We Need to Talk About Kevin: Psychopathy and the Modern Antichrist

We Need to Talk About KevinCommentary by Erika Rothberg

In an increasingly secular society, many people scoff at the idea that there could ever be an Antichrist. So what do we, as a society, view as the most terrifying example of evil? What do women fear giving birth to the most? It is not a diabolical Antichrist, but instead, an evil child; a child who commits murders or other heinous deeds. The age in which we live is one that has a pill or procedure that can fix any ailment, so what do you make of people who cannot be “fixed” by treatment methods we, as a society, have come to rely on in order to control our world? This unreachable and secularly evil human is becoming the new Antichrist figure.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel and the subsequent film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay) is about a mother’s relationship with her estranged son. At the beginning of the novel/film, the audience knows that Kevin is imprisoned but we don’t know why. The book is an epistolary novel in which Kevin’s mother, Eva Katchadourian, writes about the past by sending letters to her husband Franklin. Eva comes to visit Kevin regularly, and her story is told in flashbacks, each one being the subject of one letter. The flashbacks begin when Kevin is born and catalogue his growth. In each, Kevin gets older and stranger, and increasingly disturbing incidents are shown; he and Eva have a terribly strained relationship. Kevin displays intensely sociopathic behavior: he kills his little sister’s guinea pig in the garbage disposal, lies to and manipulates his father while disrespecting his mother, and destroys his little sister’s eye with Drano fluid. Eventually, the reader finds out that Kevin is imprisoned because he killed his father and sister with his archery set (the only toy he ever enjoyed) before murdering his classmates in high school. At the very end of the story, Eva visits Kevin just before his eighteenth birthday, exactly two years after the massacre has occurred. She finally asks him, “Why?” to which Kevin replies, “I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin poses a question: where does evil come from? While it is not strictly a horror novel, there are many elements in the novel and film adaptation that make it truly terrifying. We Need to Talk About Kevin’s female protagonist, Eva, is a seemingly normal (if emotionally unstable) woman. She lapses into a depression after Kevin is born; she lacks empathy for him and is incapable of forming a bond with her child. She is so exasperated by his crying that she stands next to a jackhammer in the street with a look of bliss, absolutely thrilled to be drowning out her son’s constant wails. Later, when she and Kevin are discussing his childhood, Eva admits, “I couldn’t have expected that simply forming an attachment to you would be so much work. I thought that part came for free” (Shriver 57).

When Kevin is an infant, Eva does not know how to cradle him. She stares at him helplessly or holds him at a far distance. She never comforts her child by snuggling close to him or giving him lots of playful hugs and kisses, as “normal” mothers do. She treats him almost as an adult—she doesn’t know how to relate to him at all. From the beginning, Eva has already characterized her son as an evil entity:

“From the very beginning that child was particular to me, whereas you often asked, How’s the kid? or How’s my boy? or Where’s the baby? To me he was never “the baby.” He was a singular, unusually cunning individual who had arrived to stay with us and just happened to be very small” (Shriver 87).

In Kevin, we see an equal lack of empathy—he has no idea how to be a “normal” son. He is described as a strangely malevolent being from his very birth. Immediately, he rejects his mother: he will not breastfeed and screams at the top of his lungs until his father returns from work (“Kevin’s was not a cry of pain but of wrath”); when Franklin returns, Kevin becomes “good-natured,” convincing Eva that he is already a conniving child, driving a wedge between his parents (Shriver 89-91).

LionelShriverThis raises the question: is Kevin inherently evil or is he evil because of his childhood? Kevin seems to be a more sociopathic deranged version of Eva, as the two are extremely similar. Eva and Kevin look very much alike and are androgynous; they have the same mannerisms and gestures. Many scenes in the film visually translate the strange doppelganger quality present in Eva and Kevin’s relationship. Oftentimes, these scenes open with a tableau in which Eva and Kevin are in identical positions but facing different directions, ignoring each other, and/or without eye contact. The two clearly parallel each other, and this visual pairing sets up the connection between this mother and son. They are clearly two halves of the same whole, incapable of connecting with each other.

Kevin is a psychopath who eventually becomes homicidal and slaughters his family (minus Eva) and his schoolmates. He displays all the characteristic hallmarks of a psychopath, as detailed on Hare’s Checklist for determining psychopathy: charming, glib, conniving, easily manipulates others, blatant disregard for laws, perverse/deviant sexual practices (Kevin masturbates while staring directly into his mother’s eyes), unable to take accountability for his actions, and unable to feel empathy, emotion, and remorse. When Kevin admits he doesn’t know why he committed the crimes, he doesn’t seem to have any remorse over it—he sheds no tears, his voice does not tremble, and he speaks in a cold, controlled monotone; Shriver describes his tone only as “glum” (398). While Kevin is identified as a homicidal psychopath, Eva exhibits more subdued psychological issues that make her harder to classify. She, too, exhibits many personality traits of a psychopath: coldly unresponsive, addicted to alcohol, and uninterested in being a parent (Hare). However, she does seem to form a bond with her husband and daughter, so she is more capable of love than Kevin is, and as such, cannot be considered a true psychopath. Eva is the less severe female adult version of Kevin.

Perhaps Eva was raised by someone who was not a psychopath, which is why her psychological issues are muted. It seems likely that since Kevin (a psychopath) was raised by a psychologically unstable woman, that he had both nature and nurture counterparts working against him, which contributes to his psychopathy that manifests as an antisocial personality disorder. This would account for the disparities and similarities between the two figures. Furthermore, this would imply that evil is both inwardly inherent and outwardly acquirable. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a case study in the evolution of one evil being; this being is not supernatural, but he is capable of inflicting incredible amounts of damage in the world. This also correlates with the world as it is today, as we are increasingly reliant on medicine, technology, and empirical evidence. Many people do not even believe in the concept of the devil (or find it laughable), so evil is discussed here not in supernatural terms but in metaphysical terms. The idea of supernatural evil is displaced and channeled through Kevin, a human who commits terribly malevolent and violent crimes.

Eva does not ever seem to love Kevin, but she does attempt to support him. Kevin murders her husband and her daughter and yet Eva continues to visit Kevin at the prison. She does not act out of love, but instead, she understands that she must act as society dictates. She obeys rules society sets because she knows that she must do this to attempt to live a typical, “normal” life. She notes, “I have no end of failings as a mother, but I have always followed the rules” (Shriver 39).  Eva does not feel love for her son—she is not excited to see him and she does not give him any compassion. After the massacre, she frankly explains to her former mother-in-law, “I never liked him much” and tells Kevin explicitly, “I often hate you” (Shriver 142, 44). Eva is better described as a mechanism than a mother, and her visits to see Kevin are superficial in nature; it is, however, important to note that despite Eva’s lack of love for her child, she still performs the tasks expected of a mother. Eva performs the actions of one who knows she must love her child, but she fails to ever truly love him. But she does know that society dictates that you must try to love your child and stand by him, to try to help him when he is in trouble. Eva feels no sympathy for Kevin but is able to perform these tasks while pretending she does.

Lionel Shriver AuthorWe Need to Talk About Kevin represents a new breed of villain that best reflects the fears of mothers today: a child murderer. Disturbingly, this evil is one that is not abstract—this evil is an everyday and tangible one. Stories of school shootings and violent murders are far too commonplace, and these stories inspire fear in parents. While the literal Antichrist figure was a popular symbol used in the horror genre in the 1960s and 1970s, today, that evil figure is more real; the Antichrist of today is painted as an unreachable child who becomes a murderer. This everyday Antichrist continentally creeps onto the headlines of newspapers across America, as we sadly see real-life Kevin’s who murder their classmates. Today’s secular society is frightened by the unreachable child who cannot accept love and only relates to violence and malice.



One response to “We Need to Talk About Kevin: Psychopathy and the Modern Antichrist

  1. Lovely review! This is a film I’m dying to see– I thought it was poorly marketed, it doesn’t show the “evil child” nature on its sleeve which made for a confused selling point. However, now that I know what both book and film are about I can’t wait to see it– I like that you’ve addressed parallelism in the mother and son, I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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