Seeing Red

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Oscilloscope Pictures

The piece you are about to read was written in January 2018. It went to the editors with final revisions on February 2. It is an attempt to reckon with an experience I had about 10 years ago—an experience that is not mine alone, unfortunately. The events and emotions described in this piece are all too familiar, and, as the week of February 14, 2018 made clear to me, a wound that is just waiting to be ripped open again.

Valentine’s Day. On the afternoon of February 14, 2008, I was sitting in a classroom in the English building at Northern Illinois University. It was romantic poetry, and we were discussing poems by William Wordsworth when, at about 3 o’clock, 15 minutes before class was supposed to end, one of the administrative staff members appeared in the doorway. She told the professor that we had to shut and lock the door because, in her words, “We have a real problem here.”

Over the next few minutes, my fellow students and I would find out what the problem was—next door, in the lecture hall building on the NIU campus, a young gunman had opened fire inside one of the auditoriums. The next hour, during which we were locked down inside the third-floor classroom, was dominated by confusion. Conflicting reports came through from students texting friends, or receiving calls from loved ones off campus. The most frenzied moment came when someone got word that the gunman may still be at large, and our professor sprang into action, ripping down a piece of butcher paper from a bulletin board and draping it over the floor to ceiling window adjacent to the one door that stood between us and terror, or between us and escape. We barricaded the door with the room’s table and turned off the lights.

We didn’t know it, but the assailant was at that moment lying dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound no more than 50 yards from us. We did know, as we watched out the window of our building, that there were casualties. Ambulances and police cars flooded the bus cul-de-sac, and before long, first responders wheeled victims out on gurneys. What I remember most is the color—the bright yellow of the cart bearing a wounded person, the black straps across her body. Most of all, I remember the melting white snow, gathered in piles in the grassy areas beside the sidewalks, stained bright red.

This year marks the 10th horrible anniversary. I was a witness to a catastrophe. I have never used the word “survivor” to describe myself, because I don’t feel I’ve earned that label. I wasn’t in the room. I didn’t hear the shots. I didn’t feel the overwhelming sense of panic that must have broken out inside the hall where the attack took place. I am in between. I was there, and I was not there. I am a part of the horror, and apart from it.

I teach film. At NIU, I studied film. My career, my passion, my life is spent watching. I remember fleeting images from that day. I remember the wide frame of the window, as I watched people gather in front of the building next door. I remember looking through the pine trees, parted just enough for me to see the growing chaos on campus. 

Do these images all add up to trauma? Maybe. I never went to therapy. I never really talked about it. That might have been wrong. When events like this occur—and they definitely do—we need to talk about them. We need to talk about guns. We need to talk about mental health. We need to talk about misogyny. We need to talk about violence. We need to talk about trauma.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 drama, stars Tilda Swinton as Eva, a mother with a problem. Her son Kevin—played at three different ages by Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller—is a budding, growing, and, finally, flowering sociopath. The film’s fragmented structure shows Eva’s troubled relationship with Kevin. He spitefully refuses to speak, though he understands everything she says; he deliberately soils a fresh diaper, which he wears long past the appropriate age; he kidnaps and kills his sister Celia’s guinea pig, leaving the corpse in the garbage disposal for his mother to find. Kevin, plain and simple, is a monster. Eva’s husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is dismissive of her concerns; Kevin changes his behavior almost entirely when his father is around. As a result, Eva is essentially locked alone in a psychological battle with Kevin.

The film’s structure is fragmented. Ramsay skips back and forth through time to depict the tempestuous relationship between Eva and her son. Scenes of Eva’s struggle to contain and shape Kevin’s behavior are surrounded by extended sections where Eva, looking distraught and alone, works a menial job at a travel agency and performs upkeep on a tiny, beaten-down house a far cry from the luxurious, upper-middle class home she enjoyed with her family.

Wherever Eva goes, she is surrounded by the color red. The film opens surrealistically at a festival in Spain, its attendees hurling thousands of tomatoes at one another, with Eva floating above the sea of red. This opening sequence establishes Ramsay’s color palette, a choice she continues to emphasize. When Kevin is a toddler, Eva attempts to get him to roll a ball back to her, with little success. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she rolls it to him, and he does nothing. She gets up and grabs it, and tries it again. Eventually, he spitefully pushes it back at her, for no other reason than to demonstrate that he hears and understands her, but does not want to participate in her little game. He can’t be more than 3 or 4. The ball is bright red.

In the present, Eva pushes a shopping cart listlessly through the supermarket. She turns a corner and starts to head down an aisle, when she spots another woman about her age. Eva abandons the cart and whirls back around the corner of the aisle, desperately trying to avoid being seen. Her refuge is set against an improbably high endcap of tomato soup cans; their bright red overwhelms the frame.

Red is a bridge between the past and the present, and it follows Eva. The film slowly reveals the reason: Eva is the mother of a school shooter. In Eva’s past, as Kevin grows up, red is a powerful indicator that the signs of his sociopathy, his anger, and his capacity for violence were all there from an early age. In Eva’s present, red constantly reminds her of Kevin’s horrific attack on his fellow students, as well as his murder of Franklin and his young sister.

Eva is a traumatized victim of her son’s choices. She is a secondhand witness to horror. She spends much of the film’s present-set sequences in self-imposed exile, atoning for what she perceives as her own culpability. She is also a mother whose desire to love her troubled son blinded her to the depth of his monstrosity. Ramsay’s shattered glass structure not only reflects the psychological turmoil of a character broken into a thousand pieces, but also asks: how much responsibility do we bear for the actions of others?

No doubt, Eva is troubled by survivor’s guilt. Kevin is incarcerated, but deliberately spared her life. He took Franklin and Celia away, leaving their bodies in the backyard for Eva to find. She does penance; when the mother she avoided in the supermarket smashes Eva’s carton of eggs, Eva buys them anyway and eats them, picking the shells from her teeth piece by piece. To the other people in town who blame her for Kevin’s actions, she is Hester Prynne, marked by a scarlet letter. In private, she is Lady Macbeth, scrubbing imaginary blood off her hands alone in her nightmares.

At what point must we step in to prevent inevitable tragedy? Eva is a watcher; she sees Kevin’s escalating behavior, but is unable to stop it. Franklin is unconvinced, and Eva’s attempts to persuade him that something is wrong with Kevin are half-hearted at best. But Kevin’s actions, not hers, lead to her family’s deaths, and to the deaths of several students and injuries of several more.

But just as it might take a village to raise a child, maybe it is also the village’s fault when the child goes wrong. Kevin’s treatment of his mother throughout the film is rife with misogyny; he deliberately butters up his gullible father as a way to convey to Eva his power over her. But it isn’t just Kevin’s misogyny—when Eva rebuffs a male co-worker’s advance at a holiday party, he curses her out, a suddenly threatening turn. The forces that shape Kevin are everywhere, even in seemingly innocuous intra-office socializing. As those forces marshal against good people, it can feel like stopping the horror is impossible. Violence lurks beneath the surface only so long before it breaks the waves, strikes, and reddens the waters. Even if we aren’t bitten ourselves, we all still swim in this crimson sea. Each of us is alone, victims of collective responsibility abdicated, cultural problems ignored, societal accountability unassigned, set adrift in the blood that never seems to dissipate, calling out for help that won’t come.

That so many interconnected problems are repeatedly met with a collective shrug of the shoulders can be a burden almost too heavy to bear. The sense of powerlessness that I felt when staring out that window on Valentine’s Day returns every time I turn on the news in the wake of another mass shooting. Feeling stuck, unable to move, trapped in a room where, just moments before, we had been discussing works of literature focused on the natural world’s transcendent beauty. Then, to have the world change, to look out the window of that same classroom, and see the horror inhabitants of that natural world are capable of—perhaps that is my personal trauma: that juxtaposition, that clashing moment of Eisensteinian montage in real life, that forceful break in the continuum of human emotional experience.

I suppose this is a search for meaning. As much as Eva takes on the responsibility of her child’s sins, and as emotionally devastating as it is for her, it provides her some purpose. As the film progresses, Eva makes preparations for Kevin’s eventual release date—he was tried as a minor, after all, and, one day, will get out. She meticulously recreates Kevin’s old room in the new house. She is his mother. She may blame herself, but she can still hold onto the belief, however faint it may be, that her love might change him. Maybe, with enough time, with enough affection, with enough care, she can bring him back to humanity.

I have no such luxury. I am not responsible for the act of mass murder that took place in the building next door. I cannot in good conscience say I suffered as those who were in the room did. Nor can I say I personally knew anyone who was in the room, because I didn’t.

But I need meaning, too. I need to understand how and why such a terrible thing could occur, even if I know on an intellectual level that is nearly an impossible task. Who is responsible? The shooter, certainly. But who else? Are we all responsible, we members of the village? I fear that if the answer is yes, if everyone is responsible, then no one will be held responsible.

Even now, 10 years later, I’m still searching for answers, many of which I’m almost certain will never come. When I close my eyes, I can still see the red streaks in the white snow. But, I see other things, too. I see my professor, standing next to me at the window. I feel his hand gently slapping my shoulder, a tiny masculine gesture meant to tell me, and himself, I’m sure, that somehow, it would be all right.

And I remember, after being released from the classroom, when it was all over, walking back to my apartment just across from the campus. I can hear the chaotic buzz in the air. Sirens. A helicopter hovering overhead. And as I walk across the grass, I look through the trees and see three young men, my age—my roommates, who I’ve known since middle school, friends of more than 20 years, standing in our complex’s courtyard, pointing and waving at me as I head towards them.

Epilogue, Feb 2018:

When I started scrolling through my Twitter timeline at lunch on Wednesday, February 14, 2018, I couldn’t help but think of Twin Peaks. My wife and I recently completed our run through the show for the first time. Specifically, the thing that flashed into my head was The Giant’s inter-dimensional roadhouse warning to a transfixed Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan): “It is happening again.” By the next day, we learned that 17 teachers and students lay dead in a high school in Parkland, Florida, victims of a terrible act of entirely preventable violence. I marked the 10-year anniversary of a campus shooting that took the lives of five of my fellow college students by seeing it all happen again.

It was surreal to live in two moments at once—in the past, standing in my own classroom, hiding from a man with a gun, and imagining students a thousand miles away, feeling what I felt, with 10 years of inaction, frustration, and abdication of societal responsibility bridging the gap. Everything was the same. The despair. The horror. The anger. The overwhelming urge to scream into the face of everyone who refuses to acknowledge the core of this problem; everyone who places their hobby above the lives of others; everyone who shrugs their shoulders and says this is the price of freedom.

And as much as everything felt the same this time, as it does every time this happens, I am animated by the hope that this time will be different. I have no other choice. I am inspired by the students who lost friends, classmates, teachers, coaches, and members of their community, who are using their voices to say that they, and we, have had enough. In this hour of their grief, they are certainly entitled to withdraw, to mourn, to reckon personally with this tragedy. That they are choosing to say “no more” should serve as an example to us all. If they can do it at this moment, with what has just happened to them, then surely we can, too.