Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Recently I spoke with an acquaintance who brought up a woman we know. The woman’s son, now in his early twenties, is halfway through a prison sentence, serving time for a variety of serious crimes.

He was always a bad seed, my acquaintance commented.

I agreed.

Then she added: His mother never did anything about it when she could.

True. But the boy was always a monster. Even if his mother had acted, she might not have succeeded in curbing his ways. In fact, I doubt she ever had an iota of control.

The conversation was an ironic one, given that I was in the final pages of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.


Eva Khatchadourian is happily married to Franklin Plaskett. Theirs is a union of opposites: Eva is the fatherless child of an Armenian immigrant, a woman whose relationship to her fellow Americans is an uneasy one. Franklin is a blond, easygoing Republican who loves his country with touching fervor. He likes nothing better than to travel in his pickup, Springsteen blaring, scouting sites for ad companies. Eva, an avid traveler, has a flourishing business publishing travel guides. Together they live a New York life filled with friends, parties, fine food and wine. But as time passes, the notion of a child takes hold in Eva’s mind.

Not that Eva craves a child in the hormone-blinded, madly longing way many women describe. Her desire is a questioning self-examination, fueled partly by her mother, an agoraphobe. In her efforts to be as unlike her mother as possible, Eva has spent her life forcing herself to face down fear. Faced with a challenge, Eva deliberately, incrementally wades in. So it is she becomes pregnant at age forty-one. And is consumed with dread.

Franklin, meanwhile, is overjoyed. So Eva begins sixteen years of lying. Do her lies lead to the devastating consequences? Impossible to say. Narrated in a series of letters to the now-absent Franklin, Eva unspools a hideous family drama.

Kevin Khatchadourian enters the world reluctantly, two weeks past due. He is a screamer who refuses to nurse, a malevolent toddler who terrorizes nannies, is cruel to his mother, to waitresses, to his classmates. Shriver’s evocation of this little monster is chilling. Eva finds herself unable to love this changeling who refuses to speak, toilet train, or even play. He is a child who hates everything, including cookies and television. Eva is beyond horror.

Yet Franklin will not—cannot—acknowledge how terribly troubled their son is. He epitomizes the bluff, hearty father, all too eager to forgive the many “mistakes” that occur whenever Kevin is around: the little girl with eczema, found in the bathroom with Kevin, scratching until she is covered with blood, his taunting remarks to a waitress with a disfiguring birthmark, his amazingly destructive shenanigans with a squirt gun. (Think fresh wallpaper. Now think permanent ink.) Instead, Franklin blames Eva: she is a bad mother who does not love her son, a woman obsessed by her work. And because Eva loves Franklin, she capitulates. Never once, she admits, does she think to leave.

One of the scariest things about this book is its familiarity. Reading Kevin is akin to reading The Shining in that both will scare you senseless. But we know Jack will meet his end in the Overlook hotel. And though we also know Kevin Khatchadourian is behind bars, there’s no comfort in the fact, for there’s a line of Kevins right behind him. And we know these people. The bad seeds. The strange ones. The sibling or cousin or neighbor child everybody regards with such puzzlement, for he or she comes from such a nice family. A family who lives in a nice house with a manicured lawn and a nice mom and dad with good jobs. We cannot push the Kevins of the world to the margins, or explain away their behaviors with socioeconomic factors or absent parents or ADD. Shriver takes great pains with this point: there is no complete explanation for the American proliferation of Kevins. They are the products of a culture lacking spiritual inclinations or especial suffering. Their lives are remarkably empty.

Kevin the teenager is truly frightening. He has no interests apart from archery. He has one friend, a dull lowlife who helps toss bricks from an overpass onto passing automobiles. His only other hobby, if one could call it that, is collecting computer viruses. His speech ranges from the sarcastic to the mean; he affects a bizarre dress style of clothing several sizes too small. His classmates are too intimidated even to make fun of him.

Eva’s protests to Franklin continue being met by increasing resistance: even when Eva has a second child, the docile Celia, Franklin refuses to see the obvious. Celia’s missing pet is dismissed. So is a horrifying “accident” involving Drano. Predictably, the marriage suffers.

Eva is bitterly unsparing: she blames herself, squarely, and metes out the measure of her suffering in her post-Kevin life. She writes her letters with hindsight’s terrible clarity, realizing all the while there was little she might have done to halt events. There are, as some of us are beginning to understand, few means of punishing those who think they have nothing to lose.


Shriver takes a risk in writing about ambivalent motherhood. Though optional childlessness is beginning to lose some of its taboo in American culture (at least here in the liberal Bay Area), admitting you are flummoxed by pregnancy, or worse, do not love your own child, is unthinkable. At best, you can love your child without liking him or her, and even that in select company. But the truth remains that many women have children simply because they are supposed to.

Case in point: Hockeyman and I spent last weekend in a large National Park. Hockeyman spent his days fishing while I read Kevin. No fish were harmed during the making of this vacation, though we tender Bay Area folk both acquired hellish sunburns. (Yes, yes, we bathed in sunblock.)

At one point, as my husband was stringing his line, a little boy of six or so approached us. He was entranced by Hockeyman’s Fenwick tackle box, filled with a lifetime accumulation of shiny spinners and lures. He asked to see the box, actually leaned over my husband’s arm to get a better look. He began speaking rapidly, prefacing his remarks with “You know what?”, whereupon he launched into numerous tall tales with great speed. Here was a child nobody listened to, speaking with complete strangers.

From across the lake came “JA—AACK!!!!!” Again. “JACK! GET. OVER. HERE. NOW!”

“That’s my mom,” he informed us, then ran over to where she sat under an umbrella with other family members.

Clearly he was being told to quit bothering us. He obeyed, trotting to another part of the lake, where he approached another man and began talking his ear off.

Two things struck us. The first was this child’s willingness to talk with—even touch—strangers. At his age I was well-indoctrinated by Officer Ron, who visited my elementary school every Thursday afternoon: when approached by a strange adult, I was to take off screaming. Under no circumstances was I to initiate conversation with persons unknown. Granted, I grew up in Detroit during the Oakland County Killer’s reign, but still. The second, even sadder, was this child’s mother. She was bored by her son. Annoyed. She wanted him in her sight but out of earshot. This much was abundantly clear.

Do little boys like this one grow in Kevins or Eric Harrises or Dylan Kleebolds? Not necessarily. But being unloved and unwanted leaves a hole no amount of friendly strangers with tackle can fill.


Thursday arrives, the horrible Thursday. Kevin kills seven students, the English teacher who likes him, and a cafeteria worker in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kevin's plan is meticulous, his use of Kryptonite Locks (this book was written in 2003) painfully prescient. There are lots of Kevins we need to talk about.

I can’t say you’ll enjoy reading this book. My edition has a P.S. section, a sort of reading-groupy thing I normally despise, but the afterword contains an interview with Shriver where she says “writing that novel was slog.” It isn’t a slog to read—anybody who read The Post Birthday World can attest to Shriver’s literary skills—but even as you race through the plot, your heart sinks. And if you're a crier, don't reading the ending in public. But you do need to read We Need to Talk about Kevin, because there will be another Kevin, and forewarned maybe, maybe, might be forearmed.

Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk about Kevin. New York: Harper Perennial. 2003.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you assume the mom of the box who spoke to you 2 was bored with her son?

December 31, 2012 4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mom of the boy* (typo)

December 31, 2012 4:32 PM  

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