“We Need to Talk About Kevin” Book Review

Reading “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver was illuminating. Published in 2004, this work of fiction is timeless in light of the school shootings in cities across America and the gun violence on the west and south sides of Chicago.  Young people are still murdering one another in public places without any real consequences, has continued 10 years later. Although Kevin is a fictional character and his family, self-absorbed mother Eva, deluded father Franklin and sweet daughter Celia, offer a rare glimpse into why someone walks into a public space, pulls out a weapon and kills another human being.

While many pundits on television love to talk about black pathology and the cycles of poverty as reasons why shootings on the west and south sides of Chicago occur, reasons which are tenuous at best, one thing all of these shooters have in common is a lack of love and attention in the home.

It’s hard to understand this, especially when someone sees a person like the character Kevin. An epistolary novel, Eva is writing to her husband Franklin, sharing all her thoughts on their murderous child Kevin. She talks about her ambivalence to becoming a mother, her disconnection with Kevin from the day he was born, his disturbing disposition as a child and her visits with him in jail. Eva as a narrator is often irritating and self-absorbed. She goes on frequent rants about other Americans and their “ignorance.” An Armenian, Eva sees herself as smarter, sophisticated and well-educated in comparison to her American peers. Once, she shares a rant with her son and he systematically shuts her down, points out her hypocrisy and makes her feel foolish.  I clapped at the end of this scene, grateful that someone had finally told Eva off effectively.

It is clear, that Eva never wanted Kevin, but had him to appease her husband a man she described as wanting a “Leave it to Beaver” household. His inability to see Kevin as a real person,  plus Eva’s disgust with her child, created and fostered a disconnected son. Is it possible for a child to feel rejected from the womb? On a fundamental level Kevin is rejected by both his parents, but in different ways, neither one really taking a real interest in him. Eva rejects him because she is afraid of him and sees him as evil. His father rejects his negative side and only tries to see the good in him, not dealing with the reality that his son had major issues from an early age. Neither one knows how to communicate with each other about who Kevin is and how to parent him well as a team.

After being told to watch the movie numerous times by my sister, I thought my sympathies would lie with the mother. Instead, Kevin is the most sympathetic character in the book, despite the horrific things he did. Kevin was raised by two people who had no interest in being parents and were not prepared for the realities of raising a child.  This is a common link between the white, affluent, middle-class shooters in schools and black/Latino, poor shooters on the streets. We all like to imagine that people like Kevin have a “good” life: a home, car, safe neighborhood, two parents present, access to a variety of resources, and money. While they may have external advantages, what they may not have are internal ones. Who loves them? Who is committed to getting to know them? Who takes a real interest in them? Who is there for them emotionally and spiritually? What community is available to help raise this child? Kevin was abandoned by his parents even before he was born, despite all the material wealth they possessed, he was not raised in a “good” home.

Still, Kevin is responsible for his own actions and in the novel he admits this as well. Here is his explanation for why he went on a murder spree when asked by a reporter: “You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio…Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch  a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching…All these people Marlin, ‘What are they watching?…People like me…The way I see it, the world is divided into the watchers and the watchees, and there’s more and more of an audience and less and less to see. People who actually do anything are a goddamned endangered species.” (p. 354).

Obviously, these are the words of Shriver, and her points are valid. We are a nation of watchers. Tablets, phones, computers,  television, and books, we spend our days watching other people and their lives, whether fictional or real, unfold.  While books, television and film have been around for years, I think what is different for this generation, starting with the major shooting at Columbine High in 1999, is the combination of watching various forms of media and the lack of sufficient parenting. A number of parents are absent in mind, body and/or spirit. These parents have no interest in having or raising children. These parents are interested in advancing their careers, tending to their signifiant others, developing their friendships, finding themselves and/or treating their children as an afterthought, rather than a priority. “We Need to Talk about Kevin” and all the other children we are not taking care of as a society.

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