The Handmaid's Vision: Margaret Atwood has seen the future, and it's not a pretty sight
Margaret Atwood says she's no prophet, but she's probably as close as we're going to get, and so the question is put to her: What do you see ahead?
"Interesting times," she says, calmly.
It's a benign word, "interesting" - a nice word, nothing disturbing about it. It's an answer we can live with. But in fact, Atwood's world is more perilous than that and sure enough, one beat later, comes the stinger:
"As the Chinese say in their blessing, 'May you not live in interesting times.' "
The Canadian novelist, poet and critic, in New York on a book tour, says The Handmaid's Tale, which is her best-known work and is about to be made into a movie, should not be read as a mere fantasy, but as a serious warning.
If times get "interesting" enough, she says, we could find ourselves living in Gilead, the totalitarian country which used to be the United States.
In the novel, a regime of fundamentalist Christians overtakes the government, suspends the Constitution, and establishes a highly structured and restrictive society in which only the fertile women are valuable, and then only for their ability to be surrogate mothers, to bear children for an aging upper echelon of "Commanders" and their wives.
"I think we all have to ask ourselves, 'Under what conditions and for what reasons would we permit an abdication of our civil liberties?' " Atwood says with some urgency. "For instance, if the North American birthrate plummets, if infertility rates go up as they are, if the birth defects rate goes up to a certain degree, at what point are we going to say we can no longer afford an open society?
"How much of a crisis do we have to have before we say, 'Help, help, give us a dictator'? . . . I look at the U.S. deficit and I shudder. I look at the balance of trade and I shudder. The economic relations of the world at present are very shaky. Huge deficits in North America. Huge debts in the Third World which they probably won't pay. When is somebody going to pull out one card and have the whole thing collapse?"
When, indeed? Any day now, you would think, to hear Atwood talk. Though she speaks in a flat near-monotone, she expresses her views with a conviction that's contagious, and in a matter-of-fact way which implies that any logical person could see that we are doomed. At the same time, she acknowledges other points of view, something she says she was not always inclined to do - "I was very judgmental when I was 20," she says. "I got older."
Sometimes, she's cryptic, as when she refuses to speculate on the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court reconsideration of its Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling. "I don't make predictions of that kind. Let us just say, you see somebody heading towards a large hole in the ground and you want them to fall in, you don't say, 'Look out.' "
Dressed in black pants and a black sweater, Atwood's look is straightforward and serious; a crimson Angora cardigan on her shoulders saves her from severity and makes her seem more approachable. Silver half moons dangle from her ears, and a knowing smile frequently crosses her face, the same smile you find in her book jacket photos, the smile which says: Reader, beware. What you are about to read is the truth, and it is not pretty.
Atwood says she found it spooky that shortly after The Handmaid's Tale came out, Pat Robertson ran for president, the Baby M case arose, Jim and Tammy Bakker were exposed, and the Iran-Contra scheme was uncovered.
"Everyone said, 'How did you know?' It isn't prophecy. It's reading history."
Asked if it isn't anti-feminist, though, to think women would allow themselves to be subjugated as in The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood becomes indignant. It's not a matter of "allowing," she says, because they would have no choice. They would have to submit or be crushed.
In The Handmaid's Tale, she points out, there is some initial opposition. But "you do not continue to do open demonstrations if you get machine-gunned, as anybody who's ever lived in a totalitarian society knows. You know, why didn't the Jews rise up en masse? Why didn't everyone rise up en masse to resist the Germans? Well, they did - at times. It's just that the Germans were very ruthless and they mowed down anybody who was against them.
"My regime," she says, referring to her creation, "is not fooling around. They get rid of those people whenever they appear. . . . There's nothing in the book that's not historically based, nothing."
She set it in the United States instead of in her own country, she says, because Canada is half Catholic and would not incline toward Puritanical fundamentalism. The United States, on the other hand, "has always had that strain in it."
"If you are going to take over the United States and set up a totalitarian regime, how would you do it? Well, you would not be able to take it over on a socialist platform because you'd have no popular consent at all . . . But if you said, like certain gentlemen in the recent past have said, 'I am an emissary of God. I am here to restore this nation to religious purity,' a lot of people would say 'Yeah],' because it sounds good, and then you would be able to do all kinds of things under that banner."
In writing The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood drew upon her her experiences in countries with totalitarian governments (she won't say which ones because to do so would imply that it mattered - and they're all horrible); her research into the resistance movements of World War II; and her Puritan heritage - "That's why I'm allowed to say those bad things about them. They're my ancestors."
Her "Quaker-hanging Puritan ancestors" came to New England around 1630, then moved to Nova Scotia at the time of the American Revolution. "They were political refugees," she says in a stage whisper.
Atwood dedicated The Handmaid's Tale to two people: Perry Miller, the eminent scholar of Puritanism who was her advisor at Harvard University, and Mary Webster, one of her ancestors.
"It's a good story," says Atwood of Webster. "She was hanged as a witch in Connecticut, but she didn't die. She had a tough neck. My theory is that she was quite light. It was before they invented the drop, they just strung people up. But they didn't break her neck, so she swung around up there all night and when they came to get her in the morning, she was still alive. And under the law of double jeopardy, you can't hang somebody twice for the same offense, so she lived another 14 years.
"So I thought, when I went to write this book, that if I was going to stick my neck out, I had to have a stiff neck."
With her new book, Cat's Eye, which is already on several bestseller lists, Atwood feels she has again stuck out her neck. "I thought this was an iffy subject," she says, "but it seems to be the story of more people's lives than I care to mention, including the lives of some men."
Like The Handmaid's Tale, the novel is set in dangerous territory; not politically dangerous this time, but personally.
Cat's Eye is a meditation on the cruelty of little girls toward one another, their byzantine ways, their shifting allegiances, and how those early experiences shape the adult psyche.
Like her other works, it is both unnaturally bleak and searingly funny, marked by the unforgiving attention to detail which is her trademark.
Elaine Risley, a painter, returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work and, as she wanders the city, she recalls the terrors of her childhood during the 1940s and '50s: her helplessness while in the grip of her "best friend," Cordelia, and a clique of others who tormented her.
"Little girls are cute and small only to adults," observes Elaine. "To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized."
The book was published first in Canada and then in England, so Atwood already has received considerable mail from readers. "You'd be surprised at the number of little girls who were almost drowned, buried in snowbanks" - she giggles - "by their little peer groups, by their friends. Quite astonishing. 'Dear Miss Atwood, as one who was almost buried alive . . .' "
Men also relate to the book, she says. Some have said to her, "Now we know what was going on. It was all very mysterious at the time. I couldn't understand it."
Atwood insists, somewhat sharply, that while Cat's Eye seems so vivid as to be real, Elaine's experience is not the story of her own childhood - "I'm a writer," she explains.
Nor is it the story of her 12-year-old daughter, Jess. In general, she believes, today's little girls are less likely than those in the book to allow themselves to be victimized. "In the '40s and '50s, there was a lot more secrecy among children because there was a lot more secrecy in the adult world."
Also, she says, adults are less likely to look the other way now. Back then, the role of a teacher at recess was "preventing bloodshed." As for parents, "There was just a lot they didn't know." And even if they did know, "there was a belief that the parent should not interfere with such things because the child had to learn to fight their own battles."
With boys, those battles are usually physical, and so more straightforward. A friend is a friend and an enemy is an enemy. A friend is rarely an enemy in disguise, says Atwood. But with girls, that kind of shifting loyalty is "the norm."
Which is not to say little girls are worse than little boys, she says. "Which would you rather have? Somebody calling you names or somebody breaking your leg?" (In Atwood's universe, that is what passes for a choice.)
Atwood's point is that women "do not have a monopoly on moral wonderfulness."
"I've always felt it was wrong to put a capital W on 'women' and to assume they're all the same. A question like Freud's - What do women want? - was a wrong question. It's way too general. It destroys individual people. We rarely speak of men in the generality unless we're belittling them - 'Here's how you handle men.' 'All men want is . . . whatever.' "
She believes there are distinct differences between the way men and women approach the world. "Women, so far, have not unilaterally generated wars," she says. But, she adds, "we've never had a society in which women are physically dominant. Now, if we had a society in which women were all 7 feet tall and the men were all 5-foot-2 and kind of puny, then we might be able to talk about it. . . . I think it's certainly wrong to say that women have no inclination toward power."
Atwood's work gets mixed marks from feminists. Some like her for her political stands and her penetrating insight into human relationships. Others, especially in the academic community, say she has a misogynist streak and that her stories are more "male" than "female" - meaning they have structured plots, logical progressions, climaxes and endings, as opposed to being rambling verbal quilts of episodes and ruminations.
Atwood responds by saying that Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses fits the description of female writing - "Does that make James Joyce a man?"
"The idea that this is how women write is based on a very small sample. When it comes to people saying you're not a real woman unless you write like this, then I take issue because I'm against prescriptive aesthetics.
"People who use the word misogyny are ideologues who really believe if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, which was a slogan used to subjugate and repress women for so many years that I can hardly bear to mention it. You know, if that's how we're supposed to behave towards women, forget about being a writer."
Some feminist critics dislike her, she says, because her stories have "closure" - in other words, the stories end tidily. Atwood thinks she has the problem figured out: Some feminists in academia, frustrated from having been ghettoized in under-funded women's studies departments, have "hijacked" French deconstructionism, a literary theory devised by males in the 1970s, and have appropriated it as their own.
So, as for closure, she says, gleefully, "What is good when it's open and bad when it's closed, from a male point of view? What is it? Your LEGS] Closure is bad because closure is like this (she crosses her legs and laughs). Think about it."
She shrugs. It's all right, she says. "It's a talking point."
"What any theory should do is cause one to examine one's own thoughts and procedures and I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. I think when it does become wrong is when people are pilloried and witch hunted for not conforming, which takes us right back to Ann Landers in the days when she said no decent woman is without a panty girdle. You know, it's again, women telling other women how to behave, which gets very, you know, rigid. . . . 'You're in, you're out. You write like a real woman, you do not. Stand in the corner.' "
Such thinking riles Atwood so much, she starts sounding suspiciously like the main character of her new book:
"I avoid gatherings of these women, walking as I do in fear of being sanctified, or else burned at the stake. I think they are talking about me, behind my back. They make me more nervous than ever, because they have a certain way they want me to be, and I am not that way. They want to improve me. At times I feel defiant: what right have they to tell me what to think? I am not Woman, and I'm damned if I'll be shoved into it. Bitch, I think silently. Don't boss me around."
But for all her irascibility, her differences with critics, her worries about the future of the economy and the environment, Atwood, 49, says she is happy.
By now, she says, she is comfortable with her fame. She has a good life in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter, Jess. Her philosophy of life is simple, comprising "the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, and the Golden Rule." She finds time to write, to fight for environmental causes and human rights, and to bake cookies.
"I'm having a lot more fun now than when I was 23," she says. "I'm also better looking. I'm in better shape."
Also - and this seems surprising, given the dark cast to her fiction - she says she is rather optimistic about how everything will turn out. "Watch the next generation," she says.
Meanwhile, she'll keep describing the dangers.