Blessed Are the Forgetful
THE DEFENDANT: The Giver, Lois Lowry
THE VERDICT: Banned or challenged in multiple US schools. It ranked 11th on the ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books List: 1990-1999.
THE CHARGES: As stated above, The Giver has been banned or challenged numerous times throughout the past two decades, largely due to the troubling themes and references to human sexuality. Articles by Marshall University Libraries, USA Today, and the ALA all mention parents’ discomfort with the book’s inclusion or discussion of euthanasia, infanticide, suicide, adolescent sexual awakenings, and medicating children/tweens/adults. The ambiguity of the ending has also been an issue.
THE REVIEW: For those who have not yet read it, please allow me to sum up the story. Lois Lowry’s dystopian classic, The Giver, tells the story of Jonas, a young boy living in an orderly and seemingly ideal community. At age twelve all members of the community are assigned a job for life and begin their training. Jonas is chosen to replace the Receiver of Memory, a job that seems as undesirable as it is respected.
Jonas meets with the Receiver of Memory (now the Giver), who transmits memories of “before” to Jonas so that someone in the community will have the experience necessary to make informed decisions. Jonas begins to question things within his community, such as pills given to suppress sexual desires, the lack of choice in all aspects of life, the lack of intimacy in family life, and the community members’ inability to see color.
After realizing that the babies and elderly people being “released” from the community are actually being euthanized, Jonas and the Giver hatch a plan to release all of the memories back into the community, thus forcing people to feel all of the things their carefully controlled lives have tried to avoid. Jonas escapes with one of the babies scheduled for “release” and sets off into the world beyond. The ending is ambiguous as to whether Jonas and the baby arrive in a less draconian village just at Christmastime or if Jonas is merely remembering Christmas as he freezes to death.
This book in many ways is a bit of a children’s 1984. It allows children (and all ages really) to explore ideas of Utopian/dystopian societies, choice, memory, control, and the respective prices of individuality and conformity. Jonas’s community has no choice. They are assigned careers, spouses, children, and even toys. Geneticists do their best to make everyone look the same and it is rude to draw attention to differences. Things such as Jonas’s light eyes and Fiona’s red hair are problematic.
I find it a very interesting choice that the community has ethnically varied names (Fiona, Roberto, Yoshiko, etc) when they are so concerned with looking/being the same. It is also stated that people used to have more than one skin color, so we can presume that the community has become ethnically homogeneous. Almost everyone has brown hair and brown eyes. Thus, with the exception of Fiona and her red hair, there is no evidence that these names match up with any specific cultural or ethnic background. I’m not sure what point Lowry is trying to make here.
The issues I found most provoking in the book were also the most complicated. Lowry seems to have opinions on them but also addresses the fact that they may not have solutions, or at least not easy ones. One of the larger themes of the book is balancing the needs of one versus the needs of the many. In order to maintain the community, the memories of “before” must be held by someone.
To have one person hold all of the memories of war, starvation, cruelty, loss, and every conceivable type of pain is beyond heinous. A few months of the memories were enough to cause the previous child selected for training, Rosemary, to request release. This intelligent, talented young girl not only wanted to die rather than live with the memories any longer, but refused help and inserted the needle herself. Yet, is it right for everyone to suffer for the sake of one person?
Similarly, the cost/value of memory and experience is largely ambiguous. Jonas realizes how shallow everyone’s lives are without real emotions like the ones in the memories he receives. However, amidst the memories of love and family, sunshine and snow, are traumas beyond count. The Giver is crippled with PTSD and how could he not be? Jonas begins to spiral down the same traumatic rabbit hole.
One of the most powerful moments in the book is when the other children are playing at war and Jonas realizes for the first time what the game means and has a PTSD flashback. Here is where the experience and depth of feeling that Jonas so laments the absence of show their true cost. Here is where the reader must ask: is it worth it? The book isn’t always clear and, frankly, neither am I.
I rewatched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind after reading The Giver to further ruminate on the subject. While that movie is fiction, there have been experimental drugs for people suffering from PTSD that somehow manage to target traumatic memories. The drugs do not remove the memory but instead the person can no longer access the full emotions involved. For victims of rape, sexual assault, or child abuse and those haunted by war (whether soldiers or refugees) this sounds like a godsend.
In the same way, some people with total recall memory abilities have a hard time moving on or dealing with anxiety, simply because they do not forget. As someone with a better than average memory, I can relate. So where do we draw the line between healing and erasing?
The ending is similarly ambiguous. Jonas feels so sure that his community is wrong and must be forced to have memories again, to face the emotions they have forced on others rather than have to process themselves. Yet, as he and Gabriel starve and freeze to death alone in the wilderness, he laments that, though he finally had a choice, he made the wrong one. Yet, even if he fails, Gabriel would have been dead anyway, so why not take the chance?
These issues are addressed in a way that is accessible to younger readers, without talking down to them. Though it is clear that the community has done some serious evil, not everything has a cut and dry easy answer. There are evils in a controlled society and evils in a free society full of love and joy and lust and fear and pain.
Thus, the book is an excellent teaching tool for schools that can jumpstart numerous discussions. It also requires students to really engage with the material and think critically. Perhaps this is what scares people most of all.
THE DEFENSE: Much of the controversy surrounding this book seems to be an issue of parents not reading the book. The book does not “desensitize” children to euthanasia or portray it in a positive light, as some have claimed. Jonas is absolutely horrified when he discovers that people are being euthanized. He watches a video of his own father euthanizing a baby and throwing the body away with the medical waste. After this, Jonas feels like he can never coexist with his father again.
This is the emotional crux where Jonas stops defending his community’s way of life and demands change. It is the SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE moment of the book. The same goes for Rosemary’s suicide. The book neither encourages it nor is indifferent to it. It is supposed to be tragic and dark because it makes a point. Rosemary would rather die than continue to bear the burden she has shouldered for the community.
Yes, this book has moral ambiguity, but to explore the complexity of an issue does not mean one condones or promotes the problem at hand. This book is intended to spark discussion. Yes, medicating children is unsettling. That’s the point.
The book has a great deal to say on choice and freedom. Having to weigh the price of suffering in an individual-oriented society versus the institutionalized horror of Jonas’s controlled society may cause people to grapple with complicated or negative emotions. But, much like Jonas’s community, we must face these things rather than keeping them shut up and ought of sight.