Polygamy and The Handmaid’s Tale

I first remember hearing about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) from my friend Valerie.  She mentioned it during a book club that we both belonged to, and I was intrigued by it.  However, it took me a few years to get to it.  I ended up reading Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) first.  That’s an amazing book.  And once I got to The Handmaid’s Tale, I couldn’t put it down.  The Handmaid’s Tale is number 48 on the BBC book list.

the handmaid's tale cover
The story is of a dystopian and totalitarian Christian society.  Older men, already married to older women, use young women in order to bear their children.  It is a disturbing idea, and most disturbing is the scene in which we understand just how this arrangement works.  The handmaid lays face up on top of the wife, with the wife holding her, while the husband does his duty to make a child.  Truly bizarre.

Yet, it isn’t so bizarre.  It reminds me of the practice of polygamy, of which my church has a history (unfortunately).  It has long since been banned (thank goodness), but some splinter groups who call themselves fundamentalists, and other religions and groups, still practice polygamy.  Some claim it is god’s law or will.  Others claim that it is a wonderful arrangement for women in raising children together and doing domestic work together.  It seems in theory that this would alleviate some of the burdens of being a mother and wife.

However, the stark reality of the dysfunction of polygamy is presented in Escape (2007) by Carolyn Jessop.  She escaped from a fundamentalist polygamist sect in southern Utah, the one run by Warren Jeffs and in the news in the last few years for abuse and rape of underage girls.  Jessop was the fourth wife of one if the big wigs in the community.  She bore him eight children by the time she was 35 and her book recounts the horror of the situation.

escape cover
First of all, she was married off as soon as she turned 18; her husband was in his 50s.  She had no say about whom she would marry and no chance for love or dating.  This seems bad enough.  But she joined a family with other wives who were dominant, crazy, or had given up.  There were dozens upon dozens of children, and she was expected to care for them while the others went on trips with the husband.  As the years progressed, the abuse in the family became apparent.  One of the other wives constantly beat and berated the children, even the infants and toddlers. The husband did nothing to stop it, restricted freedoms, and was controlling and abusive both emotionally and physically.  Carolyn did end up working, but was expected to turn over her paycheck to her husband each month.  She was an object and property.

It was a fascinating read, one that made me appreciate my own situation.  She lived such a strange life, and her escape from it is truly remarkable.  The book recounts such horrific details that I wouldn’t necessarily call the book “good,” but it is more like a train wreck that one cannot turn away from.

I saw a connection to Jessop’s memoir of the horrors of polygamy to The Handmaid’s Tale.  My biggest problem with polygamy and any situation in which women are used as pawns for children is the fact that it hurts both women and children.  The Handmaid’s Tale presents these same realities.  The women are objects for creating children rather than people.  They are denied their dignity and their ability to choose.

I would recommend Atwood’s books to anybody.  She is a fantastic Canadian author who has never disappointed me.