Handmaid Tells

Those who know, know.

Those who don’t know, need to be told

I am infected. I am a carrier.

I am contagious.

I didn’t realize it myself, at first. And then, when I became aware, I was afraid. It made me different. I wanted to hide it. I tried to hide it. I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else to know. I didn’t know what they would think.

It wasn’t my fault, really. I was exposed at a very young age.

I had no idea what I had contracted. And by the time I understood, it was too late. I never completely recovered. It spread through my existence like a wildfire, and I was horrified by the implications.

Early on, I averted my eyes and tried to conceal the truth. I wanted to be normal and fit in. But I couldn’t. And I didn’t know it then, but I never would.

I was sick and that was the end of it, and certainly the end of any real, normal beginning. A normal life. Commonality with most of those around me. Even some that I loved. As I grew older, my condition grew worse, but it became more manageable. I was more realistic. I learned to accept the presence of the contagion. I had to accept the finality of my condition, and I eventually did. And I’m glad I did. Even now when people like me are being quarantined.

I was reading a book called If It Bleeds. I was no longer looking for answers or a cure for my condition. Or even an articulation of my affliction. The malaise that defined my existence, practically for as long as I could remember. It affected me in unexpected ways and changed the trajectory of my life. It was a sentence to be served.

I was reading If It Bleeds, and a line jumped out. It surprised me and I read it again. And then I read it out loud.

“A reader is a carrier, not a creator.”

A reader is a carrier, not a creator.

I had been and still was a carrier.

I was exposed to multiple strains of the contagion very early. I couldn’t list them all. I remember The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald. I remember The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. Bob Dylan. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Joseph Conrad. Franza Kafka. Herman Melville. Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tolkien. Henry Miller, Shakespeare. Poe. H.G. Wells. Joseph Heller. National Defense by James Fallows. Albert Camus, Nietzsche. 1984—George Orwell. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Flannery O’Connor. Spinoza. Plato. Steinbeck.

Steinbeck.

In 1987, I remember sitting in a Texas State University honors course called something like “Science Fiction and the Novel.” We were assigned a book to read before each class and the whole course was just meeting once a week to discuss each reading. No lecture. No exams. No papers. I can’t remember the professor’s name. Maybe Deduck. Patricia Deduck. She had been afflicted as well. When she was young, she and a friend had snuck over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fence and knocked on his door to meet him. Maybe it was Salinger’s wall.

Yes, Deduck had been the professor.

I remember reading Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Maybe Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And Frank Herbert’s Dune—which has never left me. None of them have ever left me. But, mostly, I remember The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

It wasn’t my favorite, really. It still isn’t.

It’s embarrassing to admit, now, but I thought Handmaid’s Tale was a little reactionary and maybe even paranoid. It was the 1980s and abortions were legal, people were prochoice. And women were free to choose their partners and procreate or not. And have sex and abort the procreation process if they needed or wanted to. It was their body in the civilized world, and it seemed to me that people—even here in Texas—were mostly civil.

So, we read The Handmaid’s Tale and went to discuss it in class. But we had a visitor.

Our custom was to sit in a circle as we discussed the assigned book, knowledge shared, ideas debated.

Our visitor was an attractive, somewhat older lady. Not showy, but sharp. Her hair was longer then, and dark brown. Professor Deduck introduced her.

It was Atwood. Margaret Atwood.

I don’t remember what I said. She wasn’t famous yet, but Atwood was the first serious writer I’d ever met face to face. I had a tendency to play contrarian (even then), but I don’t think I did that day. I hope I didn’t.

I doubt Atwood gave me a second thought. She was articulate and mildly daunting. But she wasn’t arrogant or condescending. She answered questions. My female classmates asked several. I was nonplussed.

I’d built up a tolerance. Cognitively speaking, my immune system was stronger by then. My early exposure had prepared me for deeper, prolonged exposures. I could be introduced to new ideas and different perspectives. I wasn’t susceptible to most strains of close-mindedness. I could process new ideas, views and opinions constructively, and allow them to challenge my weaker positions, my naivete, and even my own ignorance. I could also utilize them to fortify my better-informed perspectives, tweak them and articulate them more cogently. It happened more than once. It’s still happening.

I was a carrier, and the more strains and contagions I was exposed to, the stronger I got.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut. Alex Haley. Pablo Neruda. Camille Paglia. T.S. Elliott. Rainer Maria Rilke. Anne Sexton. E.E. Cummings. Charles Bukoski. Sharon Olds (she also appeared at my university—I still have signed, dedicated copies of her work). John Gardner. Jack Kerouac. Emily Dickinson. Toni Morrison.

I didn’t shelter in place or turn away from my own inadequacies. I exposed myself more and more.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Goodbye to a River by Jon Graves. Yukio Mishima. Che Guevara. Don DeLillo. Anton Chekov. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Hunter S. Thompson. Harold Pinter. Sam Shephard. Mark Medoff. Anthony Burgess. Dalton Trumbo. Randolph Bourne.

Frankenstein, again. Heart of Darkness, again. Grapes of Wrath, again. So many other contagions. So many additional infections, and, dissections. Inflections, really. Even vivisection.

Atwood had been prescient.

The Handmaid’s Tale is practically Texas by decree, now.

McCullers saw it all at twenty-three. Real human beings, with open minds and daring hearts, are lonely hunters. Steinbeck got ahead of himself, or maybe just us. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath may have been filling and growing heavy—growing heavy for the vintage—but they were never harvested. We let them rot on the vine.

That’s why we are where we are today.

I was a carrier for years, but my infection eventually spread. I am now a creator.

And here in Texas—where creators are the cure and more carriers are our only hope, an asinine, government-mandated inoculation to make Texans immune to intellectual development has become a commercial requirement—to preserve the status quo, ignorance—which is the most dangerous pandemic of them all.

There are fewer and fewer Margaret Atwoods every year, and less of the population is introduced to books like The Handmaid’s Tale. The cable/streaming cough drop version is weak and less effective. The most constructive, evocative exposure is the book, the written word—the ineradicable imprint, the inimitable consumption of meaning—the most profound interaction with her mindfulness and her art.

Mary Shelley’s husband Percy was right. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And that’s why what they have to say is being mitigated on every social platform and censored in libraries. The spoon-fed, toddler gruel on Iphones or television is bland and contain less intellectual fiber.

As much as conservatives complained and protested about vaccinations and quarantines to protect against Covid 19, they love them, recommend them, and demand them to protect the ignorant against reason, logic and empathy.

Empathy is a form of telepathy.

A serious investigation can lead to mass germination.

An insightful anecdote can be the antidote.

Conservatives consider serious creators anathema. Politicians want to limit the number of carriers and are committed to dumbing down members of their own constituencies to preserve general complacence.

It’s despicable and dangerous. It’s diabolical and dire. It spells our collective doom.

There is no plague like ignorance, and the Texas Legislature is vaccinating us against the only cure.

E.R. Bills of Fort Worth is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..