After sixteen years, I can still remember the day of the Columbine shootings. Two high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, injured 24 people, killed 13 and then killed themselves. The media coverage continued for months with many stories of the deaths and survivors of the tragedy. Admittedly, I did not give much thought to the families of the two shooters except to dismiss them as examples of poor parenting. I couldn’t be more wrong.
Sue Klebold, in her book A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, honestly and transparently addresses the most dominate question. How could you have not known? She willingly exposes her own journal entries, thoughts, fears, insecurities, and mixed emotions of guilt, anger, deep sadness, and remorse while bravely confronting her own and society’s mischaracterizations about Dylan. It is an important read for any professional dealing with teenagers, parents, and families.
There are several things the book taught me as a result of Sue’s unfathomable exploration into her and her son’s inner life.
- Healthy families do not always result in healthy kids. There is a belief that if a child grows up in an excellent environment that everything will turn out fine. It stems from our desire to want to ensure positive and minimize negative outcomes. But somethings are beyond our control. The Klebolds (by their own account), Dylan’s, and independent verification from other Columbine authors such as Andrew Solomon and Dave Cullen, had a well-integrated family. Still, that was not enough to stop the tragedy.
- Murder-suicide begins with suicide than moves to murder. The decision process begins with an attitude that death is preferable to life. A person becomes comfortable with dying and then decides how they want to die. The desire to take other lives becomes part of a guarantee that that the suicide will be carried out. This does not diminish the intent of murder; rather it is another perspective of how a person may view it.
- Be careful about assuming parental irresponsibility. Early on during the coverage of the tragedy, there was much discussion about mistakes the parents made in not foreseeing such an event. But having read several books now on the issue, I can see that the boys were excellent at hiding their plans from everyone including their friends and parents. Too often society looks for someone alive to blame for the errors of others and parents are the first target. While there are some bad parents in this world, not every child who does a bad thing has come from a bad parent.
- Not everyone displays the warning signs. Most professionals are well versed on the warning signs of a troubled person but not everyone fits neatly into the mold. Some signals can be so subtle that even the most adept can miss it. Likewise, some people are so good at hiding their symptoms that even the closest of friends or family members might overlook the potential harm. This is not a popular lesson where diagnoses are generously given to place individuals into molds of predictable behavior.
- Even professionals can be misled. It was a revelation to me that Dylan and Eric both participated and completed therapy and a diversion program just a few months prior to the tragedy. Law enforcement, the judicial system and the therapeutic community all gave the boys a healthy prognosis. As a parent, if I were in that place just a month prior to the event, I too would be resting easy that the worst was behind having trusted the professionals. Again, I would be wrong.
- Tragedies don’t go away, they just change form. Sue’s candidness of her journey before, during and after the tragedy is captivating. She analyzes every aspect of her own beliefs, thoughts, reactions and emotions in an attempt to put the shattered pieces of her son’s life together. While she makes no excuses for his behavior, she does openly share her insights into the making of a horrific day. Her conclusions changed the way I saw the event and the participants.
- Early conclusions were completely wrong. There were numerous stories of bullying being the cause of the problem, the wrong peer group (Trench Coat Mafia), intentionally signaling out students, or detached/passive parenting. All of these were wrong. The truth is that the boys intended to kill many more than they did before committing suicide. Their reasons for doing so were different for each one. After their deaths, Eric was diagnosed as a psychopath while Dylan was diagnosed as avoidant/depressive. The rush to explain their actions resulted in much misinformation.
- There is such a thing as grace under pressure. If there is ever an example of grace under pressure, it is Sue Klebold. The personal death threats she endured, the deep sadness and grief over the loss of her child, the forced reality of what he did, and the scrutiny by media, family, friends, doctors, lawyers, other parents, and the police was intense. While she would most likely never call herself graceful, it is a testament to her character that she was able to persist despite severe circumstances and share her journey with anyone willing to read.
As a side note, I do not know Sue Klebold nor am I receiving any compensation for writing this. These observations are my personal takeaways from a very powerful book.