Margaret Atwood Bears Witness

Over the course of her writing career, she has explored the power and limits of personal testimony in times of crisis.

Star Tribune / Getty

In 1980, five years before The Handmaid’s Tale was published, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood was appearing at a poetry festival in Portland, Oregon, when her trip was disrupted by natural disaster: Mount St. Helens, in nearby Washington State, began erupting for the second time that spring. Plumes of volcanic ash and gas grounded all flights in Portland, and with trains booked up as well, Atwood joined forces with the poet Carolyn Forché to find a route out of town. The pair ended up driving south to San Francisco, and over the 11-hour car ride, Forché told Atwood about the horrors she’d witnessed as a Guggenheim fellow during the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador: sexual violence, men kept in cages, torture, death squads. What was happening there, she told Atwood, was going largely unreported.

The conversation came during a pivotal moment in Atwood’s writing life. Four years earlier, in an essay titled “On Being a Woman Writer,” Atwood had bristled at the idea that making art came with a burden of political responsibility. Active involvement in certain movements “may be good for the movement,” she wrote dryly, “but it has yet to be demonstrated that it’s good for the writer.” By 1980, though, she was reconsidering her convictions. Her car ride with Forché led to a creative breakthrough for both women: Atwood helped Forché find an agent for her unpublished book of poems documenting El Salvador, The Country Between Us. And Forché seemed to help Atwood solidify ideals that she has continued to clarify throughout her career. A year later, Atwood gave a speech to Amnesty International in which she testified passionately about the artist’s imperative to engage with political issues. “Such material enters a writer’s work,” she said, “not because the writer is or is not consciously political, but because a writer is an observer, a witness, and such observations are the air he breathes.”

In the five years between the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood honed this idea of the literature of witness, which culminated in her most potent and enduring novel. Told by Offred—one of many red-garbed handmaids who are captured, imprisoned, and forced to bear the children of elite commanders in the theocratic and patriarchal Republic of Gilead—the speculative novel established Atwood as a writer who could reframe the world in intoxicatingly urgent fashion. History, as she said to me in an interview this summer, is pulled from the narratives of those who live to tell it—or it is “until somebody else gets ahold of it and turns it on its head”—and those embattled voices, who somehow evade suppression, are the ones she wants to hear and share. Offred’s story describes a totalitarian regime in a future America, but it’s also the narrative of a powerless woman learning what language is worth—understanding that she can turn it into an assertion of her existence and, she hopes, a force of resistance.

Given how swiftly The Handmaid’s Tale catapulted Atwood into global literary stardom, it’s easy to miss the on-the-ground work that went into what many (over Atwood’s objection) promptly labeled “science fiction,” suggesting its distance from real events. The story of Offred is fiction, but it’s fiction patched together out of real crimes against humanity—a bravura act of creative scrapbooking by a writer researching and repurposing atrocities as she figured out how to harness the literature of witness for herself. In the process of constructing a disturbingly plausible dystopia, Atwood collected boxes and boxes of news clippings detailing abuses of power: Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Decree 770, which restricted contraception in Romania; the conscription of prisoners in the Soviet Union to work in uranium mines; the naming of enslaved people after their oppressors; the kidnapping of indigenous children by the Child Welfare League of America. She read, and she snipped, and she stitched her story together. The novel takes the old adage “It can’t happen here” and flips it. It already has, Atwood insists, just not exactly like this.

Thirty-four years later, as she approaches 80, Atwood has revisited Gilead at a moment in the #MeToo era when women have taken to the streets in handmaid costumes, adopting the scarlet cloaks as emblems of protest. A movement has swept her up, though she hadn’t set out to write for one: The Handmaid’s Tale refuses to endorse any ideal of feminist solidarity or unified victimhood, featuring as it does a matriarchal faction of brown-robed aunts brutally enforcing reproductive servitude. Atwood deploys one of those women, Aunt Lydia—the highest-ranking female oppressor in the Gilead described by Offred—in The Testaments, a sequel of sorts set 15 years later. In the novel, which Atwood has intimated may be her last, Lydia is the foremost witness to the founding of the regime. In this authorial choice to focus on a suspect figure seems to lie a warning: For all its value, the act of testimony deserves—demands—scrutiny.

“Believe all women? Women schwomen—I don’t think you should believe all anything,” Atwood recently told People magazine. “It’s more useful to say listen to all women and take what they’re saying seriously enough to actually do investigations.” The witnesses she portrays in her fiction aren’t saviors; they are (or hope to be) survivors, people constrained and compromised by circumstances, and especially worth listening to for that very reason. The Testaments highlights this fact by making a more loaded demand than its predecessor did—that readers place themselves in the seat of an oppressor, not one of the subjugated. “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask,” Aunt Lydia writes to her imagined audience in her account of her role in Gilead’s establishment. “You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.” All along, though, she has been keeping receipts—records that she’s counting on to prove herself more than an opportunistic collaborator.

The idea that you can challenge systems of power by giving voice to the voiceless was creatively galvanizing for Atwood early on. Skirting political movements, she was drawn to myths. In “Circe/Mud Poems” from her 1974 collection, You Are Happy, she imagined The Odyssey from the perspective of Circe, and in doing so, pointed out how flimsily sketched the female characters of classical literature tend to be. “I search instead,” the narrator thinks, “for the others /… the ones who have escaped from these / mythologies with barely their lives.” Their tales begged to be told.

The year after her meeting with Forché, Atwood turned to more timely ordeals in a world she saw as fraught with danger. She published a dark, symbol-loaded novel, Bodily Harm, about a Canadian journalist recovering from breast cancer who ends up a political prisoner in a Caribbean jail. Ranging more widely in a collection of poems out the same year, True Stories, she tested the idea of the literature of witness. Free expression, and the stifling of it, is a recurring theme, in ways that predict the creation of Gilead. In the poem “Torture,” Atwood writes of a captive woman with her face sewn shut, her mouth closed “to a hole the size of a straw,” who’s released and put back on the streets as “a mute symbol.” The theft of the woman’s ability to communicate becomes its own ghastly message, a warning to other potential offenders. In “Christmas Carols,” Atwood uses the figure of the Virgin Mary, “the magic mother, in blue / & white, up on that pedestal, / perfect & intact,” to expose the discrepancy between what she sees as a Christian veneration for the emblematic power of motherhood and the historical reality of pregnant women’s suffering.

In these poems, Atwood was searching for a space to occupy between witness and fantasist. In “Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written,” dedicated to Forché, Atwood considers the tension inherent in her quest, aware that it opens her to criticism. “In this country you can say what you like,” she writes, but “elsewhere, this poem is not invention. / Elsewhere, this poem takes courage. / Elsewhere, this poem must be written / because the poets are already dead.” She’s trying to assume—while acknowledging the awkwardness of it—the role of interlocutor for people denied the ability to speak, whose stories she sees as crucial. “Witness” is a burden, “is what you must bear.”

The poetry of witness, Forché has argued, has its origins in the Holocaust, where it assumes the presence of a future reader: Such testimony does more than state what happened; it demands that the reader acknowledge that it did happen. In 1980, Atwood gave a lecture at Dalhousie University in which she affirmed this point, this silent contract between writer and audience: “Come with me, the writer is saying to the reader. There is a story I have to tell you, there is something you need to know. The writer is both an eye-witness and an I-witness, the one to whom personal experience happens and the one who makes experience personal for others.”

Offred, a fictional character in a world that is a drastic—but logical—extrapolation of modern historical trends, could testify to oppressions that Atwood could not. Like her author, Offred seems to recognize that her act of witnessing Gilead is dependent on the existence of an other, whoever that may prove to be—that her story needs not just to be told, but to be heard. She cherishes Latin words that she finds inscribed inside the closet in her room, even though she doesn’t yet understand them. “It pleases me to ponder this message,” she thinks. “It pleases me to know that [this] taboo message made it through, to at least one other person, washed itself up on the wall of my cupboard, was opened and read by me.” Denied even the tiniest degree of agency—she can’t choose whom she has sex with, where she lives, what she wears, what she eats for breakfast—Offred responds by observing every detail around her, imagining that she is doing so for a future listener. As she exposes the banality of Gilead’s atrocities, her cataloging of her reality also affirms that she is still a person, and one who hopes that her story might not die with her.

Atwood could not have predicted that Offred’s story would live on as it has, and one way of reading The Testaments is to see its author reconsidering yet again the assessment she made back in “On Being a Woman Writer”: By now, she herself is Exhibit A that involvement with a movement can indeed be good for an author, gauged by book sales and adaptations and fame. But has the gung ho appropriation of the handmaid-as-haloed-resister been good for the movement? That Atwood might harbor doubts about glorified, monolithic victimhood doesn’t come as a surprise. The Handmaid’s Tale offers no simple portrait of sisterhood, and Offred, vivid and trustworthy witness though she is, is far from omniscient: How can she take the full measure of a figure like Aunt Lydia? Returning to myth in The Penelopiad (2005), a novel told from the perspective of Odysseus’s abandoned wife (now isolated in Hades) and the Greek chorus of her 12 murdered maids, Atwood exposes the many ways that reputation management can influence testimony. Penelope, as Atwood portrays her, chafes at her long-suffering image. She declares, “I’ll spin a thread of my own,” intent on complicating “the edifying legend” of her life.

In Aunt Lydia—whose dry humor, ironic grandiosity, and contrarian instincts, not to mention her fame, call to mind Atwood’s own—Atwood continues to blur stark villain-victim distinctions. She gives readers a witness who has claimed not just agency for herself, but an agenda. During the years that have elapsed since the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Lydia has been neither voiceless nor unsung. “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified,” Lydia writes in the novel’s first line, referring to the shrinelike tribute erected to her in Gilead. In a vintage bit of Atwoodian punnery, she appears concerned at the thought that her reputation as chief colluder may be set in stone. Atwood has given her a newly tricky goal to accomplish with her testimony: proving that she isn’t a traitor. Both sides, Lydia knows full well, can level that charge, because even as she’s abetted the brutal patriarchs, she’s been secretly plotting Gilead’s downfall. But the real audience she cares about is her future reader, whom she pictures as ruthlessly judgmental: “a young woman, bright, ambitious,” all too eager to condemn an older woman for making conniving, imperfect decisions and failing her gender.

What are we to make of her testimony? Recording her version of events in blue ink and stashing it inside a copy of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua: A Defence of One’s Life, Lydia focuses on the suffering she endured, not the suffering she meted out. Her narrative skirts the vivid particulars that Offred transcribed from her limited vantage: torturing handmaids with steel cables, removing unnecessary body parts, reducing women to portable wombs and “ambulatory chalices,” in Offred’s words. Instead, Lydia refers elliptically to her guilt—“bloody fingerprints” and “bones”—and inverts a tired metaphor to defend her hardheadedness. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by,” Lydia writes. “It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.” Not least, she preempts criticism by predicting it: “If you don’t accuse me of bad faith I will be astonished.”

And this, Atwood told me when we spoke, is the point. “These are decisions the reader will make,” she said. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator, and some people fall under its sway. “Other people have not made that decision—they’ve chosen to go the other route and vanish from existence.” Bearing witness, her work has implied all along and now makes explicit, is a crucial step toward liberation in times of crisis, but witness-bearers shouldn’t mistake themselves for heroes—or hope to be heralded as heroes by others. Readers or listeners (or viewers, thanks to the Hulu TV adaptation) eager to anoint them risk confusing I was there testimony for an unblinkered claim to clarity and justice. What such accounts more usefully offer are insights into the drive, in oppressor and oppressed alike, to shape and share an inevitably limited version of events, however compromised it is bound to be.

In 1972, Atwood published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, in which she explored the instincts underpinning the literary tradition of her native country. “Our stories,” she writes, “are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.” Or, as she told a CBC interviewer the following year, if European existential literature is about a guy trying to jump off a bridge because he can’t take it anymore, “Canadian literature is about a guy hanging onto a bridge trying to climb up.” Aunt Lydia, having climbed up, can bear witness to what that has cost her. Wisdom like hers could hardly be more timely.

By Margaret Atwood

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