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Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale
Being a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195.
Chair: Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavit.
Keynote Speaker: Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director, Twentieth and Twenty-first-Century Archives, Cambridge University, England.
I am delighted to welcome you all here this morning, and I’m pleased to see that so many of you have turned out for Professor Pieixoto’s, I am sure, fascinating and worthwhile talk. We of the Gileadean Research Association believe that this period well repays further study, responsible as it ultimately was for redrawing the map of the world, especially in this hemisphere.
But before we proceed, a few announcements. The fishing expedition will go forward tomorrow as planned, and for those of you who have not brought suitable rain gear and insect repellent, these are available for a nominal charge at the Registration Desk. The nature walk and Outdoor Period-Costume Sing-Song have been rescheduled for the day after tomorrow, as we are assured by our own infallible Professor Johnny Running Dog of a break in the weather at that time.
Let me remind you of the other events sponsored by the Gileadean Research Association that are available to you at this convention, as part of our Twelfth Symposium. Tomorrow afternoon, Professor Gopal Chatterjee, of the Department of Western Philosophy, University of Baroda, India, will speak on “Krishna and Kali Elements in the State Religion of the Early Gilead Period,” and there is a morning presentation on Thursday by Professor Sieglinda Van Buren from the Department of Military History at the University of San Antonio, Republic of Texas. Professor Van Buren will give what I am sure will be a fascinating illustrated lecture on “The Warsaw Tactic: Policies of Urban Core Encirclement in the Gileadean Civil Wars.” I am sure all of us will wish to attend these.
I must also remind our keynote speaker — although I am sure it is not necessary — to keep within his time period, as we wish to leave space for questions, and I expect none of us wants to miss lunch, as happened yesterday. (Laughter.)
Professor Pieixoto scarcely needs any introduction, as he is well known to all of us, if not personally then through his extensive publications. These include “Sumptuary Laws Through the Ages: An Analysis of Documents” and the well-known study “Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies, as Seen Through Diaries.” As you all know, he is the co-editor, with Professor Knotly Wade, also of Cambridge, of the manuscript under consideration today, and was instrumental in its transcription, annotation, and publication. The title of his talk is “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Thank you. I am sure we all enjoyed our charming Arctic Char last night at dinner, and now we are enjoying an equally charming Arctic Chair. I use the word “enjoy” in two distinct senses, precluding, of course, the obsolete third. (Laughter.)
But let me be serious. I wish, as the title of my little chat implies, to consider some of the problems associated with the soi-disant manuscript which is well known to all of you by now, and which goes by the title of The Handmaid’s Tale. I say soi-disant because what we have before us is not the item in its original form. Strictly speaking, it was not a manuscript at all when first discovered and bore no title. The superscription “The Handmaid’s Tale” was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer; but those of you who know Professor Wade informally, as I do, will understand when I say that I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, In some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. (Laughter, applause.)
This item — I hesitate to use the word document — was unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what, at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the state of Maine. We know that this city was a prominent way station on what our author refers to as “The Underground Femaleroad,” since dubbed by some of our historical wags “The Underground Frailroad.” (Laughter, groans.) For this reason, our association has taken a particular interest in it.
The item in its pristine state consisted of a metal footlocker, U.S. Army issue, circa perhaps 1955. This fact of itself need have no significance, as it is known that such footlockers were frequently sold as “army surplus” and must therefore have been widespread. Within this footlocker, which was sealed with tape of the kind once used on packages to be sent by post, were approximately thirty tape cassettes, of the type that became obsolete sometime in the eighties or nineties with the advent of the compact disc.
I remind you that this was not the first such discovery. You are doubtless familiar, for instance, with the item known as “The A.B. Memoirs,” located in a garage in a suburb of Seattle, and with the “Diary of P.”, excavated by accident during the erection of a new meeting house in the vicinity of what was once Syracuse, New York.
Professor Wade and I were very excited by this new discovery. Luckily we had, several years before, with the aid of our excellent resident antiquarian technician, reconstructed a machine capable of playing such tapes, and we immediately set about the painstaking work of transcription.
There were some thirty tapes in the collection altogether, with varying proportions of music to spoken word. In general, each tape begins with two or three songs, as camouflage no doubt; then the music is broken off and the speaking voice takes over. The voice is a woman’s, and, according to our voice-print experts, the same one throughout. The labels on the cassettes were authentic period labels, dating, of course, from some time before the inception of the early Gilead era, as all such secular music was banned under the regime. There were, for instance, four tapes entitled “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years,” three of “Folk Songs of Lithuania,” three of “Boy George Takes It Off,” and two of “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings,” as well as some titles that sported a mere single tape each: “Twisted Sisters at Carnegie Hall” is one of which I am particularly fond.
Although the labels were authentic, they were not always appended to the tape with the corresponding songs. In addition, the tapes were arranged in no particular order, being loose at the bottom of the locker; nor were they numbered. Thus it was up to Professor Wade and myself to arrange the blocks of speech in the order in which they appeared to go; but, as I have said elsewhere, all such arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be regarded as approximate, pending further research.
Once we had the transcription in hand — and we had to go over it several times, owing to the difficulties posed by accent, obscure referents, and archaisms — we had to make some decision as to the nature of the material we had thus so laboriously acquired. Several possibilities confronted us. First, the tapes might be a forgery. As you know, there have been several instances of such forgeries, for which publishers have paid large sums, wishing to trade no doubt on the sensationalism of such stories. It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation. If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause.)
To return from my digression: tape like this, however, is very difficult to fake convincingly, and we were assured by the experts who examined them that the physical objects themselves are genuine. Certainly the recording itself, that is, the superimposition of voice upon music tape, could not have been done within the past hundred and fifty years.
Supposing, then, the tapes to be genuine, what of the nature of the account itself? Obviously, it could not have been recorded during the period of time it recounts, since, if the author is telling the truth, no machine or tapes would have been available to her, nor would she have had a place of concealment for them. Also, there is a certain reflective quality about the narrative that would to my mind rule out synchronicity. It has a whiff of emotion recollected, if not in tranquillity, at least post facto.
If we could establish an identity for the narrator, we felt, we might be well on the way to an explanation of how this document — let me call it that for the sake of brevity — came into being. To do this, we tried two lines of investigation.
First, we attempted, through old town plans of Bangor and other remaining documentation, to identify the inhabitants of the house that must have occupied the site of the discovery at about that time. Possibly, we reasoned, this house may have been a “safe house” on the Underground Femaleroad during our period, and our author may have been kept hidden in, for instance, the attic or cellar there for some weeks or months, during which she would have had the opportunity to make the recordings. Of course, there was nothing to rule out the possibility that the tapes had been moved to the site in question after they had been made. We hoped to be able to trace and locate the descendants of the hypothetical occupants, whom we hoped might lead us to other material: diaries, perhaps, or even family anecdotes passed down through the generations.
Unfortunately, this trail led nowhere; Possibly these people, if they had indeed been a link in the underground chain, had been discovered and arrested, in which case any documentation referring to them would have been destroyed. So we pursued a second line of attack. We searched records of the period, trying to correlate known historical personages with the individuals who appear in our author’s account. The surviving records of the time are spotty, as the Gileadean regime was in the habit of wiping its own computers and destroying print-outs after various purges and internal upheavals, but some print-outs remain. Some indeed were smuggled to England, for propaganda use by the various Save the Women societies, of which there were many in the British Isles at that time.
We held out no hope of tracing the narrator herself directly. I was clear from internal evidence that she was among the first wave of women recruited for reproductive purposes and allotted to those who both required such services and could lay claim to them through their position in the elite. The regime created an instant pool of such women by the simple tactic of declaring all second marriages and nonmarital liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted by childless couples of the upper echelons who were eager for progeny by any means. (In the middle period, this policy was extended to cover all marriages not contracted within the state church.) Men highly placed in the regime were thus able to pick and choose among women who had demonstrated their reproductive fitness by having produced one or more healthy children, a desirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birthrates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time.
The reasons for this decline are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal — in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system — and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.
But whatever the causes, the effects were noticeable, and the Gilead regime was not the only one to react to them at the time. Rumania, for instance, had anticipated Gilead in the eighties by banning all forms of birth control, imposing compulsory pregnancy tests on the female population, and linking promotion and wage-increases to fertility.
The need for what I may call birth services was already recognized in the pre-Gilead period, where it was being inadequately met by “artificial insemination,” “fertility clinics,” and the use of “surrogate mothers,” who were hired for the purpose, Gilead outlawed the first two as irreligious but legitimised and enforced the third, which was considered to have Biblical precedents; they thus replaced the serial polygamy common in the pre-Gilead period with the older form of simultaneous polygamy practiced both in early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century. As we know from the study of history, no new system can impose itself upon a previous one without incorporating many of the elements to be found in the latter, as witness the pagan elements in medieval Christianity and the evolution of the Russian “KGB” from the czarist secret service that preceded it; and Gilead was no exception to this rule. Its racist policies, for instance, were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.
Our author, then, was one of many, and must be seen within the broad outlines of the moment in history of which she was a part. But what else do we know about her, apart from her age, some physical characteristics that could be anyone’s, and her place of residence? Not very much. She appears to have been an educated woman, insofar as a graduate of any North American college of the time may be said to have been educated. (Laughter, some groans.) But the woods, as you say, were full of these, so that is no help. She does not see fit to supply us with her original name, and indeed all official records of it would have been destroyed upon her entry into the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center. “Offred” gives no clue, since, like “Ofglen” and “Ofwarren,” it was a patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question. Such names were taken by these women upon their entry into a connection with the household of a specific Commander, and relinquished by them upon leaving it.
The other names in the document are equally useless for the purposes of identification and authentication. “Luke” and “Nick” drew blanks, as did “Moira” and “Janine.” There is a high probability that these were, in any case, pseudonyms, adopted to protect these individuals should the tapes be discovered. If so, this would substantiate our view that the tapes were made inside the borders of Gilead, rather than outside, to be smuggled back for use by the Mayday underground.
Elimination of the above possibilities left us with one remaining. If we could identify the elusive “Commander,” we felt, at least some progress would have been made. We argued that such a highly placed individual had probably been a participant in the first of the top-secret Sons of Jacob Think Tanks, at which the philosophy and social structure of Gilead were hammered out. These were organized shortly after the recognition of the superpower arms stalemate and the signing of the classified Spheres of Influence Accord, which left the superpowers free to deal, unhampered by interference, with the growing number of rebellions within their own empires. The official records of the Sons of Jacob meetings were destroyed after the middle-period Great Purge, which discredited and liquidated a number of the original architects of Gilead; but we have access to some information through the diary kept in cipher by Wilfred Limpkin, one of the sociobiologists present. (As we know, the sociobiological theory of natural polygamy was used as a scientific justification for some of the odder practices of the regime, just as Darwinism was used by earlier ideologies.)
From the Limpkin material we know that there are two possible candidates, that is, two whose names incorporate the element “Fred”: Frederick R. Waterford and B. Frederick Judd. No photographs survive of either, although Limpkin describes the latter as a stuffed shirt, and, I quote, “somebody for whom foreplay is what you do on a golf course.” (Laughter.) Limpkin himself did not long survive the inception of Gilead, and we have his diary only because he foresaw his own end and placed it with his sister-in-law in Calgary.
Waterford and Judd both have characteristics that recommend them to us. Waterford possessed a background in market research, and was, according to Limpkin, responsible for the design of the female costumes and for the suggestion that the Handmaids wear red, which he seems to have borrowed from the uniforms of German prisoners of war in Canadian “POW” camps of the Second World War era. He seems to have been the originator of the term Particicution, which he lifted from an exercise program popular sometime in the last third of the century; the collective rape ceremony, however, was suggested by an English village custom of the seventeenth century. Salvaging may have been his too, although by the time of Gilead’s inception it had spread from its origin in the Philippines to become a general term for the elimination of one’s political enemies. As I have said elsewhere, there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.
Judd, on the other hand, seems to have been less interested in packaging and more concerned with tactics. It was he who suggested the use of an obscure “CIA” pamphlet on the destabilization of foreign governments as a strategic handbook for the Sons of Jacob, and he, too, who drew up the early hit lists of prominent “Americans” of the time. He also is suspected of having orchestrated the President’s Day Massacre, which must have required maximum infiltration of the security system surrounding Congress, and without which the Constitution could never have been suspended. The National Homelands and the Jewish boat-person plans were both his, as was the idea of privatizing the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result that more than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlantic, to maximize profits. From what we know of Judd, this would not have bothered him much. He was a hard-liner and is credited by Limpkin with the remark, “Our big mistake was teaching them to read. We won’t do that again.”
It is Judd who is credited with devising the form, as opposed to the name, of the Particicution ceremony, arguing that it was not only a particularly horrifying and effective way of ridding yourself of subversive elements but that it would also act as a steam valve for the female elements in Gilead. Scapegoats have been notoriously useful throughout history, and it must have been most gratifying for these Handmaids, so rigidly controlled at other times, to be able to tear a man apart with their bare hands every once in a while. So popular and effective did this practice become that it was regularized in the middle period, when it took place four times a year, on solstices and equinoxes. There are echoes here of the fertility rites of early Earth-goddess cults. As we heard at the panel discussion yesterday afternoon, Gilead was, although undoubtedly patriarchal in form, occasionally matriarchal in content, like some sectors of the social fabric that gave rise to it. As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.
In this connection a few comments upon the crack female control agency known as the “Aunts” is perhaps in order. Judd — according to the Limpkin material — was of the opinion from the outset that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called “traditional values,” or for the benefits they might thereby acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting. There was, too, a negative inducement: childless or infertile or older women who were not married could take service in the Aunts and thereby escape redundancy, and consequent shipment to the infamous Colonies, which were composed of portable populations used mainly as expendable toxic-cleanup squads, though if lucky you could be assigned to less hazardous tasks, such as cotton picking and fruit harvesting.
The idea, then, was Judd’s, but the implementation has the mark of Waterford upon it. Who else among the Sons of Jacob Think Tankers would have come up with the notion that the Aunts should take names derived from commercial products available to women in the immediate pre-Gilead period, and thus familiar and reassuring to them — the names of cosmetic lines, cake mixes, frozen desserts, and even medicinal remedies? It was a brilliant stroke, and confirms us in our opinion that Waterford was, in his prime, a man of considerable ingenuity. So, in his own way, was Judd. ; Both of these gentlemen were known to have been childless and thus eligible for a succession of Handmaids. Professor Wade and I have speculated in our joint paper, “The Notion of ‘Seed’ in Early Gilead,” that both — like many of the Commanders — had come in contact with a sterility-causing virus that was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experiments with mumps, and which was intended for insertion into the supply of caviar used by top officials in Moscow. (The experiment was abandoned after the Spheres of Influence Accord, because the virus was considered too uncontrollable and therefore too dangerous by many, although some wished to sprinkle it over India.)
However, neither Judd nor Waterford was married to a woman who was or ever had been known either as “Pam” or as “Serena Joy.” This latter appears to have been a somewhat malicious invention by our author. Judd’s wife’s name was Bambi Mae, and Waterford’s was Thelma. The latter had, however, once worked as a television personality of the type described. We know this from Limpkin, who makes several snide remarks about it. The regime itself took pains to cover up such former lapses from orthodoxy by the spouses of its elite.
The evidence on the whole favors Waterford. We know, for instance, that he met his end, probably soon after the events our author describes, in one of the earliest purges: he was accused of liberal tendencies, of being in possession of a substantial and unauthorized collection of heretical pictorial and literary materials, and of harboring a subversive. This was before the regime began holding its trials in secret and was still televising them, so the events were recorded in England via satellite and are on videotape deposit in our archives. The shots of Waterford are not good, but they are clear enough to establish that his hair was indeed gray.
As for the subversive Waterford was accused of harboring, this could have been “Offred” herself, as her flight would have placed her in this category. More likely it was “Nick,” who, by the evidence of the very existence of the tapes, must have helped “Offred” to escape. The way in which he was able to do this marks him as a member of the shadowy Mayday underground, which was not identical with the Underground Femaleroad but had connections with it. The latter was purely a rescue operation, the former quasi-military. A number of Mayday operatives are known to have infiltrated the Gileadean power structure at the highest levels, and the placement of one of their members as chauffeur to Waterford would certainly have been a coup; a double coup, as “Nick” must have been at the same time a member of the Eyes, as such chauffeurs and personal servants often were. Waterford would, of course, have been aware of this, but as all high-level Commanders were automatically directors of the Eyes, he would not have paid a great deal of attention to it and would not have let it interfere with his infraction of what he considered to be minor rules. Like most early Gilead Commanders who were later purged, he considered his position to be above attack. The style of middle Gilead was more cautious.
This is our guesswork. Supposing it to be correct — supposing, that is, that Waterford was indeed the “Commander” — many gaps remain. Some of them could have been filled by our anonymous author, had she had a different turn of mind. She could have told us much about the workings of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy. What would we not give, now, for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer! However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has deigned to vouchsafe us.
As for the ultimate fate of our narrator, it remains obscure. Was she smuggled over the border of Gilead, into what was then Canada, and did she make her way thence to England? This would have been wise, as the Canada of that time did not wish to antagonize its powerful neighbor, and there were roundups and extraditions of such refugees. If so, why did she not take her taped narrative with her? Perhaps her journey was sudden; perhaps she feared interception. On the other hand, she may have been recaptured. If she did indeed reach England, why did she not make her story public, as so many did upon reaching the outside world? She may have feared retaliation against “Luke,” supposing him to have been still alive (which is an improbability), or even against her daughter; for the Gileadean regime was not above such measures, and used them to discourage adverse publicity in foreign countries. More than one incautious refugee was known to receive a hand, ear, or foot, vacuum-packed express, hidden in, for instance, a tin of coffee. Or perhaps she was among those escaped Handmaids who had difficulty adjusting to life in the outside world, once they got there, after the protected existence they had led. She may have become, like them, a recluse. We do not know.
We can only deduce, also, the motivations for “Nick’s” engineering of her escape. We can assume that once her companion Ofglen’s association with Mayday had been discovered, he himself was in some jeopardy, for as he well knew, as a member of the Eyes, Offred herself was certain to be interrogated. The penalties for unauthorized sexual activity with a Handmaid were severe; nor would his status as an Eye necessarily protect him. Gilead society was Byzantine in the extreme, and any transgression might be used against one by one’s undeclared enemies within the regime. He could, of course, have assassinated her himself, which might have been the wiser course, but the human heart remains a factor, and, as we know, both of them thought she might be pregnant by him. What male of the Gilead period could resist the possibility of fatherhood, so redolent of status, so highly prized? Instead, he called in a rescue team of Eyes, who may or may not have been authentic but in any case were under his orders. In doing so he may well have brought about his own downfall. This too we shall never know.
Did our narrator reach the outside world safely and build a new life for herself? Or was she discovered in her attic hiding place, arrested, sent to the Colonies or to Jezebel’s, or even executed? Our document, though in its own way eloquent, is on these subjects mute. We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees. As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
Are there any questions?
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