broken mirror psychopathy
© Getty
Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Stephen McWilliams observes that author Lionel Shiver and film director Lynne Ramsay's dramatic thrillers raise important questions about psychopathy and society and the enduring 'nature versus nurture' debate on where evil comes from

It is difficult not to empathise with a child in any novel, even if they seem to tick most of the boxes for psychopathy. Twelve-year-old Josephine Leonides murders her grandfather and her nanny in Agatha Christie's novel The Crooked House (1949), yet most readers would feel at least a pang of sorrow for her in the end.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Kevin Khatchadourian, the protagonist in Lionel Shiver's dramatic thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Many readers will be familiar with this book; it sold more than a million copies and garnered its author the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005. It was subsequently adapted for film by Director Lynne Ramsay and starred Tilda Swinton.

The film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was screened in September of the same year at the Toronto International Film Festival to much critical acclaim.

Epistolary style

The novel is written in the epistolary style, namely a series of letters by Kevin's long-suffering mother Eva to her presumably estranged husband, Franklin. The story charts their life together before Kevin was even conceived; a difficult pregnancy culminating in an excruciatingly protracted labour; behavioural disturbance throughout Kevin's childhood; the eventual arrival of his timid and misfortunate younger sister, Celia; and finally Kevin's perpetration of a brutal crossbow massacre at his local high school.

Important questions

Film and book alike are powerful and certainly not for the faint-hearted. They raise important questions about psychopathy and society and the theme of 'nature versus nurture' as the primary reason for a deplorably evil individual. They also explore the danger of indulging in denial when faced with an evolving harsh reality.

Eva is a successful travel writer by profession. Despite an ambivalence about having children, she is steadfastly loyal to Kevin in the face of his marked behavioural disturbance — from constant screaming in his crib, the way he bites her nipple when breastfeeding, his refusal to toilet train until the age of six, his deliberately hurtful comments to vulnerable strangers, his enticement of a naïve schoolgirl to inflame her eczema by scratching, his sabotage of a young neighbour's bicycle causing a serious accident, to the constant cruelty meted out to his much younger sister, Celia, that ultimately culminates in her losing an eye.

Her loyalty to Kevin remains steadfast notwithstanding his spurious accusation of sexual assault against an innocent drama teacher and ultimately to the intricately planned massacre of 11 people.

Throughout all this, the person who suffers most at Kevin's cruel hands is Eva. The fact that his attitudes and behaviour exist from birth casts considerable doubt on her culpability.


So, does all this amount to psychopathy? Even though Kevin is a fictional character whom specialists could never interview, a boy whose biography exists only in the imagination of the author, a little artistic licence guided by the Youth Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-YV) would allow us to discern whether or not a fictional psychologist might have reasonably marked Kevin down as an emerging psychopath. The PCL-YV was developed by Prof Robert D Hare and colleagues, and contains 20 items, categorised into interpersonal, affective, lifestyle and antisocial domains. The maximum score is 40.

Interpersonal traits

In terms of interpersonal traits, the first item to consider is impression management. This is a deliberate attempt to influence how others perceive you by controlling the information they receive.

Psychopaths make sure they appear attractive to specific people who have something they want, be it power, influence, or money.

Although Kevin is often frighteningly blunt, he goes to considerable lengths to appear utterly normal to those people whose influence he needs. His father is a case in point. Kevin is always careful to appear kind and trustworthy to Franklin, whom he deems an essential ally. As Eva puts it, 'even in his crib, Kevin was learning to divide and conquer'.

In a similar manner, the novel is comprised almost entirely of specific episodes in which Kevin engages in "manipulation for personal gain".

He also displays a "grandiose sense of self-worth". When Eva visits him in prison, he boasts about his mass murder and the infamy he has achieved and tells her that he is worshiped by his fellow inmates.

The final interpersonal trait is pathological lying. This is not the usual type of lying, the kind we all do to spare the feelings of others or cover up peccadilloes. Instead the pathological liar falsifies constantly out of habit, sometimes without even realising they are doing it.

If found out, the psychopath will simply shrug it off without any sense of embarrassment or they will rework the facts to iron out any inconsistencies.

Notwithstanding Kevin's other interpersonal traits, pathological lying is not overtly evident.

Affective traits

So, what about Kevin's affective traits? Certainly, he is capable of mimicking the emotions of others when called upon to do so. He is capable of great charm when needed, but we get little sense that he truly feels the normal range of human emotions. He has a shallow affect, although it is only Eva who notices "that marionette smile, as if pulled up by strings".

Guilt is one of the many emotions that Kevin does not routinely experience. He has no conscience. We are told by way of Eva that his therapists have diagnosed him with empathic deficiency, which can easily be translated as callousness or lack of empathy.

A distinct lack of remorse is clearly evident. He feels no connection with his murder victims, as he talks about his heinous crime in chillingly matter-of-fact terms.

At the end of the story, Kevin admits that he does not really understand his true motive for killing, but this is not expressed in any emotive sense. And although he ultimately admits to some of his crimes, there is a clear failure to accept responsibility in that he does not seem to comprehend why what he did was wrong.


Kevin's lifestyle equally lends itself to the label of psychopathy. He consistently displays impulsivity. Meanwhile, "parasitic orientation" refers to a tendency to leech off others instead of engaging in productive activity. Kevin is almost entirely destructive from the outset. He lacks goals and this is part of the problem.

According to Eva, 'You can only punish people who have hopes to frustrate'. Ask any young boy what he wants to be when he grows up and he might cite a career as an airline pilot, an astronaut or a doctor. Kevin has no real plan in life and thus it is very difficult for Eva to guide his behaviour. But he does not harbour any unrealistic goals either.

Still, he gets easily caught up in stimulation seeking and has an unquestionable taste for the macabre. Moreover, he constantly challenges boundaries, finding new and inventive ways to destroy everything around him from his mother's study to passing cars (with water bombs from a highway overpass). All of this — and more — illustrates his irresponsibility. Impersonal sexual behaviour is not so evident in Kevin during most of the story but, in terms of unstable interpersonal relationships, he represents the main destabilising factor in his own family. His well-adjusted and affluent parents were very happily married before he was born; by the time Kevin is finished they are planning a divorce.

Antisocial traits

Finally, we have the antisocial traits. Kevin is perhaps one of the angriest characters in fiction; from the moment he is born he is positively seething as he channels his rage in the most destructive ways he can. Ultimately, he allows much of his anger to build up before it reaches the story's bloody climax. Kevin has poor anger control, present from an early age. His early behavioural problems are numerous and it is the sheer relentlessness of them that Eva, and a string of never-to-return babysitters, find so hard to deal with.

In time, Kevin becomes embroiled in serious criminal behaviour, while his criminal offenses range from slander to assault to infecting a large and successful business with a catastrophic computer virus. Indeed, the only antisocial trait Kevin does not yet display is a serious violation of conditional release and only because he is still in prison at the end of the story. Still, we cannot help but wonder what will happen in the future.

The perfect psychopath

The accepted cut-off score in the Youth Psychopathy Checklist is 25 or 30, depending on consensus. Kevin scores 33 based on the above, placing him firmly in the range of psychopathy. In many ways he is the perfect fictional psychopath, scoring highly in all four domains.

Blood imagery

Although utterly compelling as a fictional character, he has no other redeeming features. It is Eva who commands our sympathy as a tired and ageing mother driven to hell and back by her innately horrible son. She is the character with true courage.

Symbolically, the opening scene of the film shows her stained in crimson at La Tomatina festival in the Valencian town of Bunôl, Spain. So vivid is the bloody imagery that we are initially uncertain whether or not we are witnessing firsthand Kevin's signature atrocity.

Similarly striking is Eva's prolonged attempt to wash away the red enamel paint with which her house has been vandalised. Like the blood she sees on her own hands, this stain becomes ever more stubborn the harder she scrubs.

She will never escape the stigma; she has visited every dark corner of the world and knows there is nowhere to hide.