Back in high school, this new kid named Paul transferred to our school from Texas in the middle of my junior year, I believe. He seemed like a nice guy. He dressed nattily, wore glasses, and he was in all the AP classes, so he ended up hanging out with my group of friends almost by default. He came from very sturdy, middle-class conservative parents. As I recall, he also had a younger sister, who was typical. The only fault that we found with Paul was that he was Republican, a fact that we often needled him about.
Anyway, after going to our school for about six months, Paul disappeared. What we found out later is that he’d been put into a psychiatric ward for teens. Why? Because his parents caught him trapping a live rabbit inside a jar, which he placed over an ant hill. Paul watched a rabbit get devoured by fire ants.
That’s fucked up.
When he returned from the psychiatric ward, he was no longer the same. He’d joined a gang. Like, a legit gang, and when he came back, we started calling him our friend, the Republican gangster, because he still wore the only clothes his parents provided him — khakis, nice button-up shirts, only he also wore a do-rag.
One day, there was an all-night volleyball tournament at our school — students camped out in the gym and played volleyball all night. I picked up Paul to take him to the gym, and when he got into the car, he put a gun in my glove compartment. He told me he was going to use it to kill someone with whom he had a beef that night (I don’t remember the exact beef, but given the context, I suspect it was a very slight, petty one). But when we got to the event, he decided to leave the gun in the glove compartment until later that night when the situation was ideal, so I sneaked out of the gym and drove back home and told my Dad about the gun. My Dad wiped my fingerprints off the gun and told me not to go back, so I didn’t. (Recall, too, that this was pre-Columbine, so the idea of a school shooting was completely foreign to me).
Paul didn’t have the gun, so Paul didn’t kill anyone that night. Not too long after that, however, he used that gun in a drive-by shooting — again, it was a small, Southern town where there was no gang warfare. I don’t know what it was in retaliation for, but I imagine the stakes were not high, relatively speaking. Thankfully, no one was killed, but after that night, I never saw Paul again.
It didn’t occur to me until many years later that Paul was a a sociopath. He was not a “product” of anything — he had a great family, solid upbringing, and all the privileges associated with being a middle-class white kid. But I think he was incapable of empathy.
I thought about Paul a lot while reading Zoje Stage’s phenomenal Baby Teeth (Hat Tip to QS for the recommendation). It’s about a seven-year-old girl named Hannah, who also has all the privileges of a solid, upper-middle-class family with a loving, professional father and a stay-at-home mom who — other than suffering from Crohn’s Disease — is relatively normal.
But Hannah is a psychopath, and it manifests itself in Hannah’s desire to kill her mother. She’s a bright, precocious little girl, who also happens to be pre-verbal, although it does not affect her ability to communicate with her parents very much. Early on in the novel, however, Hannah occasionally speaks — but only posing as a witch, and only to her mother, and the only things she says are cruel. (Imagine hearing your daughter speak for the first time in seven years, and what she says is, “Fuck you, mommy.”)
It reads a like a lot of the gaslighting books I’ve read of late — the perfect husband in public, but a controlling monster at home, but only in the company of their wives, and the wives can’t complain out of fear of people believing they are crazy. That happens here, too, only Hannah is a controlling monster with her mother, but otherwise a perfect child with her father (save for the refusal to speak). And who is the father going to believe? The perfect angel of a daughter, or his wife, who contends that her daughter is trying to kill her?
Baby Teeth is like a Damien movie, only there’s nothing supernatural about it. Hannah is not possessed. She is not being controlled by the devil. She is a psychopath, and if you are a mother who loves her daughter very, very much, what do you do with a seven-year-old who wants to kill you and who is smart enough — even at 7 years old — to pull it off? You can’t put a psychopathic child into school, because she poses a danger to the other kids. It’s hard to diagnose her because she doesn’t speak, and it’s also difficult to explain to anyone else — teachers, therapists, hospital workers — that your child wants to murder you without coming off as an unfit mother.
Baby Teeth is unnerving. Chilling. It’s horror, only reality-based — like We Need to Talk About Kevin: The Elementary School Years — and the book burrowed so deeply into my brain that I found myself eying my own children suspiciously, looking for symptoms, signs that they, too, might want to kill me? And all along, I wondered what kind of experiences Paul’s parents must have endured? Why had they moved away from Texas? How many other acts beyond killing the rabbit with fire ants had they seen before putting Paul in an institution? Did Paul and his parents move away after the drive-by shooting? To start all over again? Is that why they came to Arkansas in the first place?
What do you do with a child like that? What can you do? And why the hell hasn’t Zoje Stage already announced a sequel, because I need.
Image via Dimension Films.