By Chris Wallace
AN idyllic week in our beautiful city – cold giving way to brilliant sunny winter days, clean air and, for the most part, tranquillity. The Bush Week stalls at ANU’s Union Court thronged with students visiting the stands of, amongst others, the World Domination Club, the Chocolate Appreciation Society and the ANU Harry Potter Club. On the other side of the world Norway buried its 76 dead, victims of the senseless slaughter committed by Anders Breivik; another 96 were injured in the attack. May Breivik have a terrible time in prison.
Coverage of the Norwegian killings has been a dark drumbeat all week. Breivik emerges in the biographical sketches that have emerged since the attack as a classic narcissistic personality disorder candidate – a structural, hard-wired personality problem not prone to change by rational appeal or any therapeutic intervention found so far.
Narcissistic personality disorder is particularly insidious as people with it are often high achieving, can be charismatic and are found in disproportionate numbers in politics, medicine and the finance sector. They’re always right and everyone else is always an idiot. They combine overwheening ambition and delusional self-belief with florid persecution complexes. Sweet, charming, your best friend and ally one minute, they can turn in an instant with chilling calm and definitive (usually psychological) violence.
To me Phillip Larkins’s poem “This Be the Verse” has been an ambient presence in the coverage of Breivik’s background – the poem that so famously begins: “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.”
Most attention focussed on Breivik’s father from whom he was estranged. The early media portrayals were of a fatherless boy, his parents divorcing when he was one year old. Later it emerged that the two were in regular contact through his childhood however, the father and his second wife attempting but failing to gain custody of young Breivik before eventually falling out with him over his graffiti tagging around Oslo. Breivik’s mother was the subject of subsidiary attention, with him described as a “mummy’s boy” by some. The subtext was somehow that, as Larkins’ poem says, the parents were responsible for creating this dysfunctional boy capable of mass slaughter.
The family and the mass murderer is the theme of Lionel Shriver’s compelling book We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), the film version of which has just been directed by Lynne Ramsay with Tilda Swinton producing and starring as “Eva”, the mother of Columbine-massacre style killer “Kevin”. The book and film pick at the questions troubling us in the wake of atrocities like the one this week in Norway. Why this child from this family? Is evil born into the killer, intrinsic to them, or is it someone else’s fault – is it the parent’s fault?
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not for the faint-hearted. If you can’t stomach the book, don’t think about going to the film. Tilda Swinton got rave reviews when it was unveiled at Cannes. “Eva” senses the malevolence in “Kevin” from early on. After the massacre, she becomes the focus of repeated abuse from bereaved parents, wanting to blame someone, anyone – why not Kevin’s parents? – for their own child’s senseless death. “As Swinton’s Eva wearily washes off the red paint that someone has splattered over her porch,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian after Cannes, “the movie wanly restates the undramatic truth: the mess must be cleaned up somehow, and it isn’t the men who wind up doing it.”
There are good parents and bad parents; most are a mixture of both. But there’s nothing in Anders Breivik’s biography so far which hints at anything other than the usual blended family dramas that attend nearly everyone’s life (the stable “for life” nuclear family having always been more textbook template than reality when you see the statistics). Just as fictional “Eva” doesn’t deserve the blame in We Need to Talk About Kevin, nor do the parents of bad Anders Breivik.
When you get past the famous first line, Philip Larkin’s poem suggests forgiveness for parents who after all, he says, were “f*cked up in their turn” by their own parents, “Who half the time were soppy-stern/And half at one another’s throats.” (You can hear Larkin reading the poem on YouTube. Have a listen.) But there are poems, too, about how great parents can be: David Wood’s wonderful recent poem “Booklaunch”, for example, about the impact on Australian poet David Rowbotham’s work of the rhythmic tapping of his bootmaker father’s hammer.
Enjoy the sunshine.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 30 July, 2011