The false link between Amy Coney Barrett and The Handmaid’s Tale, explained

Failing to differentiate between similarly named things is a rookie reporter mistake.

As a student journalist I once stupidly conflated the last names of two people I interviewed for the same story. (Later I found myself applying for a job with one of those two people my supervisor, and the other the boss. I worked there for 3 summers.)

Margaret Atwood has in the past said she got the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale from a Catholic spinoff group called the People of Hope. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is a member of People of Praise, a *different* Catholic spinoff group that coincidentally used to call some of its leaders “handmaids.” When asked for clarification, Atwood said she couldn’t recall the specific name of the group. But after a reporter conflated the two different groups with similar names, a stubborn new meme was born.

These things happen, and the factual error in the story that started it all was quickly corrected.

But the meme lives on, spread by liberals who see the connection as an occasion to criticize Barrett, and conservatives who see evidence of a biased media bent on discrediting everything Trump does.

Thanks to @historiator for the tip.

One of the weirder ways this debate has played out since Barrett was first discussed as a potential Supreme Court nominee is the fight over whether or not People of Praise, the group of which she is a member, is also one of the inspirations for The Handmaid’s Tale. In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel (and its recent TV adaptation), fertile women are forced to live as childbearing slaves called handmaids. The book isn’t an established inspiration — but the story has developed legs anyway.

The inaccurate link between the People of Praise and Atwood’s story, perpetuated by a series of confusing coincidences and uneven fact-checking, first emerged in a Newsweek article and was later picked up by Reuters. Both articles have since been corrected, but the right was furious at both. The Washington Examiner called it a “smear that just won’t die.” Fox News noted several other outlets have mentioned Barrett and The Handmaid’s Tale in the same story.

To be absolutely clear: People of Praise is not an inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale, and the group does not practice sexual slavery or any of the other dystopian practices Atwood wrote about in her novel. But the argument over whether or not the two are connected reflects the deeply contentious atmosphere in which Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court will occur — and the immense symbolic weight The Handmaid’s Tale carries in American popular culture —

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