not infertile, but still with my history of miscarriage and preterm labor this question strikes me as relevant. I never took if for granted that I would be able to conceive, or carry to term. My grandmother had only one (living) child – my mother – at 43 years old. She died before I ever had the chance to discuss with her why, just one child, why so late. I can assume given my mom’s birth year that WWII intervened, but I don’t know. My own mom was married to my dad for seven years before my older sister was born. They took in foster children before. She has never admitted to any problems conceiving or carrying to term, but she has said many times that in “[her] day” women used to miss two or three periods “all the time.” My sister had 5 pregnancies, and has 3 living children. During one pregnancy she miscarried a twin in the first trimester but carried my niece to term.

When my husband I decided in the fall of 2005 that we would try to conceive in the spring of 2006, I began immediately to plan. I was in decent shape but fine-tuned my diet to include more folic acid and my workout to include more stretching and relaxation exercises. I also began taking prenatal vitamins and additional folic acid because my nephew has a neural-tube defect. My husband and I were going to be separated because he had to do research abroad for a few minutes and I thought it was a perfect chance to clear my body of birth control pills and get to a normal cycle. I even considered charting, but gave up on it quickly.

When I found myself pregnant after our first month of trying, I was ecstatic. But cautious. I knew the statistics. I was very careful about my diet – I had a vegetarian pregnancy book that reassured me that given the diversity of my diet, it was more than sufficient. I kept exercising. I had very few pregnancy symptoms beyond exhaustion, but that went away around 9 weeks. I thought to myself, “wow this isn’t so bad,” and congratulated myself on having prepared my body so well. Then I got scared. Why no symptoms? Was pregnancy supposed to be this easy? At my first prenatal visit, the ultrasound revealed a fetus 3 weeks too small with no heartbeat. A missed miscarriage. I was heartbroken to lose the pregnancy, but in terms of my body, I accepted a natural miscarriage rate. The “missed” part, though, upset me. I couldn’t trust my body to tell me anything. How could I have just carried a dead fetus inside me for so long with no idea? Given my suffering in the next two pregnancies during the first trimester, it’s obvious to me now that it was, but plenty of women have successful pregnancies without constant nausea and exhaustion. I wanted to give my body the chance to pass it normally, and my doctor gave it two additional weeks to do so. With only a few days to go, I finally passed the miscarriage. I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d managed to escape a D&C.

A month later, I was pregnant again. With Natan, our baby who died after I went into preterm labor. This time, the process of “forgiving” my body for failure would be much longer. I don’t think it’s over yet. I won’t even pretend that I’ve had anything like closure from that loss. Even the success of this pregnancy (so far) constantly reminds me of the egregious failure last time. I don’t know yet how to talk about that.

Still, I am not without healing. I am glad that there were options for us. I am glad that I didn’t hold onto the words of the doctors who told me statistically preterm labor was most likely a fluke and unlikely to happen again as a reason to be complacent. In the first weeks after Natan’s death I held on to that as a reason not to blame myself. But then, when I saw two lines again, I realized that would hardly hold me. I needed to immediately accept my body’s shortcomings and act on them. I needed to find a doctor who was willing to do everything possible to prevent preterm labor from taking the life of another of our children, without waiting to see if it would happen again before acting. If my body does have failures, whether hormonal or structural, I cannot be held prisoner by them, nor can my children. I feel like I have had to fight my body every step of the way to stay pregnant (although now ironically it seems to be taking its own sweet time). I don’t know why. I don’t think I’ll ever know why. But only during my saddest moments do I think of my body’s culpability at all.

Right now, within days of delivering our second son, 11 months after the death of our first son, I feel entirely too wrapped up in my own body to answer this question with any certainty beyond the above. At the moment, I am too much in transition. I just don’t know.

Q2: Did you find it conflicting that the book showed a male-dominated culture, even in reference to reproducing, when in our culture it seems that women take the brunt of the responsibility? Even though male infertility was ignored in their culture and females were given stints with new commanders (“tours of booty,” as I came to think of it) did you feel the men were still in charge of procreation? How does this differ from our reality?

I don’t know that I agree with the premise of this question. The female subculture, insidious in many ways, certainly dominated at least the aspects of the Gilead we saw. So much so in fact, that we don’t even know how the political system worked. I absolutely felt that women were in charge of procreation. We read about no repercussions for sterile men, although perhaps there were some among less powerful men. Sterile Handmaids, on the other hand, were sent to the colonies and certain death.

If we idealize our reality, certainly the very possibility that we can openly acknowledge male infertility as a problem distinguishes us, but from what I know that is very different from lived experience. Male-factor infertility is not openly discussed, blogs focusing upon it are rare, amd I think we can assume that most people assume it is a female problem. For biological and cultural reasons women bear the brunt of the impact of fertility and infertility. We also take the blame for pregnancy loss, still birth and infant death. It is far easier for people to accept that we’ve done something wrong than to search of external reasons. I perceived, actually, that there was little judgment for sterility or loss in Gilead (beyond the Handmaids who were already a despised class). Infertility had become so widespread, and the environmental causes so apparent, that individual blame didn’t appear as prominently as I have felt it in my own experience. Clearly the society felt its communal responsibility and thus the communal response. However horrible Gilead would be, that at least is admirable.

Q3: It was at one time hard for me to put myself in the Wife’s shoes, but having dealt with infertility in a more personal sense,  I find that I can sympathize with her and her role in this society. If you had to be in this society, how could you cope with your role in it? Would you be a Wife or a Handmaid? Could you sympathize with your counterpart?

At first I began to think through this question wondering about the place of a fertile woman with a history of pre-term labor. But then I remembered I’m Jewish and Jews were “sent away” – so I would be where ever the Jews were really sent. Israel? The colonies? The bottom of the ocean? I don’t know.



16 responses to “Handmaid’s Tale Book Tour Post

  1. Pingback: Handmaid’s Tale Book Tour Post

  2. Pingback: One A Day Vitamin » Handmaid’s Tale Book Tour Post

  3. Your own struggles are heartbreaking – I wish you the best of luck this week, in preparing for your new baby boy.

  4. Your feelings about your body in the wake of your missed miscarriage really resonate. I had the same experience as you – pregnancy symptoms disappeared weeks before I learned that the baby was dead. At the time, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to admit it. But in the weeks following the miscarriage, I was so angry with my body for failing to tell me in no uncertain terms that I’d lost the babies.

  5. Having lost a baby myself, I know that feeling of your body letting you down. 😦 I am glad to hear you were able to carry your subsequent son to term!

  6. Your opening phrase on Q1 makes me realize that I had been misusing the term “infertile.” I had been using it to mean any couple who could not bear a biological living baby, but of course technically it really has to do only with the ability to conceive. Perhaps each of us has a different definition of IF, molded by our own circumstances.

    What a big week for you. I wish you so much health and happiness — long awaited and well-deserved, I’m sure.

  7. Another really interesting response to your second question 🙂

  8. I want to tell you how brave you are to share your story with all of us. I’m sure many of us will be thinking of you in the days ahead, and truly wishing that all goes well.

    I think you’re right to say that the denial around male-factor infertility in the book is only slightly different from attitudes today. The thing I notice the most, as someone dealing with male factor, is the absolute SILENCE. My husband never speaks of it, so I don’t feel invited to speak with him about it. Without my blog, I would have no outlet at all, since he also doesn’t want me discussing it with anyone in our day-to-day circles. The stigma around it is just so suffocating.

  9. Those were very interesting answers to the questions. I’m really sorry you’ve gone through so much with a miscarriage and preterm labor. I hope things work out for you.

    You answer to question 2 also intrigued me. The separation of men and women meant that women became responsible for interacting with each other and policing themselves, such as with the Aunts, and were just as culpable in maintaining the society (and their own power) as the men. However, I got the impression that the men were the true force behind Gilead, and that the women, while they held power within their own limited sphere, had little influence or interaction with the wider world.

  10. You’re making me want to reread this book and sadly, I think just a mere few weeks ago I sent my copy off in a box headed for troops in Iraq. (“This? I’ll never read this again.”) I read HMT LONG before I even THOUGHT about having children, and I find the analysis given one’s infertility to be utterly fascinating. I’ll spare you my mc details (pre Bella) but it was similar to yours (but with a 3 month f’up afterwards. I like to call it “MC, the extended dance-mix version.” So your thoughts on the body are very close to my own. Thanks for writing about it, and for everyone in the comments as well.

  11. I agree that the women have more control over the tools of reproduction that might initially be apparent – at the very least, they collude to keep other women in line.

    Your answer to Q1 is very moving. I wish you well with your pregnancy.


  12. Ha–with you over in Israel or (gulp) at the bottom of the ocean.

    I thought these sentences were perfect: “The “missed” part, though, upset me. I couldn’t trust my body to tell me anything. How could I have just carried a dead fetus inside me for so long with no idea?”

  13. It becomes so hard to “trust” our bodies when they’re so out of step with our minds. Good luck with the rest of your pregnancy – it sounds like you “two” are finally in tune.


  14. Thanks all.

    Interesting point, Lori, I do think infertile has different meanings for different people. And in different contexts. I should write about it when my brain is better able to form thoughts.

  15. Thanks so much for you honest responses. I am so sorry for what you have been through. But I do want to wish you congrats on your impending birth.

    I definitely had issues with trusting my body, and I don’t think I truly was willing to give myself a break until after my twins were born and I felt like my body didn’t let me down. It’s amazing how easily we can offer forgiveness to anyone else, but ourselves.

  16. First of all, I am so sorry for everything you had to go through along your journey to motherhood (everything before now, of course!). Second, congrats on the birth of your son!!

    In reaction to your answer to Q1, my missed miscarriage was both similar to and different from yours, and, as a result, my feelings toward my body were both similar and different as well. In my case, my symptoms diminished, and that gave me a bad feeling something was wrong — in fact, I had a bad feeling even before the symtoms faded. When I had an ultrasound, it turned out I was still pregnant, but the baby was dying, and my loss of symptoms was mere coincidence — as though my body was trying to warn me. Sadly, over the next 2 weeks the baby did die, but my body didn’t want to let go — the sac continued to grow, as did my uterus, but the baby did not. I was thankful to my body for giving me the warning sign, but very upset with it for the obvious failure to maintain the pregnancy and also for the fact that it wouldn’t just let go.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses.

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