A little secret about apocalypse stories: they’re rarely true to the cataclysm you are experiencing in real life. Very few of us get off this Earth without experiencing at least gradual disaster, if only aging bodies.
In stories, writers carefully craft the moment when everything changes. It’s like an earthquake (or actually is an earthquake). As viewers, we’re fascinated as characters scramble to survive and change.
Remember the buoys tossed on Arctic seas in “The Day After”? Or the alien touch-down in “War of the Worlds”? The heroes are predictable – generally divorced dads who overcome the odds to save their children and redeem themselves in the eyes of their newly appreciative exes. It’s a formula we crave: terror, struggle and redemption before the credits roll.
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As a fan of this genre, I sometimes muse that I’ll be picking up milk at Kroger when aliens position their glittering ships over the gas pumps. Hopefully, I’ll be near my car, tank full and with a loaded cooler.
But the cataclysms I’ve actually experienced in real life are mostly gradual. They come with plenty of warnings that I pay little attention to and understand mainly in hindsight. For instance, there’s a cataclysm slowly reshaping my summer garden. Since 1990, Durham has gone from Hardiness Zone 7 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to Zone 8 due to a change in weather patterns caused by human activity.
I’m nursing a cold-hardy lilac through what’s likely its last year even as my neighbor’s crape myrtles thrives, a heat-lover that flourishes as far south as Zone 10.
According to the Audubon Society, bird population changes are sweeping the South, with hundreds of species losing habitat. The coast inches closer. Flooding after hurricanes like Matthew will only worsen.
I thought about the gradual disasters that we’re living through as I binged recently on a different kind of cataclysm. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is currently streaming on Hulu. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic, the story is set in Gilead, a theocracy that’s taken over New England. Men are in charge. Denied all rights, women are restricted to subservience as wives, household maids, “handmaids” and the aunts who supervise handmaid training.
The handmaid’s sole function is reproduction. Assigned to top military families, the handmaids undergo regular rape in ceremonies that include wives. Once the handmaid births a child, she is moved to a new couple.
The writers made an interesting choice in how to tell this gripping story by including vivid flashbacks. These flashbacks show the gradual changes that led to oppression. What’s so chilling about them is that the images are so like our current lives. There are massive protest marches; refugees fleeing to Canada; campaigns to eliminate women’s access to health care; and so on.
The parallels aren’t just American — or contemporary. In an interview with The New Yorker, Atwood explained that she only included elements that have a historical antecedent or modern manifestation. The handmaids’ red capes are obvious: the kind of full-body covering required among some religious groups. Other sources are less obvious. I was struck by the similarities between assigning handmaids to military couples and how the Argentine military stole infants from detainees in the 1970s and gave the children to military families after executing the mothers.
Fights over women’s bodies might as well be based on current bills in places like North Carolina or Texas that would close Planned Parenthood clinics and subject women to unnecessary or invasive procedures. The only schools in Gilead are private ones, where religious doctrine, not learning, are the focus.
A 1990 film of The Handmaid’s Tale used Durham as one location, memorably placing Duke Chapel as a backdrop for a hanging. At the time the book was published — with George H.W. Bush in the White House and the fundamentalist right still a minor force in politics — this story could be dismissed as more fantasy than prediction. One reviewer wrote, “Even when I try, in the light of these palely lurid pages, to take the Moral Majority seriously, no shiver of recognition ensues.”
But that shiver of recognition now feels to me a lot like the dread I feel reading each morning’s news. Even the most politically engaged among us must constantly pinch ourselves, to remind ourselves that none of this is normal.
The slow-moving apocalypse is also not inevitable, as Atwood wants us to understand. The Hulu series ends on a hopeful note padded in despair (no spoilers here). Collective action works, though not always right away. Here’s my takeaway — the apocalypse is always with us in one way or another. What matters is that we stay brave enough to see it and do what we can to stand up for those and what we love.
Even if they are a lilac plant.
Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.