I love reading. It has always seemed a wonderful thing to me that I can pick up a wad of paper covered in printed words and enter someone else’s mind. I can learn from their research, experiences, insights and imagination without ever meeting them.
Yet for the first time I have put down a finished novel and thought that I would have done better not to have read it. I thought it should have a health warning stamped across it.
The book was We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It is the story of a child who kills, told entirely from the point of view of his mother through the literary device of letters to her estranged husband. It is a well written exploration of her attempt to understand the reasons why it happened, and the possible role she may have played in the tragedy. It is very compelling, drawing you into her soul searching, relating uncomfortably to many of her feelings.
So what is my problem? My problem is that it feels real, but it isn’t real. It is a novel, not based on a real life exposure of the events that might lead to such dangerous and bizarre behaviour, but simply the imagination of one woman speculating about something that happens and mystifies people. Because it is so well written, we can easily believe we have learned something useful from the book, but to my mind it just adds to our prejudices and confusions.
Given that we already seem to have difficulties separating fact from fantasy – just think of all those cards and gifts sent to television soap stars when a screen marriage occurs – it seems that we really need help to know which is what.
How different this book is to the searing story that emerged from Michael Moore’s investigative film documentary Bowling for Columbine, or reading the biographical details of the lives of Mary Bell, or the two boys imprisoned for murdering Jamie Bulger. In reality we discover the devastating consequences on the lives of young children of lies, loss, bereavement, abuse, neglect, poverty, loneliness, chaos in a world that would rather turn its back than support parents who are struggling to cope. We do not want to know how children suffer in this world we have created.
We would rather blame them, blame parents, issue them with threats, Asbos and lock-ups, or of having their children taken into “care”. We would rather do this than use our intelligence to work out cause and effect and act accordingly. As a counsellor with 30 years’ experience of listening to people trying to face and heal the hurts inflicted upon them when young – hurts that continue to shape our feelings and behaviours into our adult lives – I know that when the entire situation is known and understood, everyone’s behaviour makes sense. There is always a reason. This includes paedophiles and murderers and other people we love to call “bad” and dismiss as inhuman. I am not saying that consequently all behaviours should be allowed, but I am saying that if we want to prevent more people following their path, we need to find ways to help people tell their own stories, and learn to listen to them.
We need these stories to be the basis of our responses because they tell us something about the human condition and, ultimately, ourselves. It is hard for these stories to get told, written, published and publicised or given any status.
I remember once asking 12 educational psychologists if they had ever read a book written by a disabled person and they just looked at me with bewilderment. When I asked who then taught them about disabled people, given that they were asked to make decisions every day about the lives of disabled children, they said: “We teach each other…”
I think this is the problem we need to solve.