Recently I went to “Girls’ Night” at a friend’s house. All of the girls in attendance were moms except for me, which was fine. We’re at that age (30) where it’s normal to be a mom, and sometimes I feel like the abnormal one who’s still going to karaoke nights and making out with ex-boyfriends. Plus, I’d like to be a mom myself if I could only find the right dude with whom to procreate, so I’m certainly not knocking motherhood. But moms often seems like they’re moms first and people second: everything is about their kids. So, at Girls’ Night, we discussed baby showers and baby food and baby clothes, and I was bored. I wanted to talk about books or movies or any topic on which I actually had something to say. At one point, I was about to pipe up, “so, I’m reading this really interesting book right now, let me tell you guys about it.” But then I stopped myself.
Because the book was We Need to Talk About Kevin.
In case you’re not familiar, Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is also now a movie starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reily) is an exceptionally well-written and well-paced novel about a mother whose son commits mass-murder at his high school. The novel is narrated by the mother, who, coincidentally, has my name: Eva. Eva rehashes Kevin’s childhood through letters to her husband and wonders if somehow she is to blame for how her son turned out. One of the most fascinating things about the book, to me, was deciding how I felt about Eva. In some ways I identified with her: an intelligent, independent adventure-seeker who doesn’t marry until her early thirties. I could sympathize with the way having a baby changes her entire life, and not necessarily for the better. On the other hand, as the novel progressed, I began to notice her negativity and the way she could be so cold and judgmental and self-absorbed. She portrays Kevin as a monster since birth, but is he really? Or do Eva’s own negative thoughts about motherhood taint her depiction of him?
I wanted to bring up the book, but I wasn’t sure the topic was something my mom-friends would want to ponder. After all, the novel asks point-blank: is a mother to blame for her son’s murderous rampage? Bringing this up in the company of five mothers seemed, in some way, insensitive.
In the novel, Kevin is cold, calculating, and lacking empathy; he is obviously a sociopath, or has some sort of mental disorder. From what I know about psychopathy, it is a brain deficiency in the areas that control compassion, empathy, and emotion. These people are often manipulative and condescending. They victimize others, engage in criminal and risky behaviors, and have absolutely no remorse for their actions. No amount of treatment can ever “cure” a sociopath, and there is no effective medication. But nowhere in the DSM-IV does it say that sociopaths have the innate impulse to kill. In fact, only a very small percentage of sociopaths turn out to be murderers. Which begs the question, what can a mother do to make sure she raises the nicest sociopath possible? And, furthermore, did Eva’s negativity and self-righteous rants somehow push Kevin towards committing his horrific crimes?
Shriver’s novel has such strong pacing and build-up towards the inevitable climax that I found myself getting anxious as Kevin grew closer to the age of fifteen. And I was overwhelmingly impressed with Shriver’s gutsy decision to write this disturbing and fascinating story. Not only did she choose an intense topic, she didn’t attempt to make Eva all that sympathetic. Eva is not an ideal mother who did the best she could with a deranged son. Eva is a selfish mother who didn’t like Kevin from the moment he was born. Shriver is not a mother herself, and I wonder if that’s why she was able to write this novel: no one could accuse her of having such thoughts about her own children. Would a woman who is a mother be able to write this same story? Eva, just like everyone in the world, is flawed. There is a part of her that wants to be a good mother, but there is a part of her that resents the sacrifices she has to make for motherhood. I don’t have to be a mom to realize that all mothers must feel this way sometimes, though they may not say it.
While reading We Need to Talk About Kevin, a tiny, frightened voice kept whispering in my head, “what if you turn out like Eva?” I’ve always assumed, as Eva does at the beginning of the novel, that when I have a kid, I will love him or her unconditionally and suddenly be bathed in a magical, maternal bliss. I assume that I won’t mind saying goodbye to evening yoga classes and a clean house and leisurely afternoons of reading and writing. That I’ll be fine giving up happy hours and late-night escapades because it will all be worth it. But maybe I will mind. Maybe if I become a mother, I ‘ll secretly share some of Eva’s resentments, and that’s scary. It’s scary because it doesn’t even have anything to do with giving birth to a sociopath. It’s scary because it’s so easy to imagine. Maybe the reason I was afraid to bring up We Need to Talk About Kevin with my mom-friends is because the novel hits on some truths to which most women are ashamed to admit. I have the feeling that some mothers might even be offended to read the novel and would take pains to denounce Eva, saying that if their son was a sociopath, they would still love him unconditionally.
A few days after Girls’ Night, finished We Need to Talk About Kevin on the Metro on my way to meet up with my friend, we’ll call her Kelly. She’s a mom, and yet she makes time to join me for the occasional happy hour or karaoke night. While Kelly and I walked to a bar, I brought up the book. Kelly has a brother with schizophrenia, and at times she worries she might pass the genetic predisposition on to her daughter and she’ll feel partially at fault. And if her daughter does inherit the predisposition, we wondered, is something Kelly might do to prevent or trigger a psychotic break? Over five-dollar Cosmos, we had a good discussion about mental illness and the complexities of parenting beyond baby food, and I was reminded that moms are people, just like the rest of us. That evening I suppressed my urge to quote from one of my favorite movies, The House of Yes, but I will do so now: “People raise cattle. Children just happen.” We Need to Talk About Kevin is a terrifying and terrifically-told account of what every mother hopes won’t happen.