Social Issues, Theology

The Handmaid’s Tale and the meaning of justice

Warning: this post contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 finale.

The Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t start to resonate with me on a personal level until season 4. For me the show is pure “Things could always be worse” escapist fantasy (yes, I am a weirdo who watches dystopian TV in order to feel better about the reality I actually live in).

But watching June orchestrate the execution of the man who raped her for years struck a chord in me. Before that, there’s a slow burn of episodes that show her regression from inspirational resistance warrior to violent vigilante. Honestly, who could blame her for this transformation? We know now that trauma doesn’t just change a person, it literally rewires the brain. Living in Gilead is basically living in a war zone.

Even in a society where women (mostly) have equal rights, rape fundamentally changes a person. The effects of my rape by my ex-boyfriend have been far-reaching. There’s the unhealthy views of sex that took years to undo in therapy (that process is still ongoing). I no longer trust people as easily or feel inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt; doing so only hurt me.

Like June, I have every reason to be angry and want justice. But watching the last few episodes of season 4 felt, in a way, like watching my own emotional spiral downward. I couldn’t help but remember the lost months in which I would get drunk so I’d be brave enough to confront all our mutual friends via Facebook and let them know exactly what he did to me.

At the time, I imagined myself an empowered warrior for the newly-born Me Too movement. More than that, I thought I was potentially saving other women from the same fate I endured. Keeping silent felt like enabling more violence.

My rapist is not nearly as dangerous as the character Fred Waterford. Still, my motivation was similar to June’s: get justice. Or revenge. Either one. If I couldn’t get him sent to prison, I’d settle for seeing his friends turn on him, or maybe contacting his employer and getting him fired (never did that, but can’t say the thought never crossed my mind).

After so many drinks, I couldn’t figure out which was which; my motives were as shaky as my ability to walk in a straight line. In the show, perhaps June can’t figure out the difference between justice and revenge either. When she meets with Commander Lawrence near the Canadian/Gilead border to negotiate Fred’s deportation to Gilead where he would (presumably) be tried as a traitor, he says to her, “It will never be enough, you know.” Prophetic words.

My therapist told me I could get an apology from my ex, or not…but it may not be enough to heal me.

A close friend told me I could ruin his life with a social media smear campaign, and it might make me feel good for the moment…but it wouldn’t be enough to heal me.

My husband told me I could try pressing charges, but even if I had my day in court, it wouldn’t undo what happened and likely wouldn’t heal me.

It will never be enough, you know.” All the things I desperately wanted and obsessed about, from seeing him arrested, or having his reputation ruined, to simply wanting an apology — all of which never happened — have only hurt me. Obsessing over those things forced my mind to keep repeating what he did. Even if I tried to focus on the justice piece, the violent event itself was always playing in the background. How could it not?

In another episode, during a group therapy session for former handmaids, June says, “Why does healing have to be the only goal? Why aren’t we allowed to be as angry as we feel?” That is such a hard question, because how in the world can you tell a rape survivor that she shouldn’t be angry? You can’t. Nor can you deny that the spark of just about every social revolution begins with some degree of anger. That emotion can have righteous roots.

But at some point, I believe it can become toxic. Because in order for anger to be fuel, it must be continuously fed. And feeding anger that deep, that visceral, quickly carries one back down into dark, dark places.

I know Christian forgiveness can be exploited as a tool for abusers to maintain their power. I don’t think of forgiveness as a way to pass the buck of responsibility, allowing an offender to make their peace with God and bypass the messiness of dealing with their victim in person. All of that is wrong.

But the trajectory I was on eventually resulted in rock bottom, where choosing forgiveness – or at least, choosing to move in that direction – was a matter of life and death. Anger, justifiable though it may be, was literally poisoning me in the form of alcohol-induced blackouts. Anger was forcing me to hinge my healing on outcomes that were beyond my control, like apologies or guilty court verdicts (did you know that less than 2% of rape cases ever result in conviction?) or a change in my rapist’s heart. I can’t make any of that happen and it’s not my responsibility.

But healing? That is my responsibility. It had to be, because the pain was no longer mine, but also my husband’s – like how June’s pain quickly became her husband Luke’s. I hurt my husband by shutting him out, by getting drunk, by being angry all the time, rarely feeling anything else. Something had to change.

Relying on God’s justice is no patsy platitude for me. In hitting rock bottom, I collided with a savior who also knows betrayal and bodily violation, and didn’t just triumph over it, but continually sits with me in it. He sits with all the June Osbornes of the world, today and tomorrow and always.

That doesn’t mean the pain just goes away. In this world, the reminder of sexual brokenness is everywhere, from Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” to Harvey Weinstein’s harassment of young actresses to Bill Cosby’s early prison release, and so much more. There is always another headline on magazine covers at the grocery store checkout. Sexual abuse will always be topical on the radio, in podcasts, books, and in my friends’ lives. The triggers never go away.

But I am choosing not to feed the monster. I’m extremely selective about when, with whom, and how, I share my story. I’ve written about it before, and that work is done. The more I choose to focus on present goodness, the better it is for my mental health, my marriage, and other relationships. My pursuit of justice today is less about being on the front lines of a war and more like quiet activism in the form of prayer, voting, donating to organizations and justice leagues, calling my senators, and being a good listener.

Maybe a different survivor is called to different work, but for right now, this is mine. If Jesus Christ really rose from the dead, that event has real, tangible effects on my life today. My justice has already been served. Victory is already won.

It will be interesting to see where the producers take June’s character in the next season. From the way season 4 ended, it’s not hard to imagine her taking that path of vigilante justice further, at the expense of her marriage and relationship with her infant daughter. My less extreme but not dissimilar path cost me a few friendships and nearly my marriage. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

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