Losing one’s child to death, in any form, must be an unimaginable grief. But to discover at the same time that your beloved child killed and inflicted terrible suffering on others must be exponentially beyond even this. You grieve not only the memory of your child, but your idea of who they were and how close you were to them. That is the agony that Sue Klebold faced beginning April 20, 1999 when her son Dylan was one of the two shooters at the Columbine High School.
Having kept public silence for legal reasons, apart from a column in Oprah magazine in 2009, Sue’s book “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy” is her response to the many angry letters and editorials questioning her parenting, questioning how she could have missed the signs, condemning her and her son as monstrous.
When the perpetrator in a dreadful crime like a mass shooting takes their own life (as they often do), people are left to try to piece together why it happened. They also may seek a target to be the subject of the grief, rage, fear and hatred stirred up in them by the brutality of the shootings. When someone put up 15 crosses for the lives lost at Columbine, people took down the crosses for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, dividing off the two young men as not worthy of love, compassion or recognition because of what they had done at the end of their lives.
Brene Brown speaks of the blame game, in which blaming becomes a way to discharge built-up anger and fear. It was actually disturbing for me to read about the extent (even though Sue did not dwell on it for long) to which people bought into judgment, hate and blame towards the Klebold and Harris families, and lawyers in Colorado launched volleys of lawsuits to an extent that would be unknown in the Canadian justice system.
What Sue Klebold shows, through her raw and open sharing of a simple suburban life rearing a young man who seemed for most of his life like a “golden boy”, is that the impulse to separate ourselves from some horrible thing that happened is ultimately futile. We want to believe that it would not happen to us, that we would know if our children or our students had become dangers to themselves or others, that we would be able to prevent tragedies. We want to draw lines separating ourselves from “those” people “over there” in order to preserve a sense of safety and order in our world. Sue Klebold experienced first hand the reality that kicked all these safe assumptions out from under her like a chair. Having slowly pieced together the picture afterwards, she shows how very subtle the signs were that something was wrong, how easily any of us could have confused them with typical teenage moodiness, and how hard she had worked to love and instruct her son.
She also shows that Dylan was so much more than the hateful shooter caught on closed-circuit cameras at Columbine. He was kind, thoughtful, had friends, loved and was loved. His mental state had deteriorated horribly and it wasn’t caught, he was bullied, and he was with someone who was also dangerously unwell and the two of them accelerated each other’s downward spiral. But the mental deterioration, even the horrific shootings, weren’t who he was. We do ourselves and him a disservice by saying he was irredeemably evil or that his life had no value.
Sue herself spent years in anguish after Columbine, wanting to die from shame and grief. She was unsurprised when she developed breast cancer. But at one point in the treatment, she realized she had to move forward. That’s when she started to get involved in suicide prevention.
Sue is ruthlessly open about her own feelings and failings in the hopes of making clear what might possibly have been done to prevent Columbine and prevent other similar tragedies in future. Having become a mental health advocate, she has dedicated all proceeds from A Mother’s Reckoning to organizations working on brain health and suicide prevention.
To me, the number one take-away from the book is that dividing and blaming does not work. We are all in this together, the shooter, the shot, the bereaved, the bystanders. The only sane way forward is presence and compassion, and learning from the unfathomably bitter experience of those who have been there.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and the Communications Manager forKupid’s Play Records. In addition, she is the editor for Parvati’s forthcoming book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”.