“Looking down at the perfect bundle in my arms, I was overcome by a strong premonitions this child would bring me a terrible sorrow.”
The morning after her son’s birth, as Sue Klebold held newborn Dylan in her arms, she had an eerie, disturbing, and prescient sense: “Looking down at the perfect bundle in my arms,” she writes, “I was overcome by a strong premonitions this child would bring me a terrible sorrow.”
Sue Klebold is a brave woman for writing this book. Even now, almost 17 years after the Columbine High School massacre, there are people who still blame her for her son’s atrocities, who think she was a poor mother: She raised him wrong. She must have known. How could she not know?
In A Mother’s Reckoning, Klebold answers all of these questions, and more. Read it with an open mind and you will see: Sue Klebold is you. Dylan Klebold is your son. She is a normal person.
Dylan was raised in a loving family: two parents, older brother, suburban upbringing. He was a smart kid who attended a gifted elementary school. It wasn’t until his high school years where, disheartened by the athletes-as-gods bullying hierarchy of Columbine High School, his grades began to suffer. He also began to show signs of depression—signs the Klebolds, along with a majority of parents, failed to recognize. Because: Why would they? Who talks about depression in kids? Who doesn’t want to avoid the stigma, the ignorance, the misunderstanding?
As its title suggests, Klebold’s book is greatly about how the Columbine tragedy affected her personally, in the days and months and years that followed. Like the parents of the victims, she lost a child that day, too; unlike the parents of the victims, her grief was often overshadowed by shame and guilt and hatred and blame. And while Klebold’s recovery process is interesting, I wanted more of the big lessons, not the day-to-day coping.
Thankfully, the big lessons come, too, and for these, Klebold draws upon conversations, interviews, and email exchanges with experts, professionals, and researchers. She conducts a fair amount of her own research, too, citing scholarly studies and sharing their findings.
There are things we can learn—and should have learned—from Columbine and other acts of mass murder, especially those perpetrated by adolescents. We need to open a dialogue about mental health, what Klebold calls “brain health”: a term she adopted from a Sandy Hook victim’s parent. She quotes the parent, Dr. Jeremy Richman: “’Mental’ is invisible. It comes with all the fear, trepidation, and stigma of things we don’t understand. But we know there are real, physical manifestations within the brain that can be imaged, measured, quantified, and understood. We need to move our understanding to the visible world of brain health and brain disease, which is tangible.”
Klebold writes about the symptoms of suicidal depression in teens, something from which Dylan undoubtedly suffered. There are signs she could have recognized…if only she had known. These are the same signs today’s parents can identify. Sure, most depressed kids don’t go on to commit mass murder. But the suicidally depressed are more likely to execute violence. They’ve already decided to die. They may blame others for their unhappiness. It can be a lethal combination.
Klebold has kept a journal all her life. This personal account ended up being critical to her recovery, as she detailed her pain, dysfunction, and gradual climb back into some sort of a functioning life. It also proved helpful as she wrote the book, as she could directly pinpoint what happened and when, what was said and by whom. She corresponds with Dr. Peter Langman, who is an expert on school shootings (and someone I’ve read heavily in my own research), who reviews Dylan’s journal and provides her with his professional opinion. I’ll quote his three main points:
- Nothing you did or didn’t do caused Dylan to do what he did.
- You didn’t “fail to see” what Dylan was going through—he was profoundly secretive and deliberately hid his internal world not only from you, but from everyone else in his life.
- By the end of his life, Dylan’s psychological functioning had deteriorated to the point that he was not in his right mind.
Throughout the book, I continued to be amazed by Klebold’s strength. Envisioning what she (and her family) went through was a painful endeavor. I can’t begin to imagine how I would have coped in her situation. Would I have been consumed with immobilizing guilt? Would I have gotten out of bed? Would I have been able to go on? Would you?
Read this book for the frank discussion of love, family, tragedy, mental illness, and mass murder. Read it so you can learn the warning signs of depression and suicidal ideation, for your own children or those of a friend or family member. Read it to understand how complex the human brain really is, and how important it is to open a frank, nonjudgmental dialogue on “brain health.”
“When tragedies like Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook happen, the first question everyone asks is always ‘Why?’ Klebold writes toward the end of the book. “Perhaps this is the wrong question. I have come to believe the better question is ‘How?’
“Asking ‘why’ only makes us feel hopeless. Asking ‘how’ points the way forward, and shows us what we must do.” | Laura Hamlett