The Handmaid Comes Home to Willard

One Book One Northwestern picked the right year to select The Handmaid’s Tale and bring Margaret Atwood to campus. The book’s content is more salient than ever in the current cultural and political climate. And, the world learned recently that Atwood is working on a sequel entitled The Testaments that is scheduled for release in September. The slate of One Book programs and its podcast will continue through the academic year, but we wanted to highlight fall events that brought The Handmaid home for residents of Willard Hall and the Southwest Neighborhood.

Ben Gorvine, Faculty-In-Residence at Willard Hall and Associate Professor of Instruction in Psychology, hosted two events to help explore content approach and themes of the book and the popular TV series. Organizing these special programs with outside guests was an opportunity to combine his academic background in clinical psychology, appreciation of Atwood’s work, and desire to introduce residents to diverse faculty and staff who can enrich their engagement with One Book and their Northwestern experiences more broadly.

Meghan Costa, Visiting Assistant Professor in English, joined Gorvine in his home for a conversation with students about the content approach of the TV series versus that of the book. Residents enjoyed a casual dinner in the Faculty-in-Residence apartment at Willard, and the dialogue continued well past dessert. Meredith Belloni, a Weinberg senior and One Book Fellow, blogged about her experience that evening: "One interesting theme we discussed was what it means to be a fan of the book or show and 'love' it. Students and faculty voiced that they felt some discomfort in saying they enjoyed the read. They questioned what it means to feel attached to a piece of fiction that is so dark and full of fear and trauma."

For the second event, Gorvine and Resident Director Eric Swinehart hosted a panel discussion about The Handmaid’s Tale for residents in Willard’s newly renovated multi-function room. Joining Gorvine on the panel were Dr. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Director of the Women’s Center, Kanika Wadhwa, a member of the CAPS staff who specializes in working with survivors, and Saed Hill, Assistant Director of Prevention and Men’s Engagement at CARE. They facilitated a discussion around the themes of trauma in the book and series—both in terms of its treatment in the source material, and the potential for trauma reactions among readers and viewers.

Gorvine opened by addressing the novel’s confusing narrative structure, which is highly stylized and fractured so the reader can’t always put the pieces together, similar to how trauma is often processed.  The discussion zeroed in on representations of trauma in the TV series. Panelists shared their concerns that the visceral imagery seems geared toward shock value that can be highly traumatizing for viewers.  Nzinga-Johnson shared her hope that the addition of Tarana Burke, #metoo founder, to the show’s staff will help writers to do a better job of writing past the trauma and toward healing.  Attendees seemed to agree that production of the show should be approached more responsibly. Ryan Varadi, Weinberg senior and One Book Ambassador, blogged about the panel and left chewing on this tough issue: “one question in particular hung in the air: does the excessive portrayal of trauma in the show have a purpose and is it worth it?”

Wadhwa acknowledged that the book and, even more so, the TV series showcase how brutal humans can be. Even with her education and professional training, she found the show hard to watch. She and Hill reminded attendees of the importance of self-care and the availability of the University’s robust network of care and support to process trauma in their own lives. While these residence-based One Book events offered occasions for intellectual and cultural explorations of The Handmaid’s Tale, they had the equally important goal of raising student awareness about campus resources, especially those within the Division of Student Affairs.

 -Office of Residential Academic Initiatives