Title: We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Author: Lionel Shriver.
Genre: Fiction, literature, epistolary novel, school shootings.
Publication Date: 2003.
Summary: Eva never really wanted to be a mother—and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ In the early days, of course, my tales were exotic imports, from Lisbon, from Katmandu. But no one wants to hear stories from abroad, really, and I could detect from your telltale politeness that you privately preferred anecdotal trinkets from closer to home: an eccentric encounter with a toll collector on the George Washington Bridge, say. Marvels from the mundane helped to ratify your view that all my foreign travel was a kind of cheating. My souvenirs—a packet of slightly stale Belgian waffles, the British expression for "piffle" (codswallop!)—were artificially imbued with magic by mere dint of distance. Like those baubles the Japanese exchange—in a box in a bag, in a box in a bag—the sheen on my offerings from far afield was all packaging. What a more considerable achievement, to root around in the untransubstantiated rubbish of plain old New York state and scourge a moment of piquancy from a trip to the Nyack Grand Union.
♥ I always feel furtive here. To compensate, I force my back straight, my shoulders square. I see now what they mean by "holding your head high," and I am sometimes surprised by how much interior transformation a ramrod posture can afford. When I stand physically proud, I feel a small measure less mortified.
♥ I'd enough of a pittance left over after paying off the lawyers to buy a little place of my own, but the tentativeness of renting suited. Likewise my living in this Tinkertoy duplex seemed a fitting marriage of temperaments. Oh, you'd be horrified; its flimsy pressboard cabinetry defies you father's motto, "Materials are everything." But it is this very quality of barely hanging on that I cherish.
♥ Maybe this askew, juvenile atmosphere helps to explain why yesterday, in a presidential election, I didn't vote. I simply forgot. Everything around me seems to take place so far away. And now rather than pose a firm counterpoint to my dislocation, the country seems to have joined me in the realm of the surreal. The votes are tallied. But as in some Kafka tale, no one seems to know who won.
♥ I suppose that's a common conceit, that you've already been so damaged that damage itself, in its totality, makes you safe.
♥ I've thrown so much away, but nothing you gave me or left behind. I admit that these talismans are excruciating. That is why I keep them. Those bullying therapeutic types would claim that my cluttered closets aren't "healthy." I beg to differ. In contrast to the cringing, dirty pain of Kevin, of the paint, the criminal and civil trials, this pain is wholesome. Much belittled in the sixties, wholesomeness is a property I have come to appreciate as surprisingly scarce.
♥ Before I found out for myself, I might have imagined that in the aftermath of personal apocalypse, the little bothers of life would effectively vanish. But it's not true. You still feel chills, you still despair when a package is lost in the mail, and you still feel irked to discover you were shortchanged at Starbucks. It might seem, in the circumstances, a little embarrassing for me to continue to need a sweater or a muff, or to object to being cheated of a dollar and fifty cents. But since Thursday my whole life has been smothered in such a blanket of embarrassment that I have chosen to find these passing pinpricks solace instead, emblems of a surviving propriety. Being inadequately dressed for the season, or chafing that in a Wal-Mart the size of a cattle market I cannot locate a single box of kitchen matches, I glory in the emotionally commonplace.
♥ I realized that I was picturing the scene all wrong. It was a month later, not a day. There were no jeers and howls, no ski masks and sawn-off shotguns. They came in stealth. The only sounds were broken twigs, a muffled thump as the first full can slapped our lustrous mahogany door, the lulling oceanic lap of paint against glass, a tiny rat-a-tat-tat as spatters splattered, no louder than fat rain. Our house had not been spurted with the Day-Glo spray of spontaneous outrage but slathered with a hatred that had reduced until it was thick and savorous, like a fine French sauce.
♥ Me, I always prefer socializing at night—it is simply more wanton...
♥ It's quite possible that you felt exactly as I did, that this to all appearances successful encounter had felt dumpy and insipid to you as well, but in lieu of another obvious model to aspire to—we were not going to go score a gram of cocaine—you took refuge in denial. These were good people and they had been good to us and we had therefore had a good time. To conclude otherwise was frightening, raising the specter of some unnamable quantity without which we could not abide, but which we could not summon on demand, least of all by proceeding in virtuous accordance with an established formula.
You regarded redemption as an act of will. You disparaged people (people like me) for their cussedly nonspecific dissatisfactions, because to fail to embrace the simple fineness of being alive betrayed a weakness of character. You always hated finicky eaters, hypochondriacs, and snobs who turn up their noses at Terms of Endearment just because it was popular. Nice eats, nice place, nice folks—what more could I possibly want? Besides, the good life doesn't knock on the door. Joy is a job.
♥ ...your regiments were adorable. But in more serious contexts, Franklin, I was less charmed. Orderliness readily slides to conformity over time.
♥ Not that happiness is dull. Only that it doesn't tell well. And one of our consuming diversions as we age is to recite, not only to others but to ourselves, our own story.
♥ It seemed a great deal of trouble to go to—checking baggage, adapting to new time zones—only to remain stuck on the old weather-shoes continuum; the continuum itself had come to feel like a location of sorts, thereby landing me relentlessly in the same place. Nevertheless, though I would sometimes rant about globalization—I could now buy your favorite chocolate-brown Stove brogans from Banana Republic in Bangkok—what had really grown monotonous was the world in my head, what I thought and how I felt and what I said. The only way my head was going truly somewhere else was to travel to a different life and not to a different airport.
"Motherhood," I condensed in the park. "Now, that is a foreign country."
♥ What strikes me as people in diners rail at each other at the counter when before they ate in silence is not how imperiled they feel, but how safe. Only a country that feels invulnerable can afford political turmoil as entertainment.
♥ I was born in August 1945, when the spoors of two poisonous mushrooms gave us all a cautionary foretaste of hell. Kevin himself was born during the anxious countdown to 1984—much feared, you'll recall; though I scoffed at folks who took George Orwell's arbitrary title to heart, those digits did usher in an era of tyranny for me. Thursday itself took place in 1999, a year widely mooted beforehand as the end of the world. And wasn't it.
♥ I do recall a tumult of fears, though all the wrong ones. Had I catalogued the downsides of parenthood, "son might turn out killer" would never have turned up on the list.
♥ I am vain, or once was, and one of my vanities was to feign that I was not.
♥ Yet as I contemplate that list now it strikes me that, however damning, the conventional reservations about parenthood are practical. After all, now that children don't till your fields or take you in when you're incontinent, there is no sensible reason to have them, and it's amazing that with the advent of effective contraception anyone chooses to reproduce at all. By contrast, love, story, content, faith in the human "thing"—the modern incentives are like dirigibles, floating, and few; optimistic, large-hearted, even profound, but ominously ungrounded.
♥ I remember once you tried to express, haltingly, what was not like you; not the sentiment, not the language. You were always uncomfortable with the rhetoric of emotion, which is quite a different matter from discomfort with emotion itself. You feared that too much examination could bruise the feelings, like the well-meaning but brutish handling of a salamander by big, clumsy hands.
♥ At length, I got hooked on this sequence of accelerating terrors culminating in a vertiginous plunge to my adoptive mattress. My whole life I have been making myself do things. I never went to Madrid, Franklin, out of appetite for paella, and every one of those research trips you imagined I used to slip the surly bonds of our domestic tranquillity was really a gauntlet I'd thrown down and compelled myself to pick up. If I was ever glad to have gone, I was never glad to go.
♥ Franklin, I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing—reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths—all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick, tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a "turn of the page," I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else's story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off. The very insurmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness, was in the end what attracted me to it.
♥ How lucky we are, when we're spared what we think we want!
♥ Hitherto, I had always regarded the United States as a place to leave. After you brazenly asked me out—an executive with whom you had a business relationship—you goaded me to admit that had I been born elsewhere, the U.S. of A. was perhaps the first country I would make a beeline to visit: whatever else I might think of it, the place that called the shots and pulled the strings, that made the movies and sold the Coca-Cola and shipped Star Trek all the way to Java; the center of the action, a country that you needed a relationship with even if that relationship was hostile; a country that demanded if not acceptance at least rejection—anything but neglect. The country in every other country's face, that would visit you whether you liked it or not almost anywhere on the planet. Okay, okay, I protested. Okay. I would visit.
♥ But in the same vein, when a car nearly sideswipes me in a crosswalk, I've noticed that the driver is frequently furious—shouting, gesticulating, cursing—at me, whom he nearly ran over and who had the undisputed right of way. This is a dynamic particular to encounters with male drivers, who seem to grow all the more indignant the more completely they are in the wrong. I think the emotional reasoning, if you can call it that, is transitive: You make me feel bad; feeling bad makes me mad; ergo, you make me mad.
♥ "I didn't put in my diaphragm," I mumbled when we were through.
You stirred. "Is it dangerous?"
"It's very dangerous," I said. Indeed, just about any stranger could have turned up nine months later. We might as well have left the door unlocked.
♥ I would let parenthood influence our behavior; you would have parenthood dictate our behavior. If that seems a subtle distinction, it is night and day.
♥ That coy expression "you're eating for two now, dear," is all by way of goading that your very dinner is no longer a private affair; indeed as the land of the free has grown increasingly coercive, the inference seems to run that "you're eating for us now," for 200-some million meddlers, any one of whose prerogative it is to object should you ever be in the mood for a jelly donut and not a full meal with whole grains and leafy vegetables that covers all five major food groups. The right to boss pregnant women around was surely on its way into the Constitution.
♥ Funny how you dig yourself into a hole by the teaspoon—the smallest of compromises, the little roundings off or slight recasting of one emotion as another that is a tad nice or more flattering. I did not care so much about being deprived of a glass of wine per se. But like that legendary journey that begins with a single step, I had already embarked upon my first resentment.
A petty one, but most resentments are. And one that for its smallness I felt obliged to repress. For that matter, that is the nature of resentment, the objection we cannot express. It is silence more than the complaint itself that makes the emotion so toxic, like poisons the body won't pee away.
♥ For years he has tempted me to be nasty. I remained factual. Presenting emotions as facts—which they are—affords a fragile defense.
♥ This aspect of his, it's more common to the elderly than to children: the eyes glaze and drop, the musculature goes sloppy. It's an apathy so absolute that it's like a hole you might fall in.
♥ Franklin, I have never met anyone—and you do meet your children—who found his existence more of a burden or indignity. If you have any notion that I've brutalized our boy into low self-esteem, think again. I saw that same sullen expression in his eyes when he was one year old. If anything, he thinks very well of himself, especially since becoming such a celebrity. There is an enormous difference between disliking yourself and simply not wanting to be here.
♥ Like so many of our neighbors who latched onto tragedy to stand out from the crowd—slavery, incest, a suicide—I had exaggerated the ethnic chip on my shoulder for effect. I've learned since that tragedy is not to be hoarded. Only the untouched, the well-fed and contented, could possibly covet suffering like a designer jacket. I'd readily donate my story to the Salvation Army so that some other frump in need of color could wear it away.
♥ For all our squinting at the two sexes to blue them into duplicates, few hearts race when passing gaggles of giggling schoolgirls. But any woman who passes a clump of testosterone-drunk punks without picking up the pace, without avoiding the eye contact that might connote challenge or invitation, without sighing inwardly with relief by the following block, is a zoological fool. A boy is a dangerous animal.
♥ ...I worry equally that I may seem to be laying the groundwork for claiming that Kevin is all my fault. I do indulge that sometimes, too, gulping down blame with a powerful thirst. But I did say indulge. There's a self-aggrandizement in these wallowing mea culpas, a vanity. Blame confers an awesome power. And it's simplifying, not only to onlookers and victims but to culprits most of all. It imposes order on slag.
♥ Sheer obstinacy is far more durable than courage, through it's not as pretty.
♥ You have to keep faith that if the unthinkable does come to pass, despair will come crashing in of its own accord; that grief, for example, is not an experience you need summon or a skill you need practice, and the same goes for prescriptive joy.
Thus even tragedy can be accompanied by a trace of relief. The discovery that heartbreak is indeed heartbreaking consoles us about our humanity (though considering what people get up to, that's a queer word to equate with compassion, or even with emotional competence.)
...On my own account, the drama left me physically shaken—my hands trembled on the wheel, my mouth dropped and went dry. But I had acquitted myself well. I still blanch at the agony of strangers.
♥ But if I extracted one lesson from my tenth birthday party, it was that expectations are dangerous when they are both high and unformed.
♥ What I hadn't realized, Brian had confided, is that you fall in love with your own children. You don't just love them. You fall in love. And that moment, when you lay eyes on them for the first time—it's indescribable. I do wish he had described it anyway. I do wish he had given it a try.
♥ In the particular dwells the tawdry. In the conceptual dwells the grand, the transcendent, the everlasting. Earthly countries and single malignant little boys can go to hell; the idea of countries and the idea of sons triumph for eternity. Although neither of us ever went to church, I came to conclude that you were a naturally religious person.
♥ For my part, I have come to recognize—since any world is by definition self-enclosed and, to is inhabitants, all there is—that geography is relative. To my intrepid mother, the living room could be Eastern Europe, my old bedroom Cameroon.
♥ Indeed, the occasion seemed to liberate something in her, not only love but bravery, if they are not in many respects the same thing.
♥ So insistent was I that Foulke pin a disability to our son, stamp a name-brand American syndrome on Kevin's forehead, that the pediatrician must have thought me one of those neurotic mothers who craved distinction for her child but who in our civilization's latter-day degeneracy could only conceive of the exceptional in terms of deficiency or affliction. And honestly, I did want him to find something wrong with Kevin. I yearned for our son to have some small disadvantage or flaw to kindle my sympathy. I was not made of stone, and whenever I espied a little boy with a piebald cheek or webbed fingers waiting patiently in the outer office, my heart went out to him, and I quivered to consider what torture he would suffer at recess. I wanted to at least feel sorry for Kevin, which seemed a start. Did I truly wish our son to have webbed fingers? Well, yes, Franklin. If that's what it took.
♥ But I have a theory about Dream Homes. Not for nothing does "folly" mean both foolhardy mistake and costly ornamental building. Because I've never seen a Dream Home that works. Like ours, some of them almost work, though unqualified disasters are equally common. Part of the problem is that regardless of how much money you lavish on oak baseboards, an unhistoried house is invariably cheap in another dimension. Otherwise, the trouble seems rooted in the nature of beauty itself, a surprisingly elusive quality and rarely one you can buy outright. It flees in the face of too much effort. It rewards casualness, and most of all it deigns to arrive by whim, by accident.
♥ Still, through a complex combination of optimism and longing and bravado, you would round it up. While a cruder name for this process is lying, one could make a case that delusion is a variant of generosity. After all, you practiced rounding up on Kevin from the day he was born.
Me, I'm a stickler. I prefer my photographs in focus. At the risk of tautology, I like people only as much as I like them.
♥ "You can only subject people to anguish who have a conscience. You can only punish people who have hopes to frustrate or attachments to sever; who worry what you think of them. You can really only punish people who are already a little bit good."
♥ "Surely you don't blame yourself, my dear!" your mother chimed, though with a nervousness; if I did, she didn't want to hear about it.
"I never liked him very much, Gladys." I met her eyes squarely, mother-to-mother. "I realize it's commonplace for parents to say to their child sternly 'I love you, but I don't always like you.' But what kind of love is that? It seems to me that comes down to, 'I'm not oblivious to you—that is, you can still hurt my feelings—but I can't stand having you around.' Who wants to be loved like that? Given a choice, I might skip the deep blood tie and settle for being liked. I wonder if I wouldn't have been more moved if my own mother had taken me in her arms and said, 'I like you.' I wonder if just enjoying your kid's company isn't more important."
♥ Cinematic carve-ups are only hard to handle if on some level you believe that these tortures are being done to you. In fact, it's ironic that these spectacles have such a wicked reputation among Bible thumpers, since gruesome special effects rely for their impact on their audience's positively Christian compulsion to walk in their neighbors' shoes. But Kevin had discovered the secret: not merely that it wasn't real, but that it wasn't him. Over the years I observed Kevin watching decapitations, disembowelments, dismemberments, flayings, impalements, deoculations, and crucifixions, and I never saw him flinch. Because he'd mastered the trick. If you decline to identify, slice-and-dice is no more discomfiting than watching your mother prepare beef stroganoff.
♥ In the end, that's what Kevin has never forgiven us. He may not resent that we tried to impose a curtain between himself and the adult terrors lurking behind it. But he does powerfully resent that we led him down the garden path—that we enticed him with the prospect of the exotic. (Hadn't I myself nourished the fantasy that I would eventually land in a country that was somewhere else?) When we shrouded our grown-up mysteries for which Kevin was too young, we implicitly promised him that when the time came, the curtain would pull back to reveal—what? Like the ambiguous emotional universe that I imagined awaited me on the other side of childbirth, it's doubtful that Kevin had formed a vivid picture of whatever we had withheld from him. But the one thing he could not have imagined is that we were withholding nothing. That there was nothing on the other side of our silly rules, nothing.
The truth is, the vanity of protective parents that I cited to the court goes beyond look-at-us-we're-such-responsible-guardi
The last thing we want to admit is that the forbidden fruit on which we have been gnawing since reaching the magic age of twenty-one is the same mealy Golden Delicious that we stuff into our children's lunch boxes. The last thing we want to admit is that the bickering of the playground perfectly presages the machinations of the boardroom, that our social hierarchies are merely an extension of who got picked first for the kickball team, and that grown-ups still get divided into bullies and fatties and crybabies. What's a kid to find out? Presumably we lord over them an exclusive deed to sex, but this pretence flies so fantastically in the face of fact that it must result from some conspiratorial group amnesia. To this day, some of my most intense sexual memories date back to before I was ten, as I have confided to you under the sheets in better days. No, they have sex, too. In truth, we are bigger, greedier versions of the same eating, shitting, rutting ruck, hell-bent on disguising from somebody, if only from a three-year-old, that pretty much all we do is eat and shit and rut. The secret is there is no secret. That is what we really wish to keep from our kids, and its suppression is the true collusion of adulthood, the pact we make, the Talmud we protect.
♥ I didn't care about anything. And there's a freedom in apathy, a wild, dizzying liberation on which you can almost get drunk. You can do anything. Ask Kevin.
♥ People seem able to get used to anything, and it is a short step from adaptation to attachment.
♥ I noted that in Africa as well: dozens of Africans sitting or standing by the side of the road, waiting for the bus or, even harder, waiting for nothing in particular, and they never appeared restive or annoyed. They didn't pull grass and chew the tender ends with their front teeth; they didn't draw aimless pictures with the toes of their plastic sandals in the dry red clay. They were still, and present. The capacity is existential, that ability to just be, with a profundity that I have seen elude some very well educated people.
♥ But keeping secrets is a discipline. I never used to think of myself as a good liar, but after having had some practice I had adopted the prevaricator's credo that one doesn't so much fabricate a lie as marry it. I successful lie cannot be brought into this world and capriciously abandoned; like any committed relationship, it must be maintained, and with far more devotion than the truth, which carries on being carelessly true without any help. By contrast, my lie needed me as much as I needed it, and so demanded the constancy of wedlock: Till death do us part.
♥ Yet in my experience, when left to their own devices people will get up to one of two things: nothing much, and no good.
♥ "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.
♥ He was good. He was very, very good; you may not appreciate how good. He was smooth—the story was ready. None of the details were inconsistent or gratuitous; he had spurned the extravagant fantasies with which most children his age would camouflage a spilled drink or broken mirror. He had learned what all skilled liars register if they're ever to make a career of it: Always appropriate as much of the truth as possible. A well-constructed lie is assembled largely from the alphabet blocks of fact, which will as easily make a pyramid a platform.
♥ You see, it was drilled into me since I could talk that 1.5 million of my people were slaughtered by Turks; my own father was killed in a war against the worst of ourselves, and in the very month I was born, we were driven to use the worst of ourselves, and in the very month I was born, we were driven to use the worst of ourselves to defeat it. Since Thursday was the slimy garnish on this feast of snakes, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself hard of heart. Instead, I'm easily moved, even mawkish. Maybe my expectations of my fellows have been reduced to so base a level that the smallest kindness overwhelms me for being, like Thursday itself, so unnecessary. Holocausts do not amaze me. Rapes and child slavery do not amaze me. And Franklin, I know you feel otherwise, but Kevin does not amaze me. I am amazed when I drop a glove in the street and a teenager runs two blocks to return it. I am amazed when a checkout girl flashes me a wide smile with my change, though my own face had been a mask of expedience. Lost wallets posted to their owners, strangers who furnish meticulous directrions, neighbors who water each other's houseplants—these things amaze me.
♥ But I drew the line when you despaired that Celia was "clingy." It's an ugly word, isn't it, that describes the honey of the heart as a sticky, pestersome substance that won't brush off. And to whatever degree clinginess is not simply a mean appellation for the most precious thing on earth, it involves an unacceptably incessant demand for attention, approbation, ardor in return. But Celia beseeched us for nothing. She didn't nag us to come see what she's built in the playroom or paw and tug at us while we tried to read. Whenever I hugged her unbidden, she returned my embrace with a thankful ferocity that implied unworthiness. After I went back to working at AWAP, she never complained at my absence, though her face would turn ashen with grief when I dropped her at preschool and would light like Christmas when I came home.
Celia was not clingy. She was simply affectionate. She did sometimes wrap her arms around my leg in the kitchen, press her cheek to my knee, and exclaim with amazement, "You're my friend!" Yet whatever difficulty you may have had with her arrival, you were never so hard a man as to find such demonstrations anything but touching. Indeed, confirmation that we were her friends seemed to entrance her far more than broad, rather abstract protestations of parental love. Although I know you thought Kevin the far smarter of the two, Kevin entered this world utterly stymied by what it was for and what to do with it, where Celia arrived with unshakable certainty about what she wanted and what made life worth living: that goo that wouldn't brush off. Surely that constitutes intelligence of a kind.
♥ I admit, I tried to make him mad today. I was determined to make him feel small, not the deep dark impenetrable conundrum of Our Contemporary Society, but the butt of a joke, hoisted on his own retard. Because every time Kevin takes another bow as Evil Incarnate, he swells a little larger. Each slander slewed in his direction—nihilistic, morally destitute, depraved, degenerate, or debased—bulks his scrawny frame better than my cheese sandwiches ever did. No wonder he's broadening out. He eats the world's hearty denunciations for breakfast. Well, I don't want him to feel unfathomable, a big beefed-up allegory of generational disaffection; I don't want to allow him to cloak the sordid particulars of his tacky, crappy, gimcrack, derivative stunt with the grand mantle of Rudderless Youth Today. I want him to feel like one more miserable, all-too-understandable snippet of a plain dumb kid. I want him to feel witless and sniveling and inconsequential, and the last thing in the world I want to betray us how much of my day, every day, I spend trying to figure out what makes that boy tick.
♥ Sure, most children have a taste for spoliation. Tearing things apart is easier than making them; however exacting his preparations for Thursday, they couldn't have been nearly as demanding as it would have been to befriend those people instead. So annihilation is a kind of laziness. But it still provides the satisfactions of agency: I wreck, therefore I am. Besides, for most people, construction is right, concentrated, bunchy, whereas vandalism offers release; you have to be quite an artist to give positive expression to abandon. And there's an ownership to destruction, an intimacy; an appropriation. In this way, Kevin has clutched Denny Corbitt and Laura Woolford to his breast, inhaled their hearts and hobbies whole. Destruction may be motivated by nothing more complicated than acquisitiveness, a kind of ham-handed, misguided greed.
♥ Yet if there's no reason to live without a child, how could there be with one? To answer one life with a successive life is simply to transfer the onus of purpose to the next generation; the displacement amounts to a cowardly and potentially infinite delay. Your children's answer, presumably, will be to procreate as well, and in doing so to distract themselves, to foist their own aimlessness onto their offspring.
♥ Like all news, I regarded it as having nothing to do with me. Yet like it or not, I had morphed from maverick globetrotter to one more white, well-off suburban mother, and I couldn't help but he unnerved by deadly flights of lunacy from fledglings of my own kind. Gangland killings in Detroit or L.A. happened on another planet; Pearl and Paducah happened on mine.
I did feel a concentrated dislike for those boys, who couldn't submit to the odd faithless girlfriend, needling classmate, or dose of working-single-parent distraction—who couldn't serve their miserable time in their miserable public schools the way the rest of us did—without carving their dime-a-dozen problems ineluctably into the lives of other families. It was the same petty vanity that drove these boys' marginally saner contemporaries to scrape their dreary little names into national monuments. And the self-pity! That nearsighted Woodham creature apparently passed a note to one of his friends before staging a tantrum with his father's deer rifle: "Throughout my life I was ridiculed. Always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, blame me for what I do?" And I thought, Yes, you little shit! In a heartbeat!
Michael Carneal in Paducah was a similar type—overweight, teased, wallowing in his tiny suffering like trying to take a bath in a puddle. But he'd never been a discipline problem in the past; the worst he'd ever been caught at theretofore was watching the Playboy video channel. Carneal distinguished himself by opening fire on, of all things, a prayer group. He managed to kill three students and wound five, but judging from the cheek-turning memorial services and merciful banners in classroom windows—one of which embraced photos not only of his victims but of Carneal himself with a heart—the born-again got theirs back by forgiving him to death.
♥ "And you know, this may be at the heart of it, what's my beef. All those intangibles of life, the really good but really elusive stuff that makes life worth living—Americans seem to believe they can all be obtained by joining a group, or signing up to a subscription, or going on a special diet, or undergoing aroma therapy. It's not just that Americans think they can buy everything; they think that if you follow the instructions on the label, the product has to work. Then when the product doesn't work and they're still unhappy even though the right to happiness is enshrined in the Constitution, they sue the bejesus out of each other."
"What do you mean, intangibles," said Kevin.
"Whatever, as your friends would say. Love—joy—insight." (To Kevin, I could as well have been talking about little green men on the moon.) "But you can't order them on the Internet or learn them in a course at the New School or look them up in a How-To. It's not that easy, or maybe it is easy... so easy that trying, following the directions, gets in the way... I don't know."
♥ Besides, isn't true beauty a tad enigmatic? And Celia was too artless to imply concealment. She had an available face, and there is something implicitly uninteresting about the look of a person who will tell you whatever you want to know.
♥ I know, Snuffles was just a pet, an expensive pet, and some kind of unhappy ending was inevitable. I should have thought of that before I gave her the little beast, though surely to avoid attachments for fear of loss is to avoid life.
♥ As for the mold making, we'd been assured that it wouldn't be painful, though she might experience "discomfort," a term beloved of the medical profession that seems to be a synonym for agony that isn't yours.
♥ I'd always thought of American culture as a spectator sport, on which I could pass judgement from the elevated bleachers of my internationalism. But these days I join in aping beer advertisements when my workmates at Travel R Us cry in unison, Whass uuuuup?, I use impact as a transitive verb, and I omit prissy quotation marks. Real culture you don't observe but embody. I live here. As I would soon discover in spades, there is no opt-out clause.
♥ "They have lower sentences for juveniles for good reason," you said. "Those kids had no idea what they were doing."
"You don't think so," said Kevin caustically. (If he was offended by my ridicule of adolescent angst, out son may have been more affronted by your compassion.)
"No eleven-year-old has any real grasp of death," you said. "He doesn't have any real concept of other people—that they feel pain, even that they exist. And his own adult future isn't real to him, either. Makes it that much easier to throw it away."
"Maybe his future is real to him," said Kevin. "Maybe that's the problem."
"Come on, Kev," you said. "All the kids in these shootings have been middle class, not guys from some urban sewer. Those boys were looking at a life with a mortgage and a car and a job in management, with yearly holidays to Bali or something."
"Yeah," Kevin purred. "Like I said."
♥ Broadly, you probably did want answers to these questions, but their caring-Dad intensity came across as self-serving. Kevin cased you before he replied. Kids have a well-tuned radar to detect the difference between an adult who's interested and an adult who's keen to seem interested. All those times I stooped to Kevin after kindergarten and asked him what he did that day—even as a five-year-old he could tell that I didn't care.
♥ "I'm sorry, Franklin," I said, lifting Celia to sit beside me, "but I don't see how a few more heart-to-hearts are going to put the brakes on what is clearly becoming some kind of fad. It's spreading just like Teletubbies, only instead of having to have a rubber doll with a TV in its belly, every teenager has to shoot up his school. This year's must-have accessories: a Star Wars cell phone and a Lion King semiautomatic. Oh, and some accompanying sob story about being picked on, or ditched by a pretty face."
"Show a little empathy," you said. "These are disturbed boys. They need help."
"They're also imitative boys. Think they didn't hear about Moses Lake and West Palm Beach? About Bethel, Pearl, and Paducah? Kids pick up things on TV, they listen to their parents talking. Mark my words, every well-armed temper tantrum that goes down only increases the likelihood of more. This whole country's lost, everybody copies everybody else, and everybody wants to be famous. In the long term, the only hope is that these shootings get so ordinary that they're not news anymore. Ten kids get shot in some Des Moines primary school and it's reported on page six. Eventually any fad gets to be uncool, and thank God at some point hip thirteen-year-olds just won't want to be seen with a Mark-19 in second period. Until then, Kevin, I'd keep a sharp eye on any of your classmates who start feeling sorry for themselves in camouflage gear."
♥ ...and I was a dreamer who fantasized endlessly about escape, not only from Racine but the entire United States. Dreamers don't watch their backs.
♥ Did Kevin take drugs? I've never been sure. You agonized enough about how to approach the subject, whether to pursue the rectitudinous course and denounce all pharmaceuticals as the sure route to insanity and the gutter or to play the reformed hell-raiser and vaunt a long list of substances that you once devoured like candy until you learned the hard way that they could rot your teeth. (The truth—that we hadn't cleaned out the medicine cabinet, but we'd both tried a variety of recreational drugs, and not only in the sixties but up to a year before he was born; that better living through chemistry had driven neither of us to an asylum or even to an emergency room; and that these gleeful carnival rides on the mental midway were far more the source of nostalgia than remorse—was unacceptable.) ... Privately I believed that downing a few capsules of ecstasy could be the best thing that ever happened to that boy.
♥ I reason that nothing about a blindness to beauty necessitates a blindness to ugliness, for which Kevin long ago developed a taste. Presumably there are as many fine shades of the gross as the gorgeous, so that a mind full of blight wouldn't preclude a certain refinement.
♥ In the early months, still asthmatic with grief, I was more in the mood for the bracing open air of the pariah than for the close, stifling confines of Christian charity. And the vengefulness of my hate mail was meat-red and raw, whereas the kindness of condolences was pastel and processed, like commercial baby food; after reading a few pages from the merciful, I'd feel as if I'd just crawled from a vat of liquefied squash. I wanted to shake these people and scream, Forgive us! Do you know what he did?
But in retrospect it may grate on me most that this big dumb absolution latterly in vogue is doled out so selectively. Weak characters of an everyday sort—bigots, sexists, and panty fetishists—need not apply.
♥ It wasn't an easy time to be a schoolteacher, if it ever had been. Squeezed by the state for higher standards and by parents for higher grades, under the magnifying glass for any ethnic insensitivity or sexual impropriety, torn by the rote demands of proliferating standardized tests and student cries for creative expression, teachers were both blamed for everything that went wrong with kids and turned to for their every salvation. This dual role of scapegoat and savior was downright messianic, but even in 1998 shekels Jesus was probably paid better.
♥ "But I look in his eyes, and he's raging. Why?"
"Well, he wasn't too happy when his sister was born... But that was over seven years ago, and he wasn't too happy before she was born, either." My delivery had grown morose. "We're pretty well off—you know, we have a big house..." I introduced an air of embarrassment. "We try not to spoil him, but he lacks for nothing. Kevin's father adores him, almost—too much. His sister did have an—accident last winter in which Kevin was—involved, but he didn't seem very bothered by it. Not bothered enough, in fact. Otherwise, I can't tell you any terrible trauma he's been through or deprivation he's suffered. We lead the good life, don't we?"
"Maybe that's what he's angry about."
"Why would affluence make him mad?"
"Maybe he's mad that this is as good as it gets. Your big house. His good school. I think it's very difficult for kids these days, in a way. The country's very prosperity has become a burden, a dead end. Everything works, doesn't it? At least if you're white and middle class. So it must often seem to young people that they're not needed. In a sense, it's as if there's nothing more to do."
"Except tear it apart."
"Yes. And you see the same cycles in history. It's not only children."
♥ Franklin, I'd never appreciated how much energy you expended to maintain the fiction that we were a broadly happy family whose trifling, transient problems just made life more interesting. Maybe every family has one member whose appointed job is to fabricate this attractive packaging.
♥ There shouldn't be any problem loving both, but for some reason certain men choose; like good mutual-fund managers minimizing risk while maximizing portfolio yield, they take everything they once invested in their wives and sink it into children instead. What is it? Do they seem safer, because they need you? Because you can never become their ex-father, as I might become your ex-wife? You never quite trusted me, Franklin. I took too many airplanes in the formative years, and it never entirely registered that I always bought a round-trip.
♥ Had I imagined this scene—and I had not, for to picture such things is to invite them—I'd have expected to stay up until dawn draining a bottle, agonizing over what went wrong. But I sensed that if anything we would turn in early. Like toasters and sub-compacts, one only tinkers with the mechanics of a marriage in the interest of getting it up and running again; there's not much point in poking around to see where the wires have disconnected prior to throwing the contraption away. What's more, though I'd have expected to cry, I found myself all dried up; with the house overheated, my nostrils were tight and smarting, my lips cracked. You were right, it had already happened, and I may have been in mourning for our marriage for a decade. Now I understood how the mates of long senile spouses felt when, after dogged, debilitating visits to a nursing home, what is functionally dead succumbs to death in fact. A culminatory shudder of grief; a thrill of guilty relief. For the first time since I could remember, I relaxed. My shoulders dropped a good two inches. I sat into my chair. I sat. I may have never sat so completely. All I was doing was sitting.
♥ He wanted to go on Prozac. From my random sampling, a good half of his student body was on one antidepressant or another, though he did request Prozac in particular. I've always been leery of legal restoratives, and I did worry about the drug's reputation for flattening; the vision of our son even more dulled to the world boggled the mind. But so rarely out of the States those days, I, too, had acculturated myself to the notion that in a country with more money, greater freedom, bigger houses, better schools, finer health care, and more unfettered opportunity than anywhere else on earth, of course an abundance of its population would be out of their minds with sorrow. So I went along with it, and the psychiatrist we sought seemed as happy to hand out fistfuls of pharmaceuticals as our dentist to issue free lollipops.
♥ "Your father—did you get along, or did you fight?"
"Mister Plastic?" Kevin snorted. "I should be so lucky we'd have a fight. No, it was all cheery chirpy, hot dogs and Cheez Whiz. A total fraud, you know? All like, Let's go to the Natural History Museum, Kev, they have some really neat-o rocks! He was into some Little League fantasy, stuck in the 1950s. I'd get this, I luuuuuuv you, buddy! stuff, and I'd just look at him like, Who are you talking to, guy? What does that mean, you dad 'loves' you and hasn't a [bleep]ing clue who you are? What's he love, then? Some kid in Happy Days. Not me."
♥ "I guess there's only one question left, Kevin—the big one. Why'd you do it?"
I could tell Kevin had been preparing for this. He inserted a dramatic pause, then slammed the front legs of his plastic chair onto the floor. Elbows on knees, he turned from Marlin to directly address the camera.
"Okay, it's like this. You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job or your little school, but you're not going to hear about that on the 6:00 news, since guess what. Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you're into that sort of thing you read a book, which is just the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you'll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you've been watching. And you know, it's got so bad that I've started to notice, the people on TV? Inside the TV? Half the time they're watching TV. Or if you've got some romance in a movie? What do they do but go to a movie. All these people, Marlin," he invited the interviewer in with a nod. "What are they watching?"
After an awkward silence, Marlin filled in, "You tell us, Kevin."
"People like me." He sat back and folded his arms.
Marlin would have been happy with this footage, and he wasn't about to let the show stop now. Kevin was on a roll and had that quality of just getting started. "But people watch other things than killers, Kevin," Marlin prodded.
"Horseshit," said Kevin. "They want to watch something happen, and I've made a study of it: Pretty much the definition of something happening is it's bad. The way I see it, the world is divided into the watchers and the watchees, and there's more and more of the audience and less and less to see. People who actually do anything are a goddamned endangered species."
"On the contrary, Kevin," Marlin observed sorrowfully, "all too many young people like yourself have gone on killing sprees in the last few years."
"Lucky for you, too! You need us! What would you do without me, film a documentary on paint drying? What are all those folks doing," he waved an arm at the camera, "but watching me? Don't you think they'd have changed the channel by now if all I'd done is get an A in Geometry? Bloodsuckers! I do their dirty work for them!"
...Again, Kevin swung to the camera. "My story is about all I got to my name right now, and that's why I feel robbed. But a story's a whole lot more than most people get. All you people watching out there, you're listening to what I say because I have something you don't: I got plot. Bought and paid for. That's what all you people want, and why you're sucking off me. You want my plot. I know how you feel, too, since hey, I used to feel the same way. TV and video games and movies and computer screens... On April 8th, 1999, I jumped into the screen, I switched to watchee. Ever since, I've known what my life is about. I give good story. It may have been kinda gory, but admit it, you all loved it. You ate it up. Nuts, I ought to be on some government payroll. Without people like me, the whole country would jump off a bridge, 'cause the only thing on TV is some housewife on Who wants to Be a Millionaire? winning $64,000 for remembering the name of the president's dog.
♥ His father, at least, was forever dragging him off to some cluttered Native American museum or dreary Revolutionary War battlefield, so that anyone who tried to portray him as the neglected victim of the self-centered two-career marriage would have an uphill battle, and whatever he may have intuited, we were not divorced: no copy there. He wasn't a member of a satanic cult; most of his friends didn't go to church either, so godlessness was unlikely to emerge as a cautionary theme. He wasn't picked on—he had his unsavory friends, and his contemporaries went out of their way to leave him be—so the poor-persecuted-misfit, we-must-do-something-to-bullying-in-scho
♥ Yet I have reflected on the fact that for most of us, there is a hard, impassable barrier between the most imaginatively detailed depravity and its real-life execution. It's the same solid steel wall that inserts itself between a knife and my wrist even when I'm at my most disconsolate. So how was Kevin able to raise that crossbow, point it at Laura's breastbone, and then really, actually, in time and space, squeeze the release? I can only assume that he discovered what I never wish to. That there is no barrier. That like my trips abroad or this ludicrous scheme of bike locks and invitations on school stationary, the very squeezing of that release can be broken down into a series of simple constituent parts. It may be no more miraculous to pull the trigger of a bow or a gun than it is to reach for a glass of water. I fear that crossing into the "unthinkable" turns out to be no more athletic than stepping across the threshold of an ordinary room; and that, if you will, is the trick. The secret. As ever, the secret is that there is no secret. He must almost have wanted to giggle, though that is not his style; those Columbine kids did giggle. And once you have found out that there is nothing to stop you, that the barrier, so seemingly uncrossable, is all in your head—it must be possible to step back and forth across that threshold again and again, shot after shot, as if an unintimidating pipsqueak has drawn a line across the carpet that you must not pass and you launch tauntingly over it, back and over it, in a mocking little dance.
♥ Anyway, it's become quite a diplomatic showdown, and now China is holding the twenty-four American crew members hostage—for an apology, of all things. I haven't had the energy to follow who is and who is not at fault, but I have been intrigued that world peace (or so they say) hangs in the balance over the sole matter of remorse. Previous to my education in such things, I might have found the situation exasperating. Just say you're sorry then, if that will get them back! But nowadays the matter of remorse looms great to me, and it neither surprises nor frustrates me that momentous events might be decided in accordance with it. Besides, so far this Hainan conundrum is relatively simple. It is so much more often the case that an apology brings no one back.
♥ I am sometimes awed by the same naïveté of my own younger self—disheartened that Spain has trees, despairing that every unexplored frontier turns out to have food and weather. I wanted to go somewhere else, I thought. Witlessly, I conceived of myself as harboring an insatiable appetite for the exotic.
Well, Kevin has introduced me to a real foreign country. I can be sure of that, since the definition of the truly foreign locale is one that fosters a piercing and perpetual yearning to go home.
♥ This is all I know. That on the 11th of April, 1983, unto me a son was born, and I felt nothing. Once again, the truth is always larger than what we make of it. As that infant squirmed on my breast, from which he shrank in such distaste, I spurned him in return—he may have been a fifteenth my size, but it seemed fair at the time. Since that moment we have fought one another with an unrelenting ferocity that I can almost admire. But it must be possible to earn a devotion be testing an antagonism to its very limit, to bring people closer through the very act of pushing them away. Because after three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son. He has five grim years left to serve in an adult penitentiary, and I cannot vouch for what will walk out the other side. But in the meantime, there is a second bedroom in my serviceable apartment. The bedspread is plain. A copy of Robin Hood lies on the bookshelf. And the sheets are clean.