On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a murderous rampage in their school, killing classmates and a teacher before shooting themselves. The two boys had planned to cause far more destruction than the 15 dead and 24 injured the massacre ended with. Harris, now widely acknowledged to have been a classic psychopath, had built bombs and intended to blow up the school. (The bombs failed.) He and Klebold, who was suicidally depressed, were hiding in plain sight: they had planned the event for the better part of a year, writing in journals, making maps, and filming themselves. They acquired guns illegally while completing a diversion program for a theft they had committed; they expertly lied to friends, parents, and therapists. A media frenzy followed, but once the smoke cleared, knowledge of what happened at Columbine changed the cultural landscape, affecting everything from active-shooter protocols to anti-bullying efforts. With violence taking a daily toll, though, one could easily say things haven’t changed enough.
But with all the attention school shootings, in particular, garner—in contrast to tens of thousands of less-remarked-upon suicides and gun deaths every year—and many eye-opening books, one might wonder: what else can we learn? And with popular culture eager to glorify and blame mothers for every imaginable sin, from pre-conception onward, what light can be shed by Sue Klebold, Dylan Klebold’s mother, who did all the right things but ended up with suffering beyond our worst nightmares?
She could have taken advantage of her family’s situation to grandstand or seek pity, but instead she offers insights mental health advocates and professionals will do well to heed. In the years since Columbine, she’s become a suicide prevention advocate, but she resisted going public about her son’s story; she was in so much pain. Her writing is honest and existentially probing: she interrogates the limits of her emotions, while remaining highly ethical in her representations of traumatizing material. While she acknowledges the conscious actions of the two killers and many precipitating factors, she’s not interested in blame; rather, her work is that of a tireless advocate seeking to raise awareness. All of the author’s profits will go to mental health charities.
Sue Klebold is painfully aware of the fact that, for victims of Columbine, awareness comes too late: she writes in the preface, “I would give my life to reverse what happened that day. In fact, I would gladly give my own in exchange for just one of the lives that was lost. Yet I know that such a trade is impossible. Nothing I will ever be able to do or say can possibly atone for the massacre.”
A Mother’s Reckoning is a personal account of the immediate and longer-term aftermath of Columbine that interweaves journal entries and interior thoughts with well-researched reflections on everything from video games and media coverage to the relationship between suicidality and murder-suicide. The book provides an antidote to the simplifications that dominate media coverage of violence and to sentimental understandings of parenthood.
At the heart of this excruciatingly necessary memoir beats a profound truth: even in, or especially in, our most intimate relationships—parent to child, spouse to spouse—we can’t completely know each other. Andrew Solomon, who wrote the introduction, makes a similar argument in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity—that children are not clones of their parents. Solomon and Sue Klebold don’t, of course, mean to say diligent parenting is unimportant. But there are dark rooms in human nature to which no one has the key.
As I read this book, I wrestled with internal resistance to this message. I found myself repeating, They had to have known!, as many outraged parents have. As I read, though, I began to understand my resistance as a reflection of how greatly the mind craves order, and how much we reflexively believe parents have some essential knowledge of kids. Klebold’s memoir forces a re-evaluation of the idea that mothers, in particular, should be held responsible for all manner of ills in their children. But a crucial corollary to Klebold’s recognition of her own incomplete knowledge is her determination to try to find a way to understand what went wrong. She discovers there were signs of Dylan’s depression that she and her husband just didn’t know were red flags. Tempting as it might be, she doesn’t shift blame to the police, who had clearer warnings about Harris.
The book begins by recalling the chaos that engulfed this mother the morning of the shooting. Prompted by a call from her husband, knowing only there was a “gunman” and Dylan might be involved, Klebold tried to convince herself, “I was going to walk into our kitchen to find Dylan raiding our fridge, ready to tease me for overreacting.” Her mind unspooled, as if in the slow motion of an accident. She careened from thoughts of Dylan committing some “dumb practical joke,” to the sight of a SWAT team searching their home. The new reality becomes shockingly discrepant interposed with memories of Dylan as a gifted, if introverted, child who did origami and building blocks and was quick to make friends. As a teenager, he had a job at a pizzeria, loved bowling, and went to the prom days before the massacre. Ironies abound: Sue Klebold was one of those mothers who called ahead to ask what movie would be shown at a sleepover, and to request a less violent one if necessary: “I’d been an ‘everybody sits down for family dinner’ kind of parent, an ‘I want to meet your friends and their parents before you spend the night at their house’ kind of a parent. What good had it done?” Questions like this express much grief—grief for a son and also for the comforting knowledge Klebold thought she had about her family.
Information came out not at all or unreliably: it wasn’t until October that the Klebolds were shown the Basement Tapes—film Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had made of themselves devising the rampage—and confronted the calculated nature of the killings and the extent of their son’s rage. Not surprisingly, Sue Klebold developed severe anxiety and symptoms of PTSD. At first, Klebold couldn’t join a suicide survivors support group for fear other members would be subpoenaed. At the same time, many understood, and Klebold became privy to an outpouring of hidden traumas: in a letter, a friend confessed that she had been bullied and raped in high school. She writes that this letter “validated for us how a child’s personal devastation could go undetected by the most watchful parents, teachers, and peers if they chose to keep it concealed.” The book walks a fine line between acknowledging the secrecy of children and pressing the ultimately more hopeful lesson that, if we are aware, there are almost always signs.
As painful as it is to revisit Columbine, this book is a crucial part of a conversation we must have. Whether we prevent the next mass event or one of the “quieter, slow-burning tragedies playing out every day in the family lives of our co-workers, friends, and loved ones,” this is a journey we need to take collectively, and Klebold is one of our wisest guides.