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.)
They’re happy, whether through work, children or marriage. And I’m jealous of that.
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.
I’m 38 and I am still waiting for that “career” thing to happen. At 18 it was so firmly planted in my head that I was going to work in the Theatre (in respect or another) I kind of let every other option pass me by. I didn’t do what my parents suggested and “Have something to fall back on.” Now 20 years later I am scrambling at a Mid Life Crisis of what the hell do I want to be when I retire.
I spent time on Facebook yesterday looking at profiles of people I went to school with and the amount of people who “The System” wrote off back then are now all very happy with great jobs that they appear to be good at. I felt a mixture of pride that they overcame the challenges they had as kids and proved the teachers wrong.
I don’t wish for my childhood back. There was far to much crap that went on. I hate thinking back about certain aspects of my youth to want to relive it again. I am happy with the family I have now. To a point I chose my family and how close we all are.
Anyway I am off on one again. I will have to find “We have to talk about Kevin, It pops up now and again on Good Read lists always great reviews.
Not off on one at all 🙂 Actually, perhaps saying I long for my childhood back is a tad (!) inaccurate – it wasn’t the most pleasant of times, as I’m sure most readers are aware. What I miss, or what I would like back, is what could have been, which is obviously not the same thing at all.
I understand you having that reaction to the folks on FB; most of the ones I’m so envious of were academic achievers and/or popular types that would get somewhere regardless of intellect. As for those ones that have become successful despite being written off at school, I think I’d react very similarly to you.
The career thing sucks, but I’m really glad that you’re happy with the family around you. I’m conflicted about mine; I love my partner and my mum, but the wider family…well, that’s a can of worms 😉 Most of all I miss my friends, who are more like a family than most of the ‘real’ lot have been.
Anyway! *sigh* Nothing’s ever simple or easy, is it?
Take care Paul
Another fascinating post! I agree Paul- really must read this book, I’ve heard nothing but good reports on it.
I kind of get what your saying about youth Viv. My sister and I were physically abused by our father and obviously I would never want to go back to anything like that but I wish it hadn’t been that way (again obviously) and had it been different I would lament not having it any more. It’s only now I realise that- well, life’s short (even with depression!!). That’s prob what yuou’re saying about seeing things through kid’s eyes- you’re meant to spend your childhood exploring and learning about the world, when you hit your 20’s or 30’s you’ve mostly done it I suppose.
Anyway thanks for this Viv, and remind me to get onto that book!
I can hardly recommend it highly enough. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time 🙂
Yes, life is short. Despite the routine suicidality I’ve experienced, that saddens me in many ways. Killing yourself is one thing, I suppose; you have complete control over that (if you do your research). Dying as the inevitable consequence of living is, of course, out of one’s control – and as you hurtle through your 20s, 30s and so on, the step to the grave seems to come up to meet you so much more quickly.
God, that was morbid. Sorry Kate! On your point about life being slow for a kid and fast for an adult; exactly. I believe I read somewhere one time that that was basically the scientific reason for the anomaly. The child explores and learns new things; by the time we get to this spot in life, things are routine and samey, and there’s little to excite us in quite the same way.
A personal anecdote seems to support the hypothesis. When my partner and I have been on holiday, we experience a weird sort of thing. It flies in when you’re looking at it retrospectively. At the time, however, because the environment is new, and because you’re getting to grip with geography, accents, whatever, things seem slower. The same as a kid getting to know his or her world.
Anyway, that was long and rambling. I’m glad you found it interesting – now, without further ado, download or run out and buy Kevin!
Oops. Writing on an iPhone is a bad idea when using WordPress 😉
As someone who has also read “Kevin”, I am in substantial agreement with you–in fact, the quote “the secret is that there is no secret” resonated very much with me also. I found the end of the novel a little convenient, perhaps–but that does not take away from the subtle development of all the main characters. I believe that was the crucial strand of the book: as you rightly observe, ‘high school massacres’ have been written of extensively. Shriver is clearly a talented author, though I have as yet to explore her other work. Do you have any thoughts on this?
As for the rest of your post, again, the quote in question sums it up succinctly and eloquently. Just like yourself, I spent my entire childhood trying to examine from afar, as it were, how thrilling this life must be. Then I got here–and, to be blunt, MEH.
Admittedly, I am fortunate enough to be entering a profession for which I have a great passion. Nevertheless, life remains as free of the glamor and excitement I fully expected to be experiencing at the age of [also] 28. I think *everyone* is probably in this boat, to a greater or lesser extent.
Well, I shall refrain from wasting any more of your comment space. Thanks for another good post. I do like that you’re exploring a range of issues here =]
Yes, I agree entirely, and you put it better than I could – regardless of what adulthood brings, I think it’s inevitably going to be less glamorous than any child imagines. Who can live up to a fantasy ideal in the real world?
Just as an aside – that profession you’re entering. I do envy you, I’ll admit it, even though I know you’ll make a superlative psychologist. But you’re cynical enough not to think everything’s sweetness and light, so I’ll forgive you your success 😉
I loved Kevin, in fact I was gutted at the end of it that I had finished it and couldn’t read it again without knowing it if that makes sense. I found the ambiguity of the relationships really fascinating.
As to growing up. I supposedly have a career. When i first started the job I do 11 years ago it was going to be a career. I then went and specialised and that was going to be my career. And then I went mental. So here I am, 11 years later, doing the same job as an entry level person except for a wee bit more pay and an awful lot more sick days. I’m good at my job, damn good at it, but I’m never going to advance. I know that now though it took a lot of banging my head against the wall to realise it and come to terms with it.
I now understand I have the energy in my life for one major thing. I can work, have a relationship or do therapy. At the moment all my concentration is on therapy and work is something I just turn up for when I’m capable. IS that a career? I dunno.
To move on, childhood lasted forever. The endlessness of the awfulness. I’m glad adulthood moves faster because I want time to go, I want to be dead. Not necessarily suicide but I would love for this to be over. Hence the self destructiveness. But the childhood leaches into the adulthood as all people with ptsd will recognise. It sucks.
Anyway love you lots as I hope you know xxxxxxxxxxxxx
I totally get that you want to be dead (even though it’s the last thing I want to happen to you). Not that I, like yourself, want to kill myself per se – more along the lines of I wish I hadn’t been born, that I had not been at all.
As for therapy plus something else: I really get that. My first major stint of therapy was when I was doing my GCSEs. I found that at school, either I worked at one subject, or I worked at another. All (but two, maybe) ended up a bit meh as I tried to balance them against each other. Adding therapy to that was realistically a no-no; I turned up for the sessions, sure, but I never did anything with them.
Anyhow, I’m genuinely pleased that you have something, darling, and truly hope it amounts to more than you think it will. And fair play for sticking with therapy. It’s bloody hard.
Lots of love and hugs
I’m there with you in regards to wanting to redo the childhood that could have been, it’s a wonderful thing and a shame to miss out on it. It’s no bad thing to be a bit childish now and again 😀 x
What is so galling about a difficult childhood is that it stays with you. By which I mean: the people that suffer most are the ones that continue to suffer most – the whole trauma-mental illness thing (if it can be said to be an illness in these circumstances, as opposed to a normal reaction to horrible things). Does that make any sense?
I always wonder when people talk about karma if they understand this kind of thing 😦
Anyway, I agree that childishness in adulthood can be fun 😀 Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, maybe it’s not, but whatever the case I’ve found that it has strengthened the bond between my partner and I. And that’s a very good thing.
Thinking of you Alice and sending lots of (((hugs))).
Adults do seem mysterious to children. They’re so much taller and they speak together in hushed tones and tell kids to go play while they talk and we wonder what’s going on.
I think I spent most of my childhood/teenagehood, waiting to get away from my mother.
I think the subject of the lack of familial bonds is really interesting because as stated, no one wants to talk about that. If a mother didn’t feel attachment to her child she would be castigated. It’s unacceptable in society for mothers not to feel motherly. I think many people I know would tell of personal experience in having a mother who didn’t love them.
Also, the idea of someone being born bad. My therapist drives me crazy on this because she thinks everyone is born good and it’s life that changes them. I disagree. I think most people are born fine, but I think sometimes people just come out wrong. The stories of people who commit heinous crimes with no background of dysfunction in their families; how do we explain that?
Wow, I went off on a tangent. Oops.
(((hugs))) I know it sounds trite and platitudinous, but I’m genuinely sorry you had such a horrible mother. As you know, I don’t exactly rate my father, but he was never specifically cruel to me, as I know your mother was to you 😦
Certainly, life can make a person bad, but I’m with you in wondering what happens when the person has little or no trauma in their background. I’d be raging if my therapist kept saying stuff like that too. Harold Shipman is a good example of this, I think. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, he had no significant trauma in his childhood. Granted, his mother to whom he was extremely close died when he wasn’t 17, but as far as my layman’s understanding of psychology goes, personalities are mostly developed by that age. So how the hell did he become one of the most prolific killers in history, if he were not simply ‘that way’?
And that wasn’t a tangent – it was a valid extension to both your comment and issues I’d discussed in the post 🙂
Take care CI