CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.
Alyssa Murphy blogs at Hurricane Girl Strikes Again.
In hindsight, the problem was timing.
By autumn 2008, my life was in freefall. A year previously, my family had switched from a homeschool co-op we’d been in for six years and liked to a closer one because my mother wasn’t allowed to drive at that point courtesy of a needlessly paranoid and perfectionistic neurologist. The new co-op was decidedly more conservative and populated by, for the most part, people I’d known since I was a little bug and never gotten on with.
Still not that scary compared to some of the stories I’ve seen since then, but there were a few new rules, the main one being that I was not allowed to discuss what I was reading with anyone.
Ever. Under any circumstances known to humankind.
I’d taught myself to read when I was three. For most of my childhood this was the established reason that myself and my two younger siblings were homeschooled – because gifted programs are nonexistent in southeast Indiana, and my parents, both of whom have advanced degrees in the sciences, thought they could do better. And, for the most part, this arrangement worked. I was more interested in books than people, and I’m sure most of the people we interacted with when I was smaller thought I was a little odd, but I was at least harmless. I liked history books and other things that even the worst of the homeschool mothers couldn’t have too many kittens about, and I was quiet. Odd, but harmless.
This changed when I was ten or eleven and stumbled across the wonderful world of the teen section at the library. My tastes leaned decidedly towards sci-fi and fantasy, but I picked up a particular “realistic” book that had a vague sex scene early on and my mother flipped out. Instead of her usual passive-aggressive way of dealing with anything that might ruin her public image, she drew the line.
Anything I brought home from the library had to be approved by her, and she had a gift for finding the worst scene in anything that looked interesting and making me feel like it was my fault for accidentally picking that stuff up.
This went on for a few years and made absolutely no one happy, but it eased her victim complex so we continued.
Then autumn 2007 happened. As mentioned above, we switched co-ops. And in a fantastic bit of bad timing, that was the exact same time my mother finally decided that I read too fast for her to keep up with. (I had a lot of free time on my hands, no social activities or friends, and one of the libraries we went to didn’t have a limit on how many books you could check out. It was an absolutely perfect storm.) So, suddenly stuck in an environment I already didn’t belong in, I was allowed to read whatever I wanted… so long as I didn’t tell anyone at co-op about it, because my mother’s public image would suffer if I did.
Unfortunately for me – and by extension everyone who had to deal with me during that era – this all happened at the same time that YA dystopias were just beginning to become a trendy thing. The teen section at the main library we went to (which did have an item limit, but we went weekly and I read fast) was a wonderland for a lost girl in need of reassurance that she was not alone, and I stumbled across several of the early trilogies of that genre and found a certain resonance.
I also had the luck of finding one of those “if you liked this, read that” lists for that subcategory. Because this was just slightly before publishers realized they could make a lot of money off of stories of teenage girls in very bad situations, a lot of the books on the list were older both in publication date and age of characters. As desperate as I was for relatable role models, I was interested enough to not care, and I read the classics. Orwell’s 1984 was good but not quite my interest level. I read Huxley’s Brave New World a little later in this project and to this day am unsure why that one is considered a classic. And then I found it, the holy grail of post-apocs and realistic nightmare fuel – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
I read somewhere a few years later that the true test of whether a dystopian novel is good is how much it scares you. In general, I’m not scared of much, and there’s very little in fiction that can bother me.
The Handmaid’s Tale bothered me because the future it describes – one of religious totalitarianism and the full repression of women – sounded an awful lot like the world most of the people I knew wanted to live in.
I wasn’t a particularly rebellious kid. I knew how to follow the rules of the world I existed, or at least say the right things to not get attention. But I didn’t belong there. Maybe I never did, I don’t know, but it took the right “outside” book at the right time to make me wake up.
That world is still my worst nightmare (or at least an even tie with being buried alive), but I knew too many people who would’ve wanted it or something like it, and seven years later, I’m still feeling the aftershocks.
I guess that’s when I started fighting back – because I was one of the lucky ones. I woke up early. I did not want to exist in that hell.
I still have a voice, and I don’t want to be an isolated victim in a red dress.
You too, huh?
Were you also a natural-talent speedreader like me?
Just as After-the-Bomb Nuclear Apocalypse Dystopias (i.e. Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War) were trendy (i.e. badly overdone) for my generation.
That’s because Handmaid’s Tale was a Patriarchy Theocracy Dystopia which spoke directly to your situation.
1984 was THE Dystopia of the Cold War era, and was closely based on how Stalin actually ruled Russia at the time of its writing. (So closely that Orwell just shifted the location from 1948 Russia to near-future Britain and added some limited futuristic tech.)
They wanted it because they figured they’d be the ones personally benefiting from it — the Inner Party in 1984, the Alpha-Plus Super-Geniuses of Brave New World, the Commanders of Gilead in the Handmaid’s Tale. I remember the RL counterparts in the Late Cold War, trust-fund kiddie Soviet Fanboys who figured THEIR Superior Intellect would make them the Inner Party Commissars giving all the orders. Or the one genuine neo-Nazi I ran into who figured HIS Race Purity would make him the one running the camps instead of one of the many sent up the chimneys.
“That’s because Handmaid’s Tale was a Patriarchy Theocracy Dystopia which spoke directly to your situation.”
Yes. This was also shortly after everyone in the homeschool group decided I was Defective because fifteen-year-old me did not have any interest in domesticity. (Which, incidentally, changed as soon as I stopped dealing with them on a regular basis. Weird how that happened.) And, in hindsight, the first real example of my ability for ACCIDENTALLY finding media that is really, really relevant to whatever personal issue I need to work through at a given time. Guh.
I have been in your position. My mother actually became our church librarian when i was about 10 so that she could influence my reading interests. I remember hiding Harry Potter in my middle school locker because if i took it home she would throw it away and i would have to pay for it. Even some of the religious novels i wasnt allowed to read due to “suggestive” rape or romantic married scenes. Ludicrous. I have never heard of the “Handmaidens Tale” but it is on my list now. Thank you. I love my parents, but there is a reason i moved 3 states away and it was because of their control of all aspects of my life. Even now i that i am married i stll get calls about how my Facebook posts are “disappointing” them and how it demeans my mothers status at church.