Three nights before the Columbine massacre, Dylan Klebold went to the senior prom. He pulled back his long hair, wore a tux and a bow tie. His mother, Sue Klebold, got out of bed when he came in the next morning “to check in with him.”
“He’d had a great night,” she writes, “and thanked me for buying his ticket.” She continues:
“He’d danced! Not for the first time in his life, I had reflected on how our youngest son always seemed to do things right. I’ve done a good job with this kid, I’d thought as I returned to my room that night. A mere 72 hours later, that feeling of warm satisfaction [was] supplanted by utter confusion, growing horror, and sorrow. Integrating the two realities seemed impossible.”
Sue Klebold hadn’t had an inkling, she insists, that Dylan was in trouble. Tom Klebold, to whom she was married at the time, also didn’t guess. Neither parent knew that their boy was dangerously depressed — suicidal, homicidal; even after Dylan and his friend, Eric Harris, slaughtered 13 people (and wounded 24) and then killed themselves, the Klebolds were certain he’d been brainwashed or duped.
I believe Sue Klebold. In “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy” — part manifesto, part memoir, written in a tone that is measured and controlled — Klebold writes, “[t]he ordinariness of our lives before Columbine will perhaps be the hardest thing for people to understand about my story. For me,” she adds, “it is also the most important.”
And she has a related point to make: It’s not just that the Klebolds didn’t know. It’s that we, too, ordinary as we are or suppose ourselves to be, might also not have known.
Moreover, good people are capable of monstrous acts. But murder? Good people plan and execute mass murder?
Klebold doesn’t actually go that far — she doesn’t try to convince us that Dylan was good, though he was, she tells us, her “sunshine boy.”
It wasn’t just that halo of hair or that he was intellectually gifted, a lover of puzzles, an origami wizard. Tom and Sue called Dylan “our little trouper.”
“In addition to being an easy child, Dylan was a happy one,” she writes.
As he got older, he became shy, self-conscious and occasionally over-sensitive. But she didn’t recognize the severity of Dylan's alienation and depression — nor does she claim his “brain illness” as excuse or justification; Klebold acknowledges that “[m]ost people living with mood disorders are not dangerous to others at all.”
So was Dylan evil then? She wonders in the penultimate chapter. She concludes that he was not. “If suicide seems like the only way out of an existence so painful it has become intolerable," she writes, "is that really an exercise of free will?” She goes on to say that “what [Dylan] did was profoundly wrong. But we cannot dedicate ourselves to preventing violence if we do not take into account the role depression and brain dysfunction can play in the decision to commit it.”
Throughout, Sue Klebold is articulate, thorough and thoughtful. Her agenda? At least in part to redeem herself, if not Dylan, in our eyes, though the line gets necessarily fuzzy. Early on, for example, she emphasizes the difference between homicidal and suicidal urges — and to that end, she quotes Dr. Dwayne Fusilier, a clinical psychologist involved in the Columbine investigation, who said, “I believe Eric went to the school to kill people and didn’t care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died as well.”
A subtle distinction, but it comforts Klebold, as does her work with the suicide-prevention community, which, she says, “felt like a bona fide calling, a path out of the darkness, a way forward for a life that had careened off the rails.” However, she discovered this calling 15 years ago. Before and since, many books have been written about the tragedy at Columbine High School; in all this time Klebold apparently wasn’t ready to write one herself.
“Why now?” Diane Sawyer asked in the interview that aired on ABC on Friday. Klebold’s answer: “I just feel the world is ready to hear a story like this now.”
A story like what? What is it she thinks we’re ready to hear?
After all, Dave Cullen’s “Columbine” is a definitive record. Indeed, Klebold credits him, along with other writers and experts. However, all that research aside, and notwithstanding her determination to be discreet, “A Mother’s Reckoning” is a personal account — if incomplete as such. (One can’t help but wonder, for instance, which came first, her book or her divorce?)
But then Klebold is not only evidently generous and hardworking, she’s a paragon of decency, besides. Proceeds from her sales will go to mental-health-related charities. “Ever since childhood, I have found comfort in being helpful,” she writes, and there’s no reason to doubt her. Elsewhere, she explains, “I’m a teacher by constitution.”.
“Everything I knew and cared about and valued, I poured into my kids. A trip to the grocery store wasn’t merely a stopover to restock the fridge, but a way to show my boys how to select the freshest apple, an invitation to think about the hardworking farmers who had grown it, and to talk about the ways fruits and vegetables make a growing body healthy and strong. It was a chance for me to introduce the vocabulary words ‘carmine’ and ‘vermilion.’ I showed Dylan how to be gentle putting the fruit into the basket; we let an elderly lady with one or two items slip ahead of us in line; we made eye contact and said a polite ‘thank you’ to the cashier.”
Good God — vermilion and carmine. Every moment a teaching moment: impressive — oppressive, too, perhaps, if it’s true, and I’m betting it is. As noted, I believe Sue Klebold. I believe she is that conscientious, that attentive.
Meanwhile, it’s as though she’s filling out an application for forgiveness: She didn’t know. She was an excellent mother. Dylan wanted to die more than he wanted to kill. She is genuinely and “profoundly sorry.” Check, check, check, check. I am convinced.
But Klebold writes as if to convince herself. And how to fault her? How not to wonder instead how she has managed to survive: first, the death of her son, for whom she couldn’t properly grieve; then, a bout with breast cancer, which she actually credits with restoring her will to live; finally, the dissolution of her marriage. Loss after loss after loss.
I feel so sorry for her — I really do. Did you watch “20/20”? Her pain is so raw, her vulnerability so extreme. I want to reassure her: One way or another this book will change lives. What it won’t do is bring Dylan back.
And what it also won’t do, is my guess, never mind what I believe, is allow Sue Klebold to forgive herself. “I wish I had listened more instead of lecturing,” she writes. (How not to recognize ourselves in that wish? Who couldn’t and shouldn’t listen better and more?)
“I wish I had sat in silence with him instead of filling the void with my own words and thoughts; I wish I had acknowledged his feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them, and that I’d never accepted his excuses to avoid conversation ... when something felt off. I wish I’d sat in the dark with him, and repeated my concerns when he dismissed them. I wish I’d dropped everything else to focus on him, probed and prodded more, and that I had been present enough to see what I did not.”
Sue Klebold, I wish I could offer redemption. I can't — it isn’t mine to give (and even if it were I know it wouldn’t help). What can I say? Just this: I believe you, I believe you, I believe you.
Lenney is the author of "The Object Parade" and "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir" and a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
Crown: 336 pp., $28