The sins of the mother

Lionel Shriver discusses her chilling new novel "We Need to Talk About Kevin," her fears about motherhood and how Columbine monsters are made.

Published May 8, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

In "We Need to Talk About Kevin," Lionel Shriver's seventh novel, 16-year-old Kevin Khatchadourian locks seven teenagers, an English teacher and a cafeteria worker in the high school gym and systematically offs every one of them -- with a crossbow, no less. It's a parent's worst nightmare. Kevin's not only a killer, and a chillingly creative one, but he's joined the exhausting litany of troubled white boys taking out their angst on innocent peers; he's the grisly topic of nightly talk shows.

And so are his parents. After all, at some point between hanging a mobile above Kevin's crib and shepherding him to school dances, something went horribly wrong.

What went wrong is what Eva, Kevin's mother, tries to figure out in a series of letters to her "estranged" husband Franklin, a year or so after their son unleashed his not-so-secret rage on their quaint, affluent New York suburb (Kevin is very upset when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris steal his spotlight a few weeks later). The Khatchadourians (there's a younger daughter named Celia, too) are wealthy and white; Kevin grows up never wanting for anything. But while Shriver attacks the phenomenon with unflagging gusto (she heavily researched the real-life school murders of the late 1990s), she isn't preoccupied with figuring out what motivates these young men, nor does she ruminate on how a vapid American society creates adolescent monsters.

Thank God for that -- what we get instead is a much more interesting, thoughtful, and surprisingly credible, thriller. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is about motherhood and the possibility that one's ambivalence about breeding might influence the growth and development of a child. Eva, in her scathingly honest and often witty recollections of her relationship with Franklin, her agonized decision to give up a life of traveling for motherhood, and her painful years with (the truly hideous and apathetic) Kevin, faces the question head on: Am I responsible for what my child has done? While the plot -- that a woman's uneasy confusion about motherhood could create a killer -- is over-the-top (Shriver admits as much, too), the grandiosity of it allows Shriver ample room to explore Eva's deepest, darkest feelings about her son. It's only when Eva has lost everything that she can admit her ugliest thoughts.

Salon spoke to Shriver about her own reservations about having kids, the question of whether people can be born evil, and the phenomenon of school shootings.

You had anxieties about having children yourself, correct?

Yes, so many anxieties that I haven't had any.

And what's the main reason you didn't have children?

I wouldn't say that I didn't have children because I was petrified that my son would turn out to be a school-shooting killer. But I was anxious about a pervasive ambivalence that dates back to age 8, which was the first time that it even occurred to me that I would be expected to have children. There were things about the marriage to which I was born that made me queasy as a girl because it was pretty traditional. I worried that even if I decided to have kids, the ambivalence wouldn't go away. As I went into my 40s, I kept thinking, well, something's going to happen to me, I'm going to be hit by this biological bolt of lightning, and suddenly the way will seem clear. But it became more and more apparent that the way would never seem clear, that I would never feel enthusiastic and I would always have reservations. Now, what if those reservations proved profound enough to contaminate my experience of motherhood and therefore my progeny?

So you were worried that they would be able to detect your ambivalence. Much of the book is about Eva's concern that her son Kevin can tell that she didn't totally want him.

For example, a hypothetical situation: After writing myself through the issue, I go ahead and decide to have a child. I still would have written "We Need to Talk About Kevin," and my child might have read it. How would they feel?

Do you know what exactly you didn't like about the idea of having children?

The list is as long as my arm. In fact, there's a point in the book where I list them by number. A lot of it has to do with this sense of loss of self, which for a lot of women is the central issue. It's potentially diminishing rather than something that makes you feel more fulfilled. And I don't think that fathers feel the same potential diminishment. As I reflected on it, I felt that a lot of people, especially in the professional sphere, would think less of me rather than more.

Certainly, there was always this feeling when I was growing up that it was all very nice if I wanted to start a career, but there was always this implicit, "Well, at length, you'll get married and have babies."

Are you married?

I'm not.

Have you been?

The answer to that is complicated ... I just experienced a regime change. But while I was writing the book I was in a long-term relationship.

Did he want to have a child?

He was horribly flexible on the point. I say "horribly" because I'm convinced I could have talked him into either course and as a consequence it put the entire question in my lap. I would have almost preferred that he had a firm position to which I could have taken a relationship, even if it was oppositional.

Did you interview or talk to mothers who have actually regretted having children?

I only talked to a couple of people who actually admitted it.

They actually said, "I wish I never had children"?

No one ever puts it in terms of wishing the presence of their child away. But perhaps they are still attached to the version of their future -- one in which they never had kids -- that they never got to experience. By and large, there's a big taboo against saying that, even when couched in very careful terms.

I know. We tried to get someone to write about that.

I bet you couldn't, could you?


You would have to find someone who had such a dreadful experience of parenthood that they severed the relationship with their child, that it was in a state of total collapse.

Because that's the only way a mother would admit that?

That's the only way anybody's going to go on the Web about it. Otherwise it's too hurtful.

Which came first, the idea to write about a school shooting or the desire to write about your anxieties? Because I'm wondering why you made it so extreme -- a mother's worst nightmare.

It was a confluence of forces. It had to do with the fact that I was getting older. I was running out of time to have any kids, so I really had to start getting practical instead of theoretical about it. At the same time, this was when all of these shootings were taking place -- 1998 and 1999 especially. There was a real hot and heavy period, and I had a strong reaction to them.

Why? Did it in some way make you feel better about your decision?

No. I wouldn't say it made me feel better. But I did feel a lot of sympathy for the parents of the killers. Even more so than the parents of the ones who were killed. Not that I was unsympathetic to the victims, but ironically, there's a cleanliness to that -- it's horrible, it's wasteful, it's tragic. But your own kid didn't do anything wrong, it doesn't reflect badly on you, there's a kind of purity to the loss. In our culture, blaming your parents for everything that's wrong with you is a national sport. It's one in which I have indulged, myself. After writing the book, I realized that was petty and unfair.

When you researched all these killings, was that one of the main points of discussion -- whether it was the parents' fault?

It came up a lot. Oh, yes, it did. There were a number of parental-negligence suits filed of the sort that I give you little snapshots of in the book. There were parents who sued everybody. I think it was the Paducah, Ky., incident where a group of parents sued 50 different parties, including the makers of "The Basketball Diaries" and the Doom video game and the principal and everybody else. I was relieved when that case came to court and the judge threw the whole thing out lock, stock and barrel and said, no, the person who committed the murders is the person who's responsible.

I thought it was interesting that you let Eva be contemptuous of Mary Woolford, who sued Eva after Kevin killed her daughter. Eva wasn't simply feeling terrible for all of these parents. Eva is a very strong and opinionated and has a lacerating sense of humor. I'm wondering if readers will hate her for scorning the other mothers.

I hope she doesn't come off unsympathetic to the parents, though she obviously has an antagonism -- once you put it all together, you can understand where it comes from.

I won't spoil it.

I realize that Eva is not 100 percent sympathetic and I did not intend her to be. She does not wish to be. She's not completely sympathetic with herself. I wanted to write about someone who was very self-suspicious and who was not entirely proud of the kind of mother she's been. She's gone through the motions, she baked the cookies, but she hasn't really been passionately loving. And she's been preferential.

To the daughter, Celia. About Kevin vs. Celia -- do you actually believe that there are people born -- I don't want to say "evil" -- let's say "bad." Even as a baby, he has "beady little eyes," and he's slackjawed, and he's not interested in rolling a ball across the floor with his mom. Do you believe that people are born that way? Even better, do you know people who were born that way?

Well, if you look at history you can tell that something goes wrong with people. I guess the debate is at what point. I would conceive of "evil" more as an absence of something rather than a presence. People are born with greater and lesser capacities for all kinds of things -- great art, intellectual achievement, and also things like empathy, interest, compassion. So, yes, I think it is possible that some people are born not very interested in things and don't really take on board the reality of other people or their feelings.

It seemed to me that you were more interested in this specific situation -- of Eva and Kevin and his very special brand of ugliness -- than you were in trying to offer pat societal explanations for why teenagers shoot up their high schools. You alluded to the fact that they were rich and Kevin had everything he wanted, but you seemed to be mocking that theory at the same time.

I do think that one of the reasons we pay so much attention to those school shootings is because they're all middle class. That also entails ignoring the school shootings that are lower class, which are mostly gang or drug related. They are all the same, but we focus on the middle-class ones. And only in that way would I call it a class issue.

And while you weren't trying to make too many broad social judgments, you're definitely interested in America as a place, and the rest of the world as another. There's this constant antagonism between Eva, the world traveler, and her American-as-apple-pie husband, Franklin. You live in London part of the year. Why did you decide to make Franklin this patriotic, gee-whiz sort of guy and Eva much more skeptical?

I thought in some ways opposites attract. I thought that someone like me -- who was skeptical of the country and standoffish and critical and always made a point of spending as much time outside of America as possible -- could plausibly be attracted to someone with a different relationship to America, one that is warmer and sweeter and more of an embrace. When you've been fighting something all your life, the idea of giving in is attractive. Loving anything is attractive. I didn't mean for Franklin's patriotism to be mocked -- his relationship with the country is much more appealing than Eva's.

Their relationship, which is really amazing before they have kids, sets up Eva's decision to have a child in an interesting way. This was one of my favorite parts of the book: Here is this independent, self-possessed woman and she really loved it when Franklin said "Eva," in a possessive way, as if she was his. She imagined their child saying "Mommy" with that same sense of ownership. But it was really for her husband -- she had a child for him?

Yes, it was the one thing that she could give him that he wanted, besides a new jump-rope.

Do you think that's fairly common?

I think that often there's a slight disproportion for whom a child is conceived. I would say it's probably more common that the child is conceived for the mother rather than the father. But it does swing the other way. After all, you do meet men who are driven to paternity, really consumed by the idea of becoming fathers. If you fell in love with such a person, and you'd kind of been on the fence about the whole thing, wouldn't it pull you off of it?

And they did really have quite a devoted relationship before the children.

That's one of the things that theoretically most made me nervous about having a child. Why rock a steady boat? There are apparently two points in a marriage when it's most common to split up: The first year of the marriage and the first year after having a child. We like to think that it cements people.

Eva says, "We were so happy, what possessed us?"

I've come full circle to admiring people who are willing to take that gamble, the whole gamble -- the gamble with the relationship, the gamble with money, with who the child turns out to be, with whether or not the child has not just personality problems but perhaps serious medical problems. You're just taking on board potentially so much. I think it's amazing that so many people are willing to accept the risk.

And many do because of what people assure you. Part of the reason Franklin wanted to have a child was because he was watching his friend Brian acting like he was so happy and loved his children so much. Brian's attitude was, "You'll understand, but you won't understand until you have them."

Which is what everybody says.

It is what everybody says. Do you think that people are dishonest about this to a certain extent?

I have heard friends of mine tout truisms like "You have no idea what it's like until you have your own child." Or "I know, I didn't like other's people children, either. Then I had my own." Or "Oh, you get to apprehend anew the world through their eyes and it's this great rejuvenation of your whole sense of being alive."

I have heard them throw this stuff out so often that it sometimes rings a little hollow. I'm not saying that they are lying outright, but there's a feeling with some parents that they're talking themselves into it. Because there's always running parallel this little teasing image of your life without kids. And people feel guilty for thinking of it.

Which brings me to the next question: Of course, those people don't have a child like Kevin. Kevin is a sociopath. And he's really infuriatingly awful. I was surprised many times throughout the book just how terrible you made him.

Yes, though I would interject that one of the things going on through that book is that you're seeing Kevin through Eva's eyes.

I was going to ask you about that too...

You're meant to start suspecting her version of things just a little bit. It's too extreme.

It is too extreme, but then also Franklin was too extreme in his beatification of Kevin. So you did that on purpose.

Yes. There were a couple of things planted along the way to make you wonder whether you have a reliable narrator. It seemed completely self-evident to the reader that when Kevin was arrested by the police for pitching bricks at cars on the overpass, that he did it. And, of course, the way Eva told it, he must have done it. Then it turns out that it wasn't he who did it, it was his creepy little friend. So Eva's tendency to jump to those conclusions gets a question mark over it.

And, also, Celia made me question Eva. You have sociopath Kevin, and then you have this completely perfect -- well, she wasn't perfect...

I think she was whiny and annoying.

But in Eva's eyes she was so angelic and loving and never cried and immediately liked breast feeding from her...

When you think about it -- the kind of sibling you would hate.

But she was exactly what Eva needed after Kevin. What I started thinking about was, if you do end up with a child like Kevin, is it OK to reject him? Is it OK to reject your child? I was really surprised to see Eva continuing to go to visit him in jail. I can understand a parent standing by her child, but he was even such a remorseless monster there, after the murders had been committed. Who could bear that? At what point is it OK to say, "OK, I gave birth to this person, but that doesn't mean I have to be there for them anymore"?

To say that any point it's OK to reject your own child ... I guess at the very end of the book, I came to the conclusion, no. That's not to say that you accept everything that they do, or even that you forgive everything that they do -- there is such a thing as the unforgivable -- but you're still going to be their parent. And I think there's a kind of relief in that of an absolute bond or relationship: that regardless of how either of you behaves, it doesn't go away. After all, it is a genealogical fact.

It's always going to exist.

It's always there. Even in this circumstance, with such an awful history between the two characters, and this atrocious violation of any moral norm, she comes around -- she's going to be there for him. I admire that. I would admire that in the real parents of the killers. They have enough people against them.

Did any of the parents of the killers ditch their kids?

Not that I know of. Think of John Walker Lindh. His parents stuck by him. You can't really say they're fools. You can't be critical of that. The kid should have somebody, which doesn't mean that they say, "Rah, rah, we're glad the World Trade Center fell down, too. We're on your side." But I admire parents able to keep giving some kind of sustenance in spite of everything. That is something that our culture expects. And I think that's one of the burdens of parenthood: Oh my god, my kid can do anything -- including not just doing things to other people, but doing things to you -- and I'm expected to stay in there with them.

Considering the anxieties that you have and the book you've written, has anyone accused you of going a little overboard here? Very few people raise murderous thugs, and school shootings especially are a unique phenomenon. Has anyone tried to analyze you?

No, I think most people have appreciated that while, yes, it's a worst-case scenario, the book is at bottom a need to examine the whole gamut of possible consequences of having children. Yes, it's an extreme case, and it's meant to be an extreme case, but then the extreme case is often the test.

It enables you to consider all of these things that you otherwise couldn't.

Besides, it's dramatic. And I'm a little over-the-top. I would add, however, that it would be possible to write a similar book that didn't go so far. Ultimately, what's at the core of the book is not Columbine and that phenomenon. The center subject matter is motherhood.

When I first looked at the book, I thought it might be over-the-top, but it's clear from Page 3 that it's actually a very careful, painfully detailed consideration of motherhood. For example, you talk at length about hating being pregnant.

I have an absolute horror of being pregnant. That was me. I'm very athletic, I'm small, I like the idea of staying small. The idea of gaining all that weight and becoming awkward ... I know that there are women who claim that they love being pregnant, but I know that I'm not one of those people. I would find it an ordeal. Do you mind my asking -- do you have any kids?

No, I don't. I'm 25. I probably will have kids if it all works out, but the reason why I was interested in this book is because I have two small fears about having children: Raising someone as terrible or almost as terrible as Kevin, someone who really hurts other people, and having a child who dies young. And this book obviously deals with both of them.

That's an interesting opposition of fears.

Why did you ask if I have children?

It would probably change your questions a little bit, or put a slant on them. I suspected you didn't.

I'm pretty open about the whole thing. But what always strikes me about the debate is that it seems to come down to selfishness. You're selfish if you have children, and you're selfish if you don't. Why is that? Do you think it's selfish not to have children?

Yes. I believe that my decision not to have kids is entirely selfish. It's out of protection of the kind of life that I now lead that I don't want to give up. The kind of geographical independence I experience. Even what we just spoke of -- not wanting to get pregnant. It's a protection of a physique to which I'm very attached. I can't think of a single reason that isn't directed toward me.

The only selfless aspect of not having children is the degree to which I might be considering the welfare of a child born to me if I didn't really want him.

So you don't regret not having children.

No, not so far. I've had countless people tell me, "Oh, you will. Freeze your eggs." But I have to say, when I go visit families and even if I have a good time and I think their children are perfectly charming, I don't feel envious.

And you've never been hit with the pang?

Nope. I haven't. And that's one of the things I tried to work out while writing the book -- well, what is wrong with me? And I think there is a percentage of women out there who go through the same thing. We're told that the biological clock is ticking and suddenly you're supposed to experience this mindless desire for a baby. And it doesn't happen to some people. It continues to be on an intellectual level. And I guess I came to the conclusion that since it didn't happen to me, and it was only there on an intellectual level, then I shouldn't have them. Because that's not good enough. I can make lists until the cows come home about why it's important to have children -- somebody's got to do it -- but I can't talk myself into it.

After everything you've read and considered about these shootings, why do you think they do it?

Two things. First off, every incident has its own separate set of reasons. The thing they have in common is purely method. The more you look at it, the more it becomes one kid who goes off the rails for his own reasons in a very particular family. As a fiction writer, it's much more interesting from that perspective than it is as part of a larger phenomenon. Once it's part of a larger phenomenon, you lose all the details that truly explain it.

But the one thing that I did feel was that what we had on our hands was a fad. One of the main problems was imitation. What we've now achieved, if you can say that, is that the school shooting has joined the vocabulary of the junior high and high school adolescent. So when they're upset, or unable to imagine their future, or the only woman they'll ever love has turned them down, one of the things that might occur to them is to shoot up the school. Before, that didn't seem to be one of the options to express yourself. And now it is.

But with Kevin, it still seemed like he was just a sociopath. Kevin wasn't upset about a girl. He hated life. He didn't need any inspiration.

But that was meant to come from a very particular place. There was a point at which I banned myself from reading any more about school shootings. Since I'd concluded that every situation was different, there was no substitute for making up my own.

It's a single, particular story which I tried to make credible and in which the mother certainly is implicated. I don't believe it's totally her fault.

You believe that the mother had something to do with how awful her son is?

Look, Kevin may have been a difficult child, but she didn't improve matters. I don't mean to let her off the hook. She did help to make him. This isn't meant to be a cut-and-dried nature/nurture debate, because I don't believe there's an easy answer to that.

But, yes, Eva is partly at fault. And she's supposed to recognize that. She did help to create a monster.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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