.... it makes me feel less rubbish about not being a size ten.
.....it makes me question the world more.
.....it frees me from the bullshit of having to look, act and talk a certain way because i have ovaries.
.....i believe all women should be valued by their contribution to the world, not because of their looks.
.....not all men are aggressive, loud and macho, nor are all women delicate, talkative and weak.
.... it makes me feel less rubbish about not being a size ten.
This morning I was listening to radio 4 and heard that there are recommendations that female genital mutilation should be classified as sexual abuse and that medical staff would have to report it as such. This announcement filled me with frustration for several reasons:
We've known for a while that Barbie's body is impossibly petite. Her slender figure and absurdly small waist don't leave enough room for her internal organs, and her tiny ankles and feet would actually force her to move around on all fours. Still, the Mattel icon remains a standard of beauty for many young girls — sometimes with damaging results. When we spotted an art…
Tonight we discussed a book by one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood. The book was The Handmaid’s Tale, and re-reading it thirteen years later has not changed my opinion that this is a fantastic read.
This is a story about women, about their roles in society both now, in the past and in the future. Offred is the protangonist and she tells her story slowly, and in snatches as if painfully remembering her past, whilst attempting to reconcile her existence in the ultimate patriarchal society.
Wives, the wives of powerful army leaders
Handmaids, the women who bear children for the Wives
Econowives, women who have been allocated to be the wives of poor men
Marthas, housekeepers for the Wives
Aunts, moral trainers and indoctrinators of the handmaid’s
Unwomen, women who cannot conceive or have been deported to the colonies.
There is also an underground set of women that work in a black market club, Jezebels.
Women are used to police and control each other in a society created by men, and the women in it have little agency or autonomy.
Atwood draws you in with Offred’s remembrances of her life in the state of Gilead before becoming a handmaid; a life that is remarkably similar to our lives now. She went to university, she had a child and partner, she was able to walk down the street and leave her state. In comparison, her life as a handmaid allocated to a Commander and his wife, is restrictive to say the least. Her whole function is to reproduce, without serving this function she will die in the toxic colonies. As the reader, I really wanted to know how this possibly could have happened in a society so similar to our own. So you keep reading Offred’s account, which is full of rich detail about her mundane, daily life and slowly, it is revealed how women’s right’s disappeared virtually over night. Atwood paints Offred as a sensualist, she enjoys the feel of air and water on her skin; the scent and sight of flowers and freshly baked bread or of Nick sweating as he cleans the Commanders car. Or maybe she enjoys these things because all other pleasure’s have been denied to her.
Women’s reproductive function is of utmost importance in Atwood’s Giledean world, yet this it is controlled with a set of rules and regulations for who can procreate and how. This is explained because of low population levels, however, more tellingly, there is religious justification for the reproductive control of women and religious language and imagery permeates the book throughout. The references to Angels; the justification for the different sexual appetites of men and women ‘ God made them that way but He did not make you that way…Its up to you to set the boundaries. Later you will be thanked’ ; and the white and blue uniforms of the Wives, in comparison to the red of the Handmaids. This is a new form of conservative Christianity where priests are hung, along with those accused of ’gender treachery’.
In one chapter, there is a description of the fate of doctors that perform abortions; drawing a link with contemporary America and the Christian right’s attack on abortion clinics and those that work in these places. It is these links with our present that makes this tale so chilling and yet so realistic.
We recognise the methods of control and the justifications given for them.
The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985 whilst Atwood was living in Berlin, before the fall of the wall. Both America and the UK had elected conservative governments and there was an increase in Christian fundamentalism in the US. There were fears that the gains won by 1970s feminism could be undone. The Handmaid’s Tale was not intended as critique of women in Islamic states, however to what degree are there contemporary parallels with the religious justification of the removal of women’s rights in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries?
This is an essential feminist read but also an excellent read for those who wonder why we need feminism today. Atwood in her own words:
‘I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.’
Some may read The Handmaid’s Tale as a story of the resilience of women. Offred mentally attempts to keep her own identity even though her name, child, family, money and education have all been stripped of her. There is a secret society of women that pass information to each other. Throughout all her harrowing experiences and uncertain end, she remains in my mind as a whole, sensual woman.
When friends visit my family home on the set of TOWIE they can’t help but marvel at the strange orange inhabitants; stick-thin women teetering along in skyscraper heels, all coiffed hair and jiggling boobs, and groomed men proudly displaying the contours of their honed muscles in tight £2,000 shirts. More uneasy than amused, I watch these Kens and Barbies and remember my confusing adolescence spent in this anti-intellectual, sexualised culture, where living up to a 1950s stereotype was a cause for celebration.
I’m massively excited about the new Star Trek film! I’ve just watched the trailer! It’s called Star Trek: Into Darkness. Ooooo. There’s spaceships and exploding buildings and loads of TENSION!
But oh crap: the new trailer hardly features any women. There’s Kirk and Spock looking TENSE and dropping a lot of rhetorical statements and DOING STUFF. There’s a mini-UN boardroom table surrounded by blokes. There’s a baddie with a big collar and he’s charged with ANGER. And there’s one female character who speaks (three words) and another who’s silent and in her pants.
‘Power to the women’, ‘Say hey-ho, sexual violence has got to go!’ and ‘2-4-6-8 No more violence no more rape!’ These were just a few of the chants that echoed through the streets of London for the Million Women Rise March on Saturday the 9th of March.
The MWR March against domestic violence began in 2008 and five years on it is still going strong. At noon women’s groups from across the UK rallied outside Selfridges, holding placards, playing instruments and wearing the colour red, a theme that represents the blood of every woman who has experienced domestic violence and those who have been raped and murdered at the hands of men.
The man in the pork pie hat had been drinking for a few hours that afternoon. He’d rolled down the steps and onto the platform, jostling and joshing with two friends. Now the three blokes were next to me, trying to stand still but finding the situation just a little bit too funny. They were rosy-cheeked and jolly, not flat-out drunk. The platform was not busy, so the pork pie hat man became conscious that I was entertained much more by him and his friends than by the max-size ads pasted over the walls. His friends bumbled further down the platform, but the hat wearer sidled up to me and, making a show of appearing to be sober, said something like, “Good evening sir, got a good evening planned, somewhere you’re going, are you?”
Intrigued to see his reaction, I answered, “Yeah, going to a feminist group meeting.”
For a long time now I’ve found winter, and Christmas in particular, very difficult to get through. The cold and the gloom, the ascetic trees, the sparkling lights in shop windows and the saccharine cheeriness all remind me of terrible times. In certain locations and when the darkness has really set in, I feel transported back in such a way that the vividness of those feelings and images becomes unbearable. I will forever associate Christmas, and the months that precede and follow it, with the death of my mother.
The 20th of January was the twelfth anniversary of her death. I wasn’t able to visit her grave because I can’t drive, and she chose to be buried on a remote hillside in Stroud, which is impossible to access without a car. But I will make a pilgrimage of sorts to Wimbledon Park. I lived there until I was 11 years old and my childhood there was the only time in my life so far when I have been truly happy and content.
We moved to Tunbridge Wells in 1998 and, one year later, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had a hysterectomy, then chemotherapy, and many more treatments in the following two years. Natural cures, a change of diet, herbal remedies, healing- she even turned to religion, in a sense, towards the end. None of it worked. In November 2000 she told me and my younger sister and brother that she was going to die.
Christmas was strange that year. As my mother grew thinner and thinner, the fact that she was dying was not mentioned out loud. I went with my father to buy presents as if things were normal. Standing in The Body Shop, filled with people wrapped up in winter coats, I showed him some lavender bath essence.
‘Do you think mummy will like this?’ I said.
‘Oh, no,’ said my father, shaking his head. ‘You can’t get her that, Ellie. She can’t bear to look at her body any more.’
I looked down at the lavender bath essence. Then I shuffled through the crowded shop and put it back on the shelf. I was so ashamed for not knowing. There were lots of things I felt ashamed for not knowing. Outside, it began to rain.
My mother had long been insecure about the way she looked. She had been very thin and beautiful as a young woman, so after she’d had her three children she had a surgery to try to return her stomach back to the way it used to be. She was always changing the colour of her hair, and I’m not sure what colour it naturally was. When all her hair fell out from chemotherapy, she wore a wig. When it grew back, it grew back grey. I remember a teacher saying flippantly to me: ‘Well, if it means it’ll save her life, it doesn’t matter if her hair falls out!’ I didn’t think that was fair. I thought: no, it does matter if her hair falls out. I think it affected my mother profoundly, as it would me. And anyway- the chemotherapy didn’t save her life.
By Christmas Day, she looked like a skeleton. We had decorated the tree, wound the tinsel round the banisters and hung the lights, and she had sat on the sofa and complimented our efforts. She looked in terrible pain when she smiled. The cancer had started in her ovaries but, despite the medical interventions, it had spread throughout her body and eventually reached her lungs. In the last months she had to have an oxygen tank with her everywhere she went. When we went to look at the plot of land where she would be buried, we had to walk very slowly up the hill as my father wheeled the oxygen behind her and my mother struggled for air. Her clothes sagged on her body and the skin on her arms hung off her bones. On her face the skin pulled tight, and outlined the shape of her skull. When once I hugged my mother and was wrapped in the warmth of her soft folds, and felt so safe- now hugging her was terrifying. What if I snap her?, I thought, as my fingers touched the jutting vertebrae of her spine. What if she breaks?
I was distressed that she wouldn’t eat. I thought that her not eating was the reason she was losing weight. I would chop up tiny portions of the food we were eating at the dinner table and take it to her as she sat in her study, writing in her pink dressing gown. She would say thank you, and smile with effort. I couldn’t comprehend that the reason she was getting thinner was because she was dying.
It might seem an odd thing to get your head around: surely if someone has told you they are going to die, then you accept that as truth? Just as, if I told you that the moon is 239,000 miles from earth, you would say: ‘Yes, the moon is 239,000 miles from earth’. Or if I told you that whales evolved from land mammals that returned to the sea, you would say: ‘Yes, whales evolved from land mammals that returned to sea.’
But no- for a child it’s different. My mother was my whole life and my whole world. I was too young to have yet understood her as a person and as a woman. She was My Mother. She was the source of all my love, and all my warmth; she was my safety, she was the stillness and the constant. She was always there. Coming to terms with the fact that she was going to leave me forever was like coming to terms with the idea that the sun would never rise again. Impossible. I lived those last months with the immovable notion of doublethink. Two opposing thoughts, both equally true: ‘my mother is going to die’ and ‘my mother will never die’.
And then she did die.
I watched her take her last breaths at 7pm on a cold night in January. The whole day she had sat in her armchair with her eyes half-open, zonked out on a lethal dose of morphine that was, I learnt many years later, supposed to make the end less painful (though she frequently moaned in pain that day, and slid down in her chair, and was unable to speak and, because our father and the doctor hadn’t told us that she had been given that amount of morphine, I didn’t know what was happening). When my father reached over to turn off the hissing oxygen tank, the bottom fell out of the world. I was hysterical- briefly- and I told her dead body that I loved her, over and over again. Then I said nothing at all. My sister and I lay on the sofa in our living room and listened to our father calling people and hearing the words over and over again, ‘she’s gone.’
That night we all slept in my parents’ bedroom with the corpse of my mother downstairs, and the next morning my brother and sister and I watched through the bannisters as she was wheeled from the house on a stretcher, in a green body bag.
I think a lot of people misunderstand how people grieve- especially how children grieve. You don’t cry for days and then ‘pull yourself together’. You don’t feel sad for a bit but then, after a year or so, are pretty much OK. I didn’t truly start to grieve for her until I was 21 years old. I finished university and suddenly the great loss I’d experienced opened in front of me like a chasm I could no longer ignore. I was deeply depressed for several years. And I am still very much coming to terms with it all.
One of the main reasons for this was that I wasn’t given the chance to grieve. My mother died on a Saturday and on the Tuesday my father insisted we went back to school because, he said: ‘If you don’t go back now you’ll never want to go back’. Unfortunately, my school had no idea what to do with me. On that first day, they sat me in a room on my own with the company of a dusty TV and piles of books for the English GCSE. After a few hours I decided to go to my maths lesson, because I felt guilty for missing school. (And I’ve always hated maths.) One of the girls turned round to me and mouthed ‘are you OK?’ and I smiled and mouthed back ‘yes’. The teacher- a substitute, well past retirement age- clearly hadn’t been told about my… ‘situation’.
After my mother’s funeral, (which I didn’t cry at because I couldn’t bear to in front of all those people) I went back to school for good. I had a total of three days off to mourn the loss of my mother, and it was the same for my sister who was 12 and my brother who was 10.
I grew up suddenly when my mother died. She taught me how to cook from when I was little, so I was able to make meals for the family. I felt deeply responsible for them. My father cried often in those first few months, but I felt that someone needed to be strong to hold it all together. (Now I feel this was somewhat unfair: my father had adults to talk to and comfort him, whereas I only had 14 year old girls. I remember once sitting with my school friends on a lunch break in which they spent the whole time complaining about how annoying it was to have to go shopping with their mothers. I guess they’d forgotten that mine had died just months before.) My sister and I took over all those ‘mum things’ people take for granted: sorting out Christmas presents, writing cards, entertaining guests. I felt very protective of my younger brother who, on top of all the anger and confusion that comes with being a teenage boy, was trying to come to terms with a terrible loss. I once flew into a rage when I found out that a teacher at school had berated him for not doing his homework and barked repeatedly at him: ‘why didn’t your mum help you?’ I was ready to march into the school myself and give the teacher a piece of my mind, but instead my father wrote an anaemic letter. Our schools were truly appalling with dealing with what is an incredibly rare occurrence in the lives of English children. They were better trained in matters of divorce, sex, bullying, eating disorders and drug use. Death, I suppose, is the final taboo.
I was also, at this time, going through puberty and trying to figure out how to be a woman and how to be an adult. My mother was, like me, very opinionated and fiery. She had strong principles and taught me about sex when I was five years old. She wanted me to meet a man who respected women, and instilled feminist ideas in me at an early age. She talked to me and my sister about periods, gave us books and sent us off to school from the age of nine with sanitary pads and a spare pair of knickers in a dinky little make up bag, just in case. I didn’t start my period until my 15th birthday, and remember how lonely and frightened I felt sitting in a silent white bathroom, that first shock of scarlet marbling the water in the toilet bowl.
My father has difficultly expressing his emotions, hugging, offering praise and so forth. The loss of my mother meant the loss of that assurance and that tactile, all-encompassing love. In its absence I grew to feel that I did not deserve it. I had no female figures in my life to offer me love and guidance. My mother had a very difficult childhood in Australia and New Zealand with a mentally ill mother and a father who was constantly moving the family in the middle of the night to run away from debt collectors. She became estranged from all of them except her second sister Shirley, who stayed in New Zealand. She never had children, and now her partner of 30 years has been diagnosed with lung cancer. My father was an only child and his mother died from a form of Alzheimer’s when he was in his early 20s. Because my parents had moved across the other side of the world to start a life in London in 1979, the only family member I have ever had in this country is my great aunt who lives in Gloucester. From these experiences I have realised how important it is for children to have female role models around them. A mother alone isn’t enough because if she dies when you’re young a deep and essential sense of love and safety is ripped away forever. All you’re left with (especially if you don’t believe in God, which I never have) is yourself, and the air around you, and the terrifying emptiness of the sky.
I long to believe in God. I think that the idea of knowing there is someone who loves you unconditionally and is looking after you must be incredibly comforting. For years after my mother died I was desperate to find a love to fill that great emptiness; to feel safe again. Unfortunately, being young and heterosexual, I had only young men to turn to for that kind of love. When I was 19, one such young man told me I needed to ‘get over’ my mother’s death as we sat together on a long car journey back from Cornwall. He had already fallen out of love with me and some part of me knew he was going to go. Two days later, he broke up with me on a park bench beside a children’s playground, and that was the first time my mother’s loss really hit me. He was disturbed at how upset I was, and made himself scarce. I couldn’t understand why I was so devastated, why my body went numb and I had terrible, dark thoughts. And yet I realised, later, that it was because someone was leaving me again. Someone was leaving me and they were never coming back, and there was nothing I could do to change that. This realisation and anxiety reached such a height that for a long time I couldn’t bear for someone to leave a room- in case they never came back. Over the years it became increasingly difficult to be close to people. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to get close to anyone then you minimise the pain that you feel and the damage that occurs when they inevitably leave. (Yes, it is a cliché. It is a cliché because it is true).
I wish I could say that my mother’s death has made me stronger. I wish I could say that there are positive things that have come from it. But there aren’t. It will define my life forever and take me many, many more years to truly come to terms with it. Eddie Izzard, who is now 50 years old, lost his mum to cancer when he was six. I was deeply moved when he spoke in a documentary made by his ex-girlfriend Sarah Townshend. He’s asked what drives him and he says this: ”I keep thinking that if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back”. And then he bursts into tears.
I am proud that I have become like my mum in many ways: I write, like she did (she always wanted to be a novelist but died at 50, before she had the chance), I am opinionated and argumentative, I am insecure about my appearance, I love ideas and discussion, I am attracted to intelligence, I want to learn as much as I can, I want to read as much as I can, and travel, and I want children- more than anything. Yet I’ll face the same thing as she did: having children with no one to guide me or give me advice. I won’t have her there to help me. I’ll never be able to hand her my first child. But I want to be a good mother, and I want the father of my children to be as loving and caring as a mother is. Because I couldn’t bear for my children to be to left without me, and have the love they need and deserve torn away from them.
I feel that my writing is- and perhaps always will be- defined by two things: one is that great loss, the fear and emptiness that it left, the pain of having no mother and of being apart from God. The second is my childhood in Wimbledon where, in my made-up memories, it is always late summer and insects dance in the dusty yellow sunlight. And my mother is in that place, and she is smiling, and I am happy, and there is so much hope and possibility and magic.