Our Reading Lives

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale with My Son

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Nicole Mulhausen

Staff Writer

After a childhood spent traveling around the country, Nicole Mulhausen landed in the maritime Pacific Northwest for college; finding it to be God’s Country, she never left. By day (and night) she manages a performance venue at a small liberal arts college, where she regularly rubs elbows with talented writers and musicians. Alongside the chickens, Artemis and Athena, she holds the fort at home while her two dashing sons galavant around the planet, flying airplanes in Montana and deep sea diving in Southeast Asia. With a nest now empty (aside from the chickens), she has more time to follow her sons' lead, exploring hitherto unknown wonders — like reading the works of authors-not-yet-dead. Twitter: @nicolemulhausen

Just before the television series was released, my son asked me if I’d read The Handmaid’s TaleHe had just finished. I said that I had, back in college, and I asked him if he’d seen the trailer for the show. In fact, he was watching it on his phone that very moment.

I’d seen the trailer, too. My reaction? OH. HELL. NO.

Too horrific. 

My son then convinced me to reread the book, and that weekend I did. Before that second reading, I remembered only one tiny moment, the scene where Offred goes to the party and everyone’s eyes seem too big, because they’re wearing makeup. Given that my mother had been a model, used her sexual power to manipulate and control, and was obsessed with makeup, a kind of masking of herself—in retrospect, it makes sense that that particular moment stuck with me.

But mostly what I remembered was a sickening sense of darkness.

I did an informal poll of my old college pals, and a surprising number remembered the butter—everyone seems to remember the butter—but no other particulars. But, like me, they all remember the sense of oppression and darkness. To a woman, we all seemed to recall the book with a kind of shudder.

I can’t speak for other women coming of age in the late ’80s. But I can say for myself that I had exactly zero tools to understand or talk about that novel. None.

When I asked my son, in his mid-twenties, what he thought of The Handmaid’s Tale, he said simply: “Timely. She’s a good writer.” Later we had longer conversations about it, but this matter-of-fact, sensible first reaction surprised and, later, consoled me.

My son took a class in college on the philosophies of feminism. I have a distinct memory of the day he sent me a text—I remember precisely where I was, with his younger brother, in a mall, our idea of Hell, trying to find that boy some pants that fit. The text read: “SOJOURNER TRUTH.” I wrote back, “Ain’t I a woman?” and won infinity merit points for, oh, having been around a long time (*cough*) and being surprisingly not as out-to-lunch as every college kid thinks his parents are. I also remember, that semester, his reports about conversations with his housemates about what it means to be a white male in this culture, what it means to be alive to the challenges that women and persons of color face.

It’s not that my friends and I didn’t have conversations about Big Questions, back in the day, but we didn’t have the language that my son and his cohorts have. Instead of being swept into a dark quagmire of confusion and pain, like I was when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, he seems to have tools to fully engage, thoughtfully and responsibly.

So I began a second little informal poll, asking all the 20-somethings I know whether they’d read the book and what their impression was. (I work on a college campus, so it was easy to access a lotta young folk.) Few of them had taken courses on feminist philosophies, but every one offered insights and reflections that I know I would have been unable to articulate during that chapter of my life.

Back in February, when I first heard that the sales of the book had soared to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, I was dismayed, for all the obvious reasons—the “bubbling up” of Puritan values, and the current administration’s agenda to disenfranchise the most vulnerable members of our society. Since then the news cycle has been moving at such a frenetic pace, I’d half forgotten my many The Handmaid’s Tale conversations.

But this week’s terror attack in Manchester is a horrific and visceral reminder of the vulnerability of women and girls. The anti-woman Republican agenda seems to come from the same misogynistic cesspool, the same desire to control women through terror. Although the terror of not having agency, of not being able to avoid bearing a child, or of not being able to care adequately for one’s children, is less gruesome than the terror of a bombing, it is terror nonetheless.

I am still dismayed by the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, the fact that terror and control are still at issue. I’m dismayed by the popularity of other dystopian novels, too, for that matter. But if we have to have these conversations, and it seems we must, having the tools, the language, to deeply engage with root issues will be critical. On that front, at least in my small circle, there’s hope.