"A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy" by Sue Klebold

Feb 14, 2017

On this edition of our show, a discussion with Sue Klebold, whose 17-year-old son, Dylan, was of course one of the two teenage boys who committed suicide ­after their murderous attack on Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999. Klebold has a new book out about this incident -- and more to the point, about the behaviors that she did and did not see in her son in the months and years leading up to that terrible April day. As was noted of this powerful and disturbing memoir in an appreciative summation in The New Times Book Review: "A memoir by the mother of one of the Columbine killers could seem distasteful on its face: at best, a defensive account from an unreliable narrator; at worst, an inevitable end point to the media circus. But...[Sue Klebold is] trying to answer, honestly and completely, an urgent question: What could a parent have done to prevent this tragedy? Klebold describes a home life that was, if not perfect, better than ordinary. Dylan grew up with happily married parents: a work-from-home dad who shared a snack and the sports pages with his teenage son every day after school, and a mom who worked with disabled college students, setting a moral example at the office before coming home at night to make the 'gloppy, layered Mexican casseroles' her two sons loved.... She does acknowledge that there were signs of impending danger, what the experts call 'leakage,' as if Dylan’s misery were so overwhelming it was visibly oozing out of him. He had written for class an account of a man in black attacking some popular kids, a work so disturbing that his teacher brought it up with the Klebolds. They read it only after his death -- Dylan never showed it to them, although they asked -- but even if they had, in 1999, would anyone but the most paranoid of parents have suspected the worst? There was little precedent; the story of Columbine was not yet part of the American consciousness. She also missed classic signs of adolescent depression or even the impulse to suicide that sound maddeningly like the symptoms of adolescence itself: staring off into the middle distance, irritability, withdrawing from family. The Klebolds knew something was wrong with Dylan his senior year, she writes. 'We simply -- drastically and lethally -- underestimated the depth and severity of his pain and everything he was capable of doing to make it stop.' Politely, methodically, she eviscerates in the reader the dearly held conviction that had he or she been in Sue Klebold's place, all could have been prevented. 'There are, of course, no guarantees a child will be O.K., even with professional help,' she states.... It is hard to shake the prosecutorial instinct while reading this book: Does Klebold reveal herself to be so measured, so reasonable, that she was perhaps averse to necessary confrontation? Did maternal pride cloud her judgment? These questions pop up, like bright, distracting buoys spotted from the illusion of high ground; if Klebold had failings (and what parent does not?), none of them would begin to explain the terrible turn of her son's life.... Klebold's powerful urge to defend herself all these years was surpassed only by her desire to disappear. She felt she was 'cringing like a frightened animal' in the months and years after the tragedy, suffering panic attacks so debilitating she came to understand her son’s suicidal impulses. She lost 25 pounds, numbly stumbling through radiation for breast cancer but refusing chemotherapy because she was, all agreed, too broken to survive it. Eventually, Klebold found her way forward with a mission of suicide prevention, and she provides a precise education on the subject in 'A Mother’s Reckoning.' She earns our pity, our empathy and, often, our admiration; and yet the book’s ultimate purpose is to serve as a cautionary tale, not an exoneration."