‘When People Choose, They Choose Wrong’; The author of ‘The Giver,’ a wildly popular dystopian novel, imagines a community with no war, racism or gender roles. The result: a living hell

‘When People Choose, They Choose Wrong’

The author of ‘The Giver,’ a wildly popular dystopian novel, imagines a community with no war, racism or gender roles. The result: a living hell.


June 20, 2014 6:54 p.m. ET

Bridgton, Maine

Warning: This article discusses violence, “issues of gender” and other topics unsuitable for sensitive souls.

If some activists had their way, every article, book or website that touches on anything remotely controversial would come with a disclaimer like the one above. Such “trigger warnings” aim to shield young people from those timeless features of the human experience that were once seen as the building blocks of all great art and literature, among them war, shame and differences between the sexes.

Trigger warnings have been met with a mixture of ridicule and disbelief outside academic circles. But what if the worldview that gives rise to them was pushed to its logical conclusion? What if all human differences could be eliminated through social engineering, so that no one would ever feel awkward or singled out? What if sad or traumatic memories could be erased, and books that might trigger them banned? What if reproduction and sexuality could be completely divorced from family life, so that those pesky biological differences between men and women could come to mean nothing?

Welcome to the world of “The Giver.” Since it was first published in 1993, Lois Lowry’s young-adult novel has sold more than 10 million copies, spawned an entire genre of dark teenage science-fiction, been translated into dozens of foreign languages, and become a staple of high-school English curricula.

A movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges will be released in August. The producers no doubt hope to cash in on the current teen fervor for dystopian tales: Similar franchises, such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Yet “The Giver” offers something altogether more radical. It’s an anti-totalitarian allegory that poses discomfiting questions about the fate of free thought, authentic family relationships and the dignity of life in a progressive age.

I sat down for an interview with Ms. Lowry in a remote Maine town, some 40 miles northwest of Portland. The author greets me at the entrance of the 18th-century farmhouse that serves as her summer home. Inside, classical music and the smell of freshly baked brownies waft through the rooms. With her short silver hair, owlish glasses and black sweater, Ms. Lowry, 77, cuts a figure at once serious and grandmotherly. In recent months she’s been in daily contact with the filmmakers translating her literary vision for the silver screen.

“I don’t know that I’d ever seen a movie with Katie Holmes in it,” she says. Yet Ms. Holmes’s performance in “The Giver” movie, the author quickly adds, is appropriately “chilling.”

In “The Giver,” the “Dawson’s Creek” star plays the role of the mother figure to Jonas, the story’s precocious 12-year-old protagonist. I write “mother figure” because in the world of “The Giver” children aren’t born naturally to mothers and fathers. They are incubated by specially designated “birth mothers” and then placed with biologically unrelated host families who inculcate them into their society’s rigidly collectivist ethos.

In the novel’s unnamed community, most people are color-blind thanks to genetic engineering. Technology allows complete control over the weather. War and racism are things of the past. Traditional gender roles are abolished. The word “love” isn’t used because it’s linguistically “imprecise.” All books except reference manuals are banned. And a government committee assigns each individual’s career for life, since, as one leader puts it in the movie version, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”

The sterile serenity of this place is maintained in part by the fact that the community lives in a perpetual present tense. It is technologically advanced but lacks the wisdom of prior generations. To avoid the pain of memories—of real enmity, fear, loss, hatred and so on—the community calls on one person to carry all of them. Jonas has been selected to be that person.

“The Giver” resists easy political categorization, and the book’s appeal cuts across a broad spectrum of readers. Over the years, Ms. Lowry has corresponded with thousands of fans, including Trappist monks (a Catholic order sworn to a vow of silence), Mormons and Orthodox Jewish children, psychotics and psychiatrists, liberals and conservatives. “A lot of Christian churches use it as part of their religious curriculum,” she says. “Jewish people give it as a bar mitzvah gift.” And while she’s quick to burnish her own Democratic Party leanings, Ms. Lowry concedes that social conservatives “could find their views validated by this book.”

That’s putting it mildly. The book’s most memorable, and controversial, aspect is the community’s casual disregard for the dignity of human life. Infants with disabilities, those who don’t adjust well to their host families or meet certain height and weight criteria by a specified age, are “released.” Any adult who wants to leave the community is also subject to “release,” and the elderly, too, are routinely “released” after a ritual celebration. It won’t take adults long to guess what “release” entails, but for young readers, encountering the horror of infanticide and euthanasia from Jonas’s perspective can be an overpowering experience.

Ironically, Ms. Lowry’s treatment of these topics has subjected “The Giver” to some of the same censorship pressures the book decries. After it won the 1994 Newbery Medal—a top children’s-literature award—”The Giver” began finding its way into middle- and high-school English curricula. “That’s when parents began to object to the book being used in classrooms,” Ms. Lowry recalls. “They found it too disturbing.” They have even charged “that it promotes euthanasia and suicide. But if they read the book carefully, or intelligently, or if at all, it does the opposite.”

School boards in Florida, South Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, among other states, have faced parental pressure to remove “The Giver” from classrooms. Most such campaigns fail. “It’s ironic now that it seems very mild and tame compared to these other books,” Ms. Lowry says, referring to today’s far more violent young-adult literature and movies. Perhaps the difference has to do with the fact that the violence of “The Hunger Games” and its ilk is far-off and fantastic, while the clinical violence of “The Giver” isn’t too far from the surface of our own society.

Lois Lowry didn’t set out to become a children’s novelist. Born in 1937 in Honolulu to a military family, she traveled widely before entering Brown University, where she majored in English. In 1956, at age 19, she left school and married a U.S. Navy officer. The couple had four children (one, a U.S. Air Force pilot, would die in an accidental fighter crash in 1995).

Ms. Lowry published her first children’s novel in 1977, having written it at the behest of an editor who had spotted one of her adult short stories in a magazine. She had divorced her husband around the same time and needed to find a way to support herself. “Suddenly this book was published, and I realized that it was perhaps a way I could make a living,” she says. “So I sat down to write a second one. And I began to hear from the readers and began to perceive what I should have known, having been a young person who read, that at that age level books really, really change kids. They affect them profoundly.”

The creative impetus behind “The Giver,” the most successful of Ms. Lowry’s books, came during a difficult period in her life. “My parents were both alive but very old,” she recalls, “and my mother was in a nursing home. She was blind and on oxygen. And my father . . . was aging and clearly could no longer manage on his own.”

Ms. Lowry would regularly visit her parents’ nursing home. “On one particular visit,” she recalls, “I went to see my mom first. Her mind was intact, and she always loved to talk about the past. And she’d be lying there in this hospital bed with this oxygen in her nose, but she wanted to reminisce and tell anecdotes from the past. And she often talked about my sister, who was three years older than me. My sister had died young. And so my mother was recalling things that were very sad but were an important part of her past.”

Her father was a different case. “I then went as I always did to visit my dad,” Ms. Lowry says, “and I was turning the pages of a photograph album with him when I realized that he had forgotten my sister. There were pictures of the two little girls, and he said, ‘Oh, there’s your sister, but I can’t remember her name.’ And I told him her name. I said, ‘Her name was Helen, dad, she was named for her grandmother.’ And then he asked, ‘Whatever happened to her?’ And I had to tell him about her death. It had happened years before, but to him it was as if it had just happened. And then it happened again, turning the page—another picture of the two girls. And he said again, ‘There’s Helen—what happened to her?'”

Her writer’s mind went to work: “When I was driving back to the airport that day I began to think about that, the way a writer does: Well, what if you could manipulate human memory, so that people didn’t have to remember bad stuff that had ever happened? Wouldn’t that be nice—and comfortable? By the time I got home, I had formulated the beginning of a book.”

The totalitarianism of “The Giver’s” community, in other words, isn’t the work of a vicious ruling elite bent on exercising power for its own sake; it’s the product of perfectly good intentions. Who wouldn’t want to forget the death of a young child?

“That’s the irony of it,” Ms. Lowry says. “In talking to people about censorship, and the fact that there’ve been attempts to censor this book . . . the people who bring the challenges, they do so with the best of intentions. They really want to protect their children. I have children. I have grandchildren. I would love to protect them from everything as well.

“But it’s the wrong way of going about it. The best way to prepare them for the world that they face is to present what the possibilities are and to let them be scared of what might happen.” She adds: “I think that’s really what literature does in every realm. You rehearse your life by reading about what happens to other people.”

A trigger warning won’t help.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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