we need to talk about kevin …

Last month under the recommendation of RN Lee, I read We Need to talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. RN had suggested the book after reading my post about the Midnight’s Heir chapter with the parallel to Columbine. Shriver’s book is written as a series of letters from a wife to her husband about their lives and children. The letters are dated between November 8, 2000, and April 8, 2001. Eva decided that November day to start writing to Franklin. It unfolds a little slow, but alive with the minute details that become crucial later.

When RN steered me toward this book, he had no knowledge of Thomas’ mental health issues. Worried he might have caused me undue (or even more) emotional trauma, RN said if he had known, he would never have told me I should read it. I actually laughed at his words. We Need to talk About Kevin didn’t hurt me. It made me think. It also gave me further insight into my oldest son – as in, it gave me a different perspective.

Thomas’ mental health isn’t something I’ve discussed on this website. I’ve mentioned the problems we’ve had with his medications off and on. And I made the one post stating my reasons for seeking state guardianship for him. But I’ve never used this space to bitch about the bad days I’ve had because of him. I’ve never said, “Thomas did ‘this today and told me ‘this’.” Granted I have in as generic of terms as possible on Twitter, but only when I’ve felt at the end of my rope. And those privy to all of these “stories” always know what I’m talking about.

Eva says in her second letter, “Don’t imagine I’ve enjoyed my secrets. They’ve trapped me, crowded me in, and long ago, I’d have liked nothing more than to pour out my heart.” She also writes further into the book, “Had I catalogued the downsides of parenthood, ‘son might turn out killer’ would never have turned up on the list.” Little (?) things such as those punched me in the stomach as I read. I can’t deny that. Eva’s letters are all very forthright. Something I’m learning to be more of in public (I can be fairly frank in private, but that’s not what counts here.) “But when I put the phone down, it registered with a whispered click: There could yet come a day when you did not.”

She found out in May 1982 she was pregnant with Kevin.

I got pregnant with Thomas in January 1989.

Although a fictitious person, Eva had many of the same troubles with Kevin that I had with Thomas. As I read, I said to myself often, “She could be writing about me.” I wanted to know the women she had known and had interviewed to describe Eva’s experiences. “The whole time I was pregnant with Kevin,” Eva wrote, “I was battling the idea of Kevin.”

On page 61, a broad paragraph details school shootings from Barry Loukaitis in 1996 to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in 1999, “a mere ten days after a certain Thursday”.

Of Kevin’s birth she wrote, “The expression on his twisted face was disgruntled. His body was inert; I could only interpret his lassitude as a lack of entusiasm…There is an enormous difference between disliking yourself and simply not wanting to be here.”

And that’s where the similarities between Kevin and Thomas begin.

Eva and Kevin never bonded. Thomas and I never bonded. We were supposed to “room-in” together, but that never happened. He was born at 5:42am, and I never saw him until twelve hours or more later. Which I thought then and still think now was beyond ridiculous. That I remember, I was never given a satisfactory reason why he’d been kept from me for so long. By the time I did see him, I was so tired and upset that I didn’t care if I ever did. I just wanted everyone to get the hell out of my room and leave me the fuck alone so I could sleep. As much as a person ever could sleep in a hospital.

When Thomas and I were discharged, we didn’t go home. We went to David’s mother’s for a week. Because she found it appalling the my family didn’t do what she saw as the traditional “maternal grandmother stays with baby and mother for a week after the birth”. No, until she mentioned it, I’d never heard of such a thing. And when I mentioned it to Kathy she asked, “Why would anyone do that?” So while Thomas and I were two hours away from home, David was at home going to his job every day and not doing the dishes, not doing laundry, and not doing anything else around the house. I arrived home to an absolute train-wreck that I wasn’t prepared to handle. I know Thomas and I would have been better off at home left to our own devices. Because, and I don’t know why I thought having a baby would make this change, everything I did and thought and said and tried to do about Thomas and my own welfare was totally and completely wrong. It all just reinforced what had been impressed upon me by the “society” where I had grown up – I was a poverty-stricken idiot who didn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground.

“…a rage that lasts for six to eight hours seems less a fit than a natural state…Our son had fits of peace.” This was Thomas as a newborn and a small child. Thomas didn’t cry. Thomas shrieked. As if he were in pain. As if he were starving to death. As if he were pissed at me for even thinking of bringing him into this manifest world. He had a biopsy at Fort Sander’s Children’s Hospital in Knoxville at the age of eight weeks and was diagnosed with hirschsprung’s disease. This was the first of what would end up being several trips to this hospital for various reasons. We got to know Knoxville better than I ever wanted to needed to know. This was also when I learned Thomas had low Apgar scores when he was born and had been labeled with “failure to thrive“. I learned after his chronic nephrotic syndrome diagnoses in August 2001 that failure to thrive is a blanket that covers a host of problems. This first trip to Knoxville also became the first of many hospital stays from then through his toddlerhood. These stopped after I left. I think because no one else ever paid as much attention to him or to his health as I had.

Like Kevin, Thomas was intelligent. He tried to do and often did things long before he should have. He never talked much. The day he blurted out of nowhere, “Where’s my Papaw?” shocked me. I accused him of practicing walking in his crib at night because one evening after dinner, he stood up in the middle of the living room and ran from one end of the trailer to the other. He called our black-and-white cat “cow” because David’s father raised black-and-white beef cattle. Thomas was cold, calculating, and manipulative. The kidney failure stole his intelligence and left a slew of problems in its wake. When he was two and a half, he had the virus that causes measles but not the full-blown measles. His pediatrician was at a loss to explain; he said, “This confuses me.”

Eva wrote, “…I don’t feel joyful. And Kevin doesn’t seem joyful, either.”

Like Kevin, Thomas abused animals, but Thomas has never tortured people, not physically, that we know of. He scores high marks in psychological abuse and manipulation; he gets that from his father and from my grandmother. He’s never engaged in self-harm, but when he’s angry/upset/disgruntled, he will actively destroy things. He’ll go into his bedroom and tear up whatever he can get his hands on. So far this hasn’t included his television or his computer – if it ever does, he’s up shit creek. And he takes meticulous care in his destruction. If it’s a $300 remote controlled car, gas or electric, he’ll snap the pieces until there’s no hope of recovery. He’ll even take the engines, transmissions, and so forth apart down to the last circuit and screw. He’ll repurpose the wires and cables for something else (usually the car stereo or his home stereo; yes, he drives, but I don’t think he should).

I could give an accounting of the verbal abuse he’s heaped on me since he moved in here in June of last year. It would take a whole other blog post I’m sure people wouldn’t want to read anyway. What I have done, under suggestion of his behavioral analyst, is keep a record as of April of this year of all his “noncompliance” issues. It’s almost forty single-spaced, half-in margins, pages long. It just keeps growing. She, I, and his Michelle P case manager hope it will give me more fodder to fuel both his assisted living housing appeals and state guardianship petitions.

In 1998, when Thomas was nine, he began wetting the bed. This was something I’ve only recently learned, like the animal abuse (which I found out about in July). His family took him to a pediatric psychiatrist. Had it been me, I’d have done the logical thing and would have taken him to his pediatrician for a full work-up. His nephrologist (Dr Goebel) and I feel this is when the nephritis began to truly manifest; it only makes sense. In July 2001, Kathy had Thomas and Tayler for her two Summer weeks’ visit. As she always did, she brought them to spend a day with me. We swam and went to lunch. At Golden Corral – because that’s where you take Thomas; he’ll eat the salads and fruits bars empty – Kathy and I got out of the van and headed toward the door. Tayler yelled and told us to wait up; Thomas was still at the van. We all went back. Thomas was standing beside the van holding his knees and was embarrassed to see us all watching him. When Kathy asked what was wrong, he said he would be find in a minute, that sometimes his legs shook and he couldn’t move until it passed. We asked him how long this had been happening, and he said, “For about a year.” He said he hadn’t told anyone because he “didn’t want to be a bother”.

This got the ball rolling on an accurate diagnosis. His pediatrician in Liberty sent him to a specialist at Ephraim McDowell Hospital in Danville who made the chronic nephrotic syndrome diagnosis. He in turn referred Thomas to the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital where Dr Goebel was at the time.

By now, Thomas’ mental faculties had been damaged, and he had been labeled with the new pc-term “developmentally delayed“. I requesitioned his school records in the Spring (April of this year) and saw that in ninth grade, he had been given an IQ test and had scored 69. This is the top of the “mental retardation” scale.

This is where the similarities between Thomas and Kevin end. Kevin was healthy as a horse.

“Well, you are going to have some company. A little baby brother or sister. And you might find out that you like it.”

He glared at me a long, sulky beat, thought he didn’t look especially surprised. “What if I don’t like it.”

“Then you’ll get used to it.”

“Just cause you get used to something doesn’t mean you like it.” He added, snapping the magenta, “You’re used to me.”

“Yes!” I said. “And in a few months we’ll all get used to someone new!”

As a crayon piece gets shorter it’s more difficult to break, and Kevin’s fingers were now straining against one such obdurate snap. “You’re going to be sorry.”

Finally, it broke.

Throughout the book, Eva chronicles each school shooting in her letters to Franklin. “If Andy Williams hadn’t been ‘bullied’, he failed to support the now fashionable revenge-of-the-nerds interpretation of these incidents, which were not meant to each us stricter gun control but concern for the agonies of the underage outcast…from their first occurrences, Kevin owned these incidents, and whenever the subject arose he assumed an air of authority that got on my nerves.” She mentions incidents I had either never heard of or had forgotten. Some I had to Google.

It all starts coming to a head on page 318 (the trade paperback edition published by Counterpoint in 2003 is 400 pages long), and it starts broiling to an end on page 361.

“…he’d kept his mouth shut; he hadn’t posted a homicidal website or written essays about blowing up the school, and the most creative social commentator would be hard-pressed to deploy a satire about sports utility vehicles as one of those unmissable ‘warning signs’ that are now meant to drive vigilant parents and teachers to call confidential hotlines. But best of all, if he accomplished his stunt entirely with a mere crossbow, his mother and all her mush-headed liberal friends wouldn’t be able to parade him before Congress as one more poster boy for gun control. In short, his choice of weapon was meant to ensure to the best of his ability that Thursday would mean absolutely nothing.”

Thomas never went that far. He doesn’t have the intelligence to accomplish such a thing, for one. He has no reason, for another. But one could argue, as Eva did, that that Kevin had no reason, either.

It’s been a month since I read We Need to talk About Kevin. The initial read left me numb. That’s the only word I have to describe how those last thirty-eight pages made me feel. “It’s no mystery to me how a hit list turned up in Miguel Espinoza’s locker.” It’s no mystery to me that my neon tetras died and came to be replaced with the ones from Thomas’ personal tank. Eva, that I remember, never outright said she didn’t nor could she not love Kevin. I love Thomas to pieces. I always have. And I want only what’s best for him.

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Author: Mari Adkins

Appalachian gothic fiction writer - my works reflect a love of literature flavored by the darkness and magic residing in these ancient mountains. In my spare time, I'm a Simmer, I tumbl, I journal, but I always have a very strange sense of humor. I have lived away from the mountains and lived deep in the mountains. I currently live in Central Kentucky with my lifepartner and his cat. The mountains, their culture, their superstitions, their particular magics, will always be in my blood.