My Life in the New Republic of Gilead

“The Handmaid’s Tale” and the violence women are encouraged to enact against ourselves

You draw my name out of my mouth and it comes out a tiny wisp.

The morning after the thing with you happens I drive 45 minutes to a Barnes and Noble because I live in rural Ohio and, honestly, there are few independent bookstores in existence anymore. I need a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I have a copy but I can’t find it. It’s the same copy I read when I was fourteen, nearly 20 years ago. Before it was mine it was my mother’s, my sister’s; their hands wore it out until the paperback spine broke and it was lazily covered in scotch tape.

Have you read it?

It follows Offred, a Handmaiden in the Republic of Gilead, a fictional toxic dystopia. Gilead is a highly structured patriarchal white supremacist society in which high-ranking men (Commanders) are issued women to fill certain roles taking care of the home (Marthas), becoming wives to the Commanders (Wives), and in Offred’s case (Handmaidens) taking part in a monthly procreation ritual where her Commander pumps away at her lower half while his wife grips her hands, legs twisted around her torso.

Gilead has stripped women of everything: agency, literacy, names.

Gilead has stripped women of everything: agency, literacy, names. The Republic commandeers the bodies of fertile women and sends them to Rachel and Leah Centers — old universities repurposed to house Handmaidens — and wrings their former lives out of them. Handmaidens are sites of potential fertility only. They are fitted with red cloaks and dresses, on their heads heavy white blinders which stop them from seeing and being seen. Wings, Offred calls them. The Rachel and Leah Centers are overseen by Aunts, sadistic women who are true believers in Gilead.

The Republic of Gilead, Aunt Lydia says, knows no bounds. Gilead is inside of you.

When it comes to you I have to be vague. There are many moving pieces. There is us inside of a system, inside of an institution, inside of a world that has particular things to say about girls like me and men like you.

The geographic location of Gilead is in Massachusetts, but before I reread the book, my lazy memory insists it is in the Midwest. It just makes sense to me. The Midwest: all flat and farm, cows and conservatives. Driving out to Barnes and Noble I pass a handmade sign that insists “Blue Lives Matter” and another that declares “America for Americans!!! No Immagrants!!!!” Stars and bars wave gently in early March air. This is Trump Country and Trump Country is the New Republic of Gilead: a place where men call their wives “Mother” and grab other women by the pussy. Take away their names, take away their autonomy. I watch the flat landscape pop up with beige strip malls, hot red neon signs hawking chickens boiled alive, artery-clogging burgers that bleed red.

This is Trump Country and Trump Country is the New Republic of Gilead.

After the thing with you happens I feel like a dissected frog, open and pinned back. Everyone can see my guts and poke at them with sharp bladed silver scalpels — not that dissimilar from an Exact-o knife.

I wonder if I will ever hear you say my name again.

The thing, the thing. I can’t stop thinking about the thing — the thing with my home, with my cat, with my busted boots, or maybe I was just wearing my stupid pot leaf socks when it happened. The thing with you. The thing that I have to be vague about because we both know what happens if I speak your name.

Did you do it because I am so mean, because I made fun of your car and your shoes, because some men like to be talked down to? I sometimes wonder if men like to be talked down to because it’s as close as they can get to understanding what it’s like to live as a woman.

I want to tell you about this time a boy begged me to go out with him. He got down on his knees and everything. His khakis wore thin and the spring grass rubbed against him. I was spring myself; not yet 21. You could see my hip bones and I put cigarettes out on them. Marlboro Reds, cowboy killers. Even then I was caught up in the Commander’s web. The boy wanted me, but more than anything he wanted me to be cruel to him. I said no and no again and then kicked him, swiftly, while he was down. One kick, to the right side of his ribs. Thin skin outstretched over bone. God, he said, will you do that again?

Am I cruel?

Do you like it?

The day after the thing with you happens I notice how I suddenly feel different about my body. Not that it’s so great — it’s lumpy and pale and pockmarked, scarred and cellulited and dimpled. My tits are two distinctly different sizes and sometimes I catch my profile and think my face is shaped like a thick Idaho potato. But suddenly my body and face look golden to me.

Am I allowed to ask if I’m pretty?

I desperately and immediately need to lose myself in The Handmaid’s Tale. I have been thinking about the book since Trump/Pence and their merry band of old white Commanders moved into the White House. However, after the thing with you happens I need a wall-to-wall undoing of my own mental monologue. I need to feel the blankness of Offred’s days, how she tries to feel nothing at all, because that’s what I’m doing. How she avoids thinking about her life before — her husband, daughter, mother, friend — and her situation now. She doesn’t call what the Commander does to her rape. She says she had a choice, that she could have been shoveling toxic sludge in the colonies.

I need to feel the blankness of Offred’s days, how she tries to feel nothing at all, because that’s what I’m doing.

I need to lose myself in the first half of the book, the minutiae of her closed off world, the effort she puts into not remembering the past: here is what she stares at while she lies on her back waiting to be summoned. Here is her room, here is the weight of her protective white blinders — to say her gives Offred pause because it suggests ownership.

Her life is small walks and being fucked by the Commander while Serena Joy, his wife (who I always imagined looks like Tammy Faye Baker) “grips my hands as if it she, not I, who’s being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful.” As a teenager this scene invoked a little illicit thrill in me and I read it over and over again, even though it’s not sexy.

It’s not about sex. It’s about power.

I am in this Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of a book I already own because I can’t not read it right now. I have to pee. I walk towards the bathroom. There’s a man sitting on a chair directly across from another chair, talking on the phone. His eyes are on the other chair, his invisible business partner. Then he sees me.

Men maybe don’t think that women see or feel the way they witness us — how some of them fuck us in their minds, or rate us, or hate us. But I can feel it, nearly every time, and he witnesses me and rates me and my rating is just fine. He’d hit this. He continues to follow me with his eyes while yammering on about his partners and files and all that shit.

After I piss I look in the mirror and see something. My face is worn and dragging, underneath my tear ducts little black boogers have congealed, last nights make-up worn into today. I’m not attractive, but sexy. You can displace sexuality upon my body, you can look at it and imagine some truly denigrating shit. Does my body invite this? Do I? There’s something worn, tough, hard and lived about my sexiness. I feel like an ugly teenage girl, who knows that she is still a girl and that there is some kind of power there. When I leave the bathroom I unzip my hoodie so when I walk by the man again he will see that I’m not wearing a bra.

I feel my power.

Offred’s power lies in the swell of her hips. Up against the Guardians, the Eyes, the Commanders she is reduced only to her reproductive status: fertile (she hopes), still of use. In the New Republic of Gilead, the one we really live in, Oklahoma State Representative Justin Humphrey proposes a bill which would require a woman to seek the written permission of her male sexual partner before obtaining an abortion. He says, “I understand that they feel like that is their body, [but women are] a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host …if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant…I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.

It is understood that you feel like your body is your own but your body is your body until it’s determined that it’s not your body. It’s not your body when it becomes a fertile place. It’s not your body when you invite someone in.

I did invite you in.

Offred: He’s so close that the tip of his boot is touching my foot. Is this on purpose? Whether it is or not we are touching two shapes of leather. I feel my shoe soften, blood flows into it, it grows warm, it becomes a skin. I move my foot slightly, away.

Before the thing happens I kick your foot under the table, twice. The first time is a mistake but I feel that you like it. The second time was to see how much I could get away with. I am drunk and reckless and stupid. The hard sole of your shoe melts around the blunt edge of my boot.

What does my desire invite you to do?

This whole thing with you makes me feel ugly and sexy and lost and, to be honest, I don’t dislike it. I keep digging. I can’t help it. I blame society, I blame ambition, I blame neoliberalism, I blame capitalism, I blame other girls and their make-up game, I blame my ego, I blame the culture, I blame the dinosaurs, I blame men telling me they don’t like it when I do Y with my voice or X with my writing. I don’t like it when you use the word neoliberalism. It breaks the tone. I don’t like it when you sound so academic. I don’t like it when you get political. Try not to slip into melodrama.

I blame myself.

Why don’t I blame you?

I blame society, I blame ambition, I blame neoliberalism, I blame capitalism, I blame the culture, I blame the dinosaurs.

I start throwing up again. I can’t help it. My body is just reacting to trauma. When I saw you after and wanted to name you, I instead turned around and walked away and the next time I was alone I unfolded a paper clip. I unfolded it and heated up one end until it was a red hot ember. I stabbed it into my skin over and over again. I held it in the thickest fattest part of my thigh and I cried. It’s healing weird — infected of course, white pus creating two eyes and a smile. Pareidolia.

I started cutting myself when I was sixteen. Then, I would cut because my brain would heat up and boil and hurting myself released steam. Now when I cut myself I crave witness. The marks I’ve made in your aftermath are bright and red against my pale winter skin. They demand my witness.

In my journal I write that I want to feel hollow. I want to hollow out my body. I want to go hungry. I think of the pale War Boys in Mad Max: Fury Road — poisoned by everything around them, so hollow you can see their ribs. Cracked red lips against white skin.

I feel such shame. Hollow it out, dig into me.

In what ways are you ruined like me?

I read the book aloud. I need to hear Offred’s voice.

My voice wavers, it quivers. I am in pain and I am weak. I am weak because when I woke up after the thing happened, after only three hours, not even enough time to let the alcohol metabolize, I threw up until yellow bile burned my nose and when it did I grabbed a small Exact-o knife — the kind for years I wouldn’t keep in the house, the kind I purposefully avoided using — and I ran it across my leg three times then stabbed it into my arm. Enough to draw blood, enough to excuse away…a scratch from my cat, if you’d asked.

When some men touch me it makes me want to hurt myself.

You couldn’t have known that unless you did.

As I read my voice breaks like a prepubescent boy’s. I’ve read the book before. I know that the women were taken from their lives, their assets frozen, their names suspended and put in the Rachel and Leah Centers to be broken like horses and fitted with blinders.

I know what’s going to happen and still I cry openly as I read the second page: In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each others hands across space. We learned to lip read, our hands flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each others mouths. In this way we exchanged names…

I hunger for the hands of women.

I hunger for my name.

Offred: Then I find I’m not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously.

I want you to taste the heat of my breath. I want my name to ring through your head. I want to stand so close to you that you’ll feel my body vibrate and loosen and you will match it, and you won’t consider that what I’m doing is taking all your power.

I have all the power.

Is this how I show my power?

Is this the beginning and end of my agency?

Somehow it’s more complicated. Somehow I don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt, even yours. I want you to say my name. I want you to bear me witness.

I think, again, of the War Boys in Mad Max: Fury Road all chrome and shiny and “Witness me! Witness me!” They, too, live in a toxic patriarchal wasteland and scream for witness, though I want my pain witnessed and they want the witness of their leader, Immortan Joe. Toxic masculinity runs deep.

What I don’t tell you is that masculinity hurts us both. And while I bear my scars on the outside of my body, you have to bury yours under being a total dick.

Still, I think that if you told me that it happened, that it wasn’t my fault, that you crossed a line and maybe I was there for that but I shouldn’t feel this bad, then maybe it’d be different.

In the new Republic of Gilead, my autonomy is measured in millimeters and all the time I watch violent and dangerous men measure their autonomy in miles.

But even if you witnessed me, even if you told me I was pretty, even if you told me my power lies in and outside of my body, even if you told me that you were compelled to do this to me because you hurt too, it wouldn’t change the fact that, in the new Republic of Gilead, my autonomy is measured in millimeters and all the time I watch violent and dangerous men measure their autonomy in miles. Are you violent and dangerous? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter. The Republic of Gilead is inside of me and it supports you. You get to keep everything and I was tricked into believing Gilead’s power to be boundless. I believed myself host to the parasite of namelessness. I believed my body was not my own.

When you took my name from me you left me starving in your aftermath. And that hunger made me fierce. I heard the names of women, no longer whispered, no longer hidden, and I filled myself up on them.

What you need to know is that I’m coming for you and I’m going to take back my name.

More Like This

Electric Lit’s Best Nonfiction of 2023

Nicole Chung, Claire Dederer, Lamya H, Maggie Smith, and Samantha Irby are among the year’s most loved books of nonfiction

Dec 5 - Electric Literature

7 Memoirs About Addiction by Women Writers

Claudia Acevedo-Quinones recommends intimate stories about the struggle with drugs and alcohol and the journey to recovery

Dec 5 - Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones

A Childhood That Defies Gravity

"The Art of Levitation" from SHADOWS AND CLOUDS by Marcus Stewart, recommended by Clyde Derrick

Dec 4 - Marcus Stewart
Thank You!