A MOTHER’S RECKONING: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold. Crown. 305 pp. $28.
Five days after the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, and just hours after they cremated the remains of their son Dylan — cremation was the only option, really, because a gravesite would certainly be vandalized — Sue and Tom Klebold returned to their Colorado home. It had been a crime scene for several days, but now the detectives were gone, the media vigil over. A single lamp that Tom had left on still burned in the front window. Using sheets, thumbtacks and masking tape, they went from room to room, blocking any windows or sightlines into the house. “Only when we were sealed in this patchwork cocoon,” Sue Klebold writes, “did we finally turn on another light at the very back of the house.”
When your 17-year-old son has just perpetrated what was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, killing 12 students and one teacher and wounding 24 others before he and classmate Eric Harris turned their weapons on themselves, you’re not eager for prying eyes. The Klebolds tried to block out a world that had already found them guilty.
With “A Mother’s Reckoning,” Sue Klebold is taking those sheets down. Reading this book as a critic is hard; reading it as a parent is devastating. I imagine snippets of my own young children in Dylan Klebold, shades of my parenting in Sue and Tom. I suspect that many families will find their own parallels. This book’s insights are painful and necessary, and its contradictions inevitable. It is an apology to the loved ones of the victims; an account of the Klebold family’s life in the days and months following the shooting; a catalog of warning signs missed. Most of all, it is a mother’s love letter to her son, for whom she mourned no less deeply than did the parents of the children he killed. “To the rest of the world, Dylan was a monster; but I had lost my child.”
That child, born on Sept. 11 and named for a poet who raged against the dying of the light, was a good kid, Sue explains. “He was easy to raise, a pleasure to be with, a child who had always made us proud.” Dylan loved Legos and origami, was in a middle-school gifted program and worked sound equipment for school plays. They called him their Sunshine Boy. It was their older son, Byron, who gave them headaches.
Sue scours Dylan’s childhood for warnings. Dylan was unforgiving of himself when he failed at anything, “and his humiliation sometimes turned to anger,” she recalls. When he didn’t make the high school baseball team, he retreated into computers. And as some of Dylan’s buddies found girlfriends, he drifted into a closer friendship with Eric Harris, whose sadism would play off Dylan’s depression.
“A Mother’s Reckoning” features searing scenes: when Sue, upon learning that Dylan was involved in the shooting, finds herself praying for his death, “the greatest mercy” she could imagine. When she and Tom and Byron reassure each other that they won’t commit suicide. When the three hold hands at the funeral home, and together they grasp Dylan’s cold fingers. (“We were finally by his side, a family again.”) When, less than two months after the shooting, the family is allowed to visit the school library, where many of the kids had died. Sue recognized her son’s lanky shape marked on the floor. “My tears splashed the floor,” she writes. “ . . . I knelt beside the shape resembling my son and touched the carpet that held him when he fell.”
She understands why people blame her. “HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW??!” read one of thousands of letters. How could she not realize that their son was stockpiling weapons? How could she not glimpse the violence within him? Did she not love him? Didn’t Sue ever hug him?
Sue knows she will always be seen as “the woman who raised a murderer,” but she insists that she and Tom were loving, engaged parents. Though they recognized that Dylan had problems, “we simply — and drastically and lethally — underestimated the depth and severity of his pain and everything he was capable of doing to make it stop.”
Trouble escalated during Dylan’s junior year. He was suspended for lifting locker combinations from the school’s computer system; he quit his job at a pizza place; he endured bullying. He became irritable, unmotivated. Most serious, Dylan and Eric were arrested for stealing electronic equipment from a parked van. “I practically threw up when I saw Dylan paraded past me in handcuffs,” Sue recalls. The boys entered a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders, involving counseling and community service. For a while, the mothers agreed to keep them apart.
In his senior year, Sue writes, Dylan seemed to improve. He got a job, applied to college and was released early from the diversion program. “Dylan is a bright young man who has a great deal of potential,” the counselor wrote, three months before the massacre.
Six months after the Columbine shooting, authorities showed the Klebolds videos that Eric and Dylan had made — the notorious “Basement Tapes” — in which both spoke in violent and racist terms, drinking alcohol and brandishing weapons. They also received Dylan’s journals, drawn from school notebooks and scraps of paper, revealing his despair. “Thinking of suicide gives me hope that i’ll be in my place wherever i go after this life — that ill finally not be at war w. myself, the world, the universe — my mind, body, everywhere, everything at PEACE — me — my soul (existence),” he wrote. And later: “oooh god i want to die sooo bad . . . such a sad desolate lonely unsalvageable I feel I am . . . not fair, NOT FAIR!!!”
Sue repeatedly asserts that Dylan was responsible for his actions, but she highlights multiple factors enabling his descent. “We cannot dedicate ourselves to preventing violence if we do not take into account the role depression and brain dysfunction can play in the decision to commit it,” she writes. There is also Dylan’s co-conspirator. “For years after the attack, I resisted blaming Eric for Dylan’s participation,” Sue writes. “Given what I have learned about psychopathy, I now feel differently. I find the violence and hatred seething off the page in Eric’s journals almost unreadably dark.” Or as Andrew Solomon, author of “The Noonday Demon,” suggests in the book’s introduction: “Eric was a failed Hitler; Dylan was a failed Holden Caulfield.”
Sue also blames herself, in part. “Dylan did not learn violence in our home,” she stresses. Her fault was not amorality or indifference, she says, but ignorance. “Dylan did show outward signals of depression,” Sue writes. “ . . . If we had known enough to understand what those signs meant, I believe that we would have been able to prevent Columbine.”
Some signals flash so bright they seem hard to miss. During Dylan’s senior year, his English teacher told Sue and Tom that one of his papers was disturbing. They asked Dylan about it, but didn’t follow up. A year after his death, they read it: It was about a man dressed in black who kills the popular kids in school. Even now, Sue isn’t sure how she would have reacted: “I cannot help but wonder if, as an artist myself, I would have seen it as a danger sign if I had read it before his death. Artistic expression, even when it’s unpleasant, can be a healthy way of coping with feelings.”
Stories of victims are prevalent in our reckoning with mass shootings. They carry greater moral force, or less moral ambiguity, than those of perpetrators. But Sue Klebold is both the mother of a killer and of one of his victims, too. “Coming to understand Dylan’s death as a suicide opened the door to a new way of thinking for me about everything he had done,” she says. “Whatever else he had intended, Dylan had gone to the school to die.”
The author has remade herself as a suicide-prevention activist, and the book seeks to help families recognize red flags. “How does a concerned parent parse out the difference between garden-variety adolescent behavior . . . from real indicators of depression?” she asks. Look for shifting moods and sleep patterns; know that depression in teens may appear less as sadness than anger; implement mental health screenings in schools.
But beyond her recommendations, this book is littered with regret. “I wish I had listened more instead of lecturing; I wish I had sat in silence with him instead of filling the void with my own words and thoughts,” Sue writes. “I wish I had acknowledged his feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them.”
It’s not that she didn’t love him. “I loved him while I was holding his pudgy hand on our way to get frozen yogurt after kindergarten;” she writes, “while reading Dr. Seuss’ exuberant “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket!” to him for the thousandth time. . . . I loved him while we were sharing a bowl of popcorn and watching “Flight of the Phoenix” together, a month before he died.”
It’s that love wasn’t enough.