Does a Potential U.S. Supreme Court Candidate Belong to a Group That Inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?

News of United States Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death was barely a day old before national figures started to discuss her replacement, despite the opposition of those very same figures to doing so in 2016, after Antonin Scalia’s death.

As the discussion continued, one particular name kept surfacing as a possible contender: Amy Coney Barrett, whose name was also floated by several entities in 2018.

It didn’t take very long for media scrutiny to turn up details about a religious sect to which Barrett belongs:

“We admire the first Christians who were led by the Holy Spirit to form a community,” the website says, tracing its origins to the late 1960s when students and faculty at Notre Dame experienced “a renewal of Christian enthusiasm and fervor, together with charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues and physical healing.”

Its most devoted members make a lifelong commitment to the group, known as a covenant.

From 1970 until recently, women with leadership roles in the organization were called handmaids, but the popularity of the 2017-to-present Hulu television series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Atwood’s 1985 book, appears to have led to a change.

“Recognizing that the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years, we no longer use the term handmaid,” the group said after the 2018 media interest.

Coral Anika Theill, a former People of Praise member from decades ago, has described the group as an abusive cult in which women are completely obedient to men and independent thinkers are humiliated, interrogated, shamed and shunned.

Theill, who self-published a book about how her ex-husband dragged her through a number of religious groups, said she was campaigning to stop Barrett from being nominated.

Shortly after that, rumors began to fly that this same group actually inspired Margaret Atwood’s dystopian feminist classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps in part because of Carol Anika Theill’s accounting in a September 2019 blog post as well as the striking similarity in the terms used:

During the years of our marriage he was an avid follower of Rush Limbaugh, Phyllis Schlafly, Mary Pride, Bill Gothard and the Patriarchal Quiverfull movement. He professed to be a born again, “spirited filled” Christian. My husband’s Christian beliefs defined my role as his wife the same way Martin Luther did in the 16th century, “Even though they [wives] grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children TILL THEY DIE, that is what they are there for.”

I was required to be a “helpmeet” in a world like the one from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” My abuser used coercive control, isolation and intimidation tactics to strip me of my personhood, safety and freedoms as a United States citizen.

“A Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian tale of a “handmaid”- a woman basically designated to be a breeder. She is treated as property, has no real rights, and her only value to society is to make children for officials and their barren wives. After the excesses of the world created so much pollution and illness the birth rate fell drastically low, a re-forming of society occurred.

In this society, the rights of women and children were reconfigured while being told they were the ones in charge, and the patriarchy was solidified through strict, subversive control of women’s status and roles. The society was structured around the lower masculine values of competition, dominance, and punishment.

However, while Theill compared the group she was part of — “People of Praise” — to The Handmaid’s Tale, she stopped short of identifying it as the group that inspired Atwood’s infamous creation.

So did a widely cited 1986 New York Times interview with Atwood about her book, alluding not to the group’s name but to its practices:

The President and Congress have been assassinated by right-wing religious fanatics who have overthrown the Government and set up a monotheocratic dictatorship based on biblical principles in a land they now call Gilead. Women may no longer possess jobs, or property, or money of any kind. Pollution has sharply reduced fertility, and certain women, selected for their ability to breed, have become slaves – Handmaids -forced to try to conceive through joyless copulation in bizarre menages a trois with their Commanders and the Commanders’ barren wives.

Thus begins the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s controversial and critically acclaimed new novel, ”The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“I delayed writing it for about three years after I got the idea because I felt it was too crazy,” Miss Atwood says, sitting in the offices of her publisher, Houghton Mifflin. ”Then two things happened. I started noticing that a lot of the things I thought I was more or less making up were now happening, and indeed more of them have happened since the publication of the book.There is a sect now, a Catholic charismatic spinoff sect, which calls the women handmaids. They don’t go in for polygamy of this kind but they do threaten the handmaids according to the biblical verse I use in the book – sit down and shut up.”

And a 2017 article about Atwood in the New Yorker referenced a newspaper clipping:

Another box was labelled “Handmaid’s Tale: Background,” and Atwood pried the box open to reveal files containing sheaves of newspaper clippings from the mid-eighties.

“Clip-clippety-clip, out of the newspaper I clipped things,” she said, as we looked through the cuttings. There were stories of abortion and contraception being outlawed in Romania, and reports from Canada lamenting its falling birth rate, and articles from the U.S. about Republican attempts to withhold federal funding from clinics that provided abortion services. There were reports about the threat to privacy posed by debit cards, which were a novelty at the time, and accounts of U.S. congressional hearings devoted to the regulation of toxic industrial emissions, in the wake of the deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India. An Associated Press item reported on a Catholic congregation in New Jersey being taken over by a fundamentalist sect in which wives were called “handmaidens”—a word that Atwood had underlined.

Atwood added in yet another interview — this with the Los Angeles Times in 1990, just ahead of the film version of her landmark novel — that Gilead was deliberately placed in the northeastern United States:

More specifically, the bulk of the tale happens in Massachusetts, in the environs of Boston and Cambridge, near a future-shock version of Harvard University. That’s where Atwood’s heroine, Kate, abided with her gentle husband and bright-eyed child before the revolution brought on the religious Republic of Gilead.

In a hotel lobby interview in Berlin, Atwood gladly filled in the Cambridge, Mass., references in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” starting with the grim, monastic clothes store, Lilies of the Field, placed in what had been, in pre-revolutionary times, Cambridge’s beloved repertoire movie house, the Brattle Theatre.

Atwood said, “The grounds in front of Harvard’s Widener Library is where they have public hangings.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” got its macabre geography from Atwood’s 1962 graduate school stint at Radcliffe College. “Harvard gave my book a sniffy review in Harvard magazine,” she said. “But one of the persons it’s dedicated to is Perry Miller, through whom at Harvard I studied the American Puritans in great detail. The roots of totalitarianism in America are found, I discovered, in the theocracy of the 17th Century. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is not that far behind ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ my take on American Puritanism.”

These pieces of evidence set off a cascade of headlines and stories containing the claim that People of Praise was indeed the inspiration for the religious group that founded the fictional Republic of Gilead. This was quickly followed by a ripple of corrections, clarifications, and footnotes (despite the same topic being covered exhaustively to little backlash in 2018):

Correction: This article’s headline originally stated that People of Praise inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The book’s author, Margaret Atwood, has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work. A New Yorker profile of the author from 2017 mentions a newspaper clipping as part of her research for the book of a different charismatic Catholic group, People of Hope. Newsweek regrets the error.

But the inevitable backlash and pearl-clutching about the purported “anti-Catholic smears” dogging Amy Coney Barrett’s charismatic Catholic sect missed the point of the stories and their corrections: That not only is there more than one group operating in the United States that could have realistically inspired the Republic of Gilead as it was originally written by Atwood in her book The Handmaid’s Tale (and, it must be added, whose power she toppled in a more recent sequel, The Testaments), but that their practices (heavily patriarchal organization, prophecies, glossolalia, denoting female members “handmaidens” or “handmaids”) are so close to one another as to be nearly indistinguishable.

Arturo Garcia also contributed to this report.