A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The author is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine High School shooters, a description she acknowledges will be the first and defining one she must wear for the rest of her life. The title is quite self-explanatory. It’s the story of what it’s like to live with the guilt, shame, public abuse and recovery from what her son did. Intentionally I have not read other reviews of it but I suspect many will be judgmental, calling the book the author’s attempt to shift blame from herself or simply the apologia of a woman who is blind to her own bad parenting. Others will no doubt be very sympathetic and give stories of suicides or violent crimes in their own families or circles and how they had not seen them coming. I will try to avoid falling into either camp. I do not judge Sue Klebold harshly nor do I exonerate her. I did not know her or her son or anyone else connected with the tragedy. I do know from my FBI years that people can lie and conceal their bad (I’ll refrain from using the term evil) thoughts and deeds from others. I never knew when people were lying to me unless I had independent proof one way or another. Children, especially teens, are extremely successful at concealing from their parents whatever they want to conceal. I also know first-hand what it was like to be a hormone-infused teenager, although I certainly never had thoughts of violence. So I withhold judgment of Sue Klebold as a parent.
This is, after all, a book review, and my goal is to let you know whether it is a book worth reading. For me it was. Most of us are interested or even fascinated by horrendous crimes. We want to know why they happened and how to prevent them. We want to learn something that will allow us to feel that it couldn’t have happened to us. I doubt this book will assuage those fears, but it does give us enough history of Dylan and his family and friends to make our own judgment on that. The first third or perhaps half of the book describes Dylan’s upbringing and family life, his personality, with an emphasis on how normal and happy he was, or at least seemed. While the author can never be objective about this, it isn’t difficult for me to find her descriptions to be credible. As she moves through the telling she is quick to acknowledge that Dylan was not innocent by any stretch of the imagination. She realizes she was in denial about this for a long time after the massacre, wanting to believe he was somehow coerced or brainwashed by Eric Harris, his co-shooter, or was in a drug-induced frenzy, or perhaps didn’t actually kill anyone himself. She was disabused of all these notions when confronted with the evidence by the sheriff’s office. It was interesting to me to learn many of the details I did not know about the crime itself and how the family, the investigators, and the lawyers handled it, how Dylan concealed his intentions from his family and friends. That’s a rather short section in the middle. I hesitate to use the word “entertained” in connection with such a horrific event, but ultimately the book had me engaged intensely through most of it.
Perhaps most interesting to me, and something mentioned almost in passing in the book, is how Dylan had a crush on a girl who was totally unaware of his devotion or obsession or however you wish to characterize it. Apparently he never approached her or told her of his feelings. Personally I think this was a huge factor whether conscious or subconscious in his decision to do what he did. I remember the intense yearning mixed with fear of rejection of those days and how those emotions can override logic. The author puts more stock in the violent video games Dylan played and the bullying he experienced (and which she had no idea of until after the shooting). To Dylan “life was unfair” and it fueled a rage in him that led to the deaths of a dozen and the maiming of dozens more.
The author writes well even if you don’t buy everything she says. The final third of the book is largely about ways to cope and efforts to reduce violence. She has been active in organizations meant to prevent suicide or help survivors deal with it. There is a great deal of material from psychologists or other researchers or professionals and links and citations the interested reader can follow. No doubt there is much that is insightful and worth being aware of, but I also felt there was a lot of psychobabble and buzz words (like “brain illness,” a term the author overuses). The wheat and chaff weren’t easy to tell apart, which makes it all rather useless in my book. Although it may seem cold and heartless to say so, my personal view is that we are like computer chips. This sort of mental aberration is simply defective circuitry. We are all, after all, bags of molecules like rocks, trees, computer chips, and animals. Whether our behavior is governed by Newton’s laws, our DNA, or some circuit designer’s photomask, if there is a defect, the bag of molecules doesn’t work right. Chip makers don’t try to fix bad chips. They produce them by the thousands, test them, and then crush to smithereens the ones that don’t pass. It used to work that way with humans, too. Before effective birth control, many women would bear ten, fifteen, even twenty children if they lived long enough. Two or three babies might die in childbirth or soon thereafter. Another one or two would die of measles, or scarlet fever, or get killed by a kick from a cow. Survival of the fittest wasn’t a theory, it was the way of life. Now we try to keep everyone alive no matter how screwed up and whatever the cost to society. I’m not arguing against that, but I believe in the long run it is an unsustainable model. I don’t believe Dylan Klebold could have been detected as seriously mentally or otherwise defective before the shooting, but many dangerous people can be before the tragic event happens. For them the only real solution is isolation from society whether it be by imprisonment, execution, exile, or any other method that effectively separates them from the mainstream. I think we need to return to the concept of insane asylums. Of course abuses have occurred and will always be possible when we lock people away, but the alternative is an indeterminable number of Columbines. Mass shootings (and bombings and plowing trucks into crowds) are on the increase and they are virtually all done by crazy people. I believe many are preventable.
As a former FBI agent and lawyer I would have liked to have seen more about the crime details, the investigation, and the civil lawsuits. In that I was disappointed. But the book does not misrepresent or sensationalize what it is. It simply tells what it is like to live as the mother of a mass murderer. If that interests you, this is a well-written and frank account of one woman’s experience.
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