Why We Need Disturbing Stories

Though I’m a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale (the novel by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu series), I wouldn’t say it’s easy to watch. It is violent, brutal, and traumatic. I cry at least once every episode. Season One gave me nightmares twice.

When Season Two started streaming, the people who care about me couldn’t understand why I was so excited to put myself through that again. Often, when I ask friends or acquaintances if they’ve seen it, I get answers like, “It’s too disturbing.”

Yeah. It is disturbing. And that’s exactly why I watch it.

I’m not a sadist. I think that’s important to note before moving on.

I believe that there is value in experiencing disturbing stories. Not that all disturbing stories are inherently valuable. They’re not. It depends on why we feel disturbance.

For me, one of the reasons The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing because I am female. Watching strong women suffer because of their gender is traumatic. However, in many parts of the world, and all over it historically, women have gone through horror because of their gender. The fact that I am only experiencing these things via story means I am privileged. And I hate that. It should be a basic human right not to experience sexual or physical violence or torture or forced subjugation because of one’s gender. But that’s not how things go. Not historically, and not now.

The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes with alarming clarity how close we are, right now, to this level of repression. This too is disturbing. But we must remind ourselves where we have been and where we could wind up if we aren’t vigilant, outspoken, and strong, if we don’t take action when we encounter discrimination of any kind.

The eeriest component of the governmental takeover described in Atwood’s dystopia–as well as an infamous real-world example: Nazi Germany–is the willing blindness of citizens to the signs of oncoming horrors. Living in comfort, undisturbed, humans desire to continue to be undisturbed.

Our distractions are abundant. We carry them with us in our pockets, in our palms, on our wrists. Meaningless celebrity interviews and cat videos are a click away. We can choose oblivion, to self-medicate with a comedy that’s a little sexist/racist/whatever, but it’s so funny, we give it a pass. We would rather be comfortable in our privilege than deal with the implications of a rape joke. We would rather not think.

If we sleep walk through our lives, we won’t notice injustice or discrimination. The realities of The Handmaid’s Tale could become our reality.

Musician and composer Tod Machover said,

Works of art should be stimulating. They should wake people up rather than acting like a sedative.

Our level of sedation is so high, we need to be shocked awake. We need to be disturbed, affected, and changed.

The Handmaid’s Tale wakes me up. It’s a challenge, and a call to arms. If I opt out because of my discomfort–the discomfort of identifying with characters and imagining going through their pain–what will I do when confronted with suffering in the flesh?

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Allison Wall

I'm a writer writing about my writing life. There's a lot of writing. And writing about writing. You get the idea.

5 thoughts on “Why We Need Disturbing Stories”

  1. >I’m not a sadist. I think that’s important to note before moving on.

    Neither am I, but I am a horror writer, which some would say amounts to the same thing.

    >I believe that there is value in experiencing disturbing stories. Not that all disturbing stories are inherently valuable. They’re not. It depends on why we feel disturbance.

    Agreed. I don’t find much value in torture porn, for instance. I did once have a story published in a magazine called Gore, but most of the stories in the magazine were not gory for gore’s sake. Often the visceral imagery was used to convey some kind of truth. At least, I hope that’s what was happening. That was the intent of my story, anyway.

    >The eeriest component of the governmental takeover described in Atwood’s dystopia–as well as an infamous real-world example: Nazi Germany–is the willing blindness of citizens to the signs of oncoming horrors. Living in comfort, undisturbed, humans desire to continue to be undisturbed.

    >Our distractions are abundant. We carry them with us in our pockets, in our palms, on our wrists. Meaningless celebrity interviews and cat videos are a click away. We can choose oblivion, to self-medicate with a comedy that’s a little sexist/racist/whatever, but it’s so funny, we give it a pass. We would rather be comfortable in our privilege than deal with the implications of a rape joke. We would rather not think.

    If I’m understanding you, we are already living this, aren’t we? It’s not so much that Atwood is warning us of a government takeover, but using this plot device to show us what things are like *right now*.

    And that is the great value in horror, SF, etc. We can use imagery to barrel under the reader’s defenses.

    >Musician and composer Tod Machover said,

    >Works of art should be stimulating. They should wake people up rather than acting like a sedative.
    >Our level of sedation is so high, we need to be shocked awake. We need to be disturbed, affected, and changed.

    This is very true. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to horror.

    Like

    1. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I wish I had a smarter, wordier response, but all I’ve got is agreement! Preach on!!

      And I think that Machover quote is oneI’ve been looking for for a while now! I’m just gonna copy-paste that…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. >Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I wish I had a smarter, wordier response, but all I’ve got is agreement! Preach on!!

        Thank you! It’s good to know I’m going in the right direction.

        >And I think that Machover quote is oneI’ve been looking for for a while now! I’m just gonna copy-paste that…

        I think I copied that quote from your blog, actually.

        Liked by 1 person

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