Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is going to haunt me for a while. Even though you know what’s going to happen at the end, Shriver throws in a heartbreaking twist that, honestly, nearly had me in tears. Along with the dread the Shriver builds and builds as the narrator approaches that climax, that narrator also meditates on blame, hindsight, and–above all–guilt. Reading the dust jacket, you might think that this book is a product of its time, of those few years there were so many school shootings at the end of the millennium. But I think this book has a timeless quality in that, we are always going to wonder where human evil comes from. We’re still wondering about Jack the Ripper and Hitler, aren’t we?
The narrator, Eva Khatchadourian, tells her story in a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, over the course of a handful of months. She tells him of her life now, after that Thursday. (She always puts it in italics.) Once, Eva was a successful travel writer, with her own company that published a series of books for low budget travelers. In their mid-thirties, Franklin started to pester Eva about having a child. Eva gave in eventually, but she confesses to serious reluctance. She was never maternal. She didn’t know what she was doing but, to a certain extent, she fell for the propaganda that of course she would love her own child.
Kevin, it becomes clear, is a sociopath. Even as an infant, he delighted in tormenting just about everyone. The first nanny quit after a day and they were blackballed from the agency after two years. Because Kevin behaves differently around him, and because he so wants to have a perfect family, Franklin believes that there is nothing wrong with Kevin. He thinks that Eva is exaggerating or is always thinking the worse of the boy when she tells him what the little spawn is up to. Reading about Kevin’s early years, I was reminded of my mom’s stories from kindergarten about the the boy in her class who, even at the age of six, had the look of pure evil about him.
Later, Eva writes about a civil suit lodged against her by of the parent of one of her son’s victims. Because that parent so desperately wants someone to blame, they allege that Eva’s bad parenting is the cause of Kevin’s actions on that Thursday. Eva admits that she was a bad mother, but I think that’s only because she thinks that good mothering is natural. She was not a natural parent. Part of that admission, I also suspect, comes from the fact that she can’t like the little jerk. She doesn’t love him the way other parents love their kids. But when you have a kid like Kevin, how can you teach him to feel empathy? To care about the feeling of others? She did everything she was supposed to, and Kevin still killed 11 people at the age of 16.
Eva was one of the few people who could see through Kevin’s facade but, how can you predict something like that? He was very, very careful and very, very cunning. Even with hindsight, there were only a few things that could have tipped even the most suspicious person off. When I read Kevin’s line from that day (“Sure you don’t want to say good-bye to Celie one more time?” (p. 365)), even I read it as just another sarcastic comment. Now that I’ve finished the book, that line chills me to the bone.
This book, in my reading, asks two vexing questions (with a lot of corollaries). First, what does it mean to be a good mother? What’s normal when it comes to being maternal? For Eva, with her deep seated reluctance, it never comes naturally. She expected to love him when he was born. (But again, with a kid like Kevin, can you ever hope to be a normal parent?) She freely admits that she resents the little shit. To the extent that Kevin is able to feel, he seems to resent her right back. And there is little doubt that Kevin is aware of what he is doing when he torments others. He knows what he is doing is wrong. He destroys a room that Eva put together with care, because he can’t understand why people get attached to anything. He doesn’t like anything or anyone, but Eva is the only one he will admit this to. Later, he begins to commit small acts of violence against other kids (always without witnesses and no one can ever definitively prove anything). He talks a girl with eczema into clawing at her own skin until she bleeds. He kills his little sister’s pet and then, worse, destroys her left eye with drain cleaner. And then, there’s that Thursday. So again, the sub-question again, how do you teach empathy to someone who is incapable of feeling it? How can you punish someone who isn’t attached to anything and who you don’t dare hit?
Parenthood is a source of serious anxiety for people. In my observation, there are so many parents trying so hard not to mess up their kids. There are those parents who compete with each other to be the best, to raise the best kids. With all this pressure, is it any wonder that Eva feels the stress she does? That she feels such severe guilt? She seems to get as much punishment from the people of her town as Kevin does in his juvenile facility. For some reason, no one seems to see the depths of Kevin’s sociopathy–perhaps because everyone gave the little schmuck wide berth when he was on the outside, as if they sensed something was seriously off about him.
The second question that this book addresses–though not in such depth as the questions about motherhood–is: where does the evil to commit acts like this come from? Is it purely mechanical? Are sociopaths missing parts of their brain? Or are they created by their upbringing and their environments? As I said above, we’re still asking this question about some people. And I don’t think we’ll ever get a definitive answer. In the case of Kevin, Shriver shows that some people were probably always going to go bad. They were born that way. No amount of care or mothering will change them, because sociopaths don’t think the way we do. Perhaps with some criminals, upbringing does play a part.
Like with most people, who you are is probably a combination of both nature and nurture. But that still doesn’t answer the question of where real evil comes from. The most clinical answer I can think of is that they’re missing parts of their brains or psyches, especially those parts that allow us to feel for each other, to make attachments, to sympathize. They’re probably also missing those parts that make us want to belong, to follow society’s basic rules. Without at least those two parts, there’s nothing to stop them from committing whatever atrocities they can think up.
Throughout the book, various characters ask Kevin why. He gives as many answers as he has askers. The only time I think we get close to a real reason is when Kevin admits to his mother that it’s been so long that he doesn’t really remember. To me, that means that it wasn’t just one thing and/or there was no reason that we can really understand. Kevin has an evil in him. It was going to come out sooner or later.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is going to haunt me for a while.