Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)
Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)

ARTS & CULTURE

What the Handmaid's Tale taught me about being a woman

As the TV adaptation arrives, Elizabeth Day explores how the novel reflects a very personal journey of her own

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By Elizabeth Day on

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale as a student, at a time when I was desperate not to get pregnant. I was part of the post-feminist generation that was taught at school about the dangers of teenage motherhood. We were told it was far more sensible to take birth control and plan your family when it was right for you, preferably after you’d established your own career.

In many respects, it was the perfect time to read Margaret Atwood’s powerful dystopian vision of a future where women were relegated and controlled: treated as sexual objects, and yet punished for their sexuality.

Birth control would make me the agent of my own life, I thought. So I blithely went on the pill at 19 and didn’t come off it for 14 years. I valued the sexual freedom it gave me and the sense of being in charge of my own destiny, without once worrying what it might be doing to my fertility.

When I eventually did try to get pregnant at the age of 33, I couldn’t. I don’t know if this is to do with being on the pill for so long, but I suspect it can’t have helped.

After two years of trying to conceive, I had IVF. It reduced the process of conception to its most clinical elements: scans, injections and a procedure whereby the internal walls of my womb were “scratched” to stimulate the lining (this was so painful, I fainted on the hospital gurney).

I spent a lot of time lying on my back, half-naked, being inspected by male doctors. I was reminded of that memorable scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where Offred lies in the bath reflecting that her body, which had once been “an instrument of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will” was now treated by society solely as a biological means to an end: a womb that must be impregnated in order for her to fulfil her only purpose. Motherhood had been stripped of intimacy.

Of course, I wasn’t living in Gilead. I had choices. I was extremely privileged to live in an era when science was able to give me hope. But in other ways, the book seemed wholly accurate.

As in Gilead, where Handmaids lie between the legs of wives while husbands have sex with them, IVF meant that the business of procreation now involved three rather than two people: myself, my partner, and the consultant.

Of course, I wasn’t living in Gilead. I had choices. I was extremely privileged to live in an era when science was able to give me hope

There were forms to be filled and petri-dishes to examine. The medical language was deliberately unemotional (follicles, ovarian reserve, anti-mullerian hormone) but seemed designed to make me feel I was putting in a sub-par performance. Repeatedly, the male consultant told me I was “failing to respond” to the drugs, and I nodded, docile and sad, endeavouring to try better. It was only later that I wondered whether the fault was not mine. Maybe the drugs weren’t responding to me rather than the other way round?

The first cycle produced one healthy embryo; the second two (another Atwoodesque grouping of three). None of them stuck. Some months later, I got pregnant naturally only to miscarry at three months. My marriage ended shortly afterwards, in a blizzard of threes.

For a while after that, people who didn’t know me very well assumed I didn’t want children and would offer me unwanted advice about not leaving it too late. Although I wasn’t living in Gilead, it still felt as if society viewed me with suspicion, as if I were in some fatal way lacking.

Atwood has a lot to say about this too, describing a future where women are valued purely for their capacity to procreate and forced into sexual servitude. With the election of Donald Trump last November, a President who campaigned on misogynistic and anti-abortion rhetoric, the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elisabeth Moss seems almost unnaturally prescient.

As for me? Last year, at the age of 37, I decided to freeze my eggs. It was just as dehumanising as IVF. I had a different consultant this time - also male and lugubrious as he prodded at my uterus and filled in graphs with tiny numbers that weren’t ever quite good enough. In the end I got three eggs.

The consultant wasn’t particularly happy with the number and advised me to throw more money at another cycle. I’m not so sure. Three was a symbolic number for Atwood, so perhaps it will be enough for me.

Besides, if The Handmaid’s Tale has taught me anything, it’s that although I want children, it will not be the only thing that defines me as a woman.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is published by Vintage.

@elizabday

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)
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Margaret Atwood
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