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.

The Collapse of Western Civilization (in 50 pages)

WesternCivilization“The year 2009 is viewed as ‘the last best chance’ the Western world had to save itself…”

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a disturbing 50-page work of fiction that reads with the authority of nonfiction.

In the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393, a scholar writes an account the Great Collapse of 2093, brought about by failure to take action on climate change.

Pair it with CCR’s Bad Moon Rising; you can read it in an hour or two.

The book came about when co-author Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and historian who teaches at Harvard, reviewed the scholarly literature on climate change to see if indeed there was a lack of consensus among scientists, as is often claimed.

After looking at 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, she concluded that in fact scientists do agree that a high concentration of greenhouse gas is causing climate change.

When Oreskes published her findings in Science, she was championed by the likes of Al Gore. At the same time, to her astonishment, she began receiving hate mail. As she said in an interview, articles published in the scholarly literature are typically ignored by the public.

She and coauthor Eric Conway hoped a work of fiction that remained true to the facts of science might change opinions. Conway is a fan of science fiction and has been especially influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogies about Mars and climate change.

It’s unsettling to read about ideas and ways of life that we take for granted portrayed as extreme short-sightedness, self-delusion, and magical thinking.  The Collapse of Western Civilization will give you a jolt. It’s a quick, page-turning read to put you in a receptive frame of mind when the UN/Paris Climate Change Conference begins on November 30.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering. Suffice it to say that total losses – social, cultural, economic, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history. Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

“At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.”

“…survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”

Commonly used terms that we don’t question are cast as old-fashioned and obsolete in the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book:

“capitalism: ….One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself.”

“invisible hand: A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand….formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism.”

“Period of the Penumbra: the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Coming Back to Life book coverFor an antidote to all the doom, read Joanna Macy‘s books, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. See also her short film, Joanna Macy and The Great Turning, about civilization’s shift from industrial growth to sustainability.

Have you read any good books about climate change? Are you planning to follow upcoming events related to the UN Conference on Climate Change? Are there local activities planned for your area?

Read Go Set a Watchman with me

Go Set a Watchman coverBarnes & Noble in Rochester opens at 7 am tomorrow for the release of the story Harper Lee originally tried to tell. I expect, wherever you live, your local bookstore will have plenty of copies of Go Set a Watchman on hand.

Maybe we weren’t ready for the book in 1960.

Lee’s editor set aside Go Set a Watchman and worked with Harper for 2 years as she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, the book we grew up with.

I’ll be talking about Go Set a Watchman here and on my FB fan page.  I would love for you to join in the discussion. But be prepared to be shocked by a very different Atticus Finch. If you like your memories about To Kill a Mockingbird just the way they are, then this book probably isn’t for you.

Please share this post with your friends so we can get a good discussion going on Books Can Save a Life.  I’ll be kicking off comments at the end of July, so go buy or borrow your copy of Go Set a Watchman now and get reading!

Bad Feminist? Good Feminist? Anti-Feminist?

Bad Feminist book cover“You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”  Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Where do I begin? It’s hard to know because Roxane Gay covers so much ground in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is unmistakable: hilarious, informed, opinionated, eloquent, vulnerable.

What a great read for a book club, especially if your club is diverse in terms of race, gender, political persuasion, and economic status. (Or are book clubs of such diversity scarce?) Oh, the discussions you’ll have.

Roxane Gay is a black woman, a feminist (a darn good one), a Ph.D and professor, a single woman of a certain weight, a liberal, a fan of reality TV and rap music, a best-selling novelist and author. She’s tired, because she does all these things – Roxane admits as much, but as one of those driven people she says she can’t stop.

She writes about all of this and more in her essays. Occasionally she leans toward the shrill, but mostly not – Roxane is very good at getting you to think while entertaining you at the same time. For certain, you won’t always agree with her, but you’ll have plenty to mull over.

Her writing is so, so timely in light of the discussions we’re having in this country about race. Roxane recounts movingly what it’s like to be the only female black professor in her academic department. She dissects her reactions to movies such as The Help and other depictions of race and racism in entertainment, discussions I found nuanced and enlightening, and sometimes difficult to take as I recognized myself in some of the attitudes she highlights.

I had chosen not to see The Help when it was released a few years ago, because I’d read an opinion piece by a black woman who said all the women in the movie who are racist are nasty, while all the women who are not racist are likable–when in fact it had been her experience that many people who were racist were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Roxane highlights these and other kinds of stereotypical and overly-simplistic portrayals in a number of popular TV shows and movies.

As for feminism, Roxane writes honestly about personal trauma that in part has shaped her views. (I won’t go into that here, to avoid spoilers.) She addresses the sad state of affairs for women in the US, where women of reproductive age are finding it harder to obtain contraception, where politicians make outrageous statements about rape and other matters they don’t seem to understand. (Such as the infamous, women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a lot of flak for criticizing feminism.  Yet look at what is happening in the tech world, with apparent widespread discrimination against women who are coming up in their careers. One would think things would be better for younger women but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I have to admit that at one time I would not have considered myself a feminist, though not anymore, especially given that I’m startled by how much ground women have lost in this country. Being of a certain age, I’ve come to respect much more than I did what the first and second wave feminists accomplished for all of us. I’ve been concerned, too, when I’ve not heard more of an outcry from younger women over recent trends. So it’s a relief to read Roxane Gay’s take on all this.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from her essays:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

And,

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

And,

“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Did I say I think you should read Bad Feminist?

Have you read Bad Feminist? What did you think?

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

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