“We Need to Talk about Kevin”: are psychopaths born or made?

Eva Khatchadourian (played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton) is a former travel writer who’s ambivalent about her first pregnancy, and doesn’t seem to be able to connect with her newborn son Kevin, an infant who cries constantly and squirms away whenever she tries to hold him. Eva also suffers from postpartum depression and lack of sleep, which doesn’t make it any easier to connect with her ornery child. Eva as a new mother has the look of a concentration camp survivor. She is utterly tormented by her son–and her inability to feel maternal love for him.

As Kevin grows older, it’s apparent there’s something not quite right about him. Even as a very young boy of three or four, he has an unnerving, soul-piercing stare and never smiles or laughs. Though obviously very intelligent, Kevin isn’t out of diapers until he is 6 or 7, and refuses to engage with others, especially with Eva. He becomes disruptive at home and at school, and is always in trouble. Besides seeming to do things deliberately to upset Eva, Kevin bullies other kids at school, and encourages one girl, who has a severe skin disorder, to pick at her scabs. He’s sneaky and devious and shows no remorse for his bad behaviors. He seems to have only two facial expressions: sullen, or self-satisfied sneer when he’s gotten away with something.

There’s one poignant scene when Kevin becomes very sick and this is the only time he shows any vulnerability and allows himself to be mothered like a normal child. Here, while Kevin’s defenses are down and his mask of impending psychopathy is temporarily disabled, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of little-boy innocence and neediness and some emotion that may even resemble love. This scene makes you begin to question whether Kevin was born evil, or if his psychopathy may have been caused by Eva’s failure to bond with him as an infant.

The rest of the time, there’s an disturbing lack of innocence in Kevin. There’s an unsettling scene when Kevin, about age 3, is sitting on the floor while Eva rolls a ball to him. Not only does he fail to roll the ball back, but he fixes her with his unnerving hateful stare, a look you wouldn’t believe such a young child could be capable of.

As Kevin grows into adolescence (adolescent Kevin is played with subtle and chilling power by Ezra Miller), his misdeeds become more serious, and start to endanger not only his fellow students and teachers, but other members of his own family. At one point he does something unspeakable to his younger sister, Celia (a child his mother wanted and who is temperamentally Kevin’s polar opposite–a sweet and empathetic child), and then smoothly lies about it without showing a shred of empathy or remorse. The strain of raising this difficult child eventually destroys Eva’s marriage to Kevin’s father, Franklin (played by John C. Reilly), who disagrees with his wife’s belief that Kevin is disturbed and naively continues to insist he is a normal, loving child but that Eva’s attitude toward him is cold and unmotherly. Eva herself is torn–she seems to try her best to do and say the right things to Kevin, but it’s clear nothing is getting through to him and the strain is destroying her.

Things come to a head when Kevin commits a shocking crime at age 15 followed by another that is even more heinous. The entire film is told in flashbacks, in the form of Eva’s letters to her husband Franklin (who has left Eva and whose whereabouts are a mystery until the end of the film) and conversations between Kevin and Eva while he is in prison.

Eva tries to come to term with what has happened, to deal with the aftermath and ostracization by everyone the family knew, and most of all, what part she may have played in her son’s crimes. One question that runs throughout the film: was Eva a bad mother who caused her child to become bad, or was Kevin just born bad?

In the final scenes between Eva and Kevin while he’s in prison, it’s possible to see how sophisticated and subtle Kevin’s manipulations of Eva have become. Theirs is a complicated relationship: while he obviously hates her, it also becomes evident he has more respect for her than for his father, who always showered him with unconditional love and for whom Kevin has nothing but dismissive, snarling contempt.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (based on the 2003 book by Lionel Shriver) is one of the most chilling and thought provoking movies about psychopathy I’ve ever seen, and like other great psychological thrillers, it asks more questions about human nature than it answers.


6 thoughts on ““We Need to Talk about Kevin”: are psychopaths born or made?

  1. The mirroring that takes place between mother and child is so complex and important, that I can see how anything that distorted that process could influence the development of ASP. A baby that sleeps too much, a sick, depressed mom, I’m sure all of that plays into it but I also, think there is something organically wrong for a child to behave this way. Not only do people see everything in black and white, only good and only evil, they choose evil to obtain what they need from others. I think those are the three aspects that people tend to focus on independently, as the root cause, when it is the combination of all of them. Also, abuse is traumatizing but many other things are traumatizing, as well. I think the focus should be trauma. Sadly, abuse is a common cause of severe trauma in childhood but most of us who were abused, don’t develop a personality disorder. We end up with ptsd, low self-esteem, drug addiction, etc. I think personality disorders require the predisposition, plus the trauma, to develop. Abused children can learn abusive behaviors but those without true, personality disorders can learn to change those behaviors,as they heal and learn new ways of thinking. People with personality disorders don’t want to change. Even if they know something is seriously wrong with them, they want everyone else to change and accommodate them.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts about this. You could be right. I myself was dx’d with BPD, but have learned to control my borderline traits using DBT and self soothing, which has become second nature, so I don’t act out and fly off the handle the way I used to. Of course, also having Avoidant/Aspergers traits tends to temper my borderline traits also. Not all people with personality disorders don’t want to change–just the ones that are ego-syntonic (adaptive to the person or causing others more suffering than the person with the disorder)–examples would be NPD and antisocial personality disorder, and possibly schizoid personality disorder. They don’t cause the “sufferer” to suffer too much if at all. Of course there are exceptions (for NPD anyway) and some narcissists hate being the way they are and want to change. The problem with all the personality disorders though is that even when the person who has it wants to change, they are very difficult to cure because PD’s start at such an early age it has become an integral part of the personality and is almost impossible to dislodge.


  3. I’m sorry for your struggle with BPD but I’m proud of you for struggling to overcome it. I think anyone who wants to change destructive behavior can learn healthier ways to live. I’ve been working on me for a long time and when I read about BPD, I’m not so sure I wasn’t there at the end of my teenage years. I was a shattered person and it’s been a long recovery but I made the most progress when I was able to connect my depression and anxiety to the events that caused me to create those ways of coping in the first place. I changed the things I do to cope. My triggers and the emotional flashbacks they cause are no longer mysterious to me and I faced and integrated my past into my present. It’s part of me now and not a part of myself that I dissociated from, kept hidden, as I tried to be someone else. I’m not perfect but I’m whole. There’s a website called http://www.emergingfrombroken.com and the woman who runs it, a life coach and fellow survivor, has helped me immensely. More than any psychologist of psychiatrist I ever went to. I contribute articles there sometimes. I also, think BPD is different from the other cluster B disorders. I think it is the result of abuse. My daughter in law is BPD but also, narcissistic. I love her, we’ve done a lot to try to help her but it is slow. Unlike you, she doesn’t seek healing until something she does forces her into a situation where she has to. She’s a terrible mother and I find myself filling in the gaps for the children so, now we have this co-dependent problem now too. I’m frustrated and near tears from talking about this. Her childhood was a hideous nightmare but she insists on repeating it in her children. That’s hard for me to understand because I never wanted my children to have my childhood. I’m babbling on. I’ve struggle with this all of my life and there are so few to talk to that can understand. Your having BPD and having the will to try to get better, and talking about it probably, offers more hope in helping others who suffer desire change. I know you have the truth about how you got to this place in you because you’re the one who lived it.
    I’m gong to go to sleep now and I hoe I didn’t sound too mean about NPD and APD, I’m hurt and I hurt for my grandsons, and there is so little I can do to help. I hope we talk more.

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    • Pam, no, you didn’t sound mean at all. You know what, just the other day I wrote about the way BPD has been stigmatized and some believe it shouldn’t even be classified as a real personality disorder at all because it’s symptoms are so diverse, and are almost exactly the same as those of C-PTSD! In fact, the only real difference is that BPD isn’t precipated by a single catastrophic event like a war. But C-PTSD (the C stands for complex) isn’t recognized by the DSM. The “complex” refers to the trauma being more longstanding and happening over a long period of time.
      That’s a shame about your daughter in law not being self aware enough to want to get help or change the way she acts. Maybe one day she will. Another difference between BPD and other cluster B PD’s is it is more treatable/curable. It still isn’t easy to cure, but there is more hope than for ASPDs and NPDs.
      I hope we keep talking too.

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      • I lived with C-PTSD, all of my life. Most of it, I didn’t have a clue why I was the way I was. I was always trying to work at changing my behavior, though even when I couldn’t go to doctors. When I could afford them, they misdiagnosed me, sold me a lot of pills, and made me much worse. What worked for me was deep, self-confrontation and addressing my past instead of trying to hide it and run from it or forget it. I was sick because of the trauma that I buried alive.

        There is hope for everyone but each of us has to reach for it ourselves. Those who seem beyond it don’t want it.

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