I can’t stop thinking about Kylo Ren.
There’s no way to explain this without the nitty-gritty details, so if you’re still avoiding The Force Awakens spoilers (I know, you’re a parent, getting out of the house is hard!), you might want to stop here. But even if you never intend to see it and you hate Star Wars and you just wish the hype would die already–you, on the other hand, can keep reading. You should keep reading. Because this post (like my last Star Wars post) isn’t actually about Star Wars. Not really. It’s about what it means to be bad, and what it’s like to wonder if your child could ever fall to the Dark Side. Star Wars, like all good stories, is a metaphor for real life.
Kylo Ren is our new villain, reminiscent of an old villain, but, in the eyes of a few annoyed fans on the Internet, so much wussier. Weaker. He’s not cool and collected as he lays down the punishments. He’s insecure. He throws temper tantrums. He’s trying so hard to be Darth Vader and is just coming across as the wannabe he is. I’d seen a few tweets from Emo Kylo Ren before I saw the movie and just laughed, watching, at how accurately this parody account about a moody teenager had captured the character onscreen.
But that doesn’t make Kylo Ren any less of a villain. I would argue that it actually makes him scarier.
Kylo Ren is, literally, a galaxy-far-far-away’s equivalent of a school shooter. The kid feels ignored, abandoned, misunderstood. He falls in with some bad influences, embraces some extreme ideologies that reflect his frustrations, and suddenly he stages a dramatic massacre of all his classmates. The only difference is that, on our planet, these kids usually end up killed or taken into custody by the end of the incident. But this kid is free, and now even in a position of power, to continue committing atrocities. And he’s somehow not enough of a villain?
Now imagine he’s your kid.
No, you say. Your kid could never be a villain. You’re a good person!
But so are Han and Leia!
Maybe that’s what makes it really hit home. We know these two as the heroes they are. How could their son go bad? Well, I can see him feeling neglected by his parents. Leia was surely super busy leading the Rebellion and then the Resistance, and we all know Han isn’t exactly good at expressing affection verbally. No, they didn’t actually neglect him. I’m positive they loved him hugely in their own ways and did everything they could for him. But that’s no guarantee a sensitive kid (and Ben certainly was sensitive in more ways than most) isn’t going to hit a nobody-understands-me phase round about puberty. Even I hit that phase even earlier than that, and my parents are–and I say this objectively–two of the kindest, most considerate people you will ever meet. It’s not their fault. What else could they have done?
My point is, these kids are everywhere: sensitive, misunderstood, self-conscious, feeling powerless and so latching on to any sort of power they can wield. The vast majority of us (yes, I’m guessing many of you went through that phase, too) turn out fine, or at least managing our various mental-emotional disorders well enough to be productive citizens (and even when we’re not managing them so well, we’re still not villains). But a few find power in unsavory places. They become online trolls, bullies, date rapists, abusers, and they feel justified because they’d been hurt before, too. And a few of these take an even darker path, and society still can’t agree on why. We blame video games, gun culture, lax parenting, abusive parenting, the public schools, music… anything. Things all sorts of good people have experienced without going bad. We need a reason. We need something to blame. We can’t bear to think it’s out of our control.
So even though I laughed at the stormtroopers’ reactions to Kylo Ren’s tantrums, I felt a twist in my gut. I recognized those tantrums. I’ve witnessed tantrums just like them (minus the lightsaber) in my own home. My son is young yet, but he has a genuine issue with temper that we’re still working out: it could be an impulsive offshoot of ADHD, a mild spectrum disorder, a mood disorder, or something else completely. Most of the time, my son is a sweetheart, a quiet, thoughtful little nerd with a slight stutter. Then some little thing goes wrong and he snaps, and furniture is overturned and people are kicked. And I genuinely fear that, some day, in one of these outbursts, someone is going to get hurt. I used to compare him to Bruce Banner (you won’t like him when he’s angry), and the truth is that’s still a more accurate comparison. Nobody would claim Kylo Ren is a “sweetheart” when he’s calm. But what was he like as a little boy, before he encountered Snoke, before he’d grown to hate the universe, when he was just a kid named Ben?
My heart aches for Leia, mother to mother. Granted, she’s had more to grieve about than most people over the course of her life (not many can say they’ve had to watch their whole home planet get blown up), but it’s the Ben issue that gets me. And I know they’re fictional characters, but they put faces, personalities on the far-too-many real people who have seen their children turn to the Dark Side. I don’t know any mothers of serial killers in real life, but I know Leia: this brave, determined, crusading woman we’ve all looked up to for the past four decades. It brings the tragedy to life in a frighteningly personal way.
And it frightens me, because if Leia couldn’t keep her child on the right path, what hope do I have? What if my son’s explosions turn into something worse? Staging a massacre, probably not, as research suggests those involve more simmering preparation than sudden explosion. But I don’t want my son to grow up to be abusive, either. I don’t want him going bad at all. I do my best to instill empathy and morals but what if it’s not enough?
But chances are just trying will be enough. And in the end, that’s all we can do.