We Need To Talk About Kevin, a novel by Lionel Shriver, takes a look at how a teenage boy's Columbine-style killing spree at school affects his family, and to what extent parents can be held responsible for their children's actions.
The mother in the story, Eva, writes a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, from whom she is separated, trying to come to grips with the fact that their 17-year-old son, Kevin, has killed seven students and two adults with his crossbow.
Below is an excerpt from We Need to Talk About Kevin.
January 17, 2001
I realize that Kevin's diapers embarrassed you, even if they confoundingly failed to embarrass the boy himself. We were already using the extra-large; much longer and we'd have to start mail-ordering the kind for medical incontinence. However many tolerant parenting manuals you'd devoured, you fostered an old-fashioned masculinity that I found surprisingly attractive. You didn't want your son to be a sissy, to present an easy target for teasing peers, or to cling to a talisman of infancy quite so publicly glaring, since the bulge under his pants was unmistakable. "Jesus," you'd grumble once Kevin was in bed, "why couldn't he just suck his thumb?"
Yet you yourself had engaged in an ongoing childhood battle with your fastidious mother over flushing, because the toilet had overflowed once, and every time you pushed the handle thereafter you were terrified that lumps of excrement might begin disgorging endlessly onto the bathroom floor, like a scatological version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. And I had agreed that it was tragic how kids can tie themselves into neurotic knots over pee and poop, and what a waste of angst it all was, so I went along with this new theory about letting toddlers choose to potty train when they were "ready." Nevertheless, we were both getting desperate. You started drilling me about whether he saw me using the toilet during the day (we weren't sure if he should or shouldn't) or whether I might have said anything to frighten him away from this throne of civilized life, in comparison to which amenities like please and thank you were dispensable as doilies. You accused me by turns of making too much of the matter, and too little.
It was impossible that I made too little of it, since this one developmental stage that our son seemed to have skipped was tyrannizing my life. You will recall that it was only thanks to the new educational ethos of pathological neutrality (there's-no-such-thing-as-worse-or-better-but-only-different) as well as paralytic fear of suit (in horror of which Americans are increasingly reluctant to do anything from giving drowning victims mouth-to-mouth to firing slack-jawed incompetents from their employ) that Kevin wasn't turned away from that pricey Nyack kindergarten until he, well, got his shit together. All the same, the teacher was not about to change a five-year-old boy, claiming that she'd be laying herself open to charges of sexual abuse. (In fact, when I quietly informed Carol Fabricant of Kevin's little eccentricity, she looked at me askance and announced witheringly that this kind of nonconforming behavior was sometimes a cry for help. She didn't spell it out, but for the next week I lived in fear of a knock on the door and a flashing blue light in our windows.) So no sooner had I dropped him off at Love-'n'-Learn at 9 A.M. and driven back home than I was obliged to return around 11:30 A.M. with my now rather careworn diaper bag.
If he was dry, I'd engage in a bit of pretextual hair tousling and ask to see what he was drawing, though with enough of his "artwork" stuck on the fridge, I'd already have a pretty good idea. (While the other children had graduated to fat-headed stick figures and landscapes with a little strip of blue sky at the top, Kevin was still scrawling formless, jagged scrabble in black and purple crayon.) Yet all too often a midday reprieve meant return to a ringing phone: Miss Fabricant, informing me that Kevin was now drenched and the other kids were complaining because he smelled. Would I please—? I could hardly say no. Thus after picking him up at 2 P.M., I'd have made four trips to Love-'n'-Learn in a day. So much for having plenty of time to myself once Kevin started school, as well as for the fantasy I had improbably kept alive that I might soon be able to resume the directorship of AWAP.
Were Kevin a pliant, eager boy who happened to have this one unpleasant problem, she might have felt sorry for him. But Miss Fabricant's relationship with our son was not thriving for other reasons.
We may have made a mistake in sending him to a Montessori kindergarten, whose philosophy of human nature was, at the least, optimistic. Its supervised but unstructured education-kids were placed in a "stimulating" environment, with play stations including alphabet blocks, counting beads, and pea plants-presumed that children were inborn autodidacts. Yet in my experience, when left to their own devices people will get up to one of two things: nothing much, and no good. An initial report of Kevin's "progress" that November mentioned that he was "somewhat undersocialized" and "may need assistance with initiating behaviors." Miss Fabricant was loath to criticize her charges, so it was pulling teeth to get her to translate that Kevin had spent his first two months sitting slack on a stool in the middle of the room, gazing dully at his puttering classmates. I knew that look, a precociously geriatric, glaucous-eyed glare sparked only by a sporadic glint of scornful incredulity. When pressed to play with the other boys and girls, he replied that whatever they were doing was "dumb," speaking with the effortful weariness that in junior high school would convince his history teacher that he was drunk. However she persuaded him to craft those dark, furious drawings I will never know. For me, these crayon mangles were a constant strain to admire. I rapidly ran out of compliments (That has so much energy, Kevin!) and imaginative interpretations (Is that a storm, honey? Or maybe a picture of the hair and soap we pull out of a bathtub drain!). Hard-pressed to keep cooing over his exciting choice of colors when he drew exclusively in black, brown, and violet, I couldn't help but suggest timidly that abstract expressionism having hit such a dead-end in the fifties, maybe he should try approximating a bird or a tree. But for Miss Fabricant, Kevin's clogged-drain still lifes were proof positive that the Montessori method could work wonders with a doorstop.
Nonetheless, even Kevin, who has such a gift for it, can sustain stasis for only so long without doing something to make life a little interesting, as he demonstrated so conclusively on Thursday. By the school year's end Miss Fabricant must have waxed nostalgic for the days when Kevin Khatchadourian did absolutely nothing. Maybe it goes without saying that the pea plants died, as did the sprouting avocado that replaced them, while at the same time I noticed idly that I was missing a bottle of bleach. There were mysteries: Subsequent to a particular day in January, the moment I led Kevin by the hand into the classroom, a little girl with Shirley Temple curls began to cry, and her wailing worsened until at some point in February she never came back. Another boy, aggressive and rambunctious in September, one of those biffy sorts always boxing your leg and pushing other kids in the sandbox, suddenly became silent and inward, developing at once a severe case of asthma and an inexplicable terror of the coat closet, within five feet of which he would begin to wheeze. What did that have to do with Kevin? I couldn't say; perhaps nothing. And some of the incidents were pretty harmless, like the time little Jason stuck his feet in his bright red galoshes, only to find them filled with squares of apple-spice cake leftover from snack time. Child's play — if real child's play — we'd agree.
What most aggrieved Miss Fabricant, of course, was the fact that one after the other of her other charges started to regress in the potty department. She and I had concurred hopefully at the start of the year that Kevin might be inspired by the example of his peers on bathroom breaks, but I fear that quite the opposite took place, and by the time he graduated there was not just one six-year-old in diapers, but three or four.
I was more unsettled by a couple of passing incidents.
One morning some delicate slip of a thing nicknamed Muffet brought a tea set for show-and-tell. It wasn't any ordinary tea set, but an ornate, many-cupped affair whose elements each fit into the formfitted cubbies of a velvet-lined mahogany box. Her mother later huffed that it was a family heirloom that Muffet was only allowed to bring out on special occasions. No doubt the set should never have been taken to a kindergarten, but the little girl was proud of the many matching pieces and had learned to handle them with care, painstakingly laying out the cups in their saucers with china spoons before a dozen of her classmates as they sat at their knee-high tables. After she'd poured a round of "tea" (the ubiquitous pineapple-grapefruit juice), Kevin hoisted his cup by its tiny handle in a salutary toast — and dropped it on the floor.
In rapid succession all eleven of his fellow tea-sippers followed suit. Before Miss Fabricant could get hold of the situation, the saucers and spoons quickly suffered the same tinkling fate, in consequence of which when Muffet's mother retrieved her sobbing daughter that afternoon, nothing remained of the treasured tea set but the pot.
If I had ever nursed the hope that my son might turn out to display leadership qualities, this is not what I had in mind. Yet when I made a remark to this effect, Miss Fabricant was in no mood for drollery. I felt that in general her early twenties exhilaration at molding all those receptive little moppets into multiculturally aware, environmentally responsible vegetarians driven to rectify inequities in the Third World was beginning to fray around the edges. This was her first year of flaking poster paint from her eyebrows, going to sleep at night with the salty taste of paste in her gums, and exiling so many children at a shot for a "time-out" that there was no longer any activity to take a time out from. After all, she had announced at our introduction in September that she "simply loves children," a declaration of which I am eternally dubious. From young women like Miss Fabricant, with a blunt snub of a nose like a Charlotte potato and hips like Idahos, the infeasible assertion seems to decode, "I want to get married." Myself, after having not a child but this particular one, I couldn't see how anyone could claim to love children in the generic any more that anyone could credibly claim to love people in a sufficiently sweeping sense as to embrace Pol Pot, Don Rickles, and an upstairs neighbor who does 2,000 jumping jacks at three in the morning. After relating her terrible tale in a breathless stage whisper, she clearly expected me to leap to cover the cost of the tea set. Financially of course I could afford to, whatever it was worth, but I could not afford the attendant assumption of total blame. Face it, Franklin, you'd have had a fit. You were touchy about your son's being singled out, or as you would say, persecuted. Technically he had only broken the one setting, and covering one-twelfth of the loss was the most compensation you would countenance. I also offered to speak to Kevin about "respecting the property of others," though Miss Fabricant was underwhelmed by this assurance.
Maybe she intuited that these set lectures of mine had begun to lilt with the swinging, mocking cadence of the one-potato, two-potato rhymes to which girls skip rope.
"That wasn't very nice, Kevin," I said in the car. "Breaking Muffet's teacup." I've no idea why we parents persist in believing that our kids yearn to be thought of as nice, since when we ourselves commend acquaintances as very nice we usually mean they're dull.
"She has a stupid name."
"That doesn't mean she deserves — "
"It slipped," he said lamely.
"That's not what Miss Fabricant said."
"How would she know." He yawned.
"How would you feel, kiddo, if you had something that you cared about more than anything, and you brought it to show to the class, and then someone smashed it?"
"Like what?" he asked, innocence tinged with self-congratulation.
I reached casually in my head for an example of a possession that Kevin especially cherished, and it wasn't there. Searching harder, I felt the same rising dismay of patting down all my pockets after discovering that the one in which I always kept my wallet was empty. It was unnatural. In my own rather underfurnished childhood, I was a fetishistic custodian of the lowliest keepsake, from a three-legged windup donkey named Cloppity to a rinsed-out four-pack of food-coloring bottles.
It's not as if Kevin didn't have things in abundance, since you showered him with toys. I'd feel unkind in pointing out that he ignored these Junior Game Boys and Tonka dump trucks across the board, save that your very excess seemed to signal an awareness that none of your previous gifts had taken. Maybe your generosity backfired, by lining his playroom in what must have seemed a kind of plastic dirt; and maybe he could tell that commercial presents were easy for us, being rich, and so, however expensive, cheap.
But I had spent weeks at a time crafting homespun, personalized playthings that should hypothetically have meant something. I made sure Kevin watched me, too, so that he knew them for labors of love. The most curiosity he ever exhibited was to ask irritably why I didn't just buy a storybook. Otherwise, once my hand-drawn children's book was sandwiched between painted pressboard covers, drilled and hole-punched and bound with bright yarn, he looked vacantly out the window as I read it aloud. I admit that the story line was hackneyed, about a little boy who loses his beloved dog, Snippy, and becomes distraught and looks everywhere and of course in the end Snippy shows up — I probably borrowed it from Lassie. I've never pretended to be a gifted creative writer, and the watercolors bled; I was suffering from the delusion that it's the thought that counts. But no matter how many references to the little boy's dark hair and deep brown eyes I planted, I couldn't get him to identify with the boy in the story who pines for his lost puppy. (Remember when you wanted to buy Kevin a dog? I begged you not to. I was glad you never forced me to explain, since I never explained it to myself. I just know that whenever I envisioned our bouncing black lab, or trusting Irish setter, I was filled with horror.) The only interest he displayed in the book was when I left him alone with it to get dinner, only to find that he'd scribbled Magic Marker on every page — an early interactive edition, it seems. Later he drowned the stuffed-sock, button-eyed Teddy, aptly as it happens, in Bear Lake; he fed several pieces of my black-and-white wooden jigsaw of a zebra down the driveway's drain.
I clutched at ancient history. "Remember your squirt gun?"
"I didn't care," said Kevin.
My hands slithered down the wheel from ten-and-two to a desultory seven-and-five. His memory was accurate. Since according to you in defacing my maps he had only been trying to help, you replaced the squirt gun, which he tossed into his slag heap of a toy box and never touched. The squirt gun had served its purpose. Indeed, I'd had a spooky presentiment when I finished grinding the barrel into the floor that since he had been attached to it, he was glad to see it go.
When I told you about the tea set, you were about to brush it off, but I shot you a warning glance; we had talked about the need for presenting a united front. "Hey, Kev," you said lightly. "I know teacups are for girls and sort of prissy, but don't break 'em, okay? It's uncool. Now how about some Frisbee? We've just got time to work on that bank shot of yours before dinner."
"Sure, Dad!" I remember watching Kevin streak off to the closet to fetch the Frisbee and puzzling. Hands fisted, elbows flying, he looked for all the world like a regular, rambunctious kid, exhilarated at playing in the yard with his father. Except that it was too much like a regular kid; almost studied. Even that Sure, Dad! had a rehearsed, nyeh-nyeh ring to it that I couldn't put my finger on. I had the same queasy feeling on weekends when Kevin would pipe up — yes, pipe up — "Gosh, Dad, it's Saturday! Can we go see another battlefield?" You'd be so enchanted that I couldn't bring myself to raise the possibility that he was pulling your leg. Likewise, I watched out the dining room window and could not believe, somehow, that Kevin was quite that inept at throwing a Frisbee after all this time. He still tossed the disc on its side, hooking the rim on his middle finger, and curled it ten yards from your feet. You were patient, but I worried that your very patience tempted Kevin to try it.
Oh, I don't remember all the incidents that year aside from the fact that there were several, which you tagged with the umbrella dismissal, "Eva, every boy pulls a few pigtails." I spared you a number of accounts, because for me to report any of our son's misbehavior seemed like telling on him. I ended up reflecting badly not on him but on myself. If I were his sister I could see it, but could a mother be a tattletale? Apparently.
However, the sight I beheld in — I think it was March, well, I'm not sure why it unnerved me quite so much, but I couldn't keep it to myself. I had gone to pick up Kevin at the usual time, and no one seemed to know where he was. Miss Fabricant's expression grew pinched, though by this point, were Kevin abducted by the murderous pedophiles we were then led to believe lurked behind every bush, I'd suspect her of having hired them. The missing child being our son, it took a while before one of us thought to check the bathrooms, hardly his bolt-hole of choice. "Here he is!" sang his teacher at the door to the Girls' Room. And then she gasped. I doubt your recollection of these rusty stories is all that sharp, so allow me to refresh your memory. There was a slight, dark-haired kindergartner named Violetta whom I must have mentioned earlier that school year, since she touched me so. She was quiet, withdrawn; she would hide in Miss Fabricant's skirts, and it took me ages to coax her to tell me her name. Quite pretty, really, but you had to look at her carefully to discern that, which most people didn't. They couldn't get past the eczema.
It was dreadful. She was covered in it, these massive scaly patches, red and flaking and sometimes cracked, where it scabbed. All down her arms and spindly legs, and worst of all across her face. The crinkling texture was reptilian. I'd heard that skin conditions were associated with emotional disorders; maybe I was myself susceptible to faddish presuppositions, since I couldn't help wondering if Violetta was being mistreated in some way or if her parents were undergoing a fractious divorce. In any case, every time I laid eyes on her something caved in me, and I fought the impulse to gather her in my arms. I'd never have wished vast angry blemishes on our son per se, but this was just the sort of heartbreaking affliction for which I had hankered at Dr. Foulke's: some temporary misfortune that would heal but that would meantime stir in me when faced with my own boy the same bottomless pool of sympathy that rippled whenever Violetta — a stranger's child — shuffled bashfully into view. I've only had one outbreak of eczema, on my shin, just a taste but enough to know that it itches like fury. I'd overheard her mother urging the girl murmurously not to scratch and assumed that the tube of cream that Violetta always carried, clutched shamefully in the pocket of her jumper, was an anti-itch ointment, since if it was a curative it was snake oil; I'd never seen Violetta's eczema do anything but get worse. But those antipruritics are only so effective, and her self-control was impressive. She'd trace a fingernail tantalizingly over her arm, and then grasp the offending hand with the other, as if putting it on a leash.
Anyway, when Miss Fabricant gasped, I joined her in the doorway. Kevin's back was to us, and he was whispering. When I pushed the door open a little more, he stopped and stepped back. Facing us before the washbasins was Violetta. Her face was lifted in what I can only describe as an expression of bliss. Her eyes were closed, her arms crossed sepulchrally with each hand at the opposite shoulder, her body listing in a kind of swoon. I'm sure we'd have neither begrudged this benighted little girl the ecstasy she so deserved, except for the fact that she was covered with blood.
I don't mean to be melodramatic. It soon became clear after Miss Fabricant shrieked and pushed Kevin aside for paper towels that Violetta's abrasions weren't as bad as they looked. I restrained her hands from raking her upper arms while her teacher dabbed moistened towels on her limbs and face, desperately trying to clean her up a bit before her mother arrived. I attempted to dust the dandruff of white flecks from her navy jumper, but the flakes of skin stuck to the flannel like Velcro. There clearly wasn't time to scrub the splotches of blood from the lacy rim of her anklets and the gathers of her white puffed sleeves. Most of the lacerations were shallow, but they were all over her body, and Miss Fabricant would no sooner daub a patch of eczema — flamed from sullen mauve to incandescent magenta — than it would bead again, and trickle.
Listen: I don't want to have this argument again. I fully accept that Kevin may never have touched her. As far as I could tell she had clawed herself open without any help. It itched and she'd given in, and I dare say that finally scraping her fingernails into that hideous red crust must have felt delicious. I even sensed a trace of vengefulness in the extent of the damage, or perhaps a misguided medical conviction that with sufficiently surgical application she might exfoliate the scaly bane of her existence once and for all.
Still, I've never forgotten my glimpse of her face when we found her, for it bespoke not only plain enjoyment but a release that was wilder, more primitive, almost pagan. She knew it would hurt later and she knew she was only making her skin condition worse and she knew her mother would be beside herself, and it was this very apprehension with which her expression was suffused, and which gave it, even in a girl of five, a hint of obscenity. She would sacrifice herself to this one glorious gorging, consequences be damned. Why, it was the very grotesquerie of the consequences — the bleeding, the stinging, the hair-tear back home, the unsightly black scabs in the weeks to come — that seemed to lie at the heart of her pleasure.
That night you were furious.
"So a little girl scratched herself. What has that to do with my son?"
"He was there! This poor girl, flaying herself alive, and he did nothing."
"He's not her minder, Eva, he's one of the kids!"
"He could have called someone, couldn't he? Before it went so far?" "Maybe, but he's not even six until next month. You can't expect him to be that resourceful or even to recognize what's 'too far' when all she's doing is scratching. None of which remotely explains why you let Kevin squish around the house, all afternoon from the looks of him, plastered in shit!" A rare slip. You forgot to say poop.
"It's thanks to Kevin that Kevin's diapers stink because it's thanks to Kevin that he wears diapers at all." Bathed by his outraged father, Kevin was in his room, but I was aware of the fact that my voice carried. "Franklin, I'm at my wit's end! I bought all those there's-nothing-dirty-about-poo how-to books and now he thinks they're stupid because they're written for two-year-olds. We're supposed to wait until he's interested, but he's not, Franklin! Why should he be when Mother will always clean it up? How long are we going to let this go on, until he's in college?"
"Okay, I accept we're in a positive reinforcement loop. It gets him attention — "
"We're not in a loop but a war, Franklin. And our troops are decimated. We're short on ammunition. Our borders are overrun."
"Can we get something straight? Is this your new potty-training theory, let him slum around in his own crap and get it all over our white sofa? This is instructional? Or is it punishment? Because somehow this latest therapy of yours seems all mixed up with your lunatic indignation that some other kid got an itch."
"He enticed her."
"Oh, for Pete's sake."
"She'd been very, very good about leaving that eczema alone. Suddenly we find her in the bathroom with her new little friend, and he's hovering over her and urging her on … My God, Franklin, you should have seen her! She reminded me of that old scare story that circulated in the sixties about how some guy on acid clawed all the skin off his arms because he thought he was infested with bugs." "Does it occur to you that if the scene was all that terrible then maybe Kevin's a little traumatized himself? That maybe he needs some comfort and reassurance and someone to talk to about it, and not to be banished to his own personal sewer? Jesus, they take kids into foster care for less."
"I should be so lucky," I muttered.
"I was joking!"
"What is wrong with you?" you despaired.
"He wasn't 'traumatized,' he was smug. Riding home, his eyes were sparkling. I haven't seen him that pleased with himself since he eviscerated his birthday cake." You plopped onto an end of our impractical white couch, head in hands; I couldn't join you, because the other end was still smeared brown. "I'm pretty much at the end of my rope, too, Eva." You massaged your temples. "But not because of Kevin."
"Is that a threat?—"
"It's not a threat—"
"What are you talking about!—"
"Eva, please calm down. I'm never going to break up our family." There was a time you'd have said instead, I'll never leave you. Your more rectitudinous declaration had a solidity about it, where pledges of everlasting devotion to a lover are notoriously frail. So I wondered why your bedrock commitment to our family made me sad.
"I dress him," I said. "I feed him when he lets me, I ferry him everywhere. I bake his kindergarten snacks. I'm at his beck from morning to night. I change his diapers six times a day, and all I hear about is the one afternoon that he so disturbed me, even frightened me, that I couldn't bear to come near him. I wasn't exactly trying to punish him. But in that bathroom, he seemed so, ah — " I discarded three or four adjectives as too inflammatory, then finally gave up. "Changing him was too intimate." "Listen to yourself. Because I have no idea what kid you're talking about. We have a happy, healthy boy. And I'm beginning to think he's unusually bright." (I stopped myself from interjecting, That's what I'm afraid of.) "If he sometimes keeps to himself, that's because he's thoughtful, reflective. Otherwise, he plays with me, he hugs me good night, I read him stories. When it's just me and him, he tells me everything—"
"Meaning, he tells you what?"
You raised your palms. "What he's been drawing, what they had for snack — " "And you think that's telling you everything."
"Are you out of your mind? He's five years old, Eva, what else is there to tell?"
"For starters? What happened last year, in that after-preschool play group. One after another, every mother took her kids out. Oh, there was always some excuse — Jordan keeps catching colds, Tiffany is uncomfortable being the youngest. Until it's down to just me and Lorna's kids, and she mumbles something about it not being much of a group anymore and calls it quits. A few weeks later I stop by Lorna's unannounced to drop off a Christmas present? All the old play group is reassembled in her living room. She was embarrassed and we didn't address it, but since Kevin tells you everything why not get him to explain what might drive all those mothers to sneak off and reconvene in secret, all to exclude our 'happy, healthy' son."
"I wouldn't ask him because that's an ugly story that would hurt his feelings. And I don't see the mystery-gossip and cliquishness and small-town fallings out. Typical of stay-at-home mothers with time on their hands."
"I'm one of those stay-at-home mothers, at considerable sacrifice I'd remind you, and the last thing we have is time on our hands."
"So he was blackballed! Why doesn't that make you angry at them? Why assume it was something our son did, and not some neurotic hen with a bug up her ass?"
"Because I'm all too well aware that Kevin doesn't tell me everything. Oh, and you could also ask him why not one baby-sitter will come back a second night."
"I don't need to. Most teenagers around here get an allowance of $100 a week. Only 12 bucks an hour isn't very tempting."
"Then at least you could get your sweet, confiding little boy to tell you just exactly what he said to Violetta."
It's not as if we fought all the time. To the contrary, though, it's the fights I remember; funny how the nature of a normal day is the first memory to fade. I'm not one of those sorts, either, who thrives on turmoil — more's the pity, as it turns out. Still, I may have been glad to scratch the dry surface of our day-to-day peaceableness the way Violetta had clawed the sere crust on her limbs, anything to get something bright and liquid flowing again, out in the open and slippery between our fingers. That said, I feared what lay beneath. I feared that at bottom I hated my life and hated being a mother and even in moments hated being your wife, since you had done this to me, turned my days into an unending stream of shit and piss and cookies that Kevin didn't even like.
Meanwhile, no amount of shouting was resolving the diaper crisis. In a rare inversion of our roles, you were apt to regard the problem as all very internally complicated, and I thought it was simple: We wanted him to use the toilet, so he wouldn't. Since we weren't about to stop wanting him to use the toilet, I was at a loss. You doubtless found my usage of the word war preposterous. But in corralling Kevin to the changing table — now small for the purpose; his legs dangled over its raised flap — I was often reminded of those scrappy guerrilla conflicts in which underequipped, ragtag rebel forces manage to inflict surprisingly serious losses on powerful armies of state. Lacking the vast if unwieldy arsenal of the establishment, the rebels fall back on cunning. Their attacks, while often slight, are frequent, and sustained aggravation can be more demoralizing over time than a few high-casualty spectaculars. At such an ordnance disadvantage, guerrillas use whatever lies at hand, sometimes finding in the material of the everyday a devastating dual purpose. I gather that you can make bombs, for example, out of methanating manure. For his part, Kevin, too, ran a seat-of-the-pants operation, and Kevin, too, had learned to form a weapon from shit.
Oh, he submitted to being changed placidly enough. He seemed to bask in the ritual and may have inferred from my growing briskness a gratifying embarrassment, for swabbing his tight little testicles when he was nearly six was beginning to feel risqué.
If Kevin enjoyed our trysts, I did not. I have never been persuaded that even an infant's effluents smell precisely "sweet"; a kindergartner's feces benefit from no such reputation. Kevin's had grown firmer and stickier, and the nursery now exuded the sour fug of subway tunnels colonized by the homeless. I felt sheepish about the mounds of nonbiodegradable Pampers we contributed to the local landfill. Worst of all, some days Kevin seemed deliberately to hold his intestines in check for a second strike. If no Leonardo of the crayon world, he had a virtuoso's command of his sphincter. Mind, I'm setting the table here, but hardly excusing what happened that July. I don't expect you to be anything but horrified. I'm not even asking your forgiveness; it's late for that. But I badly need your understanding.
Kevin graduated from kindergarten in June, and we were stuck with one another all summer. (Listen, I got on Kevin's nerves as much as he got on mine.) Despite Miss Fabricant's modest successes with Drano illustrations, the Montessori method was not working wonders in our home. Kevin had still not learned to play. Left to entertain himself, he would sit like a lump on the floor with a moody detachment that turned the atmosphere of the whole house oppressive. So I tried to involve him in projects, assembling yarn and buttons and glue and scraps of colorful fabric in the playroom for making sock puppets. I'd join him on the carpet and have a cracking good time myself, really, except in the end I would have made a nibbling rabbit with a red felt mouth and big floppy blue ears and drinking-straw whiskers, and Kevin's arm would sport a plain knee-high dipped in paste. I didn't expect our child to necessarily be a crafts wunderkind, but he could at least have made an effort.
I also tried to give him a jump on first grade by tutoring him on the basics. "Let's work on our numbers!" I'd propose.
"So when you get to school you'll be better than anyone else at arithmetic."
"What good is arithmetic."
"Well, you remember yesterday, and Mommer paid the bills? You have to be able to add and subtract to pay bills, and know how much money you have left."
"You used a calculator."
"Well, you have to know arithmetic to be sure the calculator is right."
"Why would you use it at all if it doesn't always work."
"It always works," I begrudge.
"So you don't need arithmetic."
"To use a calculator," I say, flustered, "you still have to know what a five looks like, all right? Now, let's practice our counting. What comes after three?"
"Seven," says Kevin.
We would proceed in this fashion, until once after one more random exchange ("What comes before nine?" "Fifty-three.") he looked me lifelessly in the eye and droned in a fast-forward monotone, Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve … ," pausing two or three times for a breath but otherwise making it flawlessly to a hundred. "Now can we quit?" I certainly felt the fool.
I roused no more enthusiasm for literacy. "Don't tell me," I'd cut him off after raising the prospect of reading time. "What for. What good is it. Well, I'll tell you. Sometimes you're going to be bored and there's nothing to do except you can always read a book. Even on the train or at a bus stop."
"What if the book is boring."
"Then you find a different one. There are more books in the world than you'll ever have time to read, so you'll never run out."
"What if they're all boring."
"I don't think that would be possible, Kevin," I'd say crisply.
"I think it's possible," he'd differ.
"Besides, when you grow up you'll need a job, and then you'll have to be able to read and write really well or no one will want to hire you." Privately, of course, I reflected that if this were true most of the country would be unemployed.
"Dad doesn't write. He drives around and takes pictures."
"There are other jobs—"
"What if I don't want a job."
"Then you'd have to go on welfare. The government would give you just a little money so you don't starve, but not enough to do anything fun."
"What if I don't want to do anything."
"I bet you will. If you make your own money, you can go to movies and restaurants and even different countries, like Mommer used to." At used to, I winced.
"I think I want to go on welfare." It was the kind of line I'd heard other parents repeat with a chortle at dinner parties, and I struggled to find it adorable.
I don't know how those home-schooling families pull it off. Kevin never seemed to be paying any attention, as if listening were an indignity. Yet somehow, behind my back, he picked up what he needed to know. He learned the way he ate — furtively, on the sly, shoveling information like a fisted cheese sandwich when no one was watching. He hated to admit he didn't know something already, and his blanket playing-dumb routine was cunningly crafted to cover any genuine gaps in his education. In Kevin's mind, pretend-ignorance wasn't shameful, and I was never able to discriminate between his feigned stupidity and the real thing. Hence, if at the dinner table I decried Robin Williams's role in Dead Poets Society as trite, I felt obliged to explain to Kevin that the word meant "like what lots of people have done already." But he'd receive this definition with a precocious uh-duh. Had he learned the word trite at three, when he was faking not being able to talk at all? You tell me.
In any event, after belligerently botching his alphabet for weeks ("What comes after R?" Elemenno), he interrupted one of my diatribes — about how he couldn't just sit there and expect learning to pour into his ear all by itself — by singing the alphabet song impeccably start to finish, albeit with an aggressive tunelessness that even for the tin-eared was improbable and tinged with a minor key that made this bouncy children's pneumonic sound like kaddish. I suppose they'd taught it at Love-'n'-Learn, not that Kevin had let on. When he finished mockingly, Now I've said my ABCs, tell me what you think of me, I snapped furiously, "I think you're a wicked little boy who enjoys wasting his mother's time!" and he smiled, extravagantly, with both sides of his mouth.
He wasn't precisely disobedient, which is one detail that the Sunday magazine exposés often got wrong. Indeed, he could follow the letter of his assignments with chilling precision. After the obligatory period of aping incompetence — crippled, unclosed P's wilting below the line as if they'd been shot — he sat down on command and wrote perfectly within the lines of his exercise book, "Look, Sally, look. Go. Go. Go. Run. Run. Run. Run, Sally, Run." I have no way of explaining why it was rather awful, except that he exposed to me the insidious nihilism of the grade-school primer. Even the way he formed those letters made me uneasy. They had no character. I mean, he didn't really develop handwriting as we understand it, connotatively the personal stamp on standardized script. From the point he admitted he knew how, his printing unerringly replicated the examples in his textbook, with no extra tails or squiggles; his T's were crossed and I's dotted, and never before had the bloated interior of B's and O's and D's seemed to contain so much empty space.
My point is that, however technically biddable, he was exasperating to teach. You could savor his remarkable progress when you came home, but I was never treated to those Eureka! moments of sudden breakthrough that reward an adult's hours of patient coaxing and mind-numbing repetition. It is no more satisfying to teach a child who refuses to learn in plain view than it is to feed one by leaving a plate behind in the kitchen. He was clearly denying me satisfaction on purpose. He was determined that I should feel useless and unneeded. Though I may not have been as convinced as you were that our son was a genius, he was-well, I suppose he still is, if such things can be said of a boy who clings to an act of such crowning idiocy-very bright. But my day-to-day experience as his tutor was that of instructing an exceptional child only in the euphemistic tradition that seems to concoct an ever more dishonest name for moron every year. I would drill what-is-two-plus-three over and over and over, until once when he staunchly, maliciously refused to say five one more time I sat him down, scrawled,
12,387 6,945 138,964 3,987,234 scored a line under it and said, "There! Add that up then! And multiply it by 25 while you're at it, since you think you're so smart!"
I missed you during the day, as I missed my old life when I was too busy to miss you during the day. Here I had become quite well versed in Portuguese history down to the order of the monarchy and how many Jews were murdered during the Inquisition, and now I was reciting the alphabet. Not the Cyrillic alphabet, nor the Hebrew one, the alphabet. Even if Kevin had proved an ardent pupil, for me the regime would doubtless have felt like a demotion of the precipitous sort commonly constrained to dreams: Suddenly I'm sitting in the back of the class, taking a test with a broken pencil and no pants. Nonetheless, I might have abided this humbling role if it weren't for the additional humiliation of living, for over six years now, up to my elbows in shit.
Okay — out with it.
There came an afternoon in July that, per tradition, Kevin had soiled his diapers once and been cleaned up with the whole diaper cream and talcum routine, only to complete the evacuation of his bowels twenty minutes later. Or so I assumed. But this time he outdid himself. This was the same afternoon that, after I had insisted he write a sentence that was meaningful about his life and not one more tauntingly inert line about Sally, he wrote in his exercise book, "In kendergarden evrybody says my mother looks rilly old." I'd turned beet-red, and that was when I sniffed another telltale waft. After I'd just changed him twice. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I lifted him to a stand by the waist, pulling his Pampers open to make sure. I lost it. "How do you do it?" I shouted. "You hardly eat anything, where does it come from?"
A rush of heat rippled up through my body, and I barely noticed that Kevin was now dangling with his feet off the carpet. He seemed to weigh nothing, as if that tight, dense little body stocked with such inexhaustible quantities of shit was packed instead with Styrofoam peanuts. There's no other way to say this. I threw him halfway across the nursery. He landed with a dull clang against the edge of the stainless steel changing table. His head at a quizzical tilt, as if he were finally interested in something, he slid, in seeming slow motion, to the floor.
Excerpted from We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver Counterpoint Press, copyright 2003.
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