I was doing a placement in a psychiatric hospital in York when I heard a doctor say in a casual way that undisclosed sexual abuse was one of the causes of psychosis. The case conference moved swiftly on and I never had a chance to ask him if this was rare or common. Before this I had assumed that psychosis was an illness like measles, striking out of the blue, that could be treated with drugs.
But it made sense to me even back in the 70s that if someone has a mental illness, you at least consider the possibility that it has been caused by something that has happened to them.
In her gripping, horrific work of fiction, Lionel Shriver creates two monsters – one, the boy who from birth seemed to have little one could find to love, and the other the boy’s mother, a brilliant construct whom we only gradually realise is the most unreliable of narrators, emotionally remote, intelligent but ultimately destructive .
The unfolding of that scenario will, I am sure, make a gripping and terrible film, but it would not be, presumably, one in the mould of ‘Damien’ or ‘The Omen’, which play with the idea of children who are spawn of the devil. Commercial horror films deliver an over the top dose of unbelievable and grotesque horror – what could be more horrendous than a baby in the cradle contemplating demonic acts?
The book is not intended to be horror in that sensational way; it is literary fiction and it sets out a psychological scenario that, to begin with, seems plausible. Only the events as they move to their grisly finale had me asking whether we were in the world of shlock horror or psychological realism.
I haven’t seen the film, but from reviews I have read it would seem that the central boy plays the role with a knowing ambiguity, so that the audience is not sure what the reality is.
To suggest, even subtly, that a child can be born with a propensity to evil, is against everything I believe, from a lifetime of working with and knowing children who come from the most hopeless beginnings. Their constant struggles to love inadequate, neglectful, selfish parents remind me of the 1950s experiment with baby monkeys taken from their mothers at birth and kept in a cage with a ‘mother’ constructed of wire that could dispense milk to them. After a while, another mother, also made of wire but with fragments of rag attached, was put in the cage. She did not give milk. The babies soon developed an attachment to the rag mother, and left the nourishing but uncuddly wire mother. The experimenters then began giving the babies random electric shocks through the rag mother, which caused such pain that they had to drop off her and go back to the wire mother. But time and time again, they would come back to the rag mother, to test if she was going to shock them, and if she didn’t, they stayed clinging to her. That, in my experience, is what a child will do – returning over and over again to the punishing, hurtful mother . To suggest that a boy, even if he knows his mother rejects and dislikes him, would wreak this terrible revenge on her, does not make psychological sense to me.
However, if we accept that Kevin is never loved or accepted by his mother, while his father gives him unconditional love and acceptance, why does he choose to kill his father and sister? The focus of his hatred in this story’s logic would surely be the harsh and unloving mother? Unless he is capable of even more sophisticated sadism and leaves her alive purely to suffer the consequences of his acts?
I read the book at a gallop, but I could never read it again, and I don’t want to see the film. It taps into every parent’s nightmare of giving birth to a child who is unlovable from his first breath. Or that as your child grows, your love will be tested beyond breaking point.
And that is where I part company with Lionel Shriver. What would have interested me in this story would not be the voice of Kevin’s mother, the voice of the articulate middle class, the parents whose journeys are so extensively aired in broadsheet newspapers, TV documentaries, blogs and tweets. It is the voice of Kevin I would have liked to hear. What was his take on the world he was born into? What was going on in his head, from birth to his teenage crime? Children simply don’t get heard enough. This film won’t give a hearing to those abused and angry kids who could, I passionately believe, have had a chance if they had had some decent parenting.
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