Portrayals of Trauma

One of my Summer List items is checked off -- I finally finished The Handmaid's Tale Season 4. I simply could not do it during the school year, because I feel like season after season is watching June and others suffer, and it was too heavy for me with everything else going on. But everyone kept telling me how good it was, and I kept narrowly missing spoilers, so I finished it within the first couple of days of summer. 






*** Just checking, making sure I don't accidentally spoil you




Okay. I think I'm safe. Or you're safe. 

SO. I absolutely loved this season. It was SO DAMN SATISFYING. 

I also loved how they portrayed trauma. If you're down here, then you know that June makes it to Canada. She's free! 

But...is she?

The episodes after Moira finds her in the rubble of Chicago (I cried at that reunion, I wouldn't be able to leave my best friend behind either) show how heavy the impact of June's time in Gilead is. Of her failed crusade to free Hannah and reunite her family. Of the guilt she feels for leaving Janine, for leaving Hannah, for leaving, period, when she's such a powerhouse of resistance against Gilead. 

So when she gets to Canada, everyone is very gentle with her, giving her space and understanding that she has been through some heavy shit. 

At first. 

She gets to have her impact statement against Fred and Serena Joy Waterford, she joins a support group, she is reunited with people she knew pre-Gilead and people she knew from Gilead. 

But when things go south and the government decides not to charge the Waterfords and to let the Supreme Rapist go in the name of intelligence for the war, June loses her shit. Because SHE KNOWS that these people are master manipulators, and although she's told her story, none of it matters. She is in a sort of Gilead-Lite where the influence of a powerful man is more valuable than justice for women (hmmmmm). And she lets that rage just erupt. She plots. She allows others to feel the rage they've been trying to tamp down in the name of "Moving On." 

Her best friend, Moira, is trying to put Gilead behind her and not be poisoned by the rage and hatred, but she's been in Canada for far longer. She's had time and space from the rawness of it, from the fight-or-flight existence. Luke, June's husband, is also like, "now you've said your piece, let's leave this behind, let's focus on getting Hannah out." There's this push-pull between "let it go and move on" and "I WILL DESTROY YOU IF YOU DENY ME VENGEANCE FOR I AM FURY INCARNATE AND I AM NOT READY TO LET THIS GO." 

Super Spoiler: She doesn't let it go. She gets sweet, sweet vengeance, employing all the connections and strategies and pent up trauma to give Fred just what he deserves, at the hands of those he hurt. It was glorious. Disturbing, but frankly the information he was giving was half-assed and he was going to get away with so much for so little in return. I love that they Aunt Lydia'd him in a Salvaging of their own and then put him on a makeshift Wall.


This reminded me so much, in obviously less violent ways, of how infertility related trauma is dealt with. There is so much pressure to be positive, to cling to tiny shreds of hope even as it destroys you. I feel like my friends were like Moira, basically telling me that I needed to let go because it was destroying me (Moira tells June that she will be hunted down and killed if she stays, and that it won't help Hannah), and I clung to the idea that I could still salvage having children until it nearly broke me. 

In Canada, June is faced with a sort of forced timeline of "when are you going to move on and appreciate what you do have?" 

That rang true, as well. Society pressures people to move on, to get on with your life, and says "Why are you still dwelling on this? When are you going to get over this?" when it comes to grief. And grief from infertility and the loss of the life that you thought you'd have is tricky, because it's not always seen as a true loss. IT IS. Everyone needs to deal with their grief and make peace with it (because it never goes away completely) in their own way -- no one way is going to work for everyone. Moira meant well, but the way she dealt with the trauma of Gilead worked for her, sort of, and it sure as shit wasn't going to work for June. June subscribed less to a therapy-and-meditate-it-out kind of dealing and more to a I'M GOING TO BURN THE MOTHERFUCKING WORLD DOWN IF I MUST TO GET JUSTICE AND VENGEANCE philosophy. But people do that, don't they? They take what works for them and they say, "here, this is what you need to do to be normal again." 

It doesn't work that way. Everyone has to find their own path, and some paths are just messier than others. Throwing yourself into humanitarian and healing work is one way (Moira). Having an anxiety attack in a grocery store and embracing rage is another (June). It's complicated. 

For me, I beat myself up and pushed through the misery in hopes that things would work out, and they never did and then all that pressure resulted in a breakdown of my physical body and my mental state. Then I felt like, "oh. I need to stop." But then the raw grief continued. And there was guilt, because maybe I let go too soon, maybe I didn't exhaust every avenue... but that was a lie. It wasn't worth it to sacrifice who I was for a possibility that was so damn elusive. I am grateful that my body said ENOUGH, as painful as it was. I wish I didn't have to get to a crisis to make that determination to resolve, but maybe it would have been easier if there wasn't such pressure to succeed at all costs or be seen as "the one who gave up on her dream." 

I am happy, and I love my life. But I also have that pesky trauma that pops up from time to time. The grief that can hit me when I see something that reminds me of the alternate life I lost. Memories of hard moments, of physical losses and painful ghostly losses represented by divots in carpet left by a crib that was donated, showing up in photo memories. 

I don't want to let go of those things, because they help me see how far I've come. I don't want to ever delete those photos. It's not that I could forget, but having a visceral reminder of how awful that was and how wonderful things are now in a house that never saw a needle or a home study is not a bad thing.


I appreciate the nuances of how each character dealt with their trauma in The Handmaid's Tale. I love that there's so much still to come, but that June did things her way...for better or worse. I am so glad that there are these portrayals of strong, complicated, devastated, vengeful women dealing with their losses in a multitude of ways.


  1. Brilliant post, Jess. There are indeed so many similarities in the "Tale" with grief and infertility, not just the subject matter, that always makes my "infertility meter" go sky high when I'm watching.

    My favourite sentence though is this: "And there was guilt, because maybe I let go too soon, maybe I didn't exhaust every avenue... but that was a lie." I'm so glad you wrote that, because recognising that the guilt we feel is in fact a lie was one of the most important steps in my healing.

  2. Interesting. I have never watched HMT and have no desire to do so, not so far. Reading what you wrote about it though, I realized I enjoy Outlander - both the book series and the very well done show- for similar reasons. When challenging or awful things happen to the characters the books/show goes deeply into how they cope with it, the good the bad and the ugly. It’s not just carnage and mayhem for the sake of it. The drama comes from the characters struggling and figuring things out and being changed.

    The other piece is I suppose a spiritual one, or you might broadly call it a sense that there is something worth striving toward that is bigger than yourself and your feelings moment to moment. It keeps the narrative and the characters from simply descending into despair, rage or avoidance (or all of them….) or me as a viewer shrugging and thinking “what is the point of all this” (a reaction I often had with Game of Thrones” for example and why I will never watch it again though it was entertaining in the moment.) I don’t know if HMT has that quality but it’s something I look for now in everything (life imitates art and vice versa….)

  3. You SO need to be a paid critic for the show: Supreme Rapist and Gilead-Lite and Aunt Lydia'd. Man, you have a handle on things.

    And yes to all you say about how society wants people to move on from something like infertility. Yes yes yes.

    What Tortuil says about the spiritual piece also has me thinking...

  4. Fabulous review and analysis, Jess! especially connecting it to our own situations as infertility survivors.

    The scenes with the Gilead survivors support group reminded me SO much of the pregnancy loss group dh & I used to facilitate, and the range of emotions people expressed there. Everyone experiences things differently, and everyone has to work their way through their grief and loss in their own way. The rage that June feels might not be entirely healthy -- but sometimes it's the only way that action gets taken and things get done and change happens.