I recently read We Need to Talk About Kevin. If you’re unfamiliar with the text, it is written from the perspective of a mother whose always-peculiar son – the eponymous Kevin – goes into school one day and massacres a number of fellow pupils, a teacher and a canteen worker caught in the cross-fire.
So far, so ordinary. Whilst tragic in every conceivable way, and whilst highlighting wider social issues such as the taboos and stereotypes that society pretends don’t exist, explorations of high school massacres have been…well, they’ve been done, you know? I’ve seen countless documentaries and a few films on the subject (the most high-profile of which is Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which really worth watching if you’ve not yet done so, even if you’re of the view that Mr Moore is something of a twat), and of course there are many books, songs, and even a game (!) on the topic.
But Kevin is different. Without rehearsing the entire text, it examines Kevin’s psychology, and that of his mother Eva, from every angle you can imagine. Was Kevin born ‘bad’? Was Eva’s lack of emotional attachment to her son from day one a catalyst for an inevitably sociopathic character? Is such a character genuinely incapable of feeling normal human affects? Nature vs nurture. The way the concept of parental love has been become so innately woven into the threads of Western society that no one talks about the fact that sometimes it just doesn’t exist. The impact of all-consuming grief on those left behind. And so much more.
My thinking is that Kevin transcends genres – part thriller, part social commentary, part human drama. Whatever the case, it’s a rare book in any of those arenas in that, in my view, it borderlines on literature, rather than a standard pulp page-turner. Eva’s writing style is beguiling and intellectual, and it genuinely added new vocabulary to my usual daily language. One of my favourite series of books, that of fictional diarist Adrian Mole, was in part so lauded by the child-me for similar reasons.
Another way in which Kevin differs from traditional fiction is in the subtle ways it explores themes that either you’ve not thought about – or that you have, but haven’t been able to cohesively word and explain.
And lo: so it was for me.
I like to think that I was born old. My therapist infuriates me when he talks about me as a child; this week, for instance, he started banging on about ‘play’, and I irritably informed him that entertainment to me as a five year old was reading Grey’s Anatomy whilst listening to Bach (true story!). He always moans when I say something like, “yes, but when you consider the utilitarian and social context of your hypothesis, it has to be repudiated,” then stops me, rolls his eyes and says (to my abject fury), “but the little girl [me] didn’t think like that.”
Actually, and admittedly in less in high-falutin terms, I think I did – but whatever. I suppose I have to concede that children and adults are inherently different, regardless of the specifics of the divergence.
Kevin addresses this dichotomy masterfully, and one particular line gave me one of those “aha!” moments:
The secret is that there is no secret.
Let me explain.
As children – even bizarre, superficially precocious children like me – we (usually) look at our parents, teachers, aunts and uncles as glamorous beings of almost mystical proportions. In saying that, I’m not suggesting that we necessarily idolise such people – but they inhabit their own curious domain of which we cannot be part. We spend our youth wasting it away, prematurely dreaming of receiving our membership cards to this exclusive club.
As far as parents go they will, for the most part, try to shield children from many details of adult lives – not because they want to inhibit or frustrate the child, but because they seek (often misguidedly, in my view) to ‘protect’ him or her. In doing so, childhood curiosity is piqued even further: “oh, I saw these strangely shaped rubber things in the chemist, but when I asked Mum what they were, she went red, made some excuse and dragged me away.” Word to the wise there: unless you’re a particularly convincing liar, the kid will know when you’re bullshitting them 😉
Anyway. You grow into a teenager, and start pushing your boundaries as you navigate your way through a challenging transitional period. You might drink, smoke, stay out late, whatever – you’re by and large old enough to be self-sufficient (in the evolutionary and social senses, not ((normally!)) the economic one); you’ve waited years to take a step into the greenery on the other side, and here you are, one foot tentatively advancing towards it.
But it is a foot, not feet, and the allure of ‘proper’ adulthood remains; the secret fraternity hovering temptingly just those last few inches beyond the reach of one’s second pedal extremity (sorry about that. The prospect of using the word ‘foot’ again was really grating on me).
I found my late teenage and early 20s years essentially a less pissed off extension of the 13 – 16ish period; admittedly, drinking, smoking, having sex, dying for my country and so on all had all become entirely legal pursuits by then, so perhaps that dilutes the fore-running inquisitiveness to a degree. However, the new legality may have a fun element to it too – one day you were strictly speaking forbidden to indulge in these things – but today?! Hark! You can do what you like!
After I left university – one degree, one PgDip rather than one MSSc and one major mental health breakdown under my belt – I eventually joined the rat race. I had worked since I was about 14 in various teenagey jobs, but now I had proper jobs, innit! I worked in some truly awful places, and a couple of good ones, before I had the break-down to end all break-downs in 2008, from which I have still not recovered. But even when things were shit at work, well at least I’d turned into an adult, hadn’t I?
Hadn’t I? After all that wishing away my childhood, I wasn’t, surely, now wishing it back?
Well, not consciously I suppose (or at least, not initially), but certain characteristics began to emerge that could be said to represent such longing. Whilst mental illness may explain some things that seem incompatible with adulthood, it’s not responsible for all such idiosyncrasies (so long as you’re not my therapist! ;-)). I developed a passionate love for cuddly toys. I cried when a tamagotchi-style thing on my iPhone recently died. I love cartoons (though admittedly many, such as Danger Mouse, have lots of nuanced layers to them, thus satisfying ‘real’ adults as well as children). I sometimes – amongst certain personnel, particularly my partner (The Man) – have a childlike way of discussing and describing many things.
Mostly I’ve been able to conceal it all from the outside world, but the fact that it’s happened at all strikes me as tragically bizarre.
The advent of Facebook – a site I really don’t like at all, but use reluctantly because of its unfortunate ubiquity – has had a surprisingly large impact on me in terms of how I’ve come to view adult- and childhood. Ironically, since I’m childfree, a lot of that has been derived from seeing people I went to school with having children. I look at them and think, “God! No! You can’t have a child. You can’t. You’re a child. We were children together! You can’t be a mother/father!” etc, ad infinitum.
Also, of the
girls women with whom I was at school that have got married, I cannot accept (and putting potential feminist issues aside) their new names. “Her name is Jane Smith, not Jane Doe. She is wrong. End of.” (This is a bit hypocritical, though. Although I’m not married, and would not modify my surname even if I were, I have changed it for other reasons. I’ll write about it some time).
Oh, and then there’s the careers. That’s by far the worst for me; all I’ve really wanted beyond a contented home life is a good career – not a job, a career. Due to my health concerns, I’ve never managed to develop that – I’ve really only ever had jobs, and now have nothing at all, bar the meagre amount of writing I produce professionally. Yet the people on Facebook – bah. Every single one of them seems to have what they wanted. The ones that went to study law are solicitors. Health and social care folks working in care homes or the NHS. Of those that could have been called ‘drifters’, even many of them have middle to senior management roles now. (Incidentally, I know this is not the case for everyone I was at school with. Maybe I just notice it more, but it does feel as though the incidence of my ex-peers’ successes is disproportionately high.)
Yet…don’t they have very standard 2.4, nuclear lives? It’s all so adult. It may be subjectively measured as ‘successful’, but isn’t it…well, frankly, isn’t it underwhelmingly ordinary?
Part of my brain very much regrets being 28 (especially since I’ve achieved damn all), and will regret being 38, 48, 58 and so on. There’s a child in there to be sure, and it comes out in infantile humour, occasional recklessness and the few times I’m willing to show psychological vulnerability. And now I consciously regret not making more of what should have been the heady days of my childhood and adolescence.
When I was 16, I ran into a teacher of mine in a pub. I was wide-eyed with perplexity that this woman would be out drinking. Yes, teachers are adults, and yes, alcohol is an activity in which only adults are meant to engage. But the fallacious thinking of youth still holds most adults to different standards. Teachers are adult adults. Proper ones.
Except that they’re not. These days, it’s me socialising with teachers in the pub, and I regret to report that they are not mystical, covert demi-gods hanging around sneering at kids in smug, grown-up condescension. They’re as interesting or as boring as the rest of us. Just people. Just sodding adults.
Without seeing the world through the curious eyes of a child – eyes that constantly examine, learn and process (resulting in the perception that time moves slowly, quite the opposite of the adult) – repeated things like drinking, sex and 18-rated films, whilst certainly enjoyable, are ultimately commonplace and normal. Adulthood dictates that everything is relative; even an exciting job such as an astrophysicist will probably become commonplace and normal to its incumbent.
So I look back to my childhood and wonder what I thought was going to be so fascinating and magical. I wonder why I, like so many other kids, was so obsessed with understanding the apparent secret of legal and social maturity.
Because, my friends, the single most significant secret of adulthood is…there is no secret.
This entry is a response to a post prompt from Plinky and is a modified version of my answer there. I had intended at some point to write on this topic anyway, but the suggestion there gave me the impetus to finally get on with it.
Picture credits: see outgoing links.