The film of Lionel Shriver’s book We Need to Talk about Kevin has just opened in Cannes to rave reviews. (May 2011). School shooting is a topic of intense interest in the United States. A thorough study of all United States school shootings by the U.S. Secret Service warned against the belief that a certain “type” of student would be a perpetrator. Any profile would fit too many students to be useful and may not apply to a potential perpetrator. Some lived with both parents in “an ideal, All-American family.” Some were children of divorce, or lived in foster homes. A few were loners, but many had close friends.
While it may be simplistic to assume a straightforward “profile”, the Secret Service study did find certain similarities among the perpetrators. “The researchers found that killers do not ‘snap’. They plan. They acquire weapons. These children take a long, considered, public path toward violence. School shootings have spawned copy cat killings in other countries. In China alone, there were five last month.
The first school shooting in the US occurred in 1999, and these tragic incidents have continued to the present day. In 2003, the US journalist and writer Lionel Shriver wrote the chilling, powerful and painful psychological thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin. The book is not about one single act. It is an immensely complicated and subtly layered work about story telling and lies, about blame and free will and about the choices we make. Most of all, it is about love and the failure of love, it is about how people desperately need our love when they deserve it least.
The book is written from the perspective of the killer’s mother, successful business woman Eva Khatchadourian, in the form of letters to her estranged husband. The behaviour of her son Kevin in the book closely resembles that of a sociopath. He displays little or no feeling or moral responsibility towards any member of his family and distances himself from everyone, to avoid attachment. He continually, almost from babyhood, engages in acts of petty sabotage, aggression and pathological cruelty.
Little by little, we begin to realise that Eva, the narrator, is not necessarily to be trusted. She isn’t always truthful, and as the ground of our reality begins to shift beneath our feet, we start to understand that she might have her own reasons for painting Kevin blacker than he is. With the Bulger case always a terrible memory, the questions are, can evil be innate, does the maternal instinct really exist and can we take for granted the innocence of children and the culpability of adults?
A film version of We Need To Talk About Kevin is underway for release in 2011, with ice queen Tilda Swinton as Eva, John C. Reilly as Kevin’s father, the loving, ignorant father in denial, and Ezra Miller as Kevin. In 1992, way before the Columbine shooting in 1999, Pearl Jam released the song Jeremy , as part of their album Ten, on the theme of a school shooting. It took a long time for the album to make an impression. No other song could possibly have encapsulated the trauma of such an incident so powerfully. Jeremy spoke in class today.