Cold comfort – The Handmaid’s Tale

18 Jun

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The content of this post may upset you.

I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 14. I loved that book, not only because of Atwood’s skill as a writer, and the way she swept me up in Offred’s world, but because her story brought me comfort. Given the novel’s shocking and harrowing content, that may seem like a very odd thing to say, so let me explain.

The summer I turned 14 was followed by the first year of my GCSE’s, and new GCSE classes meant new classmates. One of those classmates was a girl I’d never really spoken to before. She was quiet, studious and awkward like me, but also funny and warm. We bonded over the ridiculousness of our physics teacher’s hair, over the pertness of our biology teacher’s bottom and over a mutual love of chocolate, which we sneaked into class and ate whole bars of during endless afternoons stuck in the labs. She quickly became my best friend. Not that being around her was always easy. She could be moody, withdrawn, and sometimes cruel. I remember her laughing in my face over some small embarrassment more than once, and in response I would retreat, deeply hurt. But I never questioned her treatment of me. I never stopped being her friend. I only tried harder to be whatever she needed on any particular day; funny, attentive, silent. Because I quickly realised that something was very wrong.

I don’t remember the first time she self-harmed in front of me, slicing up the back of her hand with the blade from her pencil sharpener. I don’t remember exactly how I found out about her dad. There had been rumours, a year or two before, rumours that I hadn’t really understood. And then there was the fact that she had two social workers and a shrink, something she’d told me one day in class as if she was just commenting on our homework. Piece by piece, over the months, she revealed the truth to me. And the truth was ugly.

Her dad raped her. Frequently. When she’d started at high school, she’d told everything to an elderly teacher with a kind face who’d called social services. My friend’s dad moved out of the family home, was taken to court, and found guilty of her rape. Then her mother and aunt (a woman I never met, who accused my friend both of being a ‘lying whore’ and of ‘asking for it’), said that if she didn’t let her dad move back in, they would disown her and kick her out of the house. So she told the social workers he could come home and the abuse started again.

I can’t explain what it’s like to have your best friend tell you this. There are no words to describe my fury, disgust, bewilderment and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that I felt, knowing what was being done to her and knowing there was nothing I could do. Because I couldn’t tell the adults. My friend had confided in me, made it very clear this was a secret for me to carry, and besides, she’d already tried speaking up and it had done nothing to help her. So it was just me and her and this terrible truth. I couldn’t process it, not at 14. The knowledge was there in my head but I pushed it away and focused on my friend, on listening to her, on trying to find the right words in response, always with panic fluttering against my ribcage. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what to say. What do I do?

I didn’t tell my parents, not then.

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale later that year it wasn’t shock that I felt most strongly. It was relief and recognition. In Atwood’s world, those in authority couldn’t be trusted, and had imposed an awful, degrading hypocrisy on the protagonist. In my world, those in authority (my friend’s parents, social services, the staff at school who knew what had happened and did nothing to check she was okay, not even when she cut herself in class) couldn’t be trusted, and had imposed an awful, degrading reality on my friend. Knowing that someone out there was experiencing something similar, even if that person was a fictional character, brought me immense comfort. Offred’s understanding of how horrible her situation was, her absolute belief that it was not okay and must be fought against, no matter how much those around her presented it to her as ‘normal’, was vital in a situation where all the adults around me and my friend were acting as though everything was absolutely fine. It was such a relief to see someone else struggling in the face of something so awful, to know that it was okay to struggle.

For me, the Handmaid’s Tale didn’t just point a finger at the most shadowy corners of humanity, it provided cold comfort for me and my friend, trapped there in the darkness through no fault of our own. It said: ‘yes, what you’re experiencing is wrong, you deserve to survive, so please keep fighting’. The book and Offred’s character helped me to stick by my friend, to support her through what I now know to be PTSD, intermittent anorexia, frequent suicide attempts and a life-threatening personality disorder. I am very pleased to say – more pleased than I can express – that my friend is not only alive but very well. I owe a little bit of my part in that to Atwood.


2 Responses to “Cold comfort – The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. claresitafisher June 19, 2017 at 7:57 am #

    Brilliant post. Really honest and pertinent.

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