[Hear Me Out] The Handmaid’s Tale Is Not The Book We Need To Read Right Now

A series of tweets reading: "Parable of the Sower" was a book that could read the room and explain how to navigate it, too. forget "Handmaid's Tale," that's for people who plan to give up. I'm not willing to be a handmaid, as if that's an option for Black women anyway. I'm willing to learn how to shoot and make acorn bread, though."

(To skip straight to the books, click here.)

So on Friday, despite widespread public disapproval following a leak back in May, the US Supreme Court overturned 1973’s landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling, rescinding the constitutional right to an abortion.

Naturally, there’s been immense public outcry from many of us with uteruses, both virtually and in reality. Protests have sprung up across the country. Supreme Court Justices Alito, Thomas, Coney Barrett and Kavanaugh have been the target of considerable (deserved) criticism as well.

Online comments are all over the place, which is normal for the internet. I’ve noticed in particular that there are a lot of memes featuring Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and images from the television adaptation of it.

I get it. Atwood’s Gilead is a vision of a racist, fundamentalist America built on the principles of male supremacy and violent denial of bodily autonomy and reproductive justice to the few remaining (white) women. It’s a short step from Friday’s ruling to fretting about our rights and how fragile they really are. It’s easy to look at the current state of the country and begin to prepare for the worst in a resigned, doom-filled way.

However, I am here to tell you to knock that shit off.

We’ve been over this before. Doom is mostly an indulgence of English-speaking white people, and y’all need to get over it. Whether we like it or not, the future is coming, and only a fool puts all their energy into imagining the worst versions of it without also putting sincere effort into building something better. Additionally, the television adaptation and published sequel to Handmaid highlighted some problems with the original text that don’t really fly now.

But what should we be reading, in the face of a world where nearly every government seems determined to drag us backwards into hell on earth? Let’s talk about it. But first…

A Practical Note…

This may seem a bit strange coming from me, but this is a situation where books are only going to do so much. Of course, you should read and educate yourself with facts and empathy. However, now more than ever, it’s important to put your body where your brains are. That means putting the books down and taking some action.

I know, I know. I’m feeling fine, I swear. I checked my temperature and everything after writing that.

It would be very naive of me to not point out that for everyone who is upset, infuriated or saddened, there is at least one other person who is overjoyed and sees this as a win. Those people aren’t out here trying to win with knowledge and booklists. Instead, they’re taking powerful action to influence education and personal freedoms for everybody.

To combat this, here are a few small but powerful actions you can take:

Learn the stats. If you’re fuzzy on the facts and need some cold, hard data to help you understand what’s going on and what the possibilities for fighting this thing are, I recommend checking the Guttmacher Institute. They have the facts, reports and shareable infographics to get you up to speed quickly.

Get political. Here’s where your feet need to start meeting the street. Check out We Won’t Go Back for local protests and rallies you can attend. If you can’t get to a rally or don’t feel comfortable going to one (because COVID-19 still exists!), you can also find virtual events on the site. Also, while I won’t lecture anybody about voting, I will say that it’s a good idea to contact your local senators and members of Congress and urge them to take action to undo the damage. There is actually a lot that can be done, and we need to put pressure on those who can do it.

Donate. If you’re able and willing to help financially, there are a lot of organizations putting in overtime that could use some extra cash flow right now. Whatever you do, don’t throw your money at your local Democratic party office–they have plenty, and using this as a fundraising tactic is tasteless on their part and ensures your money won’t be used well. Also, quit sharing those memes about “camping trips”. There are well-established, systematically sound organizations that are already doing that work. Instead, put your “camping trip” gas money in the pockets of Brigid Alliance, a non-profit that provides travel assistance, child care, and other logistical needs for women who need to travel to have an abortion. Also, it goes without saying but Black and Indigenous women, people of marginalized genders and their families will be hit hardest by this issue. If you want to support organizations with a track record of helping holistically in communities that need it most, I recommend Voix Noire and Indigenous Women Rising

Prep your medicine cabinet. Mifepristone and Misoprostol are two drugs that can be used to induce a medical abortion before the 11th week of pregnancy. For now, they can be safely accessed and ordered online without a prescription in much of the US, and in most cases have a shelf-life of up to two years. To find out more, check the Plan C website.

Back To The Books…

Now that we’ve acknowledged the need for real-world practical action, let’s get back to Handmaid’s Tale and the books that are actually helpful right now.

First of all, let me say that the Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a bad book, exactly. I have a lot of appreciation for it. As I said in my review of The Testaments,

 The Handmaid’s Tale was a masterpiece, a haunting, terrifying dystopia intended to warn us not only of the dangers of sexism, fundamentalism, and their policies but also to alert 1980s us to the unjust present reality of women’s lives in many parts of the globe. At the time of its writing, Handmaid was shocking, incisive and challenging. I first read it in my teens and was both horrified and vindicated by the content as I began to understand the difference between what I actually wanted and what I was expected to want as a young woman with a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. It’s a critical, necessary work and a bit of true genius in the landscape of feminist novels and dystopias.

But time marches on, and so do social sensitivities, concepts of dystopia and understandings of the broader world. 

Basically, it’s no longer enough to imagine the horrors of the end of the world without envisioning solutions, if it ever really was.

There’s another problem, too. In the original author’s note, Margaret Atwood admits that every horror in The Handmaid’s Tale was based on something that really happened or was happening to women somewhere in the world. The tone-deaf, pandering train-wreck sequel and the nauseating television adaptation proved that the series was never about liberation, freedom and equity for all women–rather, it was about white women’s horror of being treated like many other women were already being treated. It isn’t even about action, because Offred is passive and weak and is ultimately saved by the men she sleeps with.(I slated Vox for this same plot point, not realizing it was directly inspired by the source material.) When you zoom out and look at Handmaid’s Tale in the context of what women really have to do to survive, it’s a remarkably weak, selfish story.

Now that Roe Vs Wade has been overturned, I need y’all to put down the imaginary sisterwives passive not-really-resistance manual and pick up some other books. I’m not interested in these posts being passed around that center self-victimizing narratives or sackcloth, ashes, and end of the world grieving. None of that is helpful right now(That whiny shit about deleting your period tracking apps? NO. Ditto for sex strikes, casually moving to another country, and anything that centers helplessness or privilege.)

This is where women need to harness the power of community. This is where we need to use our enormous social and professional capital to enact change rather than sitting somewhere making sniveling jokes about Gilead and deleting apps. Some of us are lawyers, some of us are community organizers, we work in government, journalism, public policy, activism, spiritual work, social work, advocacy, and health care so GET MOVING. We use the power we have now, while we still have it, instead of retreating into powerlessness.

If you need a book to inspire you as you do this, here are a few.

Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents, Octavia E. Butler(Grand Central Publishing, 2019)

This duology, originally published in the late ’90s, was eerily prescient about the state of the world today. Climate change, inflation, education inequity and religious demagoguery have reduced America to a starving, wild shell of a country and in the midst of it, a young woman named Lauren Olamina dreams of a future where clear, loving communities find their homes in each other and in the stars. Despite harsh opposition and the terror of life in uncertain times, she creates these communities around the tenet God is change.

Butler was a prophet of sorts, and these books offer not only a grim dose of reality but a stark pathway to hope. Only by working together, creating, and embracing change and difference can humanity survive in the grim future America that Butler writes. I personally believe it’s much the same in reality. (Additionally, these books were originally set in 2024 which is…soon. Yikes.)

While reproductive justice is not an explicit focal point in the books, unequal treatment of women as chattel by fundamentalists is, and…whew. It’s rough, and real, and despite the horrors depicted, there is still inspiration, hope, and redemption presented.

Let me put this another way; Atwood’s Offred was captured, tortured, separated from her child, and kept a diary of living passively and only being proactive about manipulating men through sex until eventually she was rescued by one of them…sort of.

Butler’s Olamina was captured, tortured, separated from her child and kept a diary of proactively organizing her people even as the worst happened until the day she was able to kill her captors and get all of her people free, safe, and healing. If you’re taking inspiration from a fictional woman in a dystopia, take it from Olamina!

The New Handbook For A Post-Roe America, Robin Marty(Seven Stories Press, 2021)

As I was putting this list together, it occurred to me more than once that our current situation didn’t come out of nowhere. Informed, passionate minds have been warning us and waving flags to head us off at the pass for years, which is the case with this book. Robin Marty is an activist and journalist who has dedicated her entire career to issues of abortion, healthcare and reproductive justice. In 2019 she wrote the first edition of this book, and two years later, things were dire enough to require an update.

This book covers a lot of legal and practical ground, but Marty recognizes the personal, intimate nature of reproductive health and choice and acknowledges that sensitively throughout the text. Marty was prepared for this, and did her best to prepare us all. If you’re looking for ideas on what to do next–whether that’s personal, political, social or all three–this is the book to read.

Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way To Think About Abortion, Gabrielle Blair (Workman Publishing, 2022)

Fellas, you didn’t think I’d leave you out of this discussion, now did you?

This book won’t be released until October 2022, but it does something very necessary. It brings men into the abortion debate and thoughtspace not as agents of control, casual bystanders and milktoast allies, but as accountable parties.

Ejaculate Responsibly began as a viral Twitter post you’ve probably already seen a dozen times on social media over the past three years of so. Blair, a Mormon mother of six, solidly makes the case for unwanted pregnancy being an issue of men’s responsibility, not women’s health. The conclusions she draws in the original thread drew a lot of fire for ultimately proposing solutions for men as just as backwards and draconian as forced birth is, and I’m pretty sure that’s what this book explores. The Twitter thread was enough to pique my interest, but the focus on holding men equally accountable as opposed to constantly demanding effort from women is what really makes me think this will probably be worth a read.

A Womb of One’s Own, Jane Doe(Self-published)

I share this last one carefully, hesitantly and with a gentle caveat; make sure you’re reading books, not letting them read you. This is because A Womb of One’s Own contains information that could be dangerous if applied in unwise ways. I share it as a resource only, not as a definitive source of advice or a recommendation.

With that said, Womb is a self-published guide to reproductive health management for people with uteri that’s been making the rounds on the internet for free since at least 2014. Written by an anonymous author, it covers contraception, fertility and abortion from a variety of perspectives. Not only does it give basic legal and medical information, it also delves into herbal methods, women’s wisdom and old wives’ tales. Be careful here. I’m not saying that the less official information in this book is wrong–I’m just saying don’t do anything stupid, desperate, or outside of community when it comes to anything medical.

To its credit, the book also repeatedly warns us all not to do stupid home-based things and also addresses emotional and logistical issues that other written resources don’t often approach, like building networks of trust and support to hold us up whether we have children or not. I also include it here because it does a good job of demystifying reproductive health for those of us who come from backgrounds where comprehensive sex ed was not encouraged or outright denied.

The book is available as a free .pdf at the link provided. You’ll also find it offered as a printout in a few places for a small fee, but because neither the author nor appropriate organizations receive any part of that money, I’ve chosen not to link them here.

There are, of course, many other books on this subject that you can and should read. To see them, click here.

There are also plenty of things to do, and for that I’ll direct you to this article from Elle Magazine.

Peace, fellow readers. Love someone hard and read something good today.

(For legal reasons, this is where I have to tell you that if you click and purchase anything from the links in this post, I’ll earn a commission. I’ll donate whatever I earn from books on the Not The Handmaid’s Tale booklist from now until August 1st to Voix Noire. Again, peace!)


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