A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold (Crown, 2016)

 

The images of terrified high school students scrambling out the windows of Colombine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999 are seared forever on the American consciousness as the day our schools stopped being safe. In the aftermath of the shootings, twelve students and one teacher had been shot dead and scores of others had been wounded. Upon police investigation it was discovered that the death toll could have mounted into the hundreds. Eric Harris and his partner in crime, Derek Klebold, had planted enough bombs in and around the school to have brought the roof of the building down, killing many, many more. Fortunately, those bombs failed to detonate. Harris and Klebold chose to end their own lives with self-inflicted bullet wounds, forever silencing them from ever having to answer the question “Why?”

I first became aware that Sue Klebold, Dylan's mother, had published a book about her struggles to understand what had gone so wrong in the brain of her teenage son to cause him to participate in the deadly rampage that has tainted his memory forever when I saw a promotion piece of WABC-TV for the show 20-20. The interview, conducted by Diane Sawyer, was a sensitive walk-through of the key elements that Klebold examines and discusses in her book.

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A Mother's Reckoning is not for every reader. It is a raw and painful self-examination, a journey that Klebold has let readers witness in trying to answer the question that really can never be answered. How could Sue and her husband, Tom, attentive parents to two teenage boys, have missed the warning signs that their “sunshine boy” was on a suicidal path of self loathing that would not end only his life, but the lives of many innocent others.

Sue Klebold, who is donating all proceeds from the sale of A Mother's Reckoning to research and charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues, has spent the sixteen years since the tragedy trying to make sense of what happened on April 20, 1999. By writing copiously in diaries, going through intensive counseling and being examined by medical doctors, Klebold has evolved to the point where she now reaches out to others in need of help through suicide awareness groups. Klebold has managed to regain a modicum of normal function back into her life, but her journey cost her a long marriage and companionship. There is a sense of isolation, of even being an “untouchable” that pervades every page of the book.

While Sue Klebold is careful not to over play the drama of the day of the shootings, (they are described in very clinical language) on every page she accepts responsibility for Dylan's actions, and for her failures to take the steps that might have prevented the tragedy. She walks the fine line between over doing the apology and accepting the ultimate responsibility. She probes of herself, “What did I miss . . . and how could I have missed it? What should I have seen? What could I have done differently?” (preface)

The book begins with Sue Klebold receiving a phone call from her husband that alerted her to something violent occurring at Colombine High School. The fact that her son had been reported missing from class and that it was believed that the perpetrators of the violence were wearing long, black trench coats, which Dylan often donned, started terror to grow in Sue's heart. By the time that Sue arrived home, a pervading sense of doom had blossomed inside of her, but it would be hours of being kept locked out of her home in the rain while police searched it for evidence of the crime before an officer finally answered Sue's question, “Is my son dead?” with a yes. But that was all of the information that the Klebolds would receive from the authorities for quite some time.

From the moment of the shootings the Klebolds became targets of the wrath of the victims' families, the citizens of Littleton, Colorado, and people from all of the world as it is natural to look to assign blame in a senseless tragedy. The question of safe harbor for the Klebolds in the first days after the massacre gives insight into the enormity of the impact on the lives of all whom Dylan and Eric ruined on April 20, 1999.

The book offers insight into dealing with loss and failure in raising a child, but it also differentiates between the mental issues with which the two perpetrators were dealing. Eric's journals and videos which he left behind are full of hate symbols, such as swastikas and bloody knives. His rantings indicate the depth of his hatred towards others. Eric Harris was a psychopath who enjoyed the control that he was able to exert over his friend, Dylan, who suffered from a deep depression.

Sue Klebold, who read through her son's tormented diaries writes, “There is despair and anger but little violence, especially in the pages before January 1999. Besides sadness, the most common emotion expressed throughout Dyan's journals---and by far the most prevalent word ---is love. There are pages covered in huge, hand-drawn hearts. He writes, heartbreakingly and sometimes eloquently, about his unfulfilled, excruciating desire for romantic love and understanding.” (p.159) Just three days before invading the halls of Colombine High School with guns and bombs, Dylan had taken a pretty girl to his senior prom and longed for acceptance and love in a young woman's eyes.

It took a lot of guts to pen this book, and Klebold acknowledges at the end that there were others in her life, her remaining son, Byron, and her ex-husband Tom, who supported her effort despite their unwillingness to “churn up difficult memories, sacrifice their privacy, or focus on a time in their lives they would rather forget.” (p.284) However, the drive within this broken-hearted mother to help other potential victims of suicide and homicide forced her to reveal the intimate details of the days leading to the tragedy in order to try and help others. Although this is a tough read, it provides solid information to the public without asking for pity. Achieving this kind of balance in telling a story of this nature is the mark of a good writer.