Essay / 15 May 2019

Against Kindness

Cruelty in Children

She is kind. My little girl. 

Of course, there are exceptions. There is the moment as a two-year-old when she hits me in the face with her favourite ball. I take it, and in front of her, I stab the scissors into the soft plastic and watch as both the ball and her small face crumple. But yet, it is a mark of her sensitivity that many years later she still cries and recounts this story that I, in my naivety, consider her too small to recall.

She is eight-years-old, this little girl, hovering now in this space between childhood and adolescence, the world rushing up on her. So, it is not much of an event, not really much at all, when it happens. It is a thing of little consequence. 

Such is the way of now that the words are not straightforwardly her own. Perhaps that makes it better, perhaps it allows her to say something in new technology that she otherwise would not. Inscribed on a series of GIFS, these pictures, also not her own. But sourced by her, certainly. Each bears the same three words.


The target of these words is not the playground bully – for even in a nice village school there is a bully. But rather it is the gentlest girl, the girl I would mistake for my own child.

When I ask my daughter why she has behaved this way, she cries and says she does not know. And I believe her.

She is just the same, this child. Yet I am repulsed by the new revelation, afraid to look at her for what I might see. Some unnaturalness. Some aberration. Afraid that in this world that wishes away cruelty with synonyms of damage, thoughtlessness, and self-defence – that mitigates, explains, rationalises, justifies, and psychologises – that some more fundamental truth lies within the silence. In this instant, my child is no longer of herself but rather is the victim of a collective imaginary in which there is nothing so monstrous as the beautiful, nowhere that evil is so keenly felt than in the form of that which society has decided must be beyond monstrosity. 

It is in the female, first. In the knowledge that whilst it is not possible to be eviler than Ian Brady, yet there is the woman with the peroxide hair. And her name is unforgettable. And we all agree that she is worst of all.

And it is in the fresh faces of youth. 

I turn on the television, my daughter beside me, to see a documentary begin about the Bulger killers, two ten-year-old boys incarcerated for the abduction and murder of a Liverpool toddler in 1993. Tape recordings released, each young voice blaming the other, each unable to say the reason for what horror has been done. But one of the boys asks if the toddler will be taken to the hospital, asks if he will be taken to get him alive again. The other asks if the murdered child will be present in the courtroom. The newspaper reports the documentary with censorious headlines. For it is impossible, surely, that one of the boys has gone on to lead a well-adjusted life. And it is vindication, surely, that the other has not. 

And beneath it all sits the question that cannot be answered, as to whether what came after the murder made the future or unmade the past.

I am in a memory of being fifteen-years-old, reading intently a newspaper article and poem by the writer Blake Morrison, who has been following the Bulger trial and attempting to unravel its complexities. Our English teacher that year is the only male English teacher in our all girls, Church of England suburban comprehensive. We follow his minor transgressive refusal of the popular imaginary with barely concealed erotic commitment. 

I am here, again, twenty-five years later. I try to find the words I read then. Morrison has written a book on the case since. I Google ‘Bulger’, ‘Morrison’, ‘poem’ with no luck. Google some sentiment caught in my remembrance – ‘angels’ – and find the article that Morrison wrote to accompany the poem. Find phrases there I had forgotten but which I know I have read before, ‘the lines as flints to spark debate’, words that as a girl muddled me into a sudden hot flush of misunderstanding. The article tells me it is not a poem at all but rather a collection of provocations to accompany a short film. They are supposed to be on the next page, but in the world of virtuality the next page no longer exists. 

I go to my basement. In a box, a little blackened with mould, a twenty-five-year grown mould, are the papers of my own innocence. Morrison’s poem, of boys inside a culture that fetishizes as angel or temptation, upholder of virtue or invocator of sin. And my own words, words of fifteen years of age, scribbled in pencil around the margins of Morrison’s text.

Only take children as they are (just children) until such things as James’ murder have been removed. Make things better. Stop seeing black/white, innocence or evil, devils or angels.

Morrison’s poem opens with lines from Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He knows that it is the novel, amongst other imaginations, which brings us here. As children we wrestle with Amy March, or Edmund Pevensie, or Tinkerbell; as adults we must come to terms with Michael Henchard, and Emma Woodhouse, and Maurice Bendrix; with Paul Morel, and with Sethe.

With the disquiet of cruelty amidst virtue that is a thing most true. 

Yet if we prefer the novel will also allow us to slip into the comfort of unreal absolutes, to reserve the highest pedestal for those characters – Harry Potter, or Amelia Sedley; Oliver Twist, or Pip, or Lizzie Bennet – who allow the reader to wallow in uncomplicated goodness. There is an oft-discussed axiom amongst literary types that everything one needs to know about a person can be determined by asking them to declare an allegiance to either Wuthering Heightsor Jane Eyre– to Charlotte or Emily, to Jane or Kathy, to Rochester or Heathcliff. If one chooses Kathy and Heathcliff, then one embraces a messiness of incongruous action and inexplicable event; yet one can also turn to Jane and Rochester. To keep the moment before the curtain rises alive. 

Of course, Rochester is crueller than Heathcliff ever is. Yet Bertha is but a whisper, and she is lead by the hand of a gentleman, by the hand of a man from the right side of town. And the boys who lead the small boy by the hand from the Bootle Strand are boys without provenance, boys from the wrong side of town. 

They are angels destined to fall. 

Perhaps it is the writer’s prejudice that leads Bertha so casually to her death. Or perhaps it is only a gentle-hand reaching toward both those created and those that are created for. Such kindness, however, does us no kindness. For in the world outside the novel we are too many of us Bertha Mason. And we are too many of us Heathcliff, too. 

In the coming down and the aftermath, when the apology has been made and the atonement begun, I sit with my daughter and give her reasons for her actions. In front of her teacher I hear her repeat them back with the conviction of one who believes. 


Sara Upstone

is Associate Professor of English Literature and Head of Department of Humanities at Kingston University, London. She teaches on both the BA English Literature and the BA English and Creative Writing, and is also course leader for the MA Literature and Philosophy. Both her critical and creative work is concerned with the intersection of identities and modes of expression, in particular ideas of embodiment, spatial politics, racial and gendered politics, and concepts of transgression. She is the author of 3 monographs including most recently Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2016), as well as 3 co-authored edited collections, numerous articles, and creative fiction and non-fiction. She is also the author of Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction (Hodder, 2017). She is happiest by the sea but lives in London with her partner, daughter, and a very musical cat.