It’s spring, and the earth is damp and fertile. Outside my kitchen window, paperwhites pop their heads out of the sodden black earth and promise me that winter is ending. I can take walks without bracing myself against the damp gray skies. Rainbows appear in the afternoons, and on some days, there is even sun.
In yesterday’s news, scientists gestated a baby lamb for four weeks in a plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid, hooked up to an oxygen-exchange technology that acts as a placenta. The plastic bag womb is being designed for extremely premature babies. Delivered by c-section, drugged to prevent breathing, then plunged into a warm, wet bag. The scientists say it will allow the babies to stay water creatures longer, will allow their tiny lungs to develop, will help someone’s child survive. The scientists tell me this is a wonderful thing.
Looking at the picture of the lambs gestating in plastic, my neck gets rigid and all the tiny hairs stand on end. I think: Who needs a handmaid when you have a plastic bag? Then I tell myself to stop thinking like that. I swallow my fear and look back out the window. Daffodils open, then die in a week’s time, and then come the tulips, whose petals remind me of the skirts of handmaids, turned upside down and blooming.
I hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale until this year; I never cared for science fiction, which is what I thought it was. Who told me that, and why did I believe them? Did they think fewer women would read it if they used the word, “science?” I swallow this thought, too, and remind myself not to be so paranoid. I didn’t know what The Handmaid’s Tale was about, except for the vaguest notion that handmaids bore other women’s children. I read the book so quickly that I had to go back and read it again with a pencil to slow my thoughts, underlining: “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” In Gilead, the sharp decline in birth rate isn’t because of what men did to the earth; it’s because of women’s defective bodies.
I try to love myself and my body, but when the whole world yells all day about my defects, some of it sticks. At night, I peel back the lying voices like layers of wallpaper. I am the wrong shape, size, sex. Lift, peel. I am too old to have another baby; before, I was too young and broke to properly mother one. Lift, peel. I have always been too fat except for the years I stopped eating because I was too depressed. Lift, peel. I am too angry, too loud; before I was too soft and compliant. Lift, peel. I am all wrong all the time, and have been since the day I drew my first gasping girl breath. Lift, peel. Everything is my fault. The wall next to my bed is layered with decades of flowers: daffodils and forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley and funny violets and fleur de lys, each one coming through like a ghost. The wall is a palimpsest of the women who slept before me, now covered over, mostly invisible. They left me their wallpaper flowers, like offerings, like maps, like warnings. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
There are Handmaids in the Texas Senate, sitting in the Gallery in blood red robes and pure white bonnets. They are protesting abortion laws that keep getting more restrictive. See, also: the abortion laws in Louisiana, and in Alabama, and in Michigan and Indiana and Ohio and Kentucky and Missouri and Mississippi and on and on. I think: in half the states the restrictions on buying a gun are less than the restrictions on women’s health care. Again, I swallow it down.
Once I was a walking sea that held a tiny swimmer. Once, I was her vessel, and her portal into the wide world. I became more pro-choice than ever while pregnant because it was so consuming, so overwhelming, so life-altering. Later, holding my squalling, hungry, helpless infant, I swore that this particular love-torture should only be undertaken willingly and with full consent.
Fifty years ago, in April of 1967, Colorado became the first state to allow abortions for reasons other than the mother’s imminent death. For the first time in U.S. history, a woman could request to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. She still had to have her request reviewed by a three doctor panel at the providing hospital, but at least she had a voice, however censored.
I couldn’t deliver my daughter vaginally, or, rather, they made me stop trying after 46 hours. I kept asking for more time, but my panel of doctors said they had already let things go too long. They prepared me for a c-section, and rolled my body into a cold OR. Handmaids give birth on a double-seated stool, with the wife who gets the baby sitting above and astride them. I birthed on a cold metal table, with my arms strapped out to the side, my body bisected from my head by hanging sheets. I didn’t feel anything except my body shaking, a common side effect. When my husband noticed a red tube on the floor carrying my blood, he went white as a sheet. The birth only took a few minutes, but the repair took a long time, and left a scar above my pubic bone. A mark of my failure. Another defect, now another thing to worry about because a panel of men decided that being a woman is a pre-existing condition.
Meanwhile, all of spring is breathing down. The flowers bud and die, bud and die. The newest push their shiny heads out of the mossy damp and sigh for a week, maybe two, filling the air with their death-scented sweetness. I walk the neighborhood near my office in large “x” patterns on my lunch break, and marvel at the red azaleas, inhaling the perfume of daphne and hyacinth. And still, I am haunted by the plastic bag babies.
On one hand, a disposable uterus is a feminist answer to a corporeal burden. We will no longer be incubators. We can free ourselves, skip the stretch marks and the discomfort of being a walking cocoon. We can work until our due dates, and we won’t even have to labor. We will watch, holding our partners’ hands, as a doctor cuts a bag open, and delivers our babies into our clean, showered, well-rested arms. Perhaps, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, we will develop an elaborate birthlike ritual to perform, while the doctor opens the bag.
On the other hand, plastic bag uteruses are the death knell of a resilient magic: our bodies as life/death portals. The bags make us both less than and more than our organs. Will women lose value except as sex objects? Will our freedom cost us everything? Will states ban abortion, and offer a plastic bag and termination of parental rights paperwork to anyone who doesn’t want to continue a pregnancy? What will those babies cling to if not a human body? Will they grasp plastic sheets to their cheeks in the dark, sucking on cords instead of skin?
I am not my uterus, and yet seeing it replicated in plastic terrifies me. I say my fears aloud, and a woman tells me that I’m being hysterical. In many ways, I do feel hysterical, but it’s not my uterus that can’t stop wandering, it’s my mind. Hysteria was treated by keeping women in bed. No books, no activities except marital conjugation, and ideally, pregnancy, which kept the uterus in its place. I wake up one morning thinking: barefoot and pregnant. Pregnant to keep her uterus still, and barefoot to keep the rest of her from running. It’s hard to run without shoes, especially with babies to carry, I think. I can feel the rising panic, and again, I swallow.
Perhaps seeing my organs in plastic is a good reason to panic. Science is only as free from bias as the scientist. Of course, I would like to believe that lab coats convey an objectivity to the wearer that puts them beyond white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But history is choking on bad science. Eugenics was a scientific field. Hysteria was a diagnosis. Scientists experimented on Black men in Tuskegee, and Dr. J. Marion Sims performed upwards of thirty surgeries on enslaved Black women. He’s still considered “the father of modern gynecology.” Don’t tell me that scientists would never . . .
Maybe hysteria is a perfectly understandable response to living in a world that chokes you so constantly, that smashes your humanity so often in a thousand micro ways. The clocks tick away the seconds, next upon next. Time marches like soldiers on a line and the flowers come and they fill the world with beauty for a while, then they’re gone. Perhaps hysteria is what happens when you can’t be seen no matter how loud you scream.
"Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population. Kill their babies and replace their babies with yours, as cats do; make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from them for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet. "
Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump, New York Times, March 10, 2017.
Marissa's featured column Backbone is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. More of her work can be found in The Rumpus, The Manifest Station, Nailed Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, and The Establishment, among others. Her essay, "No, Lolita," was named one of Entropy Magazine's Best Online Articles & Essays of 2016. Her poetry has been anthologized in Only Light Can Do That (PEN/ The Rattling Wall 2016) and Things I Have to Tell You (Candlewick, 1998). Marissa is currently writing a collection of lyric essays and revising an experimental memoir. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler.