[SPOILERS for episode 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu]
During the last election cycle, I recommended a friend of mine read The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s too real,” I told her. “Stop whatever you’re reading now and pick this up.” I literally retrieved my copy from the bookshelf and shoved it into her hands.
Starting before election night, I would get periodic updates about her progress, about a line or a character that hit a little close to home. She finished in early December, and we immediately set aside a time to discuss the book and its eerie relevance to the reality we’d found ourselves in.
Like many women, I spent most of the final months of the Obama presidency battling a constant feeling of anticipatory nausea; I didn’t know what was in store for me and the people I cared about, but I felt sure it would be deeply unpleasant at best.
I also knew that I would probably survive the upcoming administration, but I’m cognizant enough of my relative privilege to understand how flip it is when people say things like, “We survived W., we’ll survive this,” or “We never thought we’d live through Reagan, but we did.”
Too many people did not survive the presidency of George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan laughed as thousands of gay men died of AIDS. Already there are people who have been casualties of the current administration ― and Republicans in congress and the one in the Oval Office are determined to make sure millions more suffer in their relentless pursuit of power. We cannot let that happen.
In the episode of The Handmaid’s Tale released this week on Hulu, June discovers a phrase carved into the wood inside her small closet, left there by the Offred who came before her. “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” wrote the previous prisoner. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The phrase can’t exist as a rallying cry in June’s world of Gilead; after all, handmaids aren’t permitted any public cries at all. Instead June uses it as a private shibboleth, drawing strength from the presence of the words before she ever learns what they mean.
The fact that her unknown predecessor risked so much to scratch out the sentiment in a society where she is forbidden to read and write is enough for June to take courage from the shapes of the letters alone. Of course, upon learning their meaning, June appears to take them to heart: the episode ends with a voice over, giving voice to June’s inner thoughts as she steps foot outside her house/prison for the first time in weeks.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.”
The line (delivered perfectly by Elizabeth Moss) accompanies a subtle but determined look on June’s face. Obscured from her fellow handmaids by the wings they all must wear when outdoors, the tiniest tilt of her chin coupled with the firm set of her mouth sells the sentiment: she is beaten down, but not beaten.
Just as June drew strength from the words carved into her prison walls, we can draw strength from the defiance she displays as the episode draws to a close.
Living in our current political reality is exhausting. Every day brings news of some new indignity at best, and mortal danger at worst. Last week my sister called to discuss plans for a family reunion in July, and I told her I wasn’t worried about dinner reservations because if we hadn’t perished in a twitter-triggered nuclear war by summer, I would consider that an enormous success.
I was only half joking, but sometimes you have to laugh so you won’t cry ― or collapse on the floor in a puddle of existential terror.
Every new headline (Trump Asks Why American Civil War Could Not ‘Have Been Worked Out’; White House defends Trump’s praise for Kim Jong Un; Trump Expected to Sign Anti-LGBT ‘Religious Freedom’ Executive Order) feels like a punch to the gut. It’s getting harder and harder to keep the bastards in the White House from grinding me down.
But this fight won’t be about shock and awe. It’s going to be a long, tiring, demoralizing slog, and those of us who aren’t in the crosshairs this particular week have to fight for those of us who are. Maybe that means calling your congressional representatives, or showing up at their offices. Maybe it means going to marches and demonstrations with a pithy sign. Perhaps it means you run for local, statewide, or even national office. It might even be something as simple as giving money to a cause or person who needs it.
But it must always, always mean standing together against the growing tyranny of this administration. We can’t let the bastards grind us down. We have to grind them down first, with our calls, our visits, our protests. We have to outlast them.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. The ignorance of this president coupled with the draconian policies of those around him put us all in danger.
But nolite te bastardes carborundorum. If there’s one thing I’m confident in, it’s that the resistance has much more stamina than Donald Trump could ever dream of having.