Delirium is Book One of a trilogy about a dystopia in which love – all kinds of love – is forbidden after the age of eighteen. Love has been identified as a “disease” called amor deliria nervosa that is invariably fatal. And to ensure this “disease” does not “kill” the population, all citizens must undergo surgery at age eighteen to turn them into unfeeling mediocrities who feel no joy, no pain, and no life.
Reminiscent of the plot in Matched by Ally Condie, sometime before the medical procedure, all teens get evaluated for pairing. They are sent a list of four or five approved matches, and are allowed to rank them by preference for pair calculations to be made.
There are little holes in this dystopia, however. The mother of seventeen-year-old Lena, for example, had the surgery three times, but still was not cured of love. She was said to have jumped off of a cliff into the ocean when Lena was six. Her last whispered words to Lena were:
“I love you. Remember. They cannot take it.”
Moreover, there are rumored to be “Invalids” out in “The Wilds” (unregulated land that exists between recognized cities and towns) who never had the surgery and never intend to have it.
Groups of regulators, including citizen volunteers, patrol the streets every night, looking for people who violate the curfew, or worse yet, interact with members of the opposite sex. Anyone found “guilty” is set upon by dogs and truncheons, and either thrown into prisons or killed outright. But Lena, who has been brought up to believe in the system (which even has its own Bible) thinks that “No matter what the regulators do, they exist for our protection, for our own good.”
Lena, totally indoctrinated when we first meet her, has additional reasons to look forward to the “cure”: she does not consider herself to be beautiful like her friend Hana, and she is troubled by the fear that her mother’s illness will infect her as well, and by the stigma of coming from an abnormal family. When she turns eighteen however, she will be matched in spite of her looks and her past, and “will get the chance to be reborn: newer, fresher, better. Healed and whole and perfect again…”
But then the seemingly impossible happens, and Lena falls in love. The next thing you know, she’s even feeling pretty, and she’s willing to fight for her love… As Maria sang in “West Side Story”:
“I have a love, and it’s all that I have.
Right or wrong, what else can I do?
I love him; I’m his,
And everything he is
I am, too.
I have a love, and it’s all that I need,
Right or wrong, and he needs me, too.
I love him, we’re one;
There’s nothing to be done,
Not a thing I can do
But hold him, hold him forever,
Be with him now, tomorrow
And all of my life!”
Discussion: This story is supposed to be somewhat of a riff on Romeo and Juliet (updated, needless to add, to West Side Story), although I see this connection only in general thematic terms (which I must not discuss or it would be spoilery).
I thought the author’s ability to evoke young love is just spot-on. When Lena falls in love, for example, she notes that everything looks beautiful and magical, “even the dump, shimmering in the heat, an enormous mound of scrap metal and melting plastic and stinking things….” I remember feeling that way. Okay, now I must break out in song again! From The King and I:
“Hello young lovers, whoever you are,
I hope your troubles are few.
All my good wishes go with you tonight,
I’ve been in love like you.
Be brave, young lovers, and follow your star,
Be brave and faithful and true,
Cling very close to each other tonight.
I’ve been in love like you.
I know how it feels to have wings on your heels,
And to fly down the street in a trance.
You fly down a street on the chance that you meet,
And you meet — not really by chance.
Don’t cry young lovers, whatever you do,
Don’t cry because I’m alone;
All of my memories are happy tonight,
I’ve had a love of my own.
I’ve had a love of my own, like yours-
I’ve had a love of my own.”
Now what about that premise, that society will accept that love is a disease? It seems a little silly, and yet, it’s not unprecedented. In the late 1890s, in fact, psychologist G. Stanley Hall pioneered “scientific motherhood,” consisting of less cuddling and more punishment. The U.S. Government set up a Child Bureau within the Department of Labor to spread the word on proper child care. Pamphlets distributed by the agency included the admonition never to kiss a baby and cautioned against rocking and playing with children. Parents should resist the urge to pick up or comfort a child. If the child expresses fear, such as of the dark, the proper response is a stern word or swift swat. These beliefs were also emphasized in the 1928 bestseller, The Psychological Care of the Child and Infant. Author John B. Watson (a president of the American Psychological Association) noted that there are “serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child” and advised parents not to hold children for pleasure. You can shake their hands but only kiss them on the foreheads for a big occasion. This sort of advice, echoed in books and in universities, prevailed for years. Luther Holt’s book, The Care and Feeding of Children – promulgating the same message – had fifteen editions between 1894 and 1935. (Source: Deborah Blum, Love at Good Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection) Much of the advice of this period is similar to that quoted from the “Bible” in Delirium.
But, okay, surgery believed in by everyone to alleviate the problem of love? Well, unfortunately there’s a precedent for that as well. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 100-140 million girls are now living with the consequences of female genital mutilation carried out before they reached age 15. WHO explains that “Female genital mutilation is considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and preparing her for adulthood and marriage.” The goal is to eliminate the possibility that women will want to stray sexually, since sex will be at the least not pleasurable, and more often, downright painful. In societies in which this is practiced, women are often as complicit in wanting this done as are men, because they have been indoctrinated to believe it is the right thing to do.
And finally, this just in from Iran, according to the Wall Street Journal of February 12, 2011:
“In another sign of its ever more improvisational approach to governance, the Iranian regime has outlawed Valentine’s Day. “Symbols of hearts, half-hearts, red roses, and any activities promoting this day are banned,” announced state media last month. “Authorities will take legal action against those who ignore the ban.”
Truth is often just as strange as fiction. So while at first the premise may seem silly or unrealistic, unfortunately, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
Evaluation: This book is for all the romantics out there, who believe in the value of love, even with its roller coaster swings of highs and lows, and who believe that, well, what the heck, here I go again, from “West Side Story”:
“There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .
There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Published by HarperTeen, 2011