‘A mother is supposed to know’: Sue Klebold on living with the memory of Columbine
One of the first things Sue Klebold does when we meet is apologise for her lack of hospitality. We are at a hotel in Denver rather than her home, not for want of congeniality on the 66-year-old’s part, but because, once you have been the target of large-scale hatred, it is never a good idea to let on where you live. Klebold looks like the last person on Earth for whom this designation might apply – a retired college administrator and community stalwart who describes herself as living a “nice little modest life”. Nonetheless, for the last 17 years, she has been a woman forever on the cusp of a dreadful public encounter. “I can be in a doctor’s waiting room and still hope they call me by my first name, rather than shout out Mrs Klebold,” she says. “Every time I meet someone and give my name, there’s a moment of hesitancy where I watch their face very closely. They may say, ‘Gee, why does that sound so familiar?’”
It is almost two decades since Klebold’s son Dylan and his friend Eric Harris murdered 13 people at Columbine high school before killing themselves, and in that time much about the American school system has changed. Bullying has become a frontline priority, with anti-bullying protocols laid down at the federal level. Gun control has become a central issue , too, and school security measures – lockdown drills and metal detectors at the doors – rolled out as standard, partly in response to what Klebold’s son did. What hasn’t changed, perhaps, is the assumption made in the aftermath of a shooting that the fault must lie predominantly with the parents – or, rather, with the mother. “A mother is supposed to know,” Klebold says.
That she claimed not to have known any of it – that the teenager under her roof was profoundly depressed; that he had illegally bought a gun and hidden it in her house; that, with his friend Eric, he was planning a massacre – triggered hostility at the time and even now provokes disbelief. Klebold understands this instinct: for many years, she regarded herself with the same harsh incredulity. “The gentlest portrayal of us as parents in the media was that we were useless,” she writes in A Mother’s Reckoning , her new memoir. “In other accounts, we had knowingly shielded a hateful racist, turning a blind eye to the arsenal he was assembling under our roof, thereby exposing an entire community to danger.”
A Mother’s Reckoning is a tough read. It retraces Klebold’s mental processes of the last 17 years as she revisits every parenting decision she and her ex-husband, Tom, ever made, raking through memories in search of evidence they missed. It also examines the horrific, decades-long influence of the Columbine shooting on other violent young men and tells, from the inside, the story of what happens to parents when their children kill others. (Briefly: divorce, bankruptcy, illness, breakdown, followed by the more complex processes and rationalisations that allow Klebold to carry on living.)
She would give her life to recover one of the lives lost, but she won’t accept that her son was a monster
The most controversial element of the memoir, however, is what it asks readers to do with their notions of Dylan. At the time of the shooting, Sue Klebold worked in the same building as a parole office, and often felt alienated and frightened getting in the elevator with ex-convicts. After Columbine, she writes, “I felt that they were just like my son. That they were just people who, for some reason, had made an awful choice and were thrown into a terrible, despairing situation. When I hear about terrorists in the news, I think, ‘That’s somebody’s kid.’”
Of course, Klebold feels compassion in part because she is asking for compassion – more than that, she’s asking for forgiveness. But she is also asking that a fundamental reassessment take place of what it is that can make teenagers kill. After almost 20 years spent thinking about it, and having immersed herself in the worlds of suicide and murder-suicide prevention, what Klebold concludes is, in its way, more shocking than the idea that she was a bad parent or that Dylan was “evil”. She would, she writes, give her life to recover “just one of the lives that was lost” at the hands of her son, but she won’t subscribe to the theory that he was a monster. “He was a human being,” she tells me, turning to look out of the window. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does: she still loves him.
Based on his mother’s account, the impression one gets of the young Dylan Klebold is of a straightforwardly wonderful child. Contrast can make colours shine brighter and there is, perhaps, a pull towards casting his infancy as particularly angelic, in light of how his life ended. Nonetheless, when Klebold writes that “our younger son was observant, curious and thoughtful, with a gentle personality”, there is nothing to suggest she is being untruthful. She called him her “sunshine boy” on account of his blond hair and sunny nature, and “our little trouper” because of his determination to see projects through. Of her two boys, Dylan was the one she thought she didn’t have to worry about.
It has taken Klebold a long time to reclaim this image of Dylan. In the aftermath of the shooting, she effectively lost him twice: first, physically; then as a memory. How does one mourn a kid one considered a decent and loving son when his photo appears on the cover of Time magazine under the headline The Monsters Next Door ? The decision to include childhood photographs in her memoir seems like a plea to remember that Dylan was once blameless, even cute. But that’s not why she did it, Klebold says. “I wanted people to understand that he was loved. And cuddled. And held. And touched. And I had all kinds of pictures of Dylan on laps and with arms around him.” There was, she says, “an assumption that he was mistreated, or not loved”, one that Klebold knew not to be true, even as she scoured photos looking for external verification. Over and over she asked herself, “Did we hug him enough?”
Other misconceptions were easier to dispel. One of the stories that took hold about the Klebolds after the shooting was that they were rich, and that Dylan’s violent behaviour was an extreme version of a spoilt child’s petulance. Aerial photos of the family house in Littleton, Colorado, made it look huge when in fact, Klebold says, they bought it for a song as a “fixer-upper”. Likewise Dylan’s BMW, which cost his parents $500 and which he and his father remodelled from scratch. They were that kind of family, eating around the table every night, watching old movies together, collaborating on projects. Whenever Byron, the eldest son, came over for dinner, Klebold would send him back to his apartment with a freezer bag full of food.
This would sound gilded, except here is Klebold, revisiting every detail in a way that implies it might have been easier on her psychologically if there had been a catastrophe in the household, something pointing to why Dylan did what he did. Instead, in the years before the shooting, there were only very ordinary domestic tensions. Tom Klebold, a geophysicist, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, damaging his job prospects and causing the couple to worry about money. (Sue’s job, coordinating grants to help disabled people learn computer skills, was satisfying but not terribly well paid.)
Then there was Byron. Before the late 1990s, the biggest upset to have shaken the Klebold family was when a small amount of marijuana was found in Byron’s room, a discovery they reacted to in a way that quells any notions they were too liberal as parents. Byron, still at school at the time, was made to attend counselling sessions, and his parents intervened to end friendships they believed “weren’t in his best interests”.
The fact that, a few years later, they would fail to sever their younger son’s friendship with Eric Harris when the two got into similar trouble was, Klebold says, testament to Harris’s charm and their faith in Dylan’s good sense.
It was also evidence of the fact that, up to that point, the most Dylan had ever given them to worry about was being a little on the shy side. After the shooting, he would be characterised as a dysfunctional loner with a single, psychopathic friend: Harris. But Klebold says that simply wasn’t the case; he wasn’t the most popular kid in class, but he had a small, close circle of friends, of whom Eric was just one. In the memoir, all she will say of the Harrises is that the father was ex-military and that “we liked them, although we didn’t see them socially”. Of Eric, she writes, he was “always respectful and perfectly polite”.
The strain around these remarks is palpable; after the shooting, Klebold’s first impulse was to blame Harris – he must have brainwashed Dylan, she thought, or coerced him in some other way.
I’ve met several mothers of mass shooters, and they are as sweet as can be. You wouldn’t know what brought us together
Klebold no longer thinks like this; one of the hardest tasks of the last 17 years has been to accept that Dylan played an equal part in planning and executing the massacre. Nevertheless, when she writes about Harris, she struggles to extend to him the same sympathy she reserves for her son. After the shooting, the boys’ respective journals were found and while Dylan’s was full of maudlin and often nonsensical dreams about killing himself, Harris’s was full of violent and sadistic fantasies about hurting others.
I suggest that she makes a moral distinction between the two boys. “I don’t know if moral is the right word,” she says. “They had different brain conditions. I believe Dylan had some kind of a mood disorder. I believe psychopathy is in a different category. For whatever reason, the two were like magnetic poles. They stuck together. They fed each other.” She says, “I don’t want to say someone commits crimes because they have a mental illness – that is not true – but I believe strongly that both Dylan and Eric were victims of their own pathology, just as everyone else was a victim of that pathology.”
I tell her that, reading her book, one is inclined to think, oh, well, if it wasn’t the Klebolds who caused this, then it must have been the Harrises. “And that is exactly what people do when there is a crime like this. We like to feel that something like that could never happen to us. It can happen to someone else, it can’t happen to us. And that’s why I think so many people get comfort from vilifying the parents of shooters, because it makes them feel safer. I understand; but one of the frightening things about this reality is that people who have family members who do things like this are just like the rest of us. I’ve met several mums of mass shooters, and they are as sweet and nice as they can be. You wouldn’t know, if you saw all of us in a room, what brought us together.”
The changes were tiny and almost indistinguishable from the normal fluctuations of adolescence, but Klebold now believes that, if she had known then what she knows now, she might have been able to spot them. “Dylan did show outward signals of depression,” she writes, “signs Tom and I observed but were not able to decode. If we had known enough to understand what those signs meant, I believe that we would have been able to prevent Columbine.”
Dylan’s sleep patterns changed. He went from being an early riser to a late one. He was short-tempered and withdrawn, and his hair went ungroomed. He wrote an English essay that contained violent imagery, which should have flagged him immediately, she says; but no one was looking out for these things back then. For the first time in his life, he got into trouble at school, vandalising some lockers with Eric. Finally, a year before the shooting, the boys stole some electrical equipment from an unattended van and were arrested. The Klebolds were appalled, but also relieved that, because it was a first offence and the boys came from “good homes”, they were let off with some counselling and community service. She now wishes they’d been given a custodial sentence; if they had, Columbine almost certainly wouldn’t have happened.
At the time, although worried, she told herself, “Dylan’s growing up. He’s testing his boundaries. He’s doing things he’s never done before. They’re terrible choices, but good, he’s learned his lesson. I was never for a moment thinking that he was a danger to himself or to anyone else.”
And quite quickly, Klebold says, he appeared to get “back on track”. Dylan’s mandatory counselling sessions went well. He applied to and won a place at the University of Arizona. Three days before the shooting, he attended his high school prom with a girl.
There was one odd incident. This was a year before the massacre, and one of the very rare moments in the book when one questions Klebold’s handling of her son. Dylan was rude to her, as he had been a lot that spring, and when she lost her temper, challenging him on his bad attitude and pushing him against the fridge door, he said, “Stop pushing me, Mom. I’m getting angry, and I don’t know how well I can control it.” The voice he used was soft and “carried warning power”, Klebold says, and she immediately backed off. Later, she apologised to him. I remark to her that it was a chilling exchange.
“It was. It was.”
It was also, clearly, a threat. Klebold says she was never frightened of Dylan, but there is a sense, around that time, that she was walking on eggshells. Wasn’t she inclined to say, “How dare you threaten me?”
“I never thought of saying that,” she says. “It isn’t in character for me to say something like, How dare you threaten me. I listened to what he said; he asked me to stop, I stopped. And then we circled back and we both apologised. I now have a strong sense that I should’ve responded by saying: ‘I don’t understand – this isn’t like you.’”
She says, “I could see his behaviours were changing. I attributed it to being an adolescent, and it is my deep regret that those behaviours might have indicated something else: depression, perhaps. That is why I say to people: if your children misbehave, if a young man is irritable, if your daughter has a lot of somatic complaints, this could be a mental issue. We have to be able to ask questions such as, do you wish you could just die sometimes? Have you ever thought about suicide? I think we have to do a better job of listening and not trying to fix our kids’ lives.”
Along with this compassion for Dylan’s suffering, she must, surely, be deeply, deeply angry with him? “I never had anger towards him, except for the moment when I saw the Basement Tapes at the sheriff’s department, six months after he died.” These were the home videos made by Dylan and Eric before the shooting, in which they cavorted around, viciously slamming everyone they knew, throwing out racist epithets and talking about the killing they intended to do. “I felt about a day of anger because he was bad-mouthing everybody and everything – family members – and pulling things out of his past, some incident in day care when he was three years old. He was trying to latch on to things that made him feel angry, and he was grasping at straws because he’d had such a good life. But I just couldn’t sustain that anger.”
I have forgiven myself to some degree. I don’t think I will ever completely forgive myself
How can the Basement Tapes make her angry with him and not the fact that he perpetrated a massacre? “I feel that Dylan was a victim of some kind of malfunction going on in his brain. If you explained suicide to a child, [you might say] your grandfather died because he got sick in his brain and hurt grandma and then he hurt himself. That’s my thinking with Dylan. The Dylan I knew and raised was a kind person. He was thoughtful. He was conscious-ridden, which is why this is still so difficult for me to understand.” There is a long pause. “I feel a need to apologise to anyone who might be offended because I’m not angry at him, or don’t judge him. But I don’t, because he is my son, and because I believe that whatever killed all the others, killed him, too.”
When Dylan Klebold left the house that morning, he yelled goodbye in a tone that gave his mother pause. It had a “flat, nasty” ring to it, she says, which she has since “analysed like a Rubik’s cube; I have turned it every which way. Was he saying to me, you were a bad mother?” He had left the house early to attend a bowling class; the school permitted students to take bowling as an elective PE module, hence the title of the Michael Moore documentary about Columbine , Bowling For Columbine. But Dylan never showed up. Instead, he met Eric Harris and the two of them made their way to the school carrying guns and explosives.
Dylan’s mother will never know why he did it. All she can say is that “a certain percentage of people who die by suicide take the lives of others at the time of their death”. In fact, according to the US Department of Health , murder-suicide represents a tiny fraction of the overall suicide rate: around 3% . But suicide itself is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and it is, Klebold believes, “a juxtaposition of biological factors, psychological factors, social and environmental factors and trigger events”.
She was at work when her husband rang, telling her there had been an incident at the school and yelling at her to turn on the TV. Her first thought was, “Dylan is in danger.” By the time she got home, the gunmen were both dead and had been identified as wearing black trenchcoats of a kind the Klebolds knew Dylan and Eric owned. Tom rang their lawyer, who rang the sheriff’s office, who told them that Dylan wasn’t a victim, but one of the perpetrators.
And so the spiral began. The Klebolds’ lawyer told them to expect a “firestorm of hatred”. They fled their house. Tom told his wife he wished Dylan had killed them, too. Sue wished she could die quietly in the night. In the days that followed, they considered changing their name and moving towns. Distant cousins of Tom’s received death threats. When sympathetic well-wishers sent around food for the couple, their lawyer made them throw it out, in case it was poisoned.
And yet, at the same time and to their intense gratitude, their friends and family rallied around. While the couple were still in hiding, their neighbours hung a banner outside their house that read “Sue & Tom We Love You We’re Here for You CALL US”. In the end, Klebold says, “I felt, well, if I move away, I’m just going to be the mother of that killer. So I stayed where I had the support of people who knew us.”
She received vast mountains of letters, some supportive, some hate mail, some – most disturbingly – mail praising Dylan and what he had done. “Girls will write about loving Dylan and wanting his baby,” she says. Books were written, movies were made, none of which Klebold saw, but she heard about them – the Gus Van Sant film Elephant ; Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin – and they made her shudder.
“I had the distorted belief that Dylan belonged to me. He was mine. And when I see movies, or plays, or songs, I have a sense that someone is taking him away from me, that they’re claiming ownership of something they know nothing about.” She also thinks these works risk “perpetuating the myths” of Columbine.
The week before we meet, two girls in Denver are arrested for allegedly planning a copycat shooting . References to Columbine were found in materials owned by Seung-Hui Cho , the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, and Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of 2012’s Sandy Hook elementary school massacre . In 2014, an investigation by ABC News found that at least 17 attacks and a further 36 alleged plots or serious threats against schools involved references to Columbine.
Klebold puts this down to the fact that the shooting roughly coincided with the boom in 24-hour news and was among the first to be subjected to obsessive rolling coverage. She also thinks “there’s almost something symbolic in the town: Littleton. It’s like an Everyman thing. It was the shot heard round the world. But the thing we have to remember, because there were so many copycats who refer back to Columbine, is that Dylan and Eric were copycatting. They were copycatting a movie. They referred to their incident as NBK – Natural Born Killers.” In Oliver Stone’s movie , the two protagonists cause a media sensation by going on multiple shooting sprees.
One surprising aspect of Klebold’s response to the massacre is that, although she has always been opposed to guns, and in spite of the fact that one of the two guns the boys used was legally obtained, she did not become a vehement advocate of gun control. It’s not her issue, she says. “My focus has been on suicide prevention because – and I don’t ever want to make it seem that I’m discounting the murders that Dylan did, which were terrible and significant and anguishing – but my thinking is that murder-suicide is one manifestation of suicide. And by focusing on suicide, I believe we can prevent things like Columbine.” She calls for suicide-prevention training to become as standard in high schools as CPR: “Mental health first aid training for everybody.”
She says, “I know many, many school districts that don’t want any suicide-prevention training in their schools, because they’re so afraid of risks and lawsuits. They’re afraid that if they bring in a suicide-prevention programme, and that if someone then dies by suicide, it will look as if it has been suggested. The research does not support that, but it’s a widely held belief.”
Other aspects of the fallout were more predictable. As Klebold and her husband differed in their ways of dealing with the trauma – broadly speaking, she looked outwards, he retreated in – their marriage of 43 years collapsed. They ran up large legal bills. Civil lawsuits brought by the families of the victims dragged on for years and were eventually settled: between them, the Harrises and the Klebolds contributed more than $1.5m in compensation to the families, most of which was paid for by their home insurance. And Klebold began the lonely task of ploughing through years of self-blame.
“I remember being certain that the birthday cake I had given Dylan on his third birthday wasn’t as pretty as the one that his brother had had on his third birthday, which made him feel unloved, and therefore this happened. You go back over every conversation, every gift, every moment, and what you feel is self-loathing. I let this happen; it was my role to keep him safe, and to keep others safe, too, and somehow this happened because of me, because I wasn’t able to stop it. The guilt one feels doesn’t fit in a room, it’s so huge. And the only thing that helps with guilt like that is trying to understand brain health. And over time, with all the conferences I went to and all the books I read, some of the guilt shifts and you begin to think: my son died of a brain disease. And yes, he might’ve been helped, if I had known. But it wasn’t me who made him die.”
Over the years, she has taken refuge in small variations in the way Dylan behaved that day as opposed to Eric: the fact that he shot fewer rounds, “and he shot fewer people. What a bizarre way to find comfort, but that was all I had. That somehow this was less bad. Still horrible. But somehow less bad.”
Has she forgiven herself? “I have forgiven myself to some degree. I don’t think I will ever completely forgive myself. I still have dreams about Dylan where he is in danger, or climbing up on a high ladder, and I’m grabbing for him and he falls. I have this feeling that I allowed him to slip through my fingers.”
You still love him, I say. “I didn’t have any choice. You love your children. When everyone else was seeing the last moments of his life as vicious and evil and sadistic, I was thinking, that’s my poor kid, he was in this horrible situation, he dishonoured himself. I don’t know any other way to respond to him than with love.”
It doesn’t change anything. Klebold smiles bleakly. “Love is not enough.”
- A Mother’s Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of The Columbine Tragedy, by Sue Klebold is published on 15 February by WH Allen at £16.99. Order a copy for £12.99 from the Guardian Bookshop . All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable foundations focusing on mental health issues.
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