We need to talk about who’s to blame

The film of Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel about teen spree killer Kevin examines parental responsibility and nature versus nurture, says Caroline Delaney.

WITH a history of sneaky and violent behaviour, a teenage boy massacres his schoolmates.

Is he a confused and lonely soul, who senses his mother didn’t warm to him even when she was pregnant? Was it a cry for attention from adults who failed to recognise how clever and bored he had been for the previous decade? Was he born evil and spent his formative years working up to this awful deed?

These are ways of understanding Kevin, the central character in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel by American Lionel Shriver. This disturbing and award-winning (2005 Orange Prize) book has been made into a film starring Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly. The film gets its Irish release next week.

The book deals with the build-up to, and the aftermath of, the Columbine-style slaughter as Kevin’s mum, Eva, played by Swinton in the movie, writes letters to her husband. She examines their life in detail, including instances of Kevin displaying little or no affection or moral responsibility towards his family or community.

Kevin regards everyone with contempt and hatred and his mother seems to be the only person who saw this early. Kevin’s father, Franklin, is intensely blinkered about his family. He strives to believe his household conforms to his happy-clappy view of all-American family life. He thinks manly hugs, sports and a massive pretence that all is well will have a positive outcome.

After Kevin kills nine pupils, a public baying for justice, and for an easy explanation for his behaviour, targets his mother in a classic ‘I blame the parents’ scenario. Kevin is a minor (15 years) so it is easy to blame the mother — paint is flung at her and she is abused in the street.

Does maternal neglect or abuse explain or excuse a child’s crimes?

No, says Dr Shane Kilcommins, a senior lecturer in law at University College Cork. “It just could never happen here. You could have parental abuse or neglect taken as a mitigating factor at sentencing stage but it would never make a scientific defence,” he says.

Kilcommins mentions Hans Eysenck, a German-British psychologist renowned for his work on intelligence and personality. Eysenck says personality traits are caused by the properties of the brain, which are the result of genetics. Most personality traits are inherited, though some can be learnt.

“According to this approach, Kevin’s conduct could be explained by a genetic predisposition tending towards an inability to form meaningful relationships, a lack of control over impulses, a lack of moral sense, an inability to learn from wrongdoing (a sanction, for example, would not alter his behaviour), emotional immaturity and instability, a lack of empathy, an inability to experience guilt, and self-centredness,” says Kilcommins.

This seems to largely absolve Eva from responsibility for her son’s crimes. Even if she had punished him for earlier misdemeanours he may not have learnt from it.

Yet, even while documenting Kevin’s many unpleasant and downright nasty traits, she also casts a cold eye on how she dealt with situations during his childhood. To some extent, this is the typical ‘mammy guilt’ that mothers, and especially working mothers, burden themselves with.

You see it in everyday situations all the time — a toddler hits another child at playgroup and the mother swoops in straight away, apologising and placating. The concept of cash-rich, time-poor mothers lavishing their emotionally-neglected children with sophisticated and expensive gadgets became a popularly-decried case study of the Celtic Tiger.

Court reports of teenagers engaging in anything from graffiti to gang rape were usually followed up on the airwaves with queries about ‘where were the parents?’ or ‘did his mother know where he was?’

Parents are held legally responsible when their child is truant from school — several hundred parents have been summoned before Irish courts in relation to their child’s truancy — with a small number getting custodial sentences.

At Mullingar district court earlier this year, Judge Seamus Hughes warned his district that he was going to “keep a tight rein” on parents who fail to send their children to school.

“There are a lot of children who have no respect — through their parents — for education,” said Judge Hughes, as he described his approach to truancy as “proactive.”

Upon hearing that the children’s attendance was progressing well, the judge congratulated their mothers on their good work and told them to keep it up.

So is a child, defined as a person under the age of 18 years, blameless in the eyes of the Irish legal system?

Does it all come back to holding mum or dad fully culpable?

Not at all: the Irish ‘age of criminal responsibility’ was raised from seven years of age to 12 years of age in 2006. And even then children under the age of 12 do not enjoy immunity from action being taken against them.

Yet parents, and more especially mothers, are rightly or wrongly held up to scrutiny when their child misbehaves and this is at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

“Mothers are frequently blamed for the actions of their children, even when those children become adults, especially in cases of multiple homicide,” says Dr Catherine O’Sullivan, co-director of the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights at UCC.

“However, when individuals who have committed multiple or serial homicide have been interviewed, their anger has usually been directed at their fathers not their mothers,” she says.

“This begs the question, then, why it is mothers who are blamed. Just because child-caring duties have been divided in a gendered way, meaning that women tend to spend more time with children than men, this does not negate the fact that both parents play an important role in the development of a child,” says Dr O’Sullivan, who also teaches criminal law and criminology in UCC.

Film director, Lynn Ramsay, seems to emphasise maternal blame in casting Tilda Swinton as Kevin’s mother. Swinton will probably never be cast as a cuddly or warm character — indeed, she has typically been cast as an ‘ice queen’.

Swinton has actually played the Snow Queen in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and has also been wonderfully cast as the ruthless Sal in The Beach.

Shriver herself hails Swinton as ‘brilliantly cast’ as Eva.

Yet Shriver’s comments on the actor who plays Kevin seem to indicate that she leans towards viewing Kevin as evil incarnate.

“Talking to Ezra Miller (who plays a teenage Kevin) in Cannes was so eerily like having a conversation with Kevin himself that at the premiere’s after-party I turned to him with narrowed eyes. ‘You little shit,’ I said. Rationally, I knew better, but something in me truly believed that this kid had killed seven students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker at his high school, and still thought rather well of himself for pulling the atrocity off,” Shriver said.

Flashes of humanity from Kevin only serve to remind us that he isn’t a fairytale monster — but a deeply-troubled child who did some really bad things.

And for Shriver, the really frightening part is the ‘lottery’ of procreation: “It’s like leaving the back door unlocked — anyone could walk in.”

Kevin could be anyone’s child.

Lionel Shriver, 54, was born in North Carolina to a deeply religious family. She changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel at the age of 15 because she didn’t like the name she had been given.

She has said that rather than writing about traditionally sympathetic characters, she prefers to create characters who are “hard to love”.

Shriver has said in interviews conducted when We Need to Talk About Kevin was first published that she didn’t want children, but in her early 40s, with time running out, she started thinking again about motherhood — and the result was Kevin.

Once she had finished the book, she realised that “if that’s what I think of when I imagine motherhood, then it’s probably not for me.”

Shriver went to Belfast to research her third novel, The Bleeding Heart, but was so taken with life there that she stayed for 12 years.

The director of photography on We Need to Talk About Kevin was Seamus McGarvey, who was born in Armagh.

“The difference between Belfast and the other cities is that I stayed so long. I even left at one point, but had to go back.

“It felt like home. Even now, when I visit, it feels like home. I’m always happy as a clam there,” she says.

Shriver currently lives in London.

Columbine killings sparked debate

One of the most prominent school killings was the ‘Columbine high school massacre’.

On April 20, 1999, two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and one teacher. They injured 21 other students and then committed suicide. This massacre sparked massive debate on gun-control laws; gun violence involving youths; high-school cliques, subculture and bullying, and the role of violent films and computer games in US society.

This summer, authorities in suburban New Orleans uncovered a plot by three 15-year-old boys to attack their high school, with plans to shoot indiscriminately and commit suicide.

Police said the plotters dubbed their group ‘day zero.’

“In my nearly 30 years in law enforcement, in this parish, this is the most advanced plan that I have seen to date that was, or potentially was, a threat to our school kids,” said St Tammany parish sheriff, Jack Strain.

‘Future offenders can be predicted’

A long-running examination of children has claimed success in predicting which infants would commit domestic violence or serious acts of violence by age 21.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study began in 1972 and tracked 1,000 children. The evidence shows that the root causes of crime, violence and abuse can be planted before children reach their third birthday.

George Hosking, an expert on crime prevention, was in Dublin recently as a guest of Young Ballymun, an early intervention programme. He was here to address the first Irish forum on infant mental health.

“People at the more serious end of criminality — people who develop that — can be spotted, to a significant degree, by age three by trained nurses and this has been proved in a study in Dunedin in New Zealand, where nurses were able to predict 18 years in advance the children who were most likely to commit domestic violence and commit serious acts of violence when they reached 21 years of age,” he said.

When the children were aged three, nurses observed them at play for 90 minutes. The nurses knew nothing about the children’s backgrounds. At the end of the 90 minutes, the nurses categorised the children either as ‘normal’ or ‘at risk’.

“And when the children were 21, they compared things like their criminal offending, their domestic violence offending and the extent to which they had had teenage pregnancies, and things like this, and the nurses have been remarkably accurate in picking out those children who would run into trouble by age 21,” Hosking said.

The study highlights an urgent need for a significant increase in the resources put into a child’s early years, said Hosking.

“Governments should be putting far more resources into that first three years of life. The infant brain multiplies 19 times in size between birth and age three. The synapses, the connections in a baby’s brain, are growing at the rate of one million per second during that three-year period. Every experience a baby has in that part of its life is being translated into the hard-wiring of its brain.

“We should be taking phenomenal care of children during that age, yet government spends less money on that age of children than any other age. We get our spending the wrong way around,” he said.

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