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bookReview: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver

Perseus, 2003

468pp

Reviewer: Lynda Woodroffe

I recently picked up my old copy of this book, which I originally started some years ago. It is densely written and I couldn’t pick up the plot easily at first. Then, with perseverance, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a page turner. The story unravels slowly, but with such dramatic effects, perverse humour and uninhibited description that I was eager to explore the next event, then the next, and then the next…

It was first published in 2003 and we know what happened in the end, but it is the detail that makes the story: Why did Kevin turn out the way he did? What explanations account for his behaviours and his thinking? The assumption is that his relationship with his mother, Eva, hold the answers to these questions. (Mothers always get the blame. Psychotherapy has a lot to answer for.)

In 2015, a UK law was passed criminalising coercive control over others. The characters that carry out this practice are predominantly male, narcissistic, psychopathic, and unfeeling people, with personality disorders. Kevin is described as one of these – he seems to have few feelings, little desire to communicate with others, and no wish to conform. Instead, he delights in the pain of others, at their confusion, and at their distress in their failure to influence him. He is completely self-centred, but without a care for the effects that he has on others.

The novel is written by a wife to her estranged husband, Franklin, through which she describes what he didn’t perceive or understand. Eva gave up her career to look after Kevin, who was showing unusual behaviour. She blamed herself, and thought through how she might have influenced Kevin, but did not come to any clear answers. She doubted her original desire to give birth to Kevin, her maternal feelings for him, questioned her love for him, and considered herself a bad mother although, conversely, her partner did not question that he was a bad father. On the contrary, Kevin seemed to get on well with his father, although at one time did call him an ‘arsehole’. Their child did not meet Eva’s expectations; did not breast feed or even seem to like her, and did not attach to her. His father always defended Kevin, leaving his wife isolated in her thoughts and feelings.

Instead, Kevin seemed to want to detach. One might ordinarily think that he had been ill-treated. Eva examined every part of their combined history to seek explanations for his hostility, disinterest and anti-social outlook. Even young animals show dependence, but Kevin was devoid of this characteristic. Dependence was something Kevin feared.

At first, Eva did not know what Kevin did want. This became clearer as the story moved on. Shriver saw Kevin as a victim of American society, with infamy and celebrity rules and, as described in the 1980s, everyone wanting their 15 minutes of fame. In his hometown and in prison Kevin achieved this, indeed “… he has carved himself a niche’”(p.197).

Shriver exposed, through Kevin, the hypocrisies that we have to live by to socialise communities, to avoid wars, and to create a lawful society. So, for example, as parents we will attempt to understand and regulate difficult feelings, teach politeness as a means of communicating, and try to avoid violence. The rationale for these socialising tenets lies in respecting others and building empathy. It is also to keep order. On the other hand, Kevin represents pure anarchy – no hypocrisy, just pure selfishness and non-compliance.

Shriver wrote of Eva’s observation of Kevin’s contempt for the world. Of violence Kevin seemed disinterested. Shriver describes how when the family were together watching the torture scene in the film ‘Braveheart’ Kevin seemed bored, unable to identify with the pain which was being experienced by someone else and not him (p.171).

There were times when Kevin relapsed into what we may call a ‘normal’ feeling, that of a vulnerable human being. First, Shriver described a time when, after provocation, Eva struck out at Kevin and broke his arm. She added that after this reaction, Kevin seemed to respect his mother more for her authenticity (p.232).

Second, when he was ten years old, Kevin became ill and needed medical attention. Shriver describes how much energy it takes to maintain omnipotence, invulnerability and disinterest, and how the façade can drop when the body chi is compromised. Kevin hated feeling this way, and being dependent upon his mother’s attentions rather than exercising his hostility towards her (p.278). Shriver wrote about how Eva recognised that the day when Kevin was better was the day when the hostility returned (p.282). However, the threat of divorce seemed to destabilise Kevin (p.420). His aim, it seems, was to keep his parents apart – divide and rule – but not irrevocably. Divorce was not on his agenda.

In the end, after Kevin had been imprisoned, he became not only a local pariah but also a local hero. He received hate mail, but also love mail, fan letters, offers to have his baby, letters of forgiveness and apologies for societal failure (p.385).

There is something about Kevin that reminds me of the Oedipus story – he not only used his crossbow to kill or injure eleven of his school acquaintances, but he also killed his father and sister, leaving his mother for him only. When prison psychiatrists attempted to explore his relationship with his mother, Kevin defended her (p.415).

Society locks up people like Kevin, giving them labels such as ‘narcissist’, ‘psychopath’ and having a ‘personality disorder’. Indeed, these disruptive, dangerous and frightening characters cannot be let loose on the community. After the many reports about coercive control, gaslighting and unhealthy narcissistic behaviours, I think this book, despite being published ten years before this became a crime, is quite up-to-date. Kevin is a murderer with no feelings, no remorse, no shame. There is something missing in his psyche, which, according to Shriver, is inherent. He cannot be cured, although towards the end of the book Shriver does hint at a sign of remorse in him (p.465).

For psychopathy, neuroscience does not yet provide enough evidence to give us the answers either, but we do know that 1% of the population of the UK would meet the criteria for psychopathy, yet do not necessarily go on to commit a crime (Chivers, 2017). As psychotherapists we are encouraged to think that most conditions can be altered through our work. I feel Shriver takes a hard line on this. If 1% of our communities harbour psychopaths, does this mean that 1% need to be locked up forever? Or can we successfully treat them?

Lynda Woodroffe is on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychotherapy and works as a part-time psychotherapist in North West London. She is also a keen gardener and dancer. www.lyndawoodroffe.co.uk

 

References

Chatzigiannis, S. 2018. What percentage of people are psychopaths/sociopaths? [online] Quora.com: Available at: https://www.quora.com/What-percentage-of-people-are-psychopaths-sociopaths [Accessed 11 February 2019]

Chivers, T. 2017. How to Spot a Psychopath, [online] The Telegraph, 29 August. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/non-fiction/spot-psychopath/ [Accessed 6 March 2019]

Szalavitz, M. 2011. Q&A: Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen on Empathy and the Science of Evil. [online] Time Magazine. Available at: http://healthland.time.com/2011/05/30/mind-reading-psychologist-simon-baron-cohen-on-empathy-and-the-science-of-evil/ [Accessed 11 February 2019]