“A Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian tale of a “handmaid”- a woman basically designated to be a breeder. She is treated as property, has no real rights, and her only value to society is to make children for officials and their barren wives. After the excesses of the world created so much pollution and illness the birth rate fell drastically low, a re-forming of society occurred. In this society, the rights of women and children were reconfigured while being told they were the ones in charge, and the patriarchy was solidified through strict, subversive control of women’s status and roles. The society was structured around the lower masculine values of competition, dominance, punishment by death, demanding compliance, and people as property. This was strictly enforced through a pseudo-religious brainwashing regime, and strict control of what was said and done. Handmaids are basically slaves. They are forced to be raped once monthly in order to try for a child in a bizarre ritual that involves the wives of the men who are trying to impregnate them.
In reading this book, I noticed there are parallels between today’s family court today and the dystopian society in Handmaid’s Tale.
1. A disdain for science
In “Handmaid’s Tale”, science is deliberately shunned in favor of cultish rituals and unapologetic stereotypes. In family court, the brutal and often surreal actions around parental alienation mirror this disdain for science. Despite having a body of scientific knowledge of cluster B personalities, the dynamics of domestic violence and coercive control tactics including financial abuse, and decades of research regarding attachment, family courts reject all that science and instead operate from an understanding of junk science like “parental alienation syndrome” and worn-out stereotypes of women in general-that women are crazy, gold-digging, vengeful creatures out to get poor innocent men.
Parental alienation is especially dangerous since it flies in the face of research and since manipulating the children is a tactic abusers use, and the use of “parental alienation syndrome” gives the court an excuse to believe the projection of an abuser. In any other area of life, when someone does something wrong or abusive, we encourage calling it out. But in family court, truth-telling is seen as disparaging the other parent instead of protecting the children. Hence, sexually abused children end up in the custody of their abusers nearly 70% of the time. The courts in those cases become accessories to abuse.
Parental alienation is more aptly labeled “domestic abuse by proxy”. It is not the same as a parent protecting a child from an abusive parent. Accusing a protective parent of “parental alienation” is indicative of an abusive mindset and possibly a personality disorder. Again, we have the research and psychological science in place to back this up. We just don’t have the courts listening to research and solid science.
2. Financial rights of women are taken away
In “Handmaid’s Tale”, the women had their bank accounts suddenly frozen and handed over to the men. In divorce from an abusive man, this is very common, but even more, a woman can be repeatedly taken to court at great expense. With the advent of 50/50 parenting plans being the preferred situation in the courts, child support is becoming a thing of the past. This makes it easier for men who want to get out of child support to work the system and financially cripple a woman while he benefits. Spend a day at the child support office watching men in expensive shoes and expensive cars whine how poor they are and can’t get a job. They are believed and even supported in their lies. The blatant concentration of resources with men with no regard to how it affects children, and no repercussions for men who disobey child support orders is chillingly one-sided and echoes a “Handmaid’s Tale.” Not to mention back child support is not even taken seriously, especially for richer men.
3. Women have no voice
In “Handmaid’s Tale”, women are barely allowed to speak to each other freely, much less complain about the system, have a say in what goes on, or have their own voiced desires and pain. They were severely traumatized by having their children and husbands torn from them, then told not to speak about it. In fact, the whole book could be called “Offred’s Trauma Journal” as we watch her deal with the extreme and horrid situation she finds herself in and the insidious, routine silencing of women.
In family court, the same kinds of horrid strictures exist. Women who have experienced any kind of emotional, physical, or verbal abuse are cautioned not to speak of it lest they be seen as degrading their ex husband. Yet, when they don’t speak up, they are blamed for not speaking up and colluding with their own abuse. There is no obedience to a system that will blame you no matter where you turn. The truth isn’t even an issue because no one cares about truth in family court. They care about winning.
4. Children are leverage
“Offred” had her daughter cruelly taken from her. Children were a commodity in “Handmaid’s Tale” and were to be given only to those of high status. There is such a trend in family court to give a child to an abuser it’s frightening. See the above. A woman is blamed for speaking up about abuse, and blamed for not speaking up about abuse. She often goes into a courtroom that has already decided it is stacked against her. Add to that the fact that GALs, therapists, and caseworkers are rarely knowledgeable about the dynamics of power and abuse, and have no clue what a cluster B personality looks like or that it is abusive. This is a set up to punish the children by blaming them or having them end up with their abuser. But the real reason given is that the mother spoke up and that is not allowed in family court.
Unfortunately, this results in death of children in some cases. Don’t believe me?
5. Mothering is debased and tightly controlled.
The culture in Handmaid’s Tale is an extreme example of patriarchy. The blame for the failure of the society to procreate is placed on the woman and they are divided into two groups: women who can bear children, and women who cannot. Birth mothers are easily replaced by foster mothers, who also have no choice in the matter. In family court, the whole structure of court embodies traditional lower masculine values of competition, acquisition of property (which includes children), aggression, dominance, control, and power-over. 50/50 parenting is a way of treating children as property and often father replaces mother during that time since he most likely wasn’t available to begin within the marriage.
Even men who embody traditional feminine traits do poorly in court. It is as if holding up the value of “mother” is rejected. And feminine values such as collaboration, cooperation, and mutuality are indeed looked down on, and can’t even be expressed within the current structure of family court. Couples who can embody those values, or, as research suggests, men who can embody those values, don’t even end up in family court. (see Gottman’s research on accepting influence) The family court structure favors the wishes of men and male archetypes.
6. Gaslighting is practically a religion.
The person who can gaslight the court the most is the “winner”. In Handmaid’s Tale, the gaslighting occurs when the women are told they wanted a society run by females and they have it, when in fact, it is run by the men. In family court, gaslighting is accepted as truth as a man can capitalize on the biases against women and stereotypes of women as emotional, punitive liars. This then gives the man a free pass to continue his control and abuse, and look good while doing bad. He knows that the judge doesn’t know, and worse, doesn’t care, that he’s treated a woman like shit for years.
7. The ultimate goal is to be in service to “the man”
Obedience to extreme oppression is vital in Handmaid’s Tale. If you do not obey the rules, no matter how stupid and extreme the rules are, you are at risk of punishment by death.
In family court, a double standard prevails based on the biases, often anti-woman, of the judge. A woman’s perspective is rarely valued and is presumed to be anti-man from the outset. Family court was created by men, out of a system that was created by men. Women used to have no rights to their children or spousal or child support. Any strides made in changing child support and spousal support laws are now experiencing a regression. Family courts are a mess these days as they are set up much like the “good old days”; the days before women could vote, the days where children were property and automatically given to the man. Nowadays, evidence is often ignored to fulfill the goal of denying a woman’s reality.
8. Cronyism prevails.
In the book, there is a “secret” place called Jezebel’s where husbands take their surrogates, their property, out on a “date”. The surrogates can drink, smoke, and have “real” sex with their owners, all things that are forbidden in their carefully controlled lives. It is assumed the men do not snitch on each other, and it is also assumed this is a symptom of a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” paradigm. In family court, judges can hand down decisions that are so biased and one-sided you know this backscratching happens. Even Donald Trump, the poster child for cronyism, demanded that the “swamp” be drained. The system isn’t perfect and cronyism and corruption happens all over the nation in our court systems. But when it affects children, it should be a crime.
The father’s rights movement has changed many laws in family court. Often, the men involved in father’s rights are abusers themselves and simply acting out of narcissistic injury. I recognize that some men can be berated for upholding feminine values and are as much protective parents as women are, and some women can also uphold hyper masculine values and those are rewarded in family court.
9. Children are property
In “Handmaid’s Tale”, children were merely coveted property. In family court, children also have no rights of their own. Their voice is not considered and the underlying principle is often “father knows best” when applying “best interests of the child” standards. Their primary attachments are often modified and severed through harmful parenting arrangements, and forced bonding through sudden change of attachment arrangements are traumatizing to children. Parenting arrangements suggested by men often reflect not the kind of parent they are, but a desire to get out of paying child support.
10. Patriarchy is the model of society
In Handmaid’s Tale, the most extreme manifestation of patriarchy is depicted, where women have no rights and are treated as property, as are their children. In family court, many of the same values are in place and the rights of women and children are marginalized and a woman’s value is denied in favor of male values. As Bell Hooks writes, “Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” Family court is one such form of psychological terrorism and violence, built by men to serve the interests of men.
Many women have been through the unreasonable, abusive nightmare of family court and readily recognize the extreme manifestation of patriarchy. Much of the time it feels surreal, just like the dystopian “Handmaid’s Tale”. But disturbing elements of this horrid, surreal dystopia are found right here in our country, right now, in family court.