When a school shooting stops the nation in its tracks, and we all watch the coverage in stunned horror, I think first about the victims and their friends and families. Then I try to wrap my mind around the shooters and what could possibly have happened to motivate such a heinous act. Then it is all about the killer’s mother. Not because I assume she is to blame, but because I know she will be blamed more than anyone else, and even more important, because I cannot fathom how she could ever endure the aftermath of such a life-crushing event.
Sue Klebold is the mother of Dyland Klebold. Dylan and his friend Eric Harris were the Columbine killers. In a high school in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, they murdered twelve students and one teacher and hurt twenty-four more, then killed themselves. If the plan unfolded as Dylan and Eric had intended, hundreds more would have perished.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy is Sue Klebold’s answer to everyone who ever wondered what happened in her household. She raised a murderer. How could she not have known what her own son was up to and prevented it?
Sue Klebold takes us along on her devastating journey, starting on the day she learned there had been a shooting at the high school her son attended, and then that he was one of the killers, and then that he, too, was dead by his own hand. She details how her life has unfolded since that day. Then she looks back over Dylan’s life and scrutinizes those memories for signs that Dylan was turning into a homicidal, suicidal monster. She looks even harder for indications of what she and her husband may have done wrong.
Here’s the scariest lesson in the entire book: Sue Klebold and her husband were not awful, neglectful parents. They were attentive and loving. And any signs Dylan may have shown of the depression and despair he was experiencing toward the end of his life were not apparent to the untrained eye. In fact, some trained professionals had missed them.
Sue Klebold describes it this way:
“Sometimes parents tell me they knew their kid was in trouble. They describe…disturbingly antisocial behaviors in elementary school; an angry, violent teenager they grew to fear….That child, whose difficulties surface early and strain his or her whole family for years? That was not my son.”
That’s frightening because it means that some of the kids you least suspect may be far more troubled than you ever realize. It means that you can’t just point to another family and say that’s them over there, and it could never happen in my family.
Sue Klebold lost her son multiple times. She lost him when she first learned he had died at the school but did not yet know how. She lost the child she believed she had raised when she learned that he had participated in the killings. She lost the justifications she was clinging to when she discovered that he was not coerced and had not just snapped, but (with Eric Harris) had carefully planned the massacre in advance. Her image of Dylan was destroyed again when she saw videotapes he and Eric had made of each other’s hateful, angry rants.
In A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue Klebold never excuses her son or in any way minimizes what he did. She has many regrets about her time with Dylan. For example:
“I wish I had acknowledged his feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them, and that I’d never accepted his excuses to avoid conversation…when something felt off. I wish I’d…repeated my concerns when he dismissed them.”
Despite her regrets, she believes that Dylan committed his atrocious acts not because of her parenting but in spite of it. Dylan, she believes, “was loved but he did not feel loved. He was valued but did not feel valuable.”
The narrative that took hold immediately after Columbine, and that still prevails to a significant degree, was very different: Sue and Tom Klebold were monsters who were culpable for their son’s atrocities. As Sue noted, “People thought we should be jailed, hunted like animals, tortured, shot.” But there was kindness and compassion, too. Amidst all the hate mail the Klebolds received were more than 3,600 cards and letters of support.
I found Sue Klebold’s perspective persuasive and not just a lame attempt at self-justification. Others came to the same conclusion. Andrew Solomon, for example, interviewed Sue Klebold in depth and studied the Columbine massacre for his book, Far From the Tree. He also wrote an introduction for Sue Klebold’s book, where he admits he did not want to like the Klebolds, but ended up liking them very much.
Although Sue Klebold knew her parenting was not the explanation for Columbine, that understanding did not spare her from experiencing grief, despair, anxiety, fear, humiliation, and shame every day of her post-Columbine life. She wrote letters of apology to the families of every victim. She is still haunted by their losses, and by the fact that her own son was responsible for them.
Her most important revelation about the killings was that “for Dylan, the desire to die by suicide was where it all began.” For a long time, she had thought about Columbine the same way everyone else had — as a mass murder. It was that, of course, but for Dylan (though probably not for Eric Harris), the desire to die was foremost.
I learned a great deal from Sue Klebold about suicide, mental health (which she calls “brain health”), and school shootings. She spent years interviewing experts, talking to other survivors of suicide losses, and reading books and academic articles. She found her way out of the darkness by becoming an advocate for suicide prevention and brain health. All of her profits from A Mother’s Reckoning are donated to organizations serving those causes.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
Crown, February 2016
Hardcover, 305 pages