Where to begin with Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, a misogynistic dystopia, where criminals have their skin dyed according to their crime?
Not when Hannah wakes up blood red in a Chrome Ward prison for having an abortion. Not when she escapes the clutches of a menacing but lax theocratic government safe house. We’ll get there. Let’s start here, at the height of the narrative’s silliness, the proverbial pelvic thrust:
Her head in the nook of his shoulder, her arm draped across his chest, their legs intertwined. Adam and Eve, before the fall. Minus the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
First, in no way do Hannah and Aiden symbolically represent the “first couple” or “the dawn of mankind.” But more stupidly, this creationist bomb was dropped right at the end of an already rushed and progressively vacuous book about radical Christian right politics taken to their penultimate conclusions. I say penultimate because the book is soft–oh so soft–critiquing religion while cradling it.
Jordan separates good Christians from bad Christians, the latter being the ones who interpret the Bible more literally. The Puritanical prudes who are rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-sing-and-dance. Then there’s the happy-go-lucky, you’re okay I’m okay, to each their own, God is love variety. To quote Simone, the lesbian terrorist running an underground railroad resistance to chroming, “I do not believe in this God of theirs, this pissed-off, macho God of the Bible. How can such a being exist? It is impossible.”
And that’s that. Though, what ho? What exactly does she believe? What message is Jordan sending?
If God is the Creator, if God englobes every single thing in the universe, then God is everything, and everything is God. God is the earth and the sky, and the tree planted in the earth under the sky, and the bird in the tree, and the worm in the beak of the bird, and the dirt in the stomach of the worm. God is He and She, straight and gay, black and white and red–yes, even that…and green and blue and all the rest. And so, to despise me for loving women or you for being a Red who made love with a woman, would be to despise not only His own creations but also to hate Himself. My God is not so stupid as that.
This book is billed as a modern mash-up of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (which I haven’t read in forever), and while the premise–Jordan’s initial chroming idea–may lead one to believe this, the text, however, is utterly jejune. Every time Hannah is about to get seriously critical, or hurt, raped, or killed, someone is there to save her.
Hannah Elizabeth Payne. In acronymic terms, HELP.
(We won’t even touch her blaringly obvious choice of sir name.)
Help me, Hannah says. Lord, help me. Aiden, help me. Daddy, help me. Simone, help me. Kayla, help me. Straight Path Center, help me.
Help me. I’m in pain.
Take it away boys…
Then she’s all, Fuck this shit. Fuck the church. Fuck shame. Fuck the rules. I don’t need anyone’s help.
Halfway through, I was hopeful.
Not so long ago, she too would have turned to God for help as a matter of course, would have believed without question that He was interested enough in her one small life to intervene in it. She probed the place within herself where He used to reside and found an empty, ragged socket. Her faith–not just in His love, but in His existence–was gone.
Huzzah! All right, fast-paced, “Unputdownable,” (says the cringe worthy blurb) rushed revolutionary text, let’s blow some religious lady’s minds! Because, duh, this is written by a woman, with a female protagonist discussing women’s issues, this book is not for men. And nor is it for me. It’s for those who have yet to question their faith, question their religious doctrine, question the men laying down the rules for the right way to live, doling out the punishments, racking themselves with guilt and shame and disgust and fear.
Great, I initially thought. I love these narratives. But this book is poppy, it’s not going to tread on any type of Christian values. Atwood delivers a mean uppercut, a patriarchal gutting. She and Simone de Beauvoir (who Simone is named after…) interpret the Christian doctrine correctly. The texts, the Biblical and catechist texts do not like sex and they do not like women. Your body is not your own, not if you’re a woman. Your womb belongs to the people and the people belong to God.
Both Jordan’s and Atwood’s narratives begin after an epidemic has rendered a good deal of the female population sterile. In When She Woke, abortion is outlawed; it is murder; the punishment is red skin, ostracism, insecurity, and shame. Chromes have no rights to privacy and their safety is greatly jeopardized as well. But that’s it. While Hannah grew up in a strict religious household, a fellow chrome she meets at the Straight Path Center did not. This friend, Kayla, lived outside of the zeitgeist. Which means living outside of the zeitgeist is possible. Which means that this really isn’t a theocracy. There’s leeway. Abortion is still illegal, but slutting it up isn’t. It’s just more frowned upon. Sounds like a pretty lenient dystopian society. One that can be combated. One with hope. Which is how it ends. Hopefully.
So yes, soft. Painfully soft. Jordan’s political message seems to be, Watch it, America. If you’re not careful things will get a little worse and then we’ll have to fight super harder to get things back to the good old days of freedom bleh blah blue.
The Handmaid’s Tale is COMPLETELY different. There is no outside of the zeitgeist. Gilead is a theocratic state, with punishments much more brutal and severe than red skin and reflection. People die. People die horrifically. Fertile women become the property of influential men, and every week are raped by them while their infertile wives hold the girls’ arms and cover their faces. The girls are so afraid, so used to this state of affairs, that they really want to get pregnant. They want to save their own skin. I doubt any of them would give much of a fuck if the punishment were that it were dyed as opposed to the outback toxic cleanup death camps they face. Margaret Atwood’s not kidding. She’s distrustful of religion–oppositional to it, disdainful of it–not optimistic about it.
Here, let her explain.
*For audio, you have to change the quality from 360p to 240p.
Atwood: If your government says, Not only am I your government, but I represent the true religion. If you disagree with it, you’re not just of another faction, you’re evil.
Bill Moyers: But you don’t imagine that could happen here?
Atwood: Wanna bet? Wanna lay some bets as to that?
Margaret Atwood is not fucking around.
Hillary Jordan is. Sure, she’s pro-choice. She is the good kind of Christian. But I think the entire religion is suspect. Jordan’s critiques don’t go nearly far enough. What she wants is not Christianity, it’s utopia, where all religions are one and we hold hands and sing yet keep the basic framework of something so archaic and misogynistic for tradition and comfort.
When She Woke is candy but that nasty candy that’s hard and has been sitting unwrapped and clumped together inside your grandmother’s good bowl for years. Jordan’s only really speaking to fanatics; they’re the only ones who would find these kinds of cafeteria Christian ideas challenging.
I find them annoying.
Just as I find nosy, proselytizing neighbors annoying. Just last night I was walking Aria around the neighborhood when a woman stopped me to hand me this insane Baptist “business card” about hate being murder and repent your sins and don’t deny Jesus. “Where do you go to church?” she asked me. “I don’t,” I said. She then looked at Aria. Yes, we’re keeping her in the dark. And to use Jordan’s language, thank God.
I am emphatically team Atwood. But you don’t imagine that could happen here? Now? My encounter last night I think emphasizes how right she is. I’d say I could be a handmaid, or I could be dyed red. But I know, just as know I would’ve been burned a witch a couple of centuries ago, or stoned to death if I lived eastward, I wouldn’t make it past the first societal purge. Because if I did, I’d die fighting them.