Alyssa over at Yes That Too has written and is writing a fair bit on the topic of how Divergent could have been empowering for our community and instead it was a betrayal. A presentation I did brought it back up to the top of my mind, so here is my contribution to the Disability Discussion on Divergent.
Dear Ms Roth,
It has taken me years to write this to you & now I'm doing it almost on impulse all in one sitting. There's things you're probably tired of hearing that I couldn't figure out how to avoid doing, so I'm not going to avoid doing them. Instead, I am going to speak sincerely, from my heart, about the impact your work had on me and the impact it could have had.
The first thing I couldn't figure out how to do, Ms Roth, is how to not compare Divergent to Hunger Games. I'm tired of hearing people fabricate similarities beyond the obvious (both driven by strong teenage girl protagonists?) so I can't imagine how tired you are of it. But I can't, because part of explaining what Divergent could have been for me is by comparing it to what Hunger Games was.
If we are being brutally honest, I'm mostly a Katniss. Katniss in the books looks like me. Uncannily like me. We have similar physical abilities. We figured out how to survive because we had to. We are both, if I may flatter myself, accidental revolutionaries and unintentional symbols rather than people to an unfortunately large number of people. I'm not overthrowing any governments, but I do find myself saying "who are all these people and why are they behind me?" more than once a decade. And I'm introverted, socially awkward, and good with a bow.
But Tris isn't not relateable, nor, if I am being honest, is Four. Like Tris I have multiple aptitudes (and Amity isn't one of them). Like Tris I'm an adrenaline junkie. Like Tris I'm bravest when it's for someone else. And like Four it's not so much that I'm naturally brave as that the monster under the bed lived in my home and controlled me until I could get away. (Incidentally, touching on abusive parents who are well regarded by the community was incredibly important for me. Everything shies away from that. You confronted it. That mattered to me.)
The Dauntless manifesto didn't just speak to me, Ms Roth. It sang to my soul. The saint I was named for said "I hate silence when it is a time for speaking," and the Dauntless manifesto took that and spread it out like a secular profession of faith. I believe that the cowardice of good people is what lets injustice prevail. I believe that it is my duty to shout when the person next to me can only shake. I believe to the core of my being in ordinary acts of bravery, in action, in walking what you talk. I believe that silence is assent and that it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
I thought I was going to be getting lines tattooed on my body, because the words you wrote are my moral core made poetry.
At least that's what I thought until the end of the second book.
Let's go back to the title a moment. Divergent. To differ from what is expected. I've been using Neurodivergent as a self identifier since I was Tris's age. That's a long time. I am Autistic. I am epileptic. I have C-PTSD (Four and I have that in common). And when you are neurodivergent, you learn to hide--just like in the world you built, the Divergent must hide.
But then we got to the end of the second book.
I can't put this nicely, Ms Roth: you used a word that my community is quite attached to and used it to sell us eugenics.
That's right, I said it. But so did you, though not in those words.
In the world you created, I wouldn't exist. I have genetic conditions that certainly would have been engineered away before personality traits that people don't like (as a biologist, I can tell you that would be impossible anyway, but I'm not here to lecture your science. I'm here to express betrayal that you started off so well and then gave me eugenics).
In the world we live in right this minute, Ms Roth, Nazis are on the rise. Eugenics never went away in the US. I know you aren't aware of disability issues at all, but forcible sterilization still happens to disabled people every day. People are given worst case scenarios about pregnancies that might have a disability, to encourage people who otherwise want that child to try for one that isn't defective. There's places where it is illegal for disabled people to have sex. People murder their disabled children with near impunity. People deprive disabled people of sex ed and of opportunity to develop romantic relationships if they so choose. The barriers to parenting while disabled are enormous. People make sure you know that a child like you is the least responsible thing you could possibly create.
Nazis are literally marching in the street. I am not being hyperbolic; they are carrying swastikas.
And you handed us a pretty blonde girl who is the pinnacle of perfect genes, hidden in a wholesomely gritty young adult post apocalyptic speculative fiction trilogy. That's some really unfortunate implications.
The betrayal, Ms Roth, the betrayal. It cuts. This isn't a simulation. This is real. And the reality is that your popular series undermines my right to exist. That's wrong. I matter.
I believe in bold deeds. I believe in bold words. And I believe that ignoring the eugenics propoganda buried in a popular story for my comfort is an ugly, cowardly lie.