Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Dear Sugar: What We Can Learn About Adoption From The Handmaid's Tale

Dear Sugar: 

Many years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t yet read it, the book is dark, authentic, and incredibly haunting.  You will think about for WEEKS after reading it. 

Now HULU has turned the book into a show, and it’s living up to the book.   I binge watched the first three episodes last week, and tonight we’ll watch the newest episode.  

Let me be clear about the point of this post:  YOU NEED TO WATCH THE SHOW.  

(spoilers ahead)

The infertile couples prey upon the enslaved fertile women.  Talk about head games.  One minute, Mrs. Waterford (infertile wife of a wealthy and powerful man) is telling her handmaid Offred how she’s a miracle.   We watch Mrs. Waterford and a kitchen servant provide Offred, who they think is pregnant, a hearty meal complete with flowers on the table.   Mrs. Water smiles at Offred and gently commands she become part of the “clean plate club.”  Asks insistently and expectantly how Offred is feeling.  

Then the next minute:   In another scene, we see Offred enter a grand room that Mrs. Waterford is organizing, presumably for the nursery.   Mrs. Waterford is caressing Offred’s face, smiling and speaking in soft tones.  Then when Offred reveals to Mrs. Waterford that she’s started her period, that she’s not pregnant as hoped, Mrs. Waterford yanks Offred up the stairs, throws her on the floor of her bare-bones bedroom, and tells her not to come out of her room, slamming the door behind her. 

You see, Mrs. Waterford can only be kind to Offred if Offred is obedient and serves her purpose:  to conceive and have a baby for Mrs. Waterford. 

Symbolic?  Yes.

After all, how many hopeful parents and adoption professionals only communicate and assist women who promise to place their unborn babies for adoption?   Where is the love and support if the mom opts to parent?  

The abuse Offred deals with is alone incredibly disturbing:  the Handmaids constantly face verbal, emotional, and physical abuse (that damn electric wand!).  But it’s all for their good.  Because they should be fruitful and multiply.  They have a gift:  the gift of fertility.  They are expected to use it: obediently. 

They shouldn't make demands.  They shouldn't be human.  They shouldn't have needs or wants or emotions.  They are expected to be robots, only communicating about the weather, getting oranges at the market, etc.  SMALL TALK.  It's safe.     

The Handmaids have already been stripped of everything:  their own families (partners and kids), their jobs, their homes.  They’re told what is best for them (to have babies and give them to infertile women).  There’s a major imbalance of power and prestige.    What is most appalling is taking the Handmaids away from their own children and forcing them to produce offspring to be “gifted” to the wealthy, powerful families who cannot have biological children. 

I admit, I have glimpses of empathy for Mrs. Waterford.  (I believe the author did this intentionally, just the the author of one of my favorite adoption themed books ever, The Light Between Oceans:  epic book about adoption ethics!)  She’s forced to watch her husband attempt (many times) to conceive a baby with a younger, prettier woman.   She knows this woman can do what she so desperately wants to do herself.   She just wants to be a mommy.  Or does she?  Because sometimes it seems she just NEEDS a baby to fit into the mold of what is expected of her.   Let’s remember:  she’s a victim of a male-driven society, too.  

But Offred and the other Handmaids are, of course, the greatest victims.   Being forced to have sex with stranger-men while the wives look on, holding the Handmaids wrists above their heads.  Forced to conceive babies.  Forced to give birth.  And immediately (as we saw in last week’s episode) lose the baby to a child-starved, powerful woman.  

The torture isn’t over.   We see one Handmaid, who recently birthed a healthy baby girl for her mistress, commanded to breastfeed the baby multiple times a day.   She first served as a baby factory, and now she’s a milking machine.   In one powerful scene, we see the Handmaid begin the nursing session with annoyance, but as soon as the baby suckles, the Handmaid strokes the baby’s face and speaks to her about her “big brother” (which we assume is a child she lost when the Handmaids were taken from their families).    In a later scene, we learn that the Handmaid dangerously refers to the baby as Charlotte, the name she has chosen, instead of the baby’s name (Angela) given to her by the “adoptive” mother.  (Ahem:  naming...another BIG topic in the adoption community.) 

The show deals with SO much.  Mental illness.  Abuse.   Rape.   Adoption.   Feminism.   Power.   Heartbreak.  Patriarchy.  

The entire thing seems like a fictionalized, symbolic representation of one of the best adoption books out there: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler.   Fessler’s book features the stories of women who lost babies during the Baby Scoop Era.    Expectant and birth mothers were simply called “unwed girls.”  They were drugged during labor, some not even knowing if they had a boy or a girl, some never holding their babies, most not knowing the family their child went to.   It was the ultimate unethical time:  coercion, falsification, and objectification.  

I cannot accurately convey the emotions you will face as you watch the show or read the book.  (I encourage you to do both).   But I will tell you the show teaches those of us who adopt children everything we should not do.    Everything we should avoid.   Everything we should reject.   Everything we should call out of the dark.    

The show forces us to empathize with someone on the “other side”:  the birth mother.  We see flashbacks of Offred with her friends, family, employer.  We see what her life was before her life as a Handmaid, and we see her desperation, determination, and anger presently.   We also see ourselves in Mrs. Waterford, who is interestingly facing desperation, determination, and anger as well. 

There are few shows and books that challenge us the way The Handmaid’s Tale does.   It takes a lot of courage for someone to put together media that makes us look at the dark, to peak behind the closed door.   

Have you watched the show or read the book?  What’s your reaction?  

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. 

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