A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
By Sue Klebold
305 pages, $28
By Barbara Sullivan
The reality hit home for Sue Klebold on the night her 17-year-old son was cremated.
Four days earlier, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, dressed in black trench coats, had carried duffel bags full of pipe bombs and rifles into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and opened fire, killing 12 students and one teacher and injuring 24 others before turning the weapons on themselves.
The massacre – the worst school shooting that the country had, at that point, ever seen – became a watershed event for America. In the 16-plus years since the attack, the word “Columbine” has become shorthand for murder-suicides like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, and others that have become too numerous to mention.
It was, it should come as no surprise, a turning point for Sue Klebold, as well.
“On April 20, 1999, I woke up an ordinary wife and mother, happy to be shepherding my family through the daily business of work, chores, school,” she writes in “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.”
“Fast-forward twenty-four hours, and I was the mother of a hate-crazed gunman responsible for the worst school shooting in history. And Dylan, my golden boy, was not only dead, but a mass murderer.”
In “Reckoning,” Klebold recounts with unflinching honesty and in exacting detail the events that occurred in the months and years after her son’s heinous act. Every day for more than 16 years, she has wrestled with the sorrow, shock and shame of being the mother of a killer. She has spent all of that time trying to figure out how the gentle son she loved and thought she knew could commit such a dreadful act, and how she, as a parent, had missed the signs that something was very wrong with her child.
Klebold uses her own journals, videos, Dylan’s own writings and interviews with a variety of mental health experts to flesh out her harrowing story. Her careful documentation – the book has eight pages of footnotes – should remove any argument that she is an unreliable narrator.
Klebold acknowledges that early on she wrapped herself in denial about her son’s role in the massacre. Her conviction that Dylan had been somehow coerced by Harris helped her get through each day despite being paralyzed by bewilderment, anguish, isolation and grief.
Then, six months after the attack, she was shocked into new reality, when the Littleton sheriff’s department shared the evidence from the attack with the affected families.
Over four grueling pages that seem like 40, Klebold lays out in blunt terms the facts presented by the sheriff about the teens’ movements on the fateful morning in April 1999.
“It was like a documentary so violent and depraved that I would never, ever, under ordinary circumstances, have watched it,” she writes.
“A single fact had emerged, without any ambiguity at all: Dylan had done this thing.”
Her horror at this truth is as palpable as it is devastating.
But it was the viewing of the “Basement Tapes” – videotapes her son and Harris had made in the months leading up to the attack – that completely shatter Klebold’s world. She describes the heartbreak she feels when she first sees and hears Dylan on the tape, and her nausea and disbelief as his demeanor suddenly changes.
“I had never seen that expression of sneering superiority on Dylan’s face. My mouth gaped open when I heard the words they were using – abominable, hate-filled, racist, derogatory words, words never spoken or heard in our home.”
It would take Klebold years to reconcile that version of her son with the boy she had known.
She spent a decade and a half trying to untangle this Gordian knot. She combed through every memory of Dylan’s childhood and early adolescence, trying to find out how and why he had come to take part in the Columbine atrocity.
Again, with excruciating detail, she second-guesses every parenting decision she ever made, wondering which one might have caused Dylan to snap.
These recollections are, in ways, harder to read than the previous ones – any parent will read about her ordinary choices, the sort of choices they themselves had made every day of their children’s lives, and wonder, like Klebold did, which of them, if any, had flipped the switch.
What made Dylan’s occasional sullenness and self-consciousness different from ordinary teen behavior? What could she have done or not done to avert the tragedy?
Klebold cuts herself no slack on this issue. She blames herself for not keeping Dylan away from Harris after they were caught stealing electronics from a van a year before the attacks, even though law enforcement officials had released the boys from their ordered diversion program on good behavior.
And she regrets not following up more insistently on a teachers’ cryptic mention of a disturbing essay Dylan had written. But by far her biggest regret is not realizing how depressed and disaffected her son had become in his senior year.
Eventually, after returning to work, ending her marriage and surviving breast cancer, Klebold finds a way to make an uneasy peace with herself.
She has spent recent years as an advocate for suicide prevention and improved treatment of mental health (she calls it “brain health”) concerns. All the author profits from her book are being donated to research and charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues.
“A Mother’s Reckoning” is a profoundly gripping page-turner that is, at the same time, extremely difficult to get through. Even the most jaded reader will need to occasionally look up from the page, and get reoriented to a world that is less unrelentingly awful than Klebold’s.
It is not that she whips up unnecessary drama or cues up the “pity me” machine. In fact, she has gone out of her way to deliver a searingly honest, thoughtful and sensitive account of her life before and since the attack.
The book is less an apologia than it is a cautionary tale for parents who might be blind to signs of serious emotional distress in their children.
“A Mother’s Reckoning” is also a very brave book, written by an insightful, eloquent woman who broke her 17-year silence not out of a selfish need for sympathy or forgiveness or even understanding. Klebold did not have to make herself once again vulnerable to a staggering array of judges and critics and worse – a group now much larger and more caustic than those who were around in the pre-social media days immediately surrounding the Columbine attack – ready to pillory her for everything she did and everything she didn’t do.
But if there is no other lesson in “A Mother’s Reckoning” there is this one: There but for the grace of God, go the rest of us.
Barbara Sullivan is the editor of The Buffalo News’ NeXt section.