Bad Mothers and Evil Seeds
I read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin because I had heard of it somewhere, though when I picked it up I could not remember where, only that what I had heard had been positive, and because it was on sale while I was picking up other novels to satisfy a lack of fiction in my home. I'm glad I did. It is a thoroughly disturbing novel.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a novel in which all the open, honest communication people claim to want occurs too late to do anyone any good. Eva Khatchadourian met and married the love of her life, the man who fulfills all her needs, even that of good-willed political opponent and lover of America, while she is more critical of the country and thinks of herself as more cosmopolitan. She chooses to become a mother for him, to give him what she has decided he wants, and does so with great reluctance and outright rage. She gives birth to a son she does not like, to whom she ascribes an uncanny, unnatural ability to hate and struggle against her in return. Their relationship does not improve, but remains trapped in the anger and revulsion she felt at its beginning. He grows into a sadistic, sociopathic adolescent who becomes a temporary media darling when he kills fellow students and a teacher at his high school, just short of his sixteenth birthday.
Not very comforting reading, but very good, intelligent, and perceptive writing. The novel is written as a series of letters from Eva to her husband, detailing her true feelings, from the beginning, about her son, the changes in their relationship that the son brought with him, the changes their son brought to her life as an independent woman, and the Thursday when her life was shorn of all its moorings. Eva does not fully embrace her own innocence in her son's actions, but she does not fully accept her guilt either. Her love for her husband is laced with contempt, anger, and disappointment, as he left her to some extent when Kevin was born, and continued to leave her throughout the rest of their marriage, always taking Kevin's side against her, believing in him and not in her, and making time for him not for her. She was not a good mother, as she admits, but it is also true that Kevin, as she describes him and as he proved by his grand deed, is not a good child.
Why does Kevin do it? This is the question everyone wants answered, even Eva. And no one knows. By the end of the book, not even Kevin seems sure why he became a murderer. The novel and Eva provide no easy answers to the question. The family is comfortably middle class. If Eva has difficulty relating to her son, his father dotes on him and she goes to great efforts to fulfill her maternal duties. There is no physical abuse, except for one isolated incident that Eva claims empowered Kevin, not her. There is no sexual abuse. Kevin is not popular in school, but he is not the butt of everyone's jokes either. He is not given a diagnosis by Eva to label his trouble and allow the reader to believe him explained. Kevin, that day, and the relationship he has with Eva resist explanation. They can, and are, successfully described, but all retain a frustrating opacity. If Eva is a bad mother, is that enough to explain Kevin's deeds? If he is lonely, frustrated, bullied, at a disconnect with his peers and his parents, is this enough? No, it is not.
Eva, as one whose life, such as it was before, is over can afford to be brutally honest, with herself and with her readers. What use are her secrets, her shame, and her private doubts any longer? And she does feel to some extent affirmed in her judgments by Kevin's deed: he is the bad seed she long suspected him to be. Therefore, he is not, and never was, the golden son her husband believed and longed for him to be. Shame is a great force in Eva's character. She is ashamed that she does not feel the immediate rush of maternal attachment and instinct that society had promised would be hers upon pregnancy and her son's birth. Therefore, she does not speak of it. She merely pretends, and fails to pretend well enough to escape detection. She is ashamed of her son, of his stubborn refusals to be potty-trained, of his struggle to appear dull-witted, of his physical laziness, his apathetic pose. She is ashamed of her country, of its admiration for the disposable, for the inconsequential, and its desire for excitement, usually coming as violence with an overtly masculine flair. She is not ashamed of her husband, until he is mastered by his son, manipulated so easily by a cunning, malicious child.
Is Eva reliable? Insofar as she tells her own story, yes; but insofar as she is telling Kevin's story, I doubt it. She presents the facts well enough, clearly yet with a remnant of sarcasm and wit, showing that she is not yet wholly broken by her experiences. She is, however, narcissistic and narrates Kevin's development and maturation, his growing viciousness, from within the bad seed structure she established for herself at his birth, and to which she gave further proof, again to herself, by having another child, a girl, who was never as he was, but wholly different and lovable, proving that the problem was not in her, but in Kevin. Kevin's story would be very different narrated by the father, or by Kevin himself, and probably as incomplete and biased as Eva's in their own ways.
Eva is intelligent, educated, well-travelled. Although no longer interested in politics, she once was, and she carries into her discourse about her son, a singular human being, and his one deed, also singular, past observations on the state of society and human interaction. The plastic suburbs of manufactured happiness are excoriated, as is the media with its hunger for despair, tragedy, and its star-making power. Kevin rates other rampage youths as the media imparts their stories to him, cites their statistics, their greater or lesser masculinity and integrity. Eva keeps track of these same stories, for they now form a pattern in which her son is part of the weave, and through his actions she too has been made part of the pattern, caught in the web.
Most parents think they will be good at it. Most of us believe, before our child arrives, that loving a child is natural and easy. Some parents find out that this is not so, that their relationship with their child is difficult, strained, or that it seems artificial. Most parents find it so in moments, but the moments pass, and there is joy again. Most parents try very hard to be good at parenting. Eva's husband read all the books; he put great effort into fatherhood. He knew what fatherhood should look like, act like, feel like. I wonder if he felt it, or if his experience of Kevin was as twisted as Eva's, only even more secret in its disappointments and its fears. Most of us put a lot of effort into family, into making these arrangements between disparate personalities and changing priorities work on many levels all at once. And while we are doing our best to make our families functional, our own lives, and the external life of society, continue. It is easy to agree with Eva that she was not a good mother, that she was, and remains, selfish and self-indulgent. It is harder to say that her selfishness and self-indulgence caused Kevin's rampage. Cause and effect are not that clear.
Eva, building up to the two-year anniversary of her son's deed, addresses her life, and his impact upon her life, in an effort to understand why it happened at all, what went wrong with her version of the American dream, beginning with a man she loved and adding to it two children. She is guilty, and yet innocent: the mother of the murderer, and therefore responsible for raising a murderer, but not herself a murderer or co-conspirator. In a society that believes in the innocence of children, by which we mean not their lack of knowledge and experience, but a basic incapacity for evil, her son has committed an evil act, and he is not remorseful. He seems proud of his accomplishments. In such a society, in our society, we look to the mother, the father, the family to provide reason for the child's corruption. It was in the home that the evil started, and therefore it is the home--the parents--that are to blame. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it is not. And in this case, it is both.
I resent that this novel has been labeled feminist. That appears to be a confining label for a novel, one that attempts to confine it to a particular segment of the reading public. A well-written, compelling, and thought-provoking work does not require such a label, nor does it benefit from it. Announcing that the novel is feminist strikes me as an appeal to male readers such as myself not to read it. It gives us permission to pick up a war novel--certainly that is masculine literature--and leave this novel to the girls. It is unfair to the writer, for Shriver's book deserves an audience, and to readers. If I had known that We Need to Talk About Kevin was written only for feminists, I might have avoided it in the sale bin, and picked up something else not half as good. The issues it raises regarding the media, the ambivalent nature of material success, the perils of motherhood (and fatherhood), and the greed for fame and recognition at work in society are worth thinking about, and they are presented well, without undue malice and with a thorough recognition of the hypocrisy of normal life, normal success, and normal fear.
Eva loves her son. Kevin, in his own way, touched by malevolence, cowardice, and misanthropy, needs her, and in a child this need is love or closely approximates it. Their relationship is not clear, but it is real. And at the end of the novel, all that remains is this relationship, Eva and Kevin. He has made certain of that.