A Mother’s Reckoning

A Mother's Reckoning

“The ultimate message of this book is terrifying: you may not know your own children, and, worse yet, your children may be unknowable to you. The stranger you fear may be your own son or daughter.”  from the Introduction, by Andrew Solomon

Imagine being Susan Klebold, the mother of the Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, and writing this about your son:

“Then they went into the library….Dylan fatally shot Kyle Velasquez, who was hiding underneath a computer workstation. The boys reloaded and then began shooting out the window at the rescue workers helping the students outside. Dylan then shot at a table, injuring Daniel Steepleton and Makai Hall….Dylan shot Patrick Ireland as he was helping Makai Hall.

The just-published memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy has already been read by hundreds of thousands of people and is currently on the New York Times Bestseller List. I wasn’t planning on reading it; I remember watching some of the extensive news coverage of the Columbine shootings seventeen years ago and then turning off the TV, horrified. My sons were five and eight years old at the time, and I didn’t want to know the details.

As we all know, Columbine was the first in a series of devastating shootings in the following decades. The Virginia Tech shooter and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter possessed Columbine-related materials and drew inspiration from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. An ABC News investigation quoted in Sue Klebold’s memoir found “at least 17 attacks and another 36 alleged plots or serious threats agains schools…can be tied to the 1999 massacre.”

I thought I’d had enough of the Columbine story for one lifetime. But after I listened to an interview with Sue Klebold on “Fresh Air,” I wanted to know more, because Klebold is saying some important things about certain kinds of mental illness that I’ve never heard before.

Far From the TreeFurther, I was impressed when I saw there was an introduction to her memoir by Andrew Solomon, one of our finest nonfiction writers, who won the National Book Award for The Noonday Demon, about depression, and who also authored Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, a book that’s been on my to-read shelf for a while. (It’s 700 pages, not including the references.) Solomon interviewed the Klebolds for a section in Far from the Tree about children who commit crimes.

I read A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy in one long sitting. I stayed up until 4 am because I couldn’t put the book down and because I wanted to get reading this nightmare of a story over and done with.

Really, I don’t know how Sue Klebold managed to write it or how she has found the strength to go on. I think she’s been driven by a super-human determination to give her life purpose and meaning in the aftermath of the tragedy and to make whatever amends she can.

Sue Klebold has immersed herself in research on suicide and violence to try and understand her son.  She is a frequent speaker at mental health venues such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; she wrote her memoir to share what she has learned in hopes of helping others recognize when someone is in serious trouble.

Sue worked with writer Laura Tucker to fashion a cohesive and compelling narrative from the hundreds of pages contained in her journals. She wondered how to tell her story effectively when everyone knew the ending, but that quandary proved key to the memoir’s structure.

The book is two parts: Part 1: The Last People on Earth, highlights in Sue Klebold’s limited point of view Dylan’s childhood, their family life and, in excruciating detail, how blindsided she and her family were by the events of April 20,1999.

Sue calls Part 2: Toward Understanding “the end of denial.” She describes unflinchingly the Littleton sheriff department’s presentation of evidence to her and her husband: Dylan’s journal writings that reveal his secret torment, a reconstruction of his role in the shootings, the infamous “Basement Tapes” that he and Eric Harris made, and other searing evidence that Dylan had become, in Sue’s words, an unrecognizable “monster.” I don’t know which to me was more horrifying–her description of the events as they unfolded on April 20 and in the days after, or her account of the damning evidence they learned of six months later.

Here is more of the terrible sequence of events, continued from the quote above:

“Underneath another set of tables, Dylan found Isaiah Sheols, Matthew Kechter, and Craig Scott, Rachel Scott’s younger brother. Dylan hurled racial epithets at Isaiah before Eric shot and killed him. Dylan then shot and killed Matthew Kechter…”

The second half of Part 2 chronicles Sue’s immersion in research literature and the knowledge she gleaned by interviewing experts on mental illness, suicide, and homicide. From these she pieced together glimmerings of what may have caused Dylan to take such a tragic turn.

After reading the memoir, I’m convinced the Klebolds were loving, attentive parents who didn’t realize their son had undergone a devastating deterioration in mental health that probably began a few years before the shootings.  I’ll try to summarize the theories behind Dylan’s behavior below, but it will be an over-simplification. If you want a fuller, more accurate and nuanced picture, I encourage you to read the memoir.

Sue only began to approach an understanding of her son when mental health professionals she consulted suggested that Dylan could be viewed primarily through the lens of someone who wanted very much to die. Like others who commit suicide, his mental suffering had become so uncontrollable and intolerable, he saw death as the only way out. He was in the small subset of people with suicidal tendencies who commit murder-suicide.

Alternatively, it has been posited that Eric Harris had a very different profile – that of a psychopath, without conscience, whose primary intention was to kill. As one psychiatrist put it, Eric wanted to kill people and he didn’t care if he died; Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died in the process.

It’s been suggested by those who have studied Columbine that Eric and Dylan had a deadly symbiotic relationship: Eric needed a co-conspirator whom he could dominate to fuel and help him carry out his homicidal visions; Dylan needed Eric’s energy and drive to help him carry out the act of suicide.

In the months and years after Columbine, Sue Klebold understandably had periods of severe anxiety and extreme panic attacks that she could not control. For a time, she hid her condition. Sue realized that she had lost control of her own mind and couldn’t regain some semblance of normalcy without medication. She writes that this has given her insight into what she believes was Dylan’s devastating brain disease. Eventually he, too, lost his mind; it had become so impaired and his thinking became so distorted, he was unable to make rational decisions and was led instead to make tragic and monstrous ones.

My own feeling, although this is not stated in the memoir, is that the keeping of secrets and covering up of the ravaging symptoms of mental illness, or brain disease as Sue Klebold calls it, can be an inseparable part of the disease itself. The person doesn’t seek help, may have no insight that he/she does need help, and can sometimes successfully hide their dark side even from family and close friends.

It’s because of these nuggets of wisdom that I believe Sue Klebold’s memoir is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of mental illness and a much-needed call to action. Sue writes:

“We teach our kids the importance of good dental care, proper nutrition, and financial responsibility. How many of us teach our children to monitor their own brain health, or know how to do it ourselves?”

“…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity.”

And this:

“I think often of watching Dylan do origami….he’d only have to see a complicated pattern once to be able to duplicate it…..

Origami is not magic. Even the most complex pattern is knowable, something that can be mapped and understood. So it is, too, with brain illness and violence, and this mapping is the work we must now do. Depression and other types of brain disorders do not strip someone of a moral compass, and yet these are potentially life-threatening diseases that can impair judgment and distort a person’s sense of reality. We must turn our attention to researching and raising awareness about these diseases – and to dispelling the myths and raising awareness about these diseases – and to dispelling the myths that prevent us from helping those who most need it. We must do so, not only for the sake of the afflicted, but also for the innocents who will continue to register as their casualties if we do not.”    (The boldface type is mine.)

Since Columbine, Sue Klebold and her husband have received an outpouring of support but, of course, vilification and death threats as well. There has been bankruptcy from lawsuits and legal defense. Sue and Tom Klebold divorced recently, although they remain friends and close in their support of their remaining son, Byron.

I found it heartbreaking that Sue repeats the same sentiment over and over in different words throughout the memoir, as if she can never apologize enough or alleviate her shame and guilt:

“A day does not pass that I do not feel a sense of overwhelming guilt – both for the myriad ways I failed Dylan and for the destruction he left in his wake….” 

She goes on to say:

“The loss of the people Dylan killed, ultimately, is unquantifiable…..I wish I had known what Dylan was planning. I wish that I had stopped him. I wish I’d had the opportunity to trade my own life for those who were lost. But a thousand passionate wishes aside, I know I can’t go back. I do try to conduct my life so it will honor those whose lives were shattered or taken by my son. The work I do is in their memory. I work, too, to hold on to the love I still have for Dylan, who will always remain my child despite the horrors he perpetrated.”

Of course, Sue’s memoir haunts me because I grew up baffled by a mother who had schizophrenia, a serious mental illness. I wondered if I should have children, and after I did, I obsessed every time they had a temper tantrum or acted out in the ways growing boys do. Was it a sign of incipient mental illness?

(I’m happy to say that as adults they are more informed about mental illness than many people, and they have great compassion towards those who suffer from mental illness, including their grandmother. They’ve never given me any flak over my obsessing, either.)

I also know how isolated and stigmatized people with serious mental illness and their families can be, and I’ve experienced firsthand the dearth of effective and compassionate mental health treatments and services.

To those who might cast blame on the Klebolds, I would suggest that, many mass shootings and almost two decades later, perhaps we as a society have some collective denial and mental health issues of our own.

Sue Klebold will donate all author profits from A Mother’s Reckoning to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health.

We've Got IssuesFor further reading, We’ve Got Issues: Children & Parents in the Age of Medication by Judith Miller is a stirring and well-researched investigation into the appalling lack of quality care for children with mental illness in the United States and the isolation, stigma and blame their parents face.

16 responses

  1. It’s highly doubtful that Eric Harris was a psychopath.There are so many problems with that diagnosis.This idea has mainly been spread by Dave Cullen, whose book is questionable at best. It’s not a surprise that Sue Klebold would give some credence to his work since he makes her son out to be a much more sympathetic person that Harris.Check out the links below for a debunking of the psychopath theory and Cullen’s work by researchers who have studied Columbine for years.Thank you.

    http://columbinemassacre.forumotion.com/search?mode=searchbox&search_keywords=cullen&show_results=topics

  2. I didn’t know about this book. I appreciate your review very much, though I don’t think I h ave the heart to read this book myself. As a society we still have trouble accepting mental illness as “real”, it is so much easier to regard it as weakness or evil. Add to this the dismantling of mental health services by many states, and you have a recipe for many disasters – disasters that are on-going, and yet always fail to provoke a rational response among policy makers. As for the author, the only thing she is really guilty of is a modest degree of denial, and denial is something which can be found in plentiful supply in many, many homes.

    • Hi, Jason. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I like so much what you say about her modest amount of denial. Yes, mental health services do not seem to be getting any better and, in many places, deteriorating – along with so many other basic and vital services. It certainly gets discouraging.

  3. How heartbreaking that whole thing was, children seeking out and killing other children. I’ve often wondered how the parents of the perpetrators survived that, how you could live with the knowledge that your child committed those crimes. So I really appreciate your writing this review, and I’m tempted to read the book, although I really don’t want to. Still I have tremendous admiration for this woman who had the heart and courage to write her story, and try to help others in the doing.

  4. Thank you for writing about this, Valorie. I am going to grab this book as soon as it is made available in India. I want to share a story with you about identifying mental illness. I will e-mail it to you right away.

  5. This is a tough subject, and the memoir must have been hard to read. Just reading your review and the quotes you provided was hard. But, I imagine that mother wants to do everything she can to try to make amends for what her son did and for her guilt of not being able to stop it. She’s brave for putting herself out there and talking about it, rather than hiding away somewhere, which seems like the easier route.
    A few years ago I read The Hour I First Believed by Wally lamb, which is his novel based on the Columbine shootings. It was a tough one to get through..
    It’s so true that society is failing our youth with mental illness. My brother suffers from ADHD and a myriad of other difficulties that come along with it, such as depression and ODD. At one point he was getting into a lot of trouble, but the wait to see a psychiatrist for help was months and months. He didn’t make it that long, and ended up getting into some big trouble and had to go to jail for a year. The other part of his sentence was to see a psychiatrist, then a have regular sessions with a therapist. So we learned that the quickest and easiest way to get the help you need is to get into trouble first. then they’ll get you help. Nevermind trying to help kids to prevent them getting into trouble in the first place.
    Sorry about the long comment, but I just had to add my two cents worth about the lack of timely mental health care for children and youth.

    • Hi, Naomi. I read Wally Lamb’s book, and although I loved I Know This Much is True, about schizophrenia, The Hour I First Believed was so difficult to read and it never let up. It was a good book, but one I don’t think I’d return to. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. I am not familiar with the mental health and criminal justice systems in Canada. Somehow, I thought it would be better there than here in the US, because we certainly have a long way to go. It seems when it comes to mental health a lot of countries need to make some changes, badly. I just think it would be easier all the way around if we had mental health (brain health as Sue Klebold would say) screenings as a regular part of primary care check-ups, and the wherewithal to treat problems as they arise in youth. The same with adults, I think these screenings should be a regular part of primary care. Well, anyway, thanks for sharing about your brother, I know it certainly must not be easy to talk about and it must be very frustrating that he doesn’t get the care he needs.

      • It’s especially hard to see young people being put off. Our society really can’t afford to do it, for one thing, but it also makes it a lot harder for those kids to get out of this criminal/violent/depressive cycle they’re in the longer it goes on.
        I love the idea of making it a routine screening along with everything else! That would also helps to de-stigmatize it.

  6. Wonderful review Valorie, a tough read and such a huge challenge for this mother, what a great credit that she is giving back in the form of trying to understand and share how these things might happen, it is so difficult for parents, when so much of the learning comes with hindsight. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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