The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and I first read it around 1990. I was living in Cyprus with a whole lot of problems that now, with a little perspective, make me wonder how I managed to get half way across the world and back again with three small children. When I turned the last page of the book back then, I was shocked and amazed at how much it had revealed to me about how women were treated.
I’ve often wondered how I made the paradigm shift from my former way of thinking, that is that being oppressed is normal, to feminism, and it was probably around the same time as I read Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece.
Having said that, I didn’t understand some of the metaphors back then. I caught on to the main concepts and they soaked into my soul. But I somehow skipped the details. More recently I’ve had a chance to re-read some of the books that affected my thinking the most. Like Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale now reads like a completely different novel.
From a writer’s point of view, this tells me a lot about communicating your story, and how people receive it. Clearly, once a story is in the public domain as published it is static on the page. But is it entirely static? These two books, both read and re-read decades apart, resonated on very different levels on each read. For my own writing, this is a relief. As a psychologist I know that people reference their experiences on past experience stored in memories. This is what makes us unique, as we build our separate psychological worlds day to day. So why should reading a book be any different? The brain barely differentiates between imagined experience and lived experience, which is why visualisation is so successful. Readers weave their own experiences around the words in the story, and reference it back to their own unique inner life.
It makes sense, then, that as my experiences of the world have developed, the story communicated will make different sense to me after an elongated time. And it did. Particularly in the light of the current abuse scandals where we are time travelling backwards even further to a time when people seemed to think it was OK to be ‘tactile’ and to that men with power had special privileges. Or today, with some politicians and commentators, both male and female speaking on behalf of everyday women on matters concerning choices about their own bodies. Atwood certainly got it right.
On a more positive note it made me realise how free I am and how lucky I am to live in the UK. My experiences living in other countries has made me appreciate things I used to take for granted like the NHS, subsidised childcare and freedom of speech. Although I know I am oppressed in some ways, mostly institutionalised oppression, but also by entrenched attitudes in other people, I am free enough to speak up about it and try to make changes.
The world’s changed since 1985, but unfortunately not enough to make A Handmaid’s Tale irrelevant.