Call me a Gilead-loving Martha, but I couldn’t get into The Handmaid’s Tale. Compared to books like Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, the Persepolis duology, Infidel, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced and Not Without My Daughter, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian story about a theocratic U.S. that oppresses women feels more like a Disney movie than a cautionary tale.
Which is why I’m glad I discovered James Tiptree’s (note: Alice Sheldon wrote this story under the name Racoona Sheldon but it’s always recognized as a Tiptree story) 1977 Nebula-award winning short story “The Screwfly Solution”, a spine-tingling yarn that’s one-part alien invasion, two-parts femicide, with a heaping helping of religious fervor.
Now why am I comparing “The Screwfly Solution” to The Handmaid’s Tale? Well, one speculates on a future that may or may not happen. The other can happen anywhere and anytime to any woman regardless of her age, size, class, color or beliefs. It can happen in the home, the office, the school and even on the street. Not all women can relate to The Handmaid’s Tale but every woman can relate to “The Screwfly Solution”.
It’s unknown what inspired Tiptree to write “The Screwfly Solution”. Was it the many serial killer cases (of whom the majority of victims were women) that occured in the ’60s and ’70s – among them the 1977 Hillside Strangler case? We may never know because Tiptree died in 1987.
The story is framed in the form of letters between a husband and wife named Alan and Anne. Alan is in Columbia studying insects and Anne is telling him about some disturbing news reports back home:
The Red Cross has set up a refugee camp in Ashton, Georgia. Imagine, refugees in the U.S.A. I heard two little girls were carried out all slashed up.
All I could see about the clippings was that they were fairly horrible accounts of murders or massacres of women. The worst was the New Delhi one, about ‘rafts of female corpses’ in the river. The funniest (!) was the Texas Army officer who shot his wife, three daughters, and his aunt, because God told him to clean the place up.
In case you haven’t guessed, men are spontaneously murdering women in droves. From New Delhi to Cape Hatteras, bodies of slain women have been piling up in rivers and gulfs and everywhere else. It’s gotten so bad that an advertisement catches Alan’s eye:
THE FORSETTE FUNERAL HOME REGRETFULLY ANNOUNCES IT WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT FEMALE CADAVERS
Go ahead, shudder. Then pause for a moment because it’s all too familiar. Just look at these current events in our world:
A man in Turku, Finland attacks six women with a knife, resulting in two deaths.
In Marseille, France two cousins are stabbed to death while waiting at a train station.
Journalist Kim Wall’s body was found floating in a bag decapitated, dismembered, full of stab wounds and stitches sown into her torso.
A man who identifies as a woman, murders a lesbian couple and their son in Oakland, CA.
A female torso is found floating in the Oshawa Harbor.
Here’s an in-depth article about violence against women.
WomenCountUSA is a website devoted to the number of girls and women murdered by men.
And let’s not forget India’s “missing girls”.
Yet what do all these cases have in common? They’ve gotten minimal news coverage or have been dismissed out of hand. Just as the murder of women is taken for granted in the story, misogynistic violence in real life isn’t taken as seriously as, say, racial violence or homophobic violence (the murder of the Oakland lesbian couple was barely mentioned in LGBT news media).
But systematic femicide isn’t the only problem affecting society in “The Screwfly Solution”. Anne reveals another disturbing trend: a new religion has been gaining acceptance in society:
They’re calling it the Sons of Adam cult now.
What does this cult believe? Alan pulls out a flimsy sent by his friend Barney who explains via a book titled Man Listens to God:
Man must purify himself and show God a clean world…as long as man depends on the old, filthy animal way, God won’t help him. When man gets rid of his animal part which is woman, this is the signal God is awaiting. Then God will reveal the new true clean way, maybe angels will come bringing new souls, or maybe we will live forever, but it is not our place to speculate, only to obey.
And when they say “man gets rid of his animal part which is woman”, Barney means it in a literal way. In the same flimsy he relates a meeting with the Mayor (a devoted member of the new religion) of Peedsville to investigate this new cult – which ends in the casual murder of a female colleague:
Mayor Blount drove up in a police cruiser, and our chief…explained our mission from the Surgeon General. Dr. Premack was very careful not to make any remarks insulting to the mayor’s religion. Mayor Blount agreed to let the party go on into Peedsville to take samples of the soil and water and so on and talk to the doctor who lives there.
The mayor was about 6’2″, weight maybe 230 or 240, tanned, with grayish hair. He was smiling and chuckling in a friendly manner.
Then he looked in the car and saw Dr. Elaine Fay and he blew up. He started yelling we had to all get the hell back. But Dr. Premack talked to him and cooled him down, and finally the mayor said Dr. Fay should go into the warehouse office and stay there with the door closed.
Then Mayor Blount…came in…he smiled at me sort of fatherly, but he looked tense. He asked me where Dr. Fay was, and I told him she was lying down in back. Then he kind of sighed and went back down the hall, closing the door behind him.
After a while the door opened and Mayor Blount came back in. He looked terrible, his clothes were messed up, and he had bloody scrape marks on his face. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at me hard and fierce, like he might have been disoriented. I saw his zipper was open and there was blood on his clothing and also on his (private parts).
I didn’t feel frightened, I felt something important had happened. I tried to get him to sit down. But he motioned me to follow him back down the hall to where Dr. Fay was. “You must see”, he said. He went into the toilet and I went into a kind of little room there, where the cot was. I saw Dr. Fay lying on the cot in a peaceful appearance. She was lying straight, her clothing was to some extent different but her legs were together… Her blouse was pulled up, and I saw there was a cut or incision on her abdomen. The blood was coming out of there…Also her throat was cut open.
I returned to the office. Mayor Blount was sitting down, looking very tired. He had cleaned himself off. He said, “I did it for you. Do you understand?”
He went on to explain how Dr. Fay was very dangerous, she was what they call a cripto-female (crypto?) the most dangerous kind. He had exposed her and purified the situation.
Judging from what I’ve highlighted in bold you can guess why the mayor got away with murder. That’s right, “religious tolerance”. Early on in the story Anne raises the question:
Why can’t they do something, even if it is a religion?
Sound familiar? Here’s some more examples from our world:
At the Women’s March this year a woman holding an “Islam is Misogynistic” sign was attacked by protesters for “spreading hate”.
The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled feminist, FGM survivor and Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an “extremist”.
I myself was subjected to this. When I was a high school junior, I told my class about the way women were treated in Saudi Arabia (thanks to the previously mentioned book Princess) in the name of religion and a Muslim boy (who was a real thorn in my side) interrupted me and accused me of Islamophobia. Guess who the teacher (who hoped that one day the US would have a woman president) sided with?
As the story reaches its conclusion, Alan kills himself after murdering his and Anne’s teenage daughter, and Anne – possibly the only woman left alive on Earth – is living in seclusion in the woods of Canada (at this rate the men are now murdering little boys in rapid numbers). Disguised as a man, she only comes to the local general store in her area for whatever she needs and hears talk from the men about angel sightings (proof to the men that they’re doing God’s Will). Then one day Anne sees the “angel” for herself and she realizes that it’s not an angel but an alien:
Let me repeat – it was there. And I think they’ve done whatever it is to us. Made us kill ourselves off.
Well, it’s a nice place, if it wasn’t for the people.
So it turns out that the aliens are spreading a mental delusion/disease among men, influencing them to murder the female half of the population, then boys and eventually each other. Once humanity goes extinct, the earth is ripe for the taking.
Are you interested in reading “The Screwfly Solution”? It’s available as a selection of the only Tiptree anthology in print (bummer) Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. If you have read “The Screwfly Solution” or seen the Masters of Horror adaptation, what impressed you most about the story? Let me know in the comments.