The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just fiction – it was my life

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just fiction – it was my life
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just fiction – it was my life

Born into a religious cult, one woman, who chooses to remain anonymous, says Margaret Atwood’s chilling vision is all too real. Here, she tells Kate Graham how the happenings of the Handmaid's Tale were very much her reality.

"Hangings, snatched children and sexual violence. Sitting down each week to watch The Handmaid’s Tale – the award-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel – can be gruelling. You’re swept into Gilead, a dystopia where fertile women are a scarce resource to be violently used, controlled and crushed. It’s a world of state sponsored rape and religious fanaticism.

People think Gilead could never happen to them in 2018. But they’re wrong. Every horror in Gilead is something that has already occurred. The story just happens to be a condensing of all these crimes against humanity throughout history. Everything in Gilead already has happened to someone else and can - and likely will - happen again. In fact, it happened to me.

I grew up in nineties America, in a religious movement which controlled women’s appearance, sexuality and reproductive freedoms – all in the name of God. Called ‘Quiverfull,’ this cult-like philosophy has its roots in the Old Testament that says; ‘blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.’ Children are like arrows in the hands of a religious warrior. The more babies you have, the better, and the cult needed an army of subservient women to supply them.

In this world your mission is simple: let God plan your family size. Raise him an army of in tiny fundamentalists. Here feminism was a punchline. No one took it seriously. Women who were ambitious were derided and held in contempt. Women like Hillary Clinton were seen as shrewish and going against their innate nature. If they weren’t nurturing or demure, they were a threat and so they were treated as caricatures to laugh at.

Abortion was anti-family, feminism was anti-children, sex was for only for marriage and for procreation rather than just pleasure. Your mission is simple; let God plan your family size, raise a quiver full of believing children and “save” America by raising an army of tiny fundamentalist Christians. For my parents, this meant they had nine kids, and I was the oldest.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Everything you need to know

When I turned 12, my father bought a small jewelled ring for my left hand and made me sign a contract (a little like wedding vows) stating that my heart belonged to God and my virginity was to be saved for marriage. I wasn’t to have sex or participate in lustful actions (masturbating, kissing, holding hands, even reading romance novels) because my body belonged to my future husband. Not to me, but to some nebulous idea of a man who may or may not exist.

While the ring was an outside symbol of my obedience, purity was constantly reinforced by Quiverfull families like mine, and these ideas shaped our whole life. The girls in my church were urged to comply with a ‘Modesty Checklist’. I had to submit new clothes purchases to my father, as a way of “honouring” his authority over my body.

Banned items for the women in my family included white t-shirts (might be see-through), spaghetti straps (too easy for men to fantasize about you naked), shorts that rode up to show “too much thigh”, skirts that ended above my knees. My friends and I laugh that in our world, the Handmaids’ dresses wouldn’t have cut it - the necklines dip more than the width of two fingers below the collarbone, which is clearly immodest.

There was physical violence but I never met a man who was truly held accountable for his actions. Children were spanked up until adolescence. When husbands I knew were violent (including marital rape), charges were never brought and the church acted as if their wives deserved to suffer in the first place - for the sake of holiness.

In fact violence against women runs through the very essence of Quiverfull. After all pregnancy itself is physically traumatic and recovery and breastfeeding are gruelling. My mum was pregnant every two years and suffered from postnatal depression, which only went away when my youngest sister was four. I saw my mum became a different person then, more confident, questioning the world she was in. It was like watching someone come out from under a spell.These touching photos show Saudi women proudly holding their new driving licenses

For all Quiverfull women, sexuality was a threat to be managed at all costs. Lust and masturbation were supposed to be men’s problems. I legitimately thought I was a potential sex addict until years later when I realised that I just had a normal healthy sex drive, and the church had just created all this shame to keep women in line, submissive and afraid of their own desires.

And all this just to reach one end goal: to groom women to be completely vulnerable and subservient to a man – just like a Handmaid.

It wasn’t just sexuality they sought to control. Like my mum and sisters, I wasn’t allowed a credit card in my name or allowed control of property. My education was a precaution, “in case” my future husband was unable to work and provide for me. Everything was controlled; I was even forbidden to watch The Little Mermaid because not only was she immodest, she disobeyed her father and was rewarded for it.

When I went away to a Christian college, I was finally allowed to join Facebook and have my own email account, but my father demanded access to all passwords “for accountability”. I started making friends with guys but was shocked to discover my dad had found them on Facebook then emailed the ones I was closest to, with intensely personal questions to vet them. There was never any privacy, and the sense of being his property was reinforced over and over.

Reading Atwood’s novel for the first time at 20, I was shaken. It was all so familiar, and so much more sinister than I had seen from the inside. That book was the start of my feminist awakening but I had to take it slowly, because processing the fact that you were groomed to be trapped in a cult by the people you trusted and loved is a really difficult process. Realizing that my father cared more about controlling me than about my wellbeing was a blow.

Watching the show had a similar impact. My friend Rachel and I watched it together long distance, texting each other our reactions. We’re both Quiverfull escapees and have complex PTSD from our childhoods, but the realistic brutality of the show is comforting. It feels so familiar, so vividly real and I‘m really pleased to see that reality getting such a wide audience.

My journey out of the cult took years and years. I got married to end my father’s thirst for control. Then I got divorced because I was growing further and further away from patriarchal Christianity, and my husband was dissatisfied with a wife who wasn’t willing to bend over backwards to do emotional labour for him.

As for my life now, I’ve kicked most of my terror of eternal damnation and the residual shame instilled in me by the church. It’s been a long, slow process of unlearning habits: this week I’ll try to not flinch if someone comes up behind me to read over my shoulder, this month I’ll try telling my friends when I feel insecure about being wanted. I’ll probably always have PTSD, though, and need to be in therapy to continue to heal.

I carry the Handmaid’s Tale with me everywhere, in tattoo form. After my divorce, I had four letters etched on my upper arm: N. T. B. C., for ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ or ‘Don't let the bastards grind you down.’ Healing from that world is a journey, but at least now I’m free."Margaret Atwood on #MeToo, consent, and the enduring resonance of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

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