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"I don't want any parent to ever have to go through what I went through"
An interview with Sue Klebold, author of 'A Mother's Reckoning,' on life after Columbine
Book of the Month, Sue Klebold
17 years ago on April 20th, 1999, teenagers in high schools around the United States and their frightened parents learned of the events taking place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That same day, Sue Klebold was informed by police that not only had she lost her son, Dylan, in the school shooting, but that Dylan and his friend Eric Harris were responsible for the deaths of 12 students and a teacher, and had injured 23 others. Sue writes about that unimaginable day, the process of grieving for her son and those he hurt, and understanding how he could have committed those actions in her recently released memoir, A Mother's Reckoning. She speaks to us honestly and openly about her favorite, untold memories of her son, and how she's come to understand the importance of brain health.
I thought you did a terrific job in your book of taking readers through the day the shootings occurred, how you found out, and how you were fed information over the course of that excruciating day and next few days. How did you piece together those details after the fact, given the state of shock that you were in?
I began journaling almost immediately. I'm somebody who has most of my life kept journals and diaries, and I needed to write just to process my own terrible feelings. The writing helped me, it was therapeutic for me. So I began writing very, very early on and tried to remember everything I could to get into my diary, and therefore it became a record later.
You shared a lot of memories of your son in your book that the world would not have otherwise known about. Can you share some other memories of your son with our readers?
We took so many out of the book, I'm trying to remember which ones we had. The memories I think that I remember most about Dylan were when he was perhaps kindergarten age. He was just so precocious, so bubbly, loving and so bright. The thing I just found endearing about him was how hard he worked at play. He was somebody who loved to challenge himself.
Some of my favorite memories are when he was a youngster. For example, he was just barely three when I got him this number magnet set and he wanted to know what the plus sign and the minus sign and the equal sign meant. He was still wearing a diaper at night, so he was a little guy. And I remember showing him on the floor, I got pinto beans out, and I showed him what the plus sign meant: take this pile and take this pile and then put them together and count them again, and that was it for him. He understood addition that quickly. Then he did the same thing with subtraction. He started putting equations on the refrigerator with these magnets - 3 plus 3 equals, and he'd use the equal sign, and then he'd put the answer, and he was never wrong.
That was what was so amazing about him. He had such an inquiring mind and he had such a curiosity about things and a love of wanting to master and understand. It was a joy as a mother, and having been a teacher as well, to watch this kid suck up everything he could get his hands on. He loved mazes, origami, and he learned to read very early. He started reading books silently to himself by the end of kindergarten. He was reading Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web sitting silently on the couch. Those are the things that I think I remember the most with such great pride because I was very proud of him. He was also a loving child and a playful child. He would wrestle with his brother and jump on the bed and do all the things that all other kids do. He was just a treasure.
Thank you. Columbine occurred 17 years ago on April 20th. You said in your book that the grief became somewhat easier to manage about 7 years in. What is it like now after 17 years?
Oh boy. You know, I still have bad days. Especially on anniversary days - either birthdays, or the anniversary of the tragedy. What I find is, as I lead up to these dates, I start having a great feeling of - I don't know - discomfort, sadness, depression. Sometimes I don't even remember that it is the date, but I notice that I'm feeling horrible. So yes, even after all these years, I still have times when the pain and the sorrow are there. But I think after all of these years, I've tried to come to think of Dylan's death as something going wrong in his brain, and that whatever went wrong, was the thing that ended up ultimately taking his life and the lives of so many others. So it is like, in some ways, losing a child if he'd had some other kind of disease. For the most part now, I think that's the way it feels to me - that something went horribly wrong with Dylan, and because of what went wrong, he died as he did. I still lost him, but I think more about ill-health as being the cause rather than some kind of character flaw or evil within him.
How are your other family members doing. How are Tom and Byron?
You know I always try to head off that question because they'd both prefer to keep their lives private, so I try to avoid that question if I can. Byron and Tom - like so many other survivors I have met who have lost family members to murders and suicide - they don't want to be reminded of it, they don't want to dwell on it, they don't want to be associated with that terrible tragedy. They find it more comfortable to not talk about it or dwell on it. The fact that I do is sort of an unusual way to approach this. So I guess that's a long answer for saying: They're both doing OK.
Are you still in touch with any of the victims or family members of the victims, I know you had reached out to them after the tragedy?
You know we do occasionally interact with each other. It's too difficult for me, in most cases, to sustain a friendship, or an ongoing relationship. I think that might have been possible, but it was just a very difficult place for me to be in, psychologically, to maintain a closeness. But yes I am in touch with some of them, occasionally. Usually it's around some kind of an event, when maybe we want to let the other one know something is happening so that we can be prepared for it. I have had the opportunity to meet a couple more victims of the tragedy since the book came out.
The concept of "brain health," and the need to destigmatize brain health are strong messages in your book. How do you think our society is doing with this today vs 17 years ago?
I believe that we have made a lot of progress in 17 years. For example, even the willingness to have a discussion about a murderer who then takes his own life, which is really experiencing a murder-suicide event, is a more recent phenomenon. I think there are still some people who are not able to acknowledge this discussion. But what I have seen is that so many people are ready and so many of us out there love people who have harmed themselves or harmed other people. And we really believe that something has malfunctioned, that this is not the person we knew, this is not the child that we raised., I see more and more that people are eager to understand., They are hungry for this discussion, of how brain function interacts with behaviors of violence towards self or others. I think it's absolutely the right time to start talking about it.
I know that you're very involved in those efforts. Are you politically involved at all? Given that this is an election year, what President do you think would be the best advocate for brain health?
I don't have involvement at the national level at this moment. I'm connected with networks in the mental health and suicide prevention community, and when certain bills come up on mental health parity or perhaps, a Zero Suicide initiative that is right now being discussed in Colorado, I usually weigh in by notifying my elected officials, just to let them know my opinion and tell them why I support something or why I don't.
In your book you say there were many signs of depression that Dylan displayed that you were not aware of at the time. What would you tell our readers, who may have friends or loved ones who are demonstrating similar behaviors, to do as a first step in approaching their friends and loved ones?
There is a wonderful training that I have taken, and I recommend it to people. It's called Mental Health First Aid, and they have two versions of this training, one for adults, and one for children, for teens. I think the most important thing to do - and the course teaches this in greater detail - is if you see something that could indicate that someone is struggling, to express your concern and ask open-ended questions. It's difficult sometimes to identify whether someone has behaviors that are indicative of something wrong, or whether it's just normal teenage behavior. (It's very difficult to tell the difference because, for example, with depression, someone can be moody, someone can be withdrawn, there could be a change in behavior, there could be sleep patterns that change. This could be also part of adolescence, so how do we know?) The way that we might begin to know this is if we ask. I think parents, all of us, have to do a better job of asking.
The other thing that we have to do is be able to listen. Parents are so quick to try to fix what our children are experiencing when they're in pain. We try to comfort them, we try to say, if they think they're ugly, "well I think you're pretty," or, "you won't always feel this way," and "adolescence is difficult." I think we have to do a much better job of hearing what our children have to say and forcing ourselves not to jump to try to fix it, but to just listen. I did speak with a psychiatrist that I had talked with in one of my interviews, and he had a wonderful quote that I'd like to share. He said, for any parent who has a moody teenager, I recommend that you ask 'What is something that no one in the world understands about you, that causes you pain?' I thought that was a really good question. Then he said, let them finish answering, don't speak, just listen, and then say, tell me more about that." I thought that was very good advice.
One of the things taught in Mental Health First Aid training is to listen without judgment, without trying to fix it, to validate what someone feels, and not try to talk them out of their feelings or tell them why they shouldn't feel that way. I recommend the training for everybody because you never know when you, yourself, or someone you love is going to have some kind of a mental health issue or condition. We need to know how to help someone in distress. There are too many people who suffer in silence because they don't know how to get help, they don't know what to do, they don't want to be stigmatized. This is a first step in trying to get some help.
Writing was an outlet for both you and Dylan. What kind of a role does writing play in your life today. You wrote this book. Are you still journaling?
I have stopped journaling for the most part, but I do an awful lot of correspondence, and emails, and I stay in touch with so many people that I know. I'm at my computer writing constantly. I'm not keeping these for my own records, I'm sending people emails, or I'm writing letters, and I'm really thinking, as you ask that question, that it's very important for me to go back to journaling, and really make sure that I write for me, and continue to do that. I think it's a really necessary thing for me to do, and I think I need to do more of that.
We talk to a lot of avid readers who have said that reading has helped get them through very trying times. Are there any books that were particularly helpful to you over the past 17 years? Any fiction books that have helped you?
I read a lot of non-fiction. I read a lot about suicide loss, and a lot of suicide loss survivors find it very helpful to read about that. I guess that's called bibliotherapy. I read about things that I am interested in - art or yoga. As far as fiction goes, I don't read much fiction anymore. I used to read a lot of fiction. But I haven't read much really since Dylan died. I don't know why. That's an interesting point, I hadn't really thought about that. Mostly what I read is non-fiction. I love biographies. I'm reading right now No Ordinary Time about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Those are the kinds of things I really enjoy reading I think - biographies, more than anything else.
I always ask our authors - what type of readers do you think should read your book?
I'm going to answer that based on the feedback that I've gotten. I have had many people say that I think every parent, especially a parent of teens, or tweens, should read your book. I really hope that parents will read this book because I don't want any parent to ever have to go through what I went through, and I don't want any parent to have to look back and realize that their child was suffering and they didn't see it, didn't know how to ask, didn't know what to do. That's a very difficult thing to live with. So I think more than anything I was writing for other parents. I was also writing to other survivors of loss because I think it is helpful for all of us who have lost loved ones or who struggle with loved ones who are experiencing hardship. I think it's helpful to know that other people get through these things and that we can get through them too.
This interview has been edited