Book Review: The Bad Seed, by William March
Posted on December 20, 2013
Publisher of this edition: Harper Perennial, New York 2005
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is a good read, despite already knowing the outcome — as I believe everyone does who has ever heard of it. March builds his narrative cleverly and precisely. He opens the story by focusing upon a single family and their social circle, in a small American town, and then narrows the focus down little by little, finally isolating his two main characters completely — in a social and psychological sense — so that the reader’s anxiety is held taut, through to the end. This is emotionally confining enough to feel absolutely claustrophobic, as we end up feeling as cornered as Christine, and as abjectly despairing — then again, perhaps I over-identified with this character. That is entirely possible, judging by how I ended up only sort-of finishing the book (more on that later).
The main characters are an increasingly distressed mother named Christine, and her cunning and monstrous offspring, Rhoda. There is a small and superb ensemble cast in the book, including a somewhat batty but well-meaning middle-aged friend and her brother (the Breedloves) who live in the same apartment building as the Penmarks, and several other acquaintances who play greater and lesser roles in the story. Unlike some reviewers, I did not find the Monica Breedlove character annoying. I think that she is a kind of caricature of herself, but some people are like that. Monica is a wealthy, unmarried matron with plenty of money and too much time on her hands, who discovers psychoanalytic theory — which was just becoming popular in the US back then — and grabs onto it with the zeal of a freshly-born-again Christian. She is evangelical, over-the-top, and slightly absurd, providing much-needed levity to an otherwise completely unfunny tale. For, even though it’s a product of its particular time and place — which all good books are — the story tells a truth that is still true, though controversial: that some children are born “bad” — or, at least dangerously flawed in ways that have potentially devastating repercussions for others — and that not all psychopathology is the result of abusive or negligent parenting, interpersonal violence, or other traumatic life experiences. This is something we would all like to believe is true: that psychopaths are made, not born; because then, it’s a problem we can learn to avoid or repair. But in fact, sometimes murderers just happen, even in the nicest of families.
March does a fine job of plucking apart the sticky strands of Christine’s complicated web of feelings about her only child. Christine’s much-loved husband is working overseas, so she is left to fret and despair and worry all on her own. She has friends, but they do not see what she sees in her daughter. And what mother wants to admit to not loving her child blindly and boundlessly? What mother can bear to admit that she knows, in the deepest chambers of her heart, that her child is a killer? And then, there’s the ugly genetic component to face up to, for as Christine researches her own family history, she comes to understand that Rhoda has not come by her particular brand of psychopathic malevolence randomly: she has sprouted from bad seed.
It is fascinating to read how Christine wrestles with herself over what she must do or not do: what her duties are to her daughter, and to other people. This is not clear cut, because mixed in with the dread and horror is an instinctive need to protect her own offspring. In Rhoda’s brilliant calculating brain, the temperature waivers killingly between ice-cold, where empathy and compassion and a whole host of other attachment feelings should be, and hell-hot, where thoughts such as “I don’t have to win ALL THE TIME” should be. Christine understands this, but also understands that Rhoda has not chosen to be this way, and that she is still a child, who must be protected.
While children as sources of all-things-evil are not so shocking nowadays, I can imagine this would have been a stunning read back in the 1950s, when it first came out. There were fewer child psychopaths back then, one supposes, or at least fewer with access to weapons as they have now. Rhoda had to be cleverer than young killers of today, as she did not have guns at her disposal.
Okay, now here’s what really happened between this book and me, and what I meant by over-identifying with Christine: I could not bear to read one whole important section of text — several pages — leading up to and including the climax. The whole big finish, in fact, I skipped. I still haven’t read it.
I had not seen the film in so many decades that I could not remember how it ends (in fact, I still do not remember), so I am not sure if it’s the same as the book. But I could feel March’s intentions for the denouement long before he got there. It was foreshadowed with the same kind of chilling clarity with which he allows us to see through Rhoda’s eyes, so that we know there is only one way it can end. And I just couldn’t bear to read the dialogue that I imagined would take place in the final scene between mother and child. It upset me, viscerally. Maybe I am just a sook* these days. I read the final two pages, just to make sure that what happens is indeed what seemed inevitable, and yes, no surprises there. But I wish there had been.
* For non-Australians: sook = sensitive types, prone to tears (aka “crybaby”).