I’ve written about families rocked by crime, about hidden secrets and domestic violence, where the criminals are close relatives or complete strangers, but I usually accept the normal assumption that they will be adults, even if children can be their victims. In The Unravelling I broke free to write about criminal intent among children.
Karen is a woman disturbed in middle age by suddenly reawakened memories of long forgotten friends. She’s forgotten a great deal, maybe with good reason. What happened when she was ten? What did she do?
When it comes to choosing a villain I don’t go for manic masked psychopaths lurking down dark alleys armed with axes. I prefer using people who seem perfectly ordinary. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t psychopaths, because, away from Hollywood and out in the real world, psychopaths are often superficially charming, good at playing the social game, and not remotely violent. What they do have is a deep-seated indifference to other people’s feelings and to social norms of right and wrong.
There’s a suggestion that there’s a psychopath gene, which implies that it’s a condition people are born with. Nature rather than nurture. Instinctively, I lean towards nurture rather than nature, to the idea of people being moulded by circumstances, educated and encouraged into constructive avenues if they are lucky, or corrupted and brutalised if things go bad.
When toddler James Bulger was tortured and killed by two ten-year-old children, I was as sickened and horrified as everyone else, but I was also shocked by a pervading view that the killers were somehow doubly evil because they were children. Was there an assumption that it wouldn’t have been so bad if the killers had been adults? I can’t understand that. Adults are the ones who have no excuse.
In The Unravelling, I start on the premise that children are not born little angels like Oliver Twist, or evil imps who must have Satan driven out of them. They are born totally amoral, without any concept of right and wrong, perfect psychopaths, like Stewie in Family Guy, intent only on pursuing their own interests. Good is whatever gives them what they want and bad is whatever gets in the way. Children gain a concept of right and wrong by learning, from family, from neighbours, from school or church or TV, what is acceptable and what is unforgiveable. Without being taught, what drives them is pure curiosity, without limits. Children pull wings off insects, and wrench arms off their dolls to see if they can. They eat pills that are left unattended because they might taste nice. They can be cruel, spiteful, manipulative, cowardly and everything else we consider bad because they haven’t yet learned to be otherwise. They can do unspeakable things in a state of pure innocence, without grasping that they are wrong.
They also dissolve the lines between reality and imagination because they are still learning to interpret the signs and discover what reality is. Is the neighbour really a witch? Is there really a lion in the wardrobe or a bear under the bed? Is there a troll lurking under the footbridge? Is a man who offers you sweets and a lift in his car good or bad?
Childhood is a minefield covered with daisies and children, as they cross, invariably tread on at least one or two mines. A learning process full of terrors as well as enlightenment. Those children grow up and take their experiences with them, formed and informed by them. Hopefully they reach adulthood having learned all the right lessons, but would it be a wonder if memories of their own terrors or their own actions leave them traumatised for life? It’s surprising any of them make it. Which is why, in The Unravelling, not many of them do.