Authors: Margaret Atwood
You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.
I hope you will remember, too, that we all have some nostalgia for whatever kindness we have known as children, however bizarre the conditions of that childhood may seem to others. I agree with you that Gilead ought to fade away—there is too much of wrong in it, too much that is false, and too much that is surely contrary to what God intended—but you must permit me some space to mourn the good that will be lost.
At our school, pink was for spring and summer, plum was for fall and winter, white was for special days: Sundays and celebrations. Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us—of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust, so that they’d stagger and lurch and topple over the verge—The verge of what? we wondered. Was it like a cliff?—and go plunging down in flames, like snowballs made of burning sulphur hurled by the angry hand of God. We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.
That was the kind of thing runny-nosed Aunt Vidala would tell us at school while we were doing petit-point embroidery for handkerchiefs and footstools and framed pictures: flowers in a vase, fruit in a bowl were the favoured patterns. But Aunt Estée, the teacher we liked the best, would say Aunt Vidala was overdoing it and there was no point in frightening us out of our wits, since to instill such an aversion might have a negative influence on the happiness of our future married lives.
“All men are not like that, girls,” she would say soothingly. “The better kind have superior characters. Some of them have decent self-restraint. And once you are married it will seem quite different to you, and not very fearsome at all.” Not that she would know anything about it, since the Aunts were not married; they were not allowed to be. That was why they could have writing and books.
“We and your fathers and mothers will choose your husbands wisely for you when the time comes,” Aunt Estée would say. “So you don’t need to be afraid. Just learn your lessons and trust your elders to do what is best, and everything will unfold as it should. I will pray for it.”
But despite Aunt Estée’s dimples and friendly smile, it was Aunt Vidala’s version that prevailed. It turned up in my nightmares: the shattering of the glass house, then the rending and tearing and the trampling of hooves, with pink and white and plum fragments of myself scattered over the ground. I dreaded the thought of growing older—older enough for a wedding. I had no faith in the wise choices of the Aunts: I feared that I would end up married to a goat on fire.
The pink, the white, and the plum dresses were the rule for special girls like us. Ordinary girls from Econofamilies wore the same thing all the time—those ugly multicoloured stripes and grey cloaks, like the clothes of their mothers. They did not even learn petit-point embroidery or crochet work, just plain sewing and the making of paper flowers and other such chores. They were not pre-chosen to be married to the very best men—to the Sons of Jacob and the other Commanders or their sons—not like us; although they might get to be chosen once they were older if they were pretty enough.
Nobody said that. You were not supposed to preen yourself on your good looks, it was not modest, or take any notice of the good looks of other people. Though we girls knew the truth: that it was better to be pretty than ugly. Even the Aunts paid more attention to the pretty ones. But if you were already pre-chosen, pretty didn’t matter so much.
I didn’t have a squint like Huldah or a pinchy built-in frown like Shunammite, and I didn’t have barely-there eyebrows like Becka, but I was unfinished. I had a dough face, like the cookies my favourite Martha, Zilla, made for me as a treat, with raisin eyes and pumpkin-seed teeth. But though I was not especially pretty, I was very, very chosen. Doubly chosen: not only pre-chosen to marry a Commander but chosen in the first place by Tabitha, who was my mother.
That is what Tabitha used to tell me: “I went for a walk in the forest,” she would say, “and then I came to an enchanted castle, and there were a lot of little girls locked inside, and none of them had any mothers, and they were under the spell of the wicked witches. I had a magic ring that unlocked the castle, but I could only rescue one little girl. So I looked at them all very carefully, and then, out of the whole crowd, I chose you!”
“What happened to the others?” I would ask. “The other little girls?”
“Different mothers rescued them,” she would say.
“Did they have magic rings too?”
“Of course, my darling. In order to be a mother, you need to have a magic ring.”
“Where’s the magic ring?” I would ask. “Where is it now?”
“It’s right here on my finger,” she would say, indicating the third finger of her left hand. The heart finger, she said it was. “But my ring had only one wish in it, and I used that one up on you. So now it’s an ordinary, everyday mother ring.”
At this point I was allowed to try on the ring, which was gold, with three diamonds in it: a big one, and a smaller one on either side. It did look as if it might have been magic once.
“Did you lift me up and carry me?” I would ask. “Out of the forest?” I knew the story off by heart, but I liked to hear it repeated.
“No, my dearest, you were already too big for that. If I had carried you I would have coughed, and then the witches would have heard us.” I could see this was true: she did cough quite a lot. “So I took you by the hand, and we crept out of the castle so the witches wouldn’t hear us. We both said
”—here she would hold her finger up to her lips, and I would hold my finger up too and say
delightedly—“and then we had to run very fast through the forest, to get away from the wicked witches, because one of them had seen us going out the door. We ran, and then we hid in a hollow tree. It was very dangerous!”
I did have a hazy memory of running through a forest with someone holding my hand. Had I hidden in a hollow tree? It seemed to me that I had hidden somewhere. So maybe it was true.
“And then what happened?” I would ask.
“And then I brought you to this beautiful house. Aren’t you happy here? You are so cherished, by all of us! Aren’t we both lucky that I chose you?”
I would be nestled close to her, with her arm around me and my head against her thin body, through which I could feel her bumpy ribs. My ear would be pressed to her chest, and I could hear her heart hammering away inside her—faster and faster, it seemed to me, as she waited for me to say something. I knew my answer had power: I could make her smile, or not.
What could I say but yes and yes? Yes, I was happy. Yes, I was lucky. Anyway it was true.
How old was I at that time? Perhaps six or seven. It’s hard for me to know, as I have no clear memories before that time.
I loved Tabitha very much. She was beautiful although so thin, and she would spend hours playing with me. We had a dollhouse that was like our own house, with a living room and a dining room and a big kitchen for the Marthas, and a father’s study with a desk and bookshelves. All the little pretend books on the shelves were blank. I asked why there was nothing inside them—I had a dim feeling that there were supposed to be marks on those pages—and my mother said that books were decorations, like vases of flowers.
What a lot of lies she had to tell for my sake! To keep me safe! But she was up to it. She had a very inventive mind.
We had lovely big bedrooms on the second floor of the dollhouse, with curtains and wallpaper and pictures—nice pictures, fruit and flowers—and smaller bedrooms on the third floor, and five bathrooms in all, though one was a powder room—Why was it called that? What was “powder”?—and a cellar with supplies.
We had all the dolls for the dollhouse that you might need: a mother doll in the blue dress of the Commanders’ Wives, a little girl doll with three dresses—pink, white, and plum, just like mine—three Martha dolls in dull green with aprons, a Guardian of the Faith with a cap to drive the car and mow the lawn, two Angels to stand at the gate with their miniature plastic guns so nobody could get in and hurt us, and a father doll in his crisp Commander’s uniform. He never said much, but he paced around a lot and sat at the end of the dining table, and the Marthas brought him things on trays, and then he would go into his study and close the door.
In this, the Commander doll was like my own father, Commander Kyle, who would smile at me and ask if I had been good, and then vanish. The difference was that I could see what the Commander doll was doing inside his study, which was sitting at his desk with his Computalk and a stack of papers, but with my real-life father I couldn’t know that: going into my father’s study was forbidden.
What my father was doing in there was said to be very important—the important things that men did, too important for females to meddle with because they had smaller brains that were incapable of thinking large thoughts, according to Aunt Vidala, who taught us Religion. It would be like trying to teach a cat to crochet, said Aunt Estée, who taught us Crafts, and that would make us laugh, because how ridiculous! Cats didn’t even have fingers!
So men had something in their heads that was like fingers, only a sort of fingers girls did not have. And that explained everything, said Aunt Vidala, and we will have no more questions about it. Her mouth clicked shut, locking in the other words that might have been said. I knew there must be other words, for even then the notion about the cats did not seem right. Cats did not want to crochet. And we were not cats.
Forbidden things are open to the imagination. That was why Eve ate the Apple of Knowledge, said Aunt Vidala: too much imagination. So it was better not to know some things. Otherwise your petals would get scattered.
In the dollhouse boxed set, there was a Handmaid doll with a red dress and a bulgy tummy and a white hat that hid her face, though my mother said we didn’t need a Handmaid in our house because we already had me, and people shouldn’t be greedy and want more than one little girl. So we wrapped the Handmaid up in tissue paper, and Tabitha said that I could give her away later to some other little girl who didn’t have such a lovely dollhouse and could make good use of the Handmaid doll.
I was happy to put the Handmaid away in the box because the real Handmaids made me nervous. We would pass them on our school outings, when we’d walk in a long double line with an Aunt at each end of it. The outings were to churches, or else to parks where we might play circle games or look at ducks in a pond. Later we would be allowed to go to Salvagings and Prayvaganzas in our white dresses and veils to see people being hanged or married, but we weren’t mature enough for that yet, said Aunt Estée.
There were swings in one of the parks, but because of our skirts, which might be blown up by the wind and then looked into, we were not to think of taking such a liberty as a swing. Only boys could taste that freedom; only they could swoop and soar; only they could be airborne.
I have still never been on a swing. It remains one of my wishes.
we marched along the street, the Handmaids would be walking two by two with their shopping baskets. They would not look at us, or not much, or not directly, and we were not supposed to look at them because it was rude to stare at them, said Aunt Estée, just as it was rude to stare at cripples or anyone else who was different. We were not allowed to ask questions about the Handmaids either.
“You’ll learn about all of that when you’re old enough,” Aunt Vidala would say.
All of that
: the Handmaids were part of
all of that
. Something bad, then; something damaging, or something damaged, which might be the same thing. Had the Handmaids once been like us, white and pink and plum? Had they been careless, had they allowed some alluring part of themselves to show?
You couldn’t see very much of them now. You couldn’t even see their faces because of those white hats they wore. They all looked the same.
In our dollhouse at home there was an Aunt doll, although she didn’t really belong in a house, she belonged in a school, or else at Ardua Hall, where the Aunts were said to live. When I was playing with the dollhouse by myself, I used to lock the Aunt doll in the cellar, which was not kind of me. She would pound and pound on the cellar door and scream, “Let me out,” but the little girl doll and the Martha doll who’d helped her would pay no attention, and sometimes they would laugh.
I don’t feel pleased with myself while recording this cruelty, even though it was only a cruelty to a doll. It’s a vengeful side of my nature that I am sorry to say I have failed to subdue entirely. But in an account such as this, it is better to be scrupulous about your faults, as about all your other actions. Otherwise no one will understand why you made the decisions that you made.
It was Tabitha who taught me to be honest with myself, which is somewhat ironic in view of the lies she told me. To be fair, she probably was honest when it came to herself. She tried—I believe—to be as good a person as was possible, under the circumstances.
Each night, after telling me a story, she would tuck me into bed with my favourite stuffed animal, which was a whale—because God made whales to play in the sea, so it was all right for a whale to be something you could play with—and then we would pray.
The prayer was in the form of a song, which we would sing together:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Four angels standing round my bed,
Two to feet and two to head;
One to watch and one to pray,
And two to carry my soul away.
Tabitha had a beautiful voice, like a silver flute. Every now and then, at night when I am drifting off to sleep, I can almost hear her singing.
There were a couple of things about this song that bothered me. First of all, the angels. I knew they were supposed to be the kind of angels with white nightgowns and feathers, but that was not how I pictured them. I pictured them as our kind of Angels: men in black uniforms with cloth wings sewn onto their outfits, and guns. I did not like the thought of four Angels with guns standing around my bed as I slept, because they were men after all, so what about the parts of me that might stick out from under the blankets? My feet, for instance. Wouldn’t that inflame their urges? It would, there was no way around it. So the four Angels were not a restful thought.
Also, it was not encouraging to pray about dying in your sleep. I did not think I would, but what if I did? And what was my soul like—that thing the angels would carry away? Tabitha said it was the spirit part and did not die when your body did, which was supposed to be a cheerful idea.
But what did it look like, my soul? I pictured it as just like me, only much smaller: as small as the little girl doll in my dollhouse. It was inside me, so maybe it was the same thing as the invaluable treasure that Aunt Vidala said we had to guard so carefully. You could lose your soul, said Aunt Vidala, blowing her nose, in which case it would topple over the verge and hurtle down and endlessly down, and catch on fire, just like the goatish men. This was a thing I very much wished to avoid.