Sunday, October 26, 2008

Evil, Parenting, and Moral Goodness

This week I've been reading Mary Henley Rubio's long-awaited biography of L.M. Montgomery, The Gift of Wings. In it she draws attention to a trend in Montgomery's journals. As she grew older, Montgomery continued to write novels about bright, imaginative girls thwarted in their ambitions by narrow-minded adults, but in her journals she began to collect another kind of tale: stories of parents let down by their ne'er-do-well children. Young men embezzling funds from the church offering plate - young women requiring hastily-arranged weddings ... these are the characters peopling her private chronicles.

Montgomery had reason to be worried: her son Chester had demonstrated a lifelong tendency towards dishonesty and self-indulgence. He pilfered jewelry from their housemaids; he was a compulsive eater; he did his best to corner neighbourhood girls, who soon learned to keep out of his clutches.

Writers don't always make the best mothers, and Montgomery was no exception: even her "good son," Stuart, remembered pushing flowers under the door of his mother's office when she was holed up inside, laughing aloud in private merriment as she concocted her latest novel. What time she could spare for her sons involved policing their social and academic lives, promoting friendships with suitably wealthy and prestigious neighbours and discouraging attachments with those she considered beneath her family's social station. It's not difficult to find parenting mistakes when you're looking for them, yet I cannot believe that Montgomery can be held responsible for her son's misdemeanours (which in due course became full-fledged crimes).

The issue of maternal culpability is central to another book I read last year: Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. The narrator of that novel is Eva Khatchadourian, member of a small and exclusive club of mothers whose sons have committed high-school massacres. The novel is made up of letters from Eva to Kevin's father, Franklin, and they all deal, overtly or otherwise, with Franklin's unstated accusation that Eva was responsible for her son's murders.

Eva's recollections of Kevin's infancy and childhood point to the classic symptoms of a sociopathic disorder. Kevin is cold, detached, and malicious, traits he carefully conceals under a mask of bonhomie. His father is taken in, but Eva always insists that there's something wrong. Reading her account, I find it impossible to blame her for her son's crimes, yet what makes the novel so haunting - and lifts it above mere sensationalism - are the hints that his rampage could have been prevented. Long after finishing the novel, I am most haunted by a scene in which Kevin is ill; he briefly drops his usual antagonism and defensiveness, actually accepting and even seeking his mother's affection. This brief glimpse of a Kevin who is not merely vulnerable but, more importantly, capable of attachment suggests that Kevin is more than the "bad seed" - that there is potential in him, even if there's no obvious way to unlock it.

As parents we are responsible for the moral growth of our children. In Montgomery's day this task was described as teaching them right from wrong: it involved instruction in moral and religious precepts, reinforced with punishments for bad behaviour. When Montgomery comments in her journals that six-year-old Chester has always been difficult to "train," she is acknowledging the failure of these tried-and-true methods. More recently, the task of moral education has evolved into meeting the child's emotional needs: our more optimistic generation has concluded that children who are shown love and empathy will learn to display those traits themselves. I suspect that both approaches work well with normal children.

A third parenting approach is explored in the television series Dexter. The protagonist, Dexter Morgan, is a phenomenon that does not occur in nature: a serial killer who kills only other murderers. In the first two seasons the show uses flashbacks to trace the origins of this strange hybrid of monster and hero. There are hints that Dexter may have a genetic predisposition towards sociopathy; if so, the childhood traumas he endured merely sealed his fate. The turning point in his life, however, is a conversation with his father, Harry, who has just discovered that his son has been killing animals, including the neighbours' dog. Harry's reaction is complex: he looks sickened, but he puts his arm around Dexter's shoulders. He knows the signs of what his son is becoming, but he doesn't turn away. Instead he trains Dexter, channeling his propensities for violence in socially beneficial ways and creating the code that Dexter continues to follow as an adult.

Harry is credited for doing what few parents could: facing his son's darkness head-on, without pretense, and loving him unconditionally. As a result, Dexter retains some ability to form emotional connections: he remains attached to his sister and even manages a reasonably successful relationship with his girlfriend and her two kids. But the show always toys with the possibility that Harry, far from saving Dexter from a worse fate, has schooled him to become what Harry believed he already was: a heartless killer. We see a teenaged Dexter reading books on sociopathy, seeing himself reflected in the symptomology and constructing his sense of self accordingly. We see Harry showing Dexter an MRI of his brain, pointing out the enlarged areas governing aggression and the shrunken centres of empathy. No other child has ever been trained, so carefully and lovingly, to see himself as a serial killer.

There is something fascinating about stories of evil children. For Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin grew from a kind of worst-case-scenario thinking - this is every would-be parent's worst nightmare. But for me the fascination arises from the possibility of remediation, the lurking hints that these compulsive liars, these thieves and killers, have some core that is redeemable. According to Mary Rubio, Chester's classmates at school recalled that they "loved 'to get him going' because he created such a lively uproar. Children teased and tormented him because he would react angrily to provocations and retaliate by lunging at offenders, and his clumsy attempts to catch his skinny, fast-footed classmates created a comic delight. They all said, independently, as adults looking back, that he was by nature a 'loner.' He wanted desperately to be accepted, but was socially inept and ostracized." With parents who both suffered from debilitating mental illnesses, Chester seems all too likely to have inherited some kind of personality disorder.

But when I read that passage, describing a boy with a life of failure and criminal disgrace ahead of him, I think not that he needs a good spanking, nor even that he just needs love and affection, but rather that there must have been some way to teach him the things those other children all knew without being taught - that the empathy that springs up so readily in some might still be a plant that can be cultivated in others. Unable to crack the code of social interaction as a boy, Chester was later unable to rely on social cues to restrain the impulses that most of us learn to curb on the playground. He had been told that stealing was wrong - he knew that if he were caught he'd be punished - but is it possible that with the right kind of social skills, he might have learned to acquire what the rest of us think of as a conscience?


Veronica Mitchell said...

I would love to read that biography.

Currently I'm reading another in Carol O'Connell's Mallory detective series. Mallory was a runaway sociopathic child who was adopted by loving parents who die too soon. Throughout the series the positive effects of their love are shown on Mallory's character. She is still a sociopath, but with brief flashes of compassion and fierce loyalty to her mother's morality, tho' she does not share it. Despite the darkness of the series, it is strangely hopeful.

In terms of your question - you seem to be combining a strictly cause-and-effect approach to behavior with a much more spiritual notion of morality. It's the outlook of the book of Proverbs. In the terms of the Gospels and Revelation, redemption, perhaps even more than evil, is powerfully unpredictable and not really up to us.

Which does not answer your question, obviously, but I'm feeling extra Calvinist on this cold, cold night.

Mad said...

I have nothing meaningful to say at 12:30 am but I was wondering if you knew that Marc Lepine's mother just published a book on her experiences over the last 20 years and about trying to tackle this very issue?

Recovering Sociopath said...

Goodness. These are questions which haunt me-- what is the point of no return for a burgeoning sociopath? Is there a point of no return? Is anybody ever really beyond redemption? Where do we leave off using the language of disorder and pick up the language of morality (or even religion)-- or is there some overlap between the two? How appropriate is it to use a word like "reprobate?"

I chose the term "Recovering Sociopath" for myself in considering my ongoing sanctification as a recovery from pathological selfishness (i.e., fallenness in the Biblical sense, at least in my understanding). Looking back at my youth, I can see a whole lot of empathy fail. Any empathy or unselfishness I have now I can only credit to grace.

But how much can we hope for or expect for someone so far gone as to actually be completely without a conscience? I'm curious what you, as a person of faith, think about that.

Incidentally, I think the progression of terms from "psychopath" to "sociopath" to the now dominant "antisocial personality disorder" is an interesting trend (I realize there are technical distinctions). Sometimes I am wistful for the term "psychopath" just because of the etymological implications-- we're dealing with someone who has not only a mental illness, but a spiritual one as well-- literally a sick soul.

Hm. More rumination required. Thanks so much for posting this!

Mary G said...

Rubio's book is on my Christmas list; now I am not sure I can wait.

You ask tough questions. I suspect that most parents ask such things of themselves about their parenting.

I think, though, that you are asking at both a psychological level and a societal one. What is a conscience, in fact? I was taught that a lie is Wrong and so when faced with the necessity (What do you think of my new blue dress?) I do it badly. My daughter has no qualms about lying to get herself out of sticky social situations and does it smoothly. How did I produce this kid, I wonder?

Do you know Robert Heinlein's 'Starship Trooper', in which he has a lot to say about the development of a conscience and obligation to society. He's firmly in the set rules and punish school of thought.

I wonder how he would answer the blue dress question.

Great post, Bea!

Swistle said...

I think it's more nature than nurture. I think trying to install a missing empathy chip is probably akin to trying to install a missing extroversion chip: worth trying, probably, but unlikely to succeed---and too tempting to blame parents for the failure.

Bea said...

Veronica - I can see how the train-by-moral-precept school of thought could be traced to Proverbs, while the love-begets-love approach reflects the gospel (though it strikes me that many churches espouse the first as the more traditional Christian approach, rejecting the second as evidence or modern-day relativism and wishy-washiness). The third option I'm groping towards here is also rooted in the Gospel, I think: the idea that moral learning takes place in the context of relationships (and, perhaps, is necessary so that we can be in relationship, both with God and each other).

RS - I was thinking of C.S. Lewis as I wrote this, and his suggestion that everyone makes moral choices, but our areas of temptation and struggle are different. I do not struggle with a temptation to steal things, but it's possible that I am failing even more miserably than Chester in the more private areas of moral struggle that my heredity and life experiences have prepared for me. Lewis claimed that this is one reason we're not to judge - we really have no way of knowing how heroically people may be struggling with their particular demons. I find this idea persuasive, and certainly both Dexter and Chester seem to be making moral choices - just in a very different context from the rest of us. (It's harder to tell with Kevin: his armour is so good that we can't really see much of his inner life.) At the same time, as a mother I care very much about WHERE my children find their moral choices - I would much prefer that they struggle with selfishness and envy than with theft and murder.

Beck said...

I have known many people - oh, lucky me - who were just plain bad. Some of them came from predictably horrid backgrounds but more hauntingly for me, an equal number came from homes that were to the outward eye loving, decent-homes. Some people, I truly believe, are just evil, likely right from the cradle, and there are no interventions that can save them - or even more hauntingly, the moral recipe that makes decent people is easily ruined.

A lot of teachers I know have talked to me about the soullessness of modern children, their startling moral apathy - and a lot of this I blame on widespread parental neglct, but there's also a lot of damage caused by modern positive parenting, modern parents' inability to take serious things seriously.

AnneK said...

I knew that LMM's husband suffered from depression, but I had no idea she herself suffered from mental illness.

Also, didn't she have another child as well?

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Things come easy to my dad, he's never ill, and he has a striking ability to put worries to the side. So: he's not empathetic. He thinks most people are whiners... In the last decade his company sent him to some management classes which purported to teach empathy, and now whenever one of my kids cries he pats that kid on the shoulder, then looks at me and says, "Look at me! I've got empathy now!"

That's not really related to your post. But I thought it might make you laugh : )

Susanne said...

Phew. I'll certainly be thinking about this one for a while. Very intriguing post.

No Mother Earth said...

There is something inside me, despite all my intellectual musings to the contrary, that cannot believe that someone is past redemption.

Bea said...

Anne - There is some speculation that LMM may have been bipolar, though I find the case unconvincing. Certainly she suffered from bouts of severe depression at certain periods of her life, and towards the end of her life she suffered a total nervous breakdown that was exacerbated by the various sedatives and medications she was prescribed. Her other son, Stuart, was Chester's opposite in every way: responsible, hard-working, and well-liked.

Debbie said...

I've always been struck by LMM's inability to relate to the square-bodied, non-romantic nature of her older son (Chester) and his difference from what LMM was and therefor valued in children: wispy and dreamy. Her younger son (Stuart) was more like LMM herself, whereas Chester was more like his father, in both body and temperament.

In experiencing a childhood in which she wasn't accepted for the dreamy girl she was, LMM (like so many people) didn't learn the larger lesson of "children should be accepted for who they are," but instead the message, "dreamy is good and children should be dreamy." So when faced with a child the opposite of that temperament, she seemed (in her journals) to grow pretty quickly annoyed with him. She doesn't really mention this, but I have to believe that Chester's similarities to his father probably also counted against him with LMM, as her husband was almost a total burden to her from the day they wed.

She was in that marriage in order to have children, and when she then didn't get the children she wanted (at least in Chester), I don't know that there was anything in her background, her culture, or her personality that would have enabled her to reach and teach Chester regardless of her disappointment. Nonetheless, just because his mother wasn't capable of reaching Chester, that doesn't mean that he truly wasn't reachable.

Looking at this (the issue of reaching children and turning on somewhat hard-to-reach morality switches) from an adoption perspective, I'm amazed at the number of times I hear of adoptions disrupting because a family can't - often have years of trying - deal with the bad behavior of an unattached child, only to have that child heal and flourish in their second adoptive home. Somehow, these post-disruption adoptive homes are flipping that morality switch and/or finding a way to teach or persuade their adopted child to attach to them, and performing apparent miracles in turning the child's life around.

Mimi said...

Hmmmm. I'm thinking about the question of loving children for exactly who they are as I watch Munchkin turn into her dad -- I notice how much of my reflexive love for her turns on noted resemblance. I'm ready to parent, to love, some version of myself, and I'm a little offended when she's not me, and doesn't need what I am so ready to offer. But I am bigger than that! I will watch her become who she is and I will try to stop looking for myself, and see, instead, *her*. I hope.

Bea said...

Debbie - While what you've said rings true to the journals, the biography paints quite a different picture. Rubio depicts Chester and Maud as having a very close relationship: he was an avid reader and was much closer to his mother than to his father. And although Maud referred to Stuart as her "good son," in practical terms that meant that Chester absorbed most of her attention. She certainly played an enabling role, bailing Chester out of many difficulties while Stuart was left mostly to fend for himself.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Very interesting post. I believe that any gains made by force are generally temporary. I don't think a firmer hand would prevent sociopathy, even if it might temporarily beget more socially acceptable behaviour. I do think it's likely that environment plays a part, just not in terms of strict discipline. What lasts is more of a reflection of what we model and make a good case for over time. It seems that larger cultural issues are relevant in that same sense - suburban American alienation, commercialism, violence as entertainment, etc. That said, most of us couldn't create a sociopath if we set out to. Not that the offspring of rotten parents turn out well, but there's a big difference between having issues and becoming a sociopath. There probably has to be some faulty wiring in there somewhere no matter what, or close.

Heidi said...

Wow, you have all these thoughtful and insightful readers. I have nothing to add to the already rich conversation, but wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. Especially when you post like this. Beautifully done.

AnneK said...

I meant a THIRD child actually. I remember reading that she was totally over worked, being the wife of a reverend (sunday school duties etc.), dealing with her husband's depression, her own horror of the impending 2nd world war while she wrote the most idyllic Anne book (Anne's house of dreams). Like an escape mechanism.

For that book the best part for me was Miss Cornelia. I absolutely love her character.

Bea said...

Anne - In between her two surviving sons she had a baby boy (Hugh) who died shortly after birth, much like Anne's baby Joy in Anne's House of Dreams (which was indeed written under the circumstances you describe, except that it was in the middle of World War I). Although idyllic in some ways, that book does have darker shadows: not only the death of Anne's baby but also the dark story of Leslie's abusive/mad husband.

Kyla said...

Oh, well done. This post was VERY interesting indeed.

JCK said...

You are SUCH an AMAZING writer. Just mind blowing.

Anyway...I am also very intrigued by the biography.

Laura Harvey said...

Whats everyone doing for safety precautions for Halloween? My husband came across an article ( with some info about background checking neighbors. I thought that may be a little overboard, but it had some other good suggestions for some precautions I haven't thought about. Last year my youngest son came down with a massive fever after Halloween. I almost thought about just taking the kids to our church's fall festival this year instead of door-to-door to prevent that from happening again. I don't know yet. What's your advice? Am I over-reacting or just being a concerned mom?

Stimey said...

Fascinating. I recently read Lionel Shriver's book have also caught myself thinking about it long after I put it down. I also love Dexter. Your take on these works is really interesting.

Pieces said...

Hmmm, reading this post after the one you wrote on the 28th takes my thoughts down a different path than they would have gone had a read them in the order you wrote them. I have a teenager that struggles socially and always has. ADD causes him to have a difficult time reading social cues and it does take effort on my part to help him socially. After reading some of the comments on the other post I began to question the few efforts I take to help him navigate his social life. And then I stopped myself. I can only follow my instincts and do the best I can to help and not hinder. Great writing as usual, Bea.