I recently finished The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum and, while I don’t do book reviews, I do want to discuss some of the themes and ideas presented in the story.
It’s inspired by the true story of Sylvia Likens, a girl who was tortured and eventually murdered by her adoptive parent who enlisted the help of her other children and neighbourhood kids to abuse the girl.
It wasn’t an easy read.
The story is told through the eyes of one of the neighbourhood children, 13 year old David, done in flashback style. He details his original feelings for the girl, Meg, how enamoured he is by her, and how confused he is by what eventually starts happening. Ruth, the adoptive mother, begins by punishing her for perceived slights. David doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, but respects and likes Ruth and has a difficult time coming to terms with it.
When Meg tries to involve the police and nothing happens, it reminds them all just how powerless they are, as children. Just how little control they have over their lives, and how unwilling adults are to help them or even believe them.
When I was in grade six, a teacher once told us that she didn’t allow us to write journals because once a student wrote about her father abusing her. The teacher had to get the police involved and the young girl was very upset at the teacher. She told us this, as if to warn us against confiding in her.
And these are the mixed signals that kids are getting. They’re constantly told to listen to and respect their elders – but not all adults should be listened to. They’re told that adults are there to help them – but not all adults are going to help them. There’s disjointedness between what they’re being told and what they’re experiencing.
When David’s father tells him that sometimes a woman deserves being hit, there’s so much more behind those words. Children don’t have the knowledge to draw these arbitrary lines. There’s a lack of understanding and ability to interpret information in an adult manner.
There are a lot of really important factors to consider in cases of child murderers, not the least of which is their environment and what type of peer pressure they’re being put under. If this pressure is being placed upon a child by an adult, or if a child is being raised in a violent or abusive environment, it becomes a very difficult situation. A child has limited interactions outside of their family, and it’s not hard to understand how someone who grows up in a violent home might feel that violence is normal. They don’t have outside situations to compare themselves to.
A child doesn’t fully have a developed morality or empathy at birth. These things have to be taught and learned, and when a parent encourages violence or gives permission to their children to hurt someone else, these values become skewed.
Ultimately, The Girl Next Door is a story of power, of control, of helplessness, and of dehumanization. It does an adequate job of exploring these themes within context, and pulled me in enough that I just want to save them all from their feelings of powerlessness.