The search for answers to the enigma of the child who kills continues unabated. About the demonizing media treatment of Thompson and Venables, Blake Morrison wrote: “Evil is no answer. That’s the one of the lessons of the Bulger case . . . Time to grow up. Evil won’t do.” Similarly, if rejection of one-dimensional explanations is in order, it is also the case that the presumption of innocence as the default character of children simply will not do either.
Childhood as a construct needs to be freed from the specter of its regressive Victorian framing that conceptualizes children as a class whose nature is defined – and constrained – by their innocence. Children need to emerge as people.
Thirdly, I would contend that it will simply not do to continue unquestioningly to assume the positive influence of the institution of “the family,” if enacted in its current, culturally ideal, nuclear form. The cause of violent behavior in young people is repeatedly laid at the feet of families who fall short of the normative ideal, especially divorced, single-parent, alcoholic, abusive, or economically deprived families. While there may be causative links between abuse and delinquency, this is not the whole picture. Such a charge is proven to be patently inaccurate in the cases of the Columbine school shooters Harris and Klebold, who both had educated, boundary-setting, financially comfortable, happily married parents –the very opposite of the stereotype of the family that would produce a young killer.
It may be worth considering instead the proposal that the nuclear family itself is a problematic institution, based as it is on the paradigm of hierarchy and dominance, and indeed of ownership. (The common perception that children belong to and with their mothers as a matter of both nature and right accounted for Mary Bell’s extended family leaving the little girl in her mother’s charge, despite their serious worries over the suspicion that, on at least four occasions, Betty Bell had tried to kill Mary.)
Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone made the liberation of children from ownership by parents one of the central tenets of her imagined postpatriarchal utopia. In a chapter entitled “Down with Childhood,” she describes how the “cult of childhood” is not in the interest of children’s well-being, as we like to imagine, but rather in the service of shoring up small, self-centered family units in which children are important because they are the “product of that unit, the reason for its maintenance” and the guarantors of the hierarchy on which it rests, since they are by definition at the very bottom of the heap. She further argues, in an audacious move that resonates particularly powerfully with our discussion of kids who kill, that children are so trapped, so oppressed by the wishful fantasies that adults project onto them, and so powerless to resist them owing to their physical weakness and lack of full citizen status, that “childhood is hell” and “the result is the insecure and therefore aggressive/defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child.”
For Firestone, the nature of the bond that ties woman and child so closely together “is no more than shared oppression,” and oppression, moreover, that is all the more devastating and hard to rebut for being couched in the phraseology of ‘cute,’ the very projected characteristic that accounts for the excessive vilification of those child and woman killers who fail –or refuse – to live up to it.
The so common as to be clichéd “what about the children? Or “think of the children” rhetoric beloved of the tabloid press, which made intelligible the discourses about James Bulger as the archetype of “ideal child” and ideal victim, does not benefit actual living young people, but serves instead to shore up conservative beliefs about what society should look like and what childhood means, as queer theorist Lee Edelman has devastatingly argued.
What “The Child” signifies, according to Edelman, is a cipher for the preservation of the Anglo-American conservative order. It encourages compulsory heterosexuality and a pro-reproductive social imperative; it ensures homophobia, as discourses of gay male sexuality so often collapse onto discourses of pedophilia; and it perpetuates misogyny, promoting the narrow idea about woman’s social roles and the biological and cultural “rightness” of maternity.
The cases discussed in this chapter show up the necessity to deconstruct and rethink both the category of “the child” with regard to the question of agency, individuality, violence, and citizenship, and the category of “the murderer.” As has been seen throughout this book, the myth of the exceptional individual exculpates society and scapegoats the individual in the case of male adult murderers, obviating the need for class-based analysis. Feminists have repeatedly pointed this out, claiming that male perpetrated murders are in fact extreme symptoms of a mainstream violence/rape culture. Looking at the treatment of woman killers and of kids who kill alongside the representation of male adult murderers, as I have been doing, throws into relief and instance of colossal cultural hypocrisy.
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The question of the original and the copy in the case of high school killings (in the 10 years following Columbine there were more than 80 in the U.S.) is one of the themes explored in the acclaimed novel by Lionel Shriver We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003). The novel is narrated from the point of view of Eva, the mother of the eponymous high school mass killer. The novel is referential of real-life school killings and shows a familiarity with media discourses and psychological theories surrounding child-killers. It interrogates, and fails to provide an answer to, the question of why the figure of the high school killer came into vogue.
One theory proposed in the novel is that the badge of “high school killer” offers self-definition to those at a notoriously difficult life stage. Shriver has Eva write: “He’s found himself, as they said in my day. Now he doesn’t have to worry about whether he’s a freak or a geek, a grind or a jock or a nerd. He doesn’t have to worry if he’s gay. He’s a murderer.” The idea is thereby raised that the subjective identity contained in the label of “murderer” has become an option for children, as well as for adults, in the context of the high school killing trend. And, in a culture of peer-regulated obsession with “coolness,” the role of murderer is “cooler” than any other of the available roles:
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.
School massacres are so shocking, at least in part, because of the idealized notion to which culture clings that school is a safe, protective, nurturing environment. In fact, schools are hothouses of power struggles, iniquities, and class divisions, pretty much mirroring those of culture at large, but with immature and disenfranchised players. Shriver’s book does not shy away from challenging our comfortable assumptions about the institutions of childhood, maternity, paternity, and school. It allows for a reading that suggests that questioning the innate benevolence of these institutions may be a more productive endeavor than continuing to attempt to “solve” the secret riddle of the making of the individual aberrant killer.
. . . . .
The reduction of complexity in the case of the murdering subject is a tendency identified in discourses about all the murders discussed in this book. The artist-killer, the sex-beast, the unnatural child-hating woman, the “random” serial killer: these are archetypes in the history of discourses about the murderer that are seldom challenged, and that function to make the persona of a given murderer fixed, singular, and one dimensional. On the one hand many the murderers discussed are exceptional. Civil servants and trade union activists are not usually prolific homicidal necrophiles, as Dennis Nilsen was. Woman who do sex work do not usually commit the kinds of killings that Wuornos did. Most children do not set out to murder other children. However, focusing on this exceptionality as proof of an incomprehensible “other” is a red herring. So too is focusing on the unfathomable nature of the crimes as reflections of the nineteenth-century “pure act,” often translated into the twentieth-century discourse of “randomness” ascribed to the serial killer and the psychopath. (I have argued that the attempt to ensure the label of “serial killer” for Wournos was designed to render her acts meaningless and obviate the necessity to speak truth to power and consider her crimes in the light of her justifiable anger (at being raped) and her social disenfranchisement..) The insistence upon these subjectifying stereotypes is thus a way of obviating what is really exceptional about these cases – that they are aberrant reactions to, and symptoms of, normative and normalizing culture, not the acts of wholly incomprehensible monsters, madmen/madwomen, or geniuses. To borrow a term from Jacques Lacan, the murderer may be best understood as an example of “extimacy.” That is, as the kernel of otherness that is interior to – at the heart of- our own culture, intimate but necessarily disavowed in order to maintain a semblance of decency.
I close , with the assertion of my solemn and sobering belief that we all, whatever our gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, or economic class, could, in some circumstances, ourselves become murderers. It is also my conviction that, in such an extreme situation, we could find ourselves treated very differently depending upon our particular status within those hierarchical categories. Both of these propositions, however, are ones that “civilized” culture, which shores up its unassailable rectitude by the creation of abjected ‘others,’ refuses absolutely to own.