How Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid's Tale Changed My Life

Freshman year.

Fourteen.

 

At this point in time, it’s the end of freshman year — just before my parents and I take a weeklong trip to the beach.

 

 I am not having a fun start to high school, though I refuse to admit it, relying on the hundredth rereading of Jane Eyre and the fiftieth searching of Rebecca to provide me with literary solace.

 

So far, I’ve heard of The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times, but have never actually read it myself. I search for it during a visit to the local library. It is on the bottom shelf, a slim red volume crammed in between the rest of Margaret Atwood’s masterpieces. It is a hardback, with a picture of Atwood on the cover and due date stickers papered across the back, and it has a red ribbon acting as a bookmark. The book smells like paper and smoke, and has deckled edges — a treatment only given to bestsellers or classics.

 

I begin reading it that day, and before the end of the prologue, I am hooked. It reads easily and the characters seem to be the same as me: restless, waiting, yearning, aching.

 

It talks directly to the reader, breaking the fourth wall. It talks about telling stories, waiting for the attention of someone you haven’t met yet and of escaping into a narrative that you have no means to tell.

 

I am a writer too and I want to tell stories. I — having tried to publish something (anything) for a year — have nothing to show for it, and have moved from stories onto articles.

 

I keep reading.

 

At the beach house, it is quiet. I don’t go outside too often. Instead, I’m sitting in the mushroom chair on the third floor, reading, the sun coming in on a beach view I'm too absorbed in reading to look at; or I'm sitting in my borrowed blue bedroom just off the kitchen, reading.

 

I tear through the book, recognizing that it will quickly take a place among my ultimate favorites, even if I’m still deciding about Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar.  I don’t speak much, but then, I am silent a lot, and the book seems to be saying most of what I feel, anyway.

 

It is the best part of my summer.

 

Junior Year.

Sixteen.

 

I check out the book again, and again, and again. I'm reading it one day while volunteering at the library, and the woman working with me mentions that Margaret Atwood is coming to Penn State to receive an award. I not-so-subtly beg my parents for tickets to see her speak, and they relent.

 

A few months later, I escaped the confines of high school, missing a few classes in order to see Atwood speak. With me, I carry two copies of The Handmaid's Tale: one is mine and one is my school’s copy, smuggled out because what library couldn’t benefit from a signed copy from a bestselling author?

 

Atwood is wonderful. Her speech is funny and witty and she never takes herself too seriously, despite receiving a major award. The ballroom we’re sitting in is packed with people, all of whom can be heard buzzing about how much they liked this book of hers or that other book.

 

Atwood signs copies of her books after her speech is over, and I am elated (and really, really sweaty.) Only in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined getting to interact with her, and here it was finally happening. The line, unsurprisingly, is huge, and by the time it’s my turn, I am nervous, scared, ecstatic and thrilled (so evidentially I'm super calm and composed.)

 

Before she can sign my books, my mom takes a photo of me. It's blurry, my face is partially out of the frame, but just behind me, smiling like the amazing human she is, is Atwood. I am stunned that I get to occupy, just for a moment, the same space as the woman who’s written the book that changed my life.

 

 

I mean to tell her this as she's signing my copies, but all I get out, shouted above the noise of everyone in line, is something like “The Handmaid's Tale is amazing. It's one of my favorite books.”

 

Atwood says thank you, she signs my books, and I continue with my mild asphyxiation and panic attack before my mom and I walk away.

 

With my copy of the book, I don't read Atwood’s inscription for a year, wanting to treasure the fact that my name has now joined all of the wonderful words that Atwood has put inside one of my favorite books.

 

As we leave the event, I am somewhat disappointed. I didn't know how to tell her what the book actually meant to me.

 

College.

Eighteen.

 

 Fast forward two years later, and I hear that Hulu is doing a television-style remake of the book (and subsequently, the movie, which I had seen after I read the book).

 

 I'm a little angry, given that nothing can replace the book, but when I see that Atwood approves of the series, I calm down a little. When brainstorming ideas for Her Campus over winter break, I come up with something about the Handmaid's Tale. I'm not sure what I have planned, but when writing it, it turns into an entire list of 40 songs for people to listen to while re-reading the book. I am an adamant believer that if you're going to watch an adaptation, you have to read the book first.

 

I don't mean to spend 2 hours on it, but I do, and when I tweet about it, Athens show’s officially twitter follows our twitter. Fast forward again, and I get the go-ahead to plan a screening of the first episode of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.

 

I create posters, wrestling with InDesign at 2am. I make sure people are actually interested in attending. I reach out to communications professionals who can offer me event-planning advice.

 

I have no public relations experience, no clue how to plan an event and no idea of how to promote said event. Everything I'm doing feels iffy, unsure, a little dangerous and completely like I am flying blind. But I learn, and eventually it's the day before the premiere of the first episode.

 

When hopefully, I have another chance to show people what the book means to me.