Fans of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale proliferated as the novel’s scenarios came to resemble the realities of American women who were subject to more regulation and surveillance. In its 2019 sequel, The Testaments, Atwood gives us a different voice and a different tale, told largely from the perspective of someone who perpetuated the authoritarian regime instead of fighting it. This time, Atwood’s most influenced readers may be conservatives instead of feminists.
Atwood has remarked that it took her a long time to write a sequel because she couldn’t reproduce the voice of Offred, the narrator from The Handmaid’s Tale whose potential fecundity destines her to serve as a reproductive handmaid to a governing family in the ascendant Republic of Gilead. In the novel, Offred’s voice is riddled with a confused self-consciousness as it unfurls her story. Now, in The Testaments, we have another puzzle to play with: How should we view Aunt Lydia, a villain of The Handmaid’s Tale, who emerges as the key political subversive in The Testaments?
Aunt Lydia, one of the aunts who led the indoctrination of prisoners in the re-education units, or Red Centers, of the Republic of Gilead, is both familiar and abhorrent to readers of The Handmaid’s Tale. She conducts classes that guide the “girls” into groupthink that reinforces victim-blaming as a natural impulse. When one “girl” confesses to being gang-raped, the inductees respond to a leading question, “who led them on?” – to which they chant in unison, “she did, she did, she did.”
The fictional aunts of The Handmaid’s Tale had their counterparts in the election of Donald Trump: they were to more or lesser degree the 53% of white women who voted for Trump and chanted “lock her up, lock her up” when he spoke of “crooked Hillary.”
In The Testaments, we have a new view of Aunt Lydia. Through Aunt Lydia’s secret diary, we learn from her point of view what it was like to abruptly become a second-class citizen after a coup, to be tortured into submission, and then to choose to help build the new patriarchal regime by torturing, exploiting, and re-educating other women in the new Republic of Gilead.
By the end of the novel, Aunt Lydia is a self-realized sell-out survivor who gets her retribution by tearing down what she herself has built. When she sees an opportunity to thwart the regime she herself has built, she puts into motion a collaborative rebellion: Her secret records – including evidence of Gilead’s political corruption – are smuggled out, and the Republic falls. She is heralded a hero by a new generation.
This idea that the truth will out, say some, can only be read as utopic given our own current demonstrations of the meaninglessness of truth, facts, and multiple revelations of corruption.
But by mourning the loss of veracity’s authority we miss the novel’s crucial point that directs us away from truth claims. For people who know what it means to have their full credibility eradicated and the reality of their lived experience utterly rejected, the radically fickle nature of truth, evidence, and facts has long been established. The hearings of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford and Ambassador Marie Yanovitch are mere reminders. The Testaments is not a utopic story meant to comfort us at a time of misinformation and misery. It is a story about subversive women writing themselves into history and, consequently, changing the course of the world.
Who are the nonfiction counterparts of Aunt Lydia in the sequel to the novel that so presciently predicted the authoritarianism, or “maximalist” executive power, that fuels this presidency? One counterpart is Katie McHugh, the woman who denounced the far right after working as an editor for three years at Breitbart, and leaked more than 900 emails from Stephen Miller to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Those emails confirmed the extent to which Miller, a White House senior policy advisor in charge of immigration, embraced and promoted white nationalist views and implemented a policy of family separation at refugee resettlement facilities. McHugh’s about-face provided the undeniable links between the policies and the ideologies, the man and the organizations. Like Aunt Lydia, McHugh was in a place of privilege ruled by men, and had access to damning evidence about them. “Get out while you can,” she says.
Last month during a research trip to the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America, I walked the brick streets amid the wrought iron fences of Cambridge, recognizing them as the setting for The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. Having traveled there from Kentucky, it felt funny to imagine the blue state of Massachusetts as a part of Gilead when my own home, and that of Mitch McConnell, seems more to fit the mold of Atwood’s dystopic vision in The Handmaid’s Tale: It outlaws reproductive options, subjugates and segregates by race, criminalizes difference, and reserves natural resources for only the richest. But that’s precisely why I’ll be teaching The Testaments in Kentucky. Perhaps my students, and their parents who may have voted for Trump, will see themselves in Lydia’s survival, grit, cunning, determination – and redemption.
Given the defeat of Republican Matt Bevin in the recent Kentucky gubernatorial election, we have reason to believe they will. President Trump stumped for Bevin the night before the election by rallying in Lexington, Kentucky. But his endorsement seemed to backfire. In a close, contested race, Andy Beshear won the governorship in Kentucky. This can be seen as a good sign for Democrats. So, too, is the fact that in a significant about-face roughly 57% of Kentucky women voted for Beshear; in 2016, 54% of Kentucky women voted for Donald Trump.
Others can offer sophisticated analyses of exit polls and electoral projections. My interest is in the power of fiction to reflect and produce national subjects. Perhaps the power of The Testaments is its insight into how women might reassert themselves. If Aunt Lydia did it, and Katie McHugh did it, so too may white women voters rewrite the ending of The Donald’s tale and rewrite their own legacy as opposition to double standards, corruption, and authoritarianism. Perhaps the women who chanted “lock her up” will turn against the authoritarianism that has come to rein them in rather than set them free. In that case, Atwood’s scenarios will once again resemble American women’s realities and, this time, conservatives may see themselves in her fiction.
Featured Image courtesy of Unsplash