“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.
Further, 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.”
“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.
For 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.