A Mother’s Reckoning/ posted in: Book Review, Reading A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold
on February 15, 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Format: Audiobook, eBook
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives. For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently? These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In A Mother’s Reckoning, she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing upon her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and on countless interviews with mental health experts.
As soon as I heard about this book I knew that it was a book I needed to read. I turn into a tower of rage whenever I hear “Where were their parents?” in response to a teenager committing a crime. I feel this because I know that someday this accusation is going to leveled at me concerning my stepdaughter.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t read this book to get into the mind of a mass murderer. I wanted tips about what to do after a child commits a crime. Knowing that I wanted this felt awkward so while reading this book I broached the subject with my husband.
Me: “So…… I’m reading Sue Klebold’s book about the aftermath of Columbine. I sort of wanted to know what you do after a crime.”
Him: “Yeah. (long pause) So what did you find out?”
Me: “Lawyer up and grab the pets and go into hiding with relatives who don’t share your unusual last name.”
Him: Looks concerned at me while we contemplate our very unusual last name. We’re screwed.
The Klebolds had a very different experience than parents of mentally ill children do. She addresses this at one point.
“I have heard many terrible stories of good people struggling to parent seriously ill, violent kids. I have nothing but compassion for them, and feel we must rehabilitate a health care system that too often leaves them out in the cold. If you want to feel sick to your stomach, listen to a mom tell you about the day her volatile ten-year-old narrowly missed stabbing her with the kitchen shears, and how it felt to call the police on him because she was worried the lock on his younger sister’s bedroom door wouldn’t hold against his rage. Too often, parents of seriously disturbed kids are forced to get the criminal justice system involved—even though it is drastically ill-equipped to manage brain illness—simply because there is nowhere else to turn.”
One thing I was surprisingly shocked to read was how many lawsuits were filed against the families of the shooters. It wasn’t like they helped their kids stockpile weapons and then drove them to the school. How were they at fault? I think it is a sad commentary on our society feeling like someone has to take the blame for anything that happens and if the people responsible are dead, then the victim’s families just wanted someone else to blame. There are excerpts of letters written to her by parents of the victims years later blaming her for not talking publicly so people could see if she was showing enough remorse. They talk about wanting to know if she has learned anything. This hounding from the victims’ families is part of the reason she wrote this book. The proceeds are all being donated to mental health research.
I found Sue Klebold’s descriptions of herself and her parenting to be an example of the type of parent that drives me to exasperation. It is the overinvolved yet absolutely clueless type. These are the perky women who tell you that they have a great family and will fight to the death to uphold their belief that their precious little munchkin would never do anything wrong while you know that their child is the local drug dealer. I’ve known a few of these types of mothers. They are exhausting. I switched halfway through the book from audio to ebook because listening to her talk about the time before the shooting was irritating. I understand it though. The parents’ letters ask if she ever hugged her child or had a sit down meal with him. People want to think that if they do everything “right” then their child will never commit a crime. She admits that she thought like this too until her son went on a rampage.
Few of these parents ever have their illusions shattered as horrifically as this author did. But she admits that she was able to shield herself from hearing anything about the crime for months so she was able to persist in her denial that her child did anything wrong. She convinced herself that he was drugged or kidnapped or really a victim or was being threatened with danger to his family. She was willing to believe anything except that he was a killer. She persisted in this belief until the police laid out their whole case for them about 4 months after the murders. Here is a horrible example of how she tried to justify her thinking.
“This wasn’t the drug-riddled inner city, or some supposedly godless corridor like New York or Los Angeles.“
Her solutions are jarring. They are based in the idea that parents should know everything about their children. She is obviously an extrovert who says that she loves to talk about issues. If only you could force your children to tell you everything, you could prevent problems. I can feel my poor little introvert soul shrinking when she talks about this.
“I’ve even imagined barricading myself in his room, refusing to leave until he tells me what he’s thinking.“
She advocates searching rooms to find hidden journals or papers. She says this knowing that her son hid weapons and bombs from her while she was actively searching his room. They hid things so well that the police didn’t even find some of the hiding spots until they watched videos Dylan and Eric had left behind explaining how they had hid everything. If a kid doesn’t want you to know something, you aren’t going to know it.
She brushes over the practical aftermath of the shootings for her family in one paragraph. Basically, they were sued over and over and over and lost their house and went bankrupt for a crime they didn’t commit. They also eventually divorced after 43 years of marriage because she is active in suicide prevention and he wanted to leave all of this in the past.
I think she dismisses the bullying that Dylan and Eric had at school too much. She doesn’t talk about it much at all. Other sources have talked about how toxic Columbine High School was. I did appreciate this statement in the book.
“Larkin also points to proselytizing and intimidation by evangelical Christian students, a self-appointed moral elite who perceived the kids who dressed differently as evil and targeted them.“
So much was made after Columbine in evangelical circles about the targeting of Christian kids. It was used as proof that the shooters were evil. Maybe the Christian community also needed to look at the behavior of their kids.
That’s ultimately the point of this story. Everyone wants to demonize the parents of murderous kids because if you find the thing they did wrong, then it won’t happen to your family. No one wants to admit that that isn’t the case. Until society admits that it could happen to anyone, real help won’t happen.