We Need to Talk about Kevin: nature, nurture and the USA
I first heard about Lionel Shriver and her brilliant book We Need to Talk about Kevin (released in 2003) on Book Club, a BBC radio program on BBC 4 hosted by James Naughtie, where authors read excerpts from their books and are interviewed by an audience of fans. After listening to the program, I read the book and saw the stunning movie based on it (which opened in 2012).
I have no doubt both book and film will become classics, despite the different structures adopted by each medium. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the book version, whose story stems from a real fear the author has of bearing kids. Lionel has chosen to remain childless, and maybe she picked a parent’s worst-case scenario to depict in her book to justify the decision. The important thing, however, is that this horrific scenario illuminates many aspects of the eternal discussion of nature versus nurture, and also stokes the discussion of whether the super consumerist culture of the United States plays a role in the instigation of violence among young people, more specifically male teenagers.
About the book:
Meet Eva Khatchadourian.
She is the narrator of the story, so all we hear is her perspective. Despite the effort, she makes to sound fair and objective, presenting different views of her gruesome experiences, we know that, ultimately, she is telling us a biased version of the facts. She sounds very persuasive, especially on the few occasions she admits she behaved questionably or when is being too hard on herself. She is the mother of Kevin, a boy she does not like from the moment he leaves her womb and, being placed on her bosom to suckle, rejects her milk. From then on, they never got along.
Before giving birth to Kevin, Eva had a successful publishing business. She wrote very successful travel guides ( A Wing and a Prayer) for people who wish to go places on a budget. She herself checks out the places firsthand and is very excited about her international lifestyle. Eva has the best of both worlds. She can be independent, have an exhilarating professional life, and then get back home from the exotic places she’s visited to a loving husband and a solid marriage.
In the process of spending a lot of time away from the US, and having an Armenian background herself to start with, Eva develops a broader and more detached perspective of her native country, becoming fully aware of its greatness and limitations. The US may be one of wealthiest nations and one the most pleasant places on Earth to live in, but she is not entirely comfortable with how its people are obsessed with celebrities, famous or infamous; with their overwhelming materialism; the strong need to constantly remake themselves, recreating their personal stories; and their tendency to categorize, label and quantify every single human phenomena in order to give them the illusion of control over it.
Meet Franklin Plasket.
He is Eva’s beloved husband. He works locally, scouting locations around New York for the shooting of advertisements. He is not as successful professionally as Eva but has a steady job. Strangely, he is not the husband she had always dreamed of. Actually, he is the exact opposite of her fantasy of a more romantic, hippie-like perfect match. Franklin is, after all, a die-hard Republican, a typical WASP, with a very limited perspective on the outside world, a nationalist who thinks of the US in terms of what was idealized by the Founding Fathers, not the real America of the McCarthyism of the 50s, the Vietnam War of the 60s and 70s and the increasing mass murders perpetrated by young boys in the 90s. Rather unsophisticated and not very romantic, yet Franklin is the man Eva is unconditionally in love with. She thinks they share the perfect life and keeps putting off the decision of having kids.
Meet Kevin Khatchadourian (aka KK).
Franklin and Eva’s firstborn is a weird child. He is mainly the product of Eva’s decision, who had already become bored with the frequent trips abroad, and thought it was time to explore a different kind of geography: motherhood. The baby would be her new project to keep her life and marriage exciting. She never really craved motherhood, though. She simply treated it as something she should try.
As a baby, Kevin is difficult. He won’t stop crying for hours on end, driving his mother crazy. Eva has taken a leave from work – despite the fact that she is the family breadwinner and loves her job– while Franklin conveniently keeps working, spending most of the time outside the house. The moment Franklin sets foot back in the house, at the end of the day, Kevin turns into a completely different person: he is just like any other normal baby, receptive to his father caresses and never fussy or obstinate. It’s hard for Franklin to reconcile what he sees to what Eva tells him about Kevin. She claims the only reason Kevin seems calmer now is due to exhaustion, having cried his lungs out non-stop for the most part of the day. When Eva decides she needs help, hiring a nanny and resuming her work as a publisher, these employees never last very long. Franklin is very dismissive of a possible problem with the kid, always blaming the nannies for their sudden departures and invariably taking Kevin’s side.
The boy we see through Eva’s eyes is a scary creature. Almost autistic in the way he behaves, he won't take an interest in anything. He’s very late in developing speech and cannot be potty trained, wearing diapers well into the age of seven, which proves a constant source of embarrassment for his parents and teachers. Kevin doesn’t like anything, finding everything “dumb”, spending hours staring into empty space, always moody and antisocial, despite the efforts Eva puts into engaging him in a number of games and activities. The fact that the kid may intuitively perceive that his Mom’s love and interest are not entirely genuine, but feel a bit strained and phony, might have to do with the growing distancing between the two.
The relationship between Kevin and Eva deteriorates to such a point after seven years that she feels she needs a second child, if only to prove that there’s nothing wrong with her. Therefore, Eva embarks on a second pregnancy and is rewarded with Sweet Celia, with whom she develops a perfect relationship, which only broadens the chasm between her and Kevin, who is jealous of his sister. The boy becomes a ticking bomb, ready to go off.
From the very beginning of the book, which is a series of letters from Eva to Franklin, who does not seem to be with her any longer for some reason (have they separated? Is he traveling? In treatment? Are they living apart? Where’s Celia?), we know about Thursday. The details are kind of fuzzy. But into the first third of the book, we have already connected enough pieces of the puzzle to know that on a Thursday in April 1999, Kevin massed murdered 11 people in his school: 9 students, an English teacher and the guy from the cafeteria, using the most unusual and calculated stratagem – which I will refrain from discussing here, in case the reader decides to check out the book. All I will say is, as the story unravels in a very suspenseful way, culminating with the climatic description of the mass murder scene, the reader will be witnessing some of the most shocking passages ever written in a novel or shown in a movie. Definitely, not material for the faint of heart.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Eva has lost her business and money, using up all her resources to pay for lawyers to defend her son and pay for an expensive civil suit filed against her for parent negligence. By this time, she has become an outcast, discriminated against by the members of the community she refuses to leave (she claims to need to be near the Juvenile Reformatory where Kevin is kept). She has lost most of her friends, and even her relatives are not comfortable around her. Now Eva has a low-paid job at a tourist agency, selling package holidays, and lives in a shabby house all by herself and her memories. She spends most of her time writing letters to Franklin, watching TV and visiting Kevin in jail.
This is certainly the whole point of the book, and we never get a clear explanation, only clues and hypotheses, which add to the depth of the story. Isn’t that always the case with boys who go on rampages in their schools in a curious and disturbing pattern which is repeated over and over throughout the country? Some of the characteristics of contemporary America, such as lack of strong family ties and values, excessive consumerism, and a feeble spiritual life have been shortlisted as the main reasons for this kind of behavior.
Some other points considered in the book are, for example:
Did these people Kevin carefully selected to kill have anything in common? Eva seems to think they all seemed to have a passion, and Kevin could not stand people who had goals or interests. So he lashed out.
Another hypothesis is Kevin has always been a sociopath and simply lacks a motive. He has no feelings. Of course, Eva’s account of the many disturbing experiences she went through while Kevin was growing up supports this idea. The problem is we can never entirely rely on her version.
Eva is warned by one of his teachers that her son is a really smart guy, contrary to all evidence, so the fact that Kevin helps his defense lawyer come up with the theory that his rampage was the result of a rare but proved side effect of the use of Prozac, which he himself had asked to be medicated with, on the grounds that he felt depressed a couple of months before the fatal Thursday, is another point to be considered.
The fact that he only wanted to impress an audience with the bloody performance - his mother, of all people - whom he never felt close to and craved for emotional and physical contact with - seems to be the strongest hypothesis put forward in the book.
Kevin will remain in jail for 7 years. Eva is prepared to wait for him and restart their lives together afterward.