“I was captured by savages. I had lived with them. I’d been one of them.
No. Not savages. Not really.
Worse than that.
More like a pack of dogs or cats or the swarms of ferocious red ants that Woofer liked to play with.
Like some other species all together. Some intelligence that only looked human, but had no access to human feelings. I stood among them swamped by otherness.
By evil” (p.190).
The Girl Next Door is told through the perspective of David, a now occupationally successful but emotionally damaged individual, who retraces his steps back to when he was about 12, one summer in the late 1950s when his next door neighbour, Ruth, comes into possession of her two young nieces whose parents died in a car crash. Ruth is a single mother with a few children, and has a warped sense of discipline, often encouraging her children and other neighbourhood children to watch or join in with the abuse toward her two young nieces, Meg and Susan. Meg is the one author Jack Ketchum concentrates on; the one David is torn with. Torn between his obsession with Meg and with those who are abusing her are the same people he trusts and would not want to break their trust. It is difficult for David to see the reality of what is happening and attribute the blame to the Chandlers, and not to Meg. David, we see, goes through the motions of being unable to decide what is wrong and what is right as those two concepts are contradicted throughout the novel. We have a sense of what is right and wrong in the context of justice, but David is almost indoctrinated by Ruth that her own views soon infiltrate David’s mind and has him in a sort of cognitive dissonance. Told completely through the perspective of David, we only see what he sees and how he, as a child, interprets his perspective. This is effective because it which causes the readers to garner more sympathy for the object of the abuse.
The story is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ganging up on a cohort, to see how far you can push the limits. Exploring the darker side of humanity and what we are truly capable of. The story shows several classic psychological and sociological terms and theories in action that I will divulge later.
Speaking of limits, the novel does nothing but push limits, until David cannot utter another event he witnessed. We, the reader, are left to our own devices to imagine – if we could – the atrocities brought on to Meg. Ketchum wrote about how far the kids could take the torture. Their natural curiosity to take things further just to see how far they could get without suffering the consequences. We do that too. Which makes this a good commentary on how much we, readers and viewers of horror, enjoy to push our own limits. To get off, or get high on the rush we feel when we are exposed to gore, violence, terror, or sheer horror. To see what makes us tick and what makes us squirm. A lot made me tick and squirm within this, and I am not easily bothered. But what was bothersome was that this is bred in reality. Indeed, loosely based on a true case, it makes the story a little more difficult to swallow. The case in which the novel is based on is the Sylvia Likens case, wherein Sylvia gets put into the care of a family member, who enlists her children to ruthlessly abuse the young girl until she dies.
Notwithstanding, this abuse happens. This cruelty is everywhere, and that is the horror that scares me the most. I like to be pushed, and I like that high I get when something scares me. This is no exception, except for the fact that I was left numb yet overwhelmed. From on objective viewpoint, I think that Ketchum did exactly what he needed to, to drive the point home. There are people who do not give a shit and have no shits to give, and that is how he described the Chandlers at the beginning of the novel.
Ruth takes the role of the educator in this dynamic; almost an omnipotent, omniscient being to the kids. She takes initiative to tell her kids and their friends her perspective on anything she desires. She has this fixation to tell the boys about women with apparent loose morals, and attributes this to Meg, who she finds it just to beat. This is interesting because throughout the novel, the kids are the bystanders whenever they are not joining in to abusing Meg. They stay still, watch, and laugh whenever Susan and Meg are beaten by Ruth. David, as he has learned that the role of being a kid was to listen and to do whatever adults said— never question it, and never talk back – is watching the abuse take fold and attributing reasons as to why this abuse is just. The abuse Meg suffers is just for him, because Meg deliberately disobeyed Ruth by talking back and fighting back, which was unheard for David. He felt excitement because of it, but also felt that Meg deserved to be beaten as a result. Although not explicitly said in the book, David thought, ‘bad things happen to bad people; good things happen to good people’, which is something readers pick up. It is a simple, yet often perpetuated idea we all tend to have every now again, and it is what David mostly kept in his mind. He is playing the part of the bystander when Meg gets beaten.
The bystander effect is a straightforward idea. Generally, a group of people witnessing an attack choose not to help, but rather watch, perhaps thinking of plausible reasons as to why the victim is getting the abuse. The victim is then turned into the perpetrator and the actual perpetrator is seen as just by carrying out the abuse. This is not always what happens with the bystander effect, however. You do not have to always side with the perpetrator, but you choose to not get involved to save yourself, essentially. This makes everyone guilty and puts the idea that this treatment is acceptable, especially into a child’s head. What Ruth also does is she taught the kids that the police are all talk and no walk. They will not do a single thing, so it is best to not get them involved.
Ruth is seen as the authority, she has superiority over the children, which means that she can deliver punishment any way she saw fit, without having the children intervene as she was the only adult. We see this with her children, who relentlessly beat up Meg, but only because they know that their mother would not mind; in fact, she would see it as reasonable action.
This idea of giving kids the authority to do what they see fit, is called The Lucifer Effect. Phillip Zimbardo coined the term during his Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 where he and other researchers separate a group of strangers into ‘prisoners’ and ‘prison guards’, giving them full permission to act in the way they believed was appropriate to their roles. The ‘prison guards’ quickly became acclimated to act with a large sense of authority, often making the ‘prisoners’ perform degrading or embarrassing acts. However, it only took a few ‘prison guards’ who quickly took their role seriously to begin influencing the other ‘prisoner guards’ to join in on the abuse. Because those who had the apparent sense of authority were given full permission to do as they saw fit, it soon became apparent to Zimbardo that the experiment was quickly becoming violent. They terminated the experiment soon after, but it has gone down in infamy. It is one of the most talked about and covered psychological experiments. Zimbardo ruminated on the experiment and realized that those who are given permission by an authority figure to act how they view appropriate to others who have positions ‘below’ them, have an inflated sense of self, and often times begin to dole out harsh punishments or bully others because they believe they are just in doing so. The Lucifer Effect applies to all of us because we are all capable of inciting an evil act on another person when given the opportunity. There are several psychological cases where this turns out to be true. I will leave links at the end of this analysis for further reading.
This feeds into the idea of groupthink. When a person primarily shares his/her perspective on a subject, and if that person seems to be smarter or more experienced, the other people in that room will soon, too, think the same way as said person. Groupthink is about wanting to conform or harmonize. It is easier to be a part of the group than outside of it. Ruth consistently tells the kids about a woman’s place in the world, demonstrating, and encouraging the children to belittle, degrade, and humiliate Meg. She is a girl and thus she is the weaker species. She cannot help it. The kids quickly adopt this idea, and see her as an object. First a meat sack then as something sexual. Exactly how Ruth wanted it. David felt dissonance throughout this novel. Never know which way to sway because the Chandler’s were his lifelong pals, people he respected – especially Ruth. She was one of the guys. But he knew that something wrong, but ignored taking action until it was too late. He had to adjust his own way of thinking so he would not feel as bad about Meg and her situation. Again, it is easier to be a part of the in-group that outside of it, which can be the explanation of David and his lack of interference for most of the abuse.
“The distance between Meg and me seemed suddenly huge, insurmountable. It was not that my sympathies toward her stopped. But for the first time I saw her as essentially other than me. She was vulnerable. I wasn’t. My position was favoured here. Hers was as low as it could be. Was this inevitable, maybe? I remembered her asking me, why do they hate me? And I didn’t believe it then, I didn’t have any answer for her. Had I missed something? Was there maybe some flaw in her I hadn’t seen that predetermined all of this? For the first time I felt that maybe Meg’s separation from us might be justified.
I wanted to feel it was justified.
I say that now in the deepest shame…”(p.110).
It is important to point out that David mentioned Meg was like Ruth’s protégé, with that we can hypothesize that through the long suffering Meg endured, that she will, too, become like Ruth. Carrying these ideas, becoming a shell of who she once was. If we see it like that, then we can assume that Ruth was also abused and had been through traumatic events, which would mean that she was a victim of abuse who abused. The blame then becomes bleary because who do we have to blame? Ketchum wrote about individuals without a conscience in his Author’s Note, as well as in the novel. Black, soulless eyes, which Ruth no doubt had. She had nothing inside of her. No remorse, and if she did, she would escape, or leave the situation, as if to dissociate. We see Meg doing this too, as it is quite common in long-term child abuse.
But what about the kids? We knew the kids were not all right, but is this normal? To everything I mentioned above, it is common to an extent. Groupthink, bystander effect, and cognitive dissonance. You can find recent cases of these concepts on the news, or if you look around you. This is obviously an extreme case, but do kids actually act this ruthless? I would say yes. When I was younger, I was ruthless with my younger half siblings, who I would only see every now and again. I did not know what empathy was so I would dole out some older sibling punishment like pinching and hitting one of them until they would scream and cry, but because it did not hurt me or perhaps I could not attribute what that pain had felt like, I did not stop but persisted. I even remember saying “It hurts you? Well it doesn’t hurt me.” I would not dream of doing anything like that now because I know better but I also have exponentially more empathy and cognitive awareness than I did back then.
The kids had likely the same issue. Most children have not developed empathy or that higher cognitive functioning that we would call a conscience until a little later on in life. There are children who grow up to never have a conscience because they have reduced connections in the prefrontal cortex; however, that does not mean they cannot fake or convince others they have typical feelings. It is important to note that those who grow up with a lack of a conscience do not always come from an abusive background. I digress: generally we know what is right and wrong, but we still push the limits. Ruth was the authority; thus, there was no conscience in her house. The kids acted like how some kids would probably act, but only if they knew they would not be caught and reprimanded. I suppose what I am trying to get across is that to an extent, kids are little savages, but it only persists through adolescences and adulthood if that behaviour is not corrected, or if there is a neurological issue, which sometimes tends to be the case.
This reminded me of a Shakespeare quote from Hamlet. Although this quote has to do with revenge on Claudius. David gets his own revenge after battling with himself.
“How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge! What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. / Sure he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused. Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th' event -- / A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward -- I do not know / Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do', / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, / To do't.”
Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is an unrelenting, brutal telling of abuse and how it affects the people around us. It is not a happy tale, which will bring you a renewed sense of joy, but rather a tale that will destroy whatever joy you had inside of you. There is much to unpack within this novel. I focused on some psychological and sociological issues that were the most apparent, but nevertheless, there still is much to discuss and unwrap. This is a novel worth reading as it is one that has never left my memory since I read it in 2015, and it will not be leaving me in years to come.
The Girl Next Door available from Overlook Connection Press
Stanford Prison Experiment: http://www.prisonexp.org/
Just World Hypothesis: http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-cognition/just-world-hypothesis/
Bystander Effect: https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/bystander-effect
Sylvia Likens case: https://www.indianapolismonthly.com/features/looking-back-indianas-infamous-crime-50-years-later/