On April the 20th 1999, Dylan Klebold and his friend, Eric Harris, killed thirteen people – twelve students and one teacher – at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before taking their own lives. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy was written by Dylan’s mother, Sue, in order to try and deal with her son’s actions.
Of course, A Mother’s Reckoning is harrowing in its content, from its informative and thoughtful introduction by Andrew Solomon to its closing pages. In her preface to the paperback edition, Klebold tells us: ‘I began writing about the experience of Columbine almost from the moment it happened, because writing about my son’s cruel behavior and his suicide was one of the ways I coped with the tragedy. I never made a conscious decision to write. I kept writing just as I kept breathing.’ At first, Klebold’s writing was merely personal; she was writing for herself, and did not wish to put her family, or other members of the community, through the ‘shattering experience’ of Columbine once more if it were published.
After a while, however, her view changed. She writes: ‘In the end, I was able to take that step [of publishing A Mother’s Reckoning] because the messages I hoped to convey were a matter of life and death. I felt a responsibility to educate parents and families about what happened, and why. I believed that hearing what Dylan had gone through might be beneficial to others, especially those who are struggling with lethal thoughts, or who find themselves or their loved ones trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.’ Klebold now uses her platform to try and educate others about violence, suicide, and mental health, at both a local and national level, and works tirelessly for suicide prevention in the United States.
A Mother’s Reckoning uses excerpts from Klebold’s diaries, as well as reflective passages. She has interviewed a wealth of experts from many fields, from law enforcement to psychology, and has woven in their thoughts and arguments too. Klebold’s prose is easy to read, but her story is not. This is particularly true when she recounts, in very matter-of-fact and almost emotionless prose, the details of the shooting.
The memoir begins with the phonecall which Klebold receives from her frenzied husband, Tom on the day of the shooting. At first, unclear about the situation, she naturally thinks that her son may have been hurt in the shooting; it is only much later that she realises he played an active role in the attack. As she hurries home from work following Tom’s call, she recalls: ‘They say your life flashes before you when you die, but on that car ride home, it was my son’s life flashing before me, like a movie reel – each precious frame both breaking my heart and filling me with desperate hope.’
From the outset, Klebold’s voice feels searingly honest. Just after the shooting, when their secluded home is filled with police and SWAT teams searching for explosives, she writes: ‘It will perhaps seem callous that my focus was so squarely on Dylan – on the question of his safety, and later on the fact of his death. But my obligation is to offer the truth to the degree to which my memory will allow, even when that truth reflects badly on me. And the truth is that my thoughts were with my son.’
Klebold describes, in quite painful detail, the process of accepting that her son both killed others, and then killed himself. She was hurt when her son and Eric Harris were left out of Columbine memorials, but entirely understands the reasoning for such a decision. She speaks throughout of the trauma which she and her family encountered, shunned by many members of the larger community, who believed that Dylan’s upbringing was to blame. She tells us of her disbelief at Dylan’s involvement, which lasted for years afterwards: ‘A mechanism to preserve our sanity kicks in and lets in only what we can bear, a little at a time. It is a defense mechanism, breathtaking in its power both to shield and to distort.’
Throughout, she shows such compassion to the victims, and takes a month to write to each of their families individually, to express her sorrow. Another motivation for Klebold in writing this memoir was as follows: ‘… I hope to honor the memories of the people my son killed. The best way I know to do that is to be truthful, to the best of my ability. And so, this is the truth: my tears for the victims did eventually come, and they still do. But they did not come that day.’ She speaks of writing as her therapy, whether this was addressed to the families of the victims, or in the pages of her own journal: ‘After Columbine, the relief I got from writing felt almost physical, if temporary. My diaries became the place for me to corral the myriad, often contradictory feelings I had about my son and what he had done. In the earliest days, writing allowed me to process my tremendous grief for the sorrow and suffering Dylan had caused. Before I could reach out personally to the families of the victims, the journals were a place for me to apologize to them with all my heart, and to grieve privately for the losses they had sustained.’
Klebold talks of the fierce anti-gun stance which she and her husband had, not allowing their sons to own guns like a lot of their peers. In fact, they were considering moving away from Colorado, as the gun laws had become too relaxed before Columbine occurred. She wonders, although not at length, whether this would have prevented the tragedy from occurring, but later notes that Eric Harris had approached two friends to commit the atrocity with him before planning with Dylan.
A Mother’s Reckoning must have been incredibly difficult to write, but in its approach and musings, Klebold has set the right tone. Of course, her memoir is biased in that she loved Dylan, but the memories of the son which she had often feel in conflict with what was reported about him. The final section of the book discusses at lengths the issues with media reportage of such tragedies; Klebold believes that giving out the details of the shooter, or shooters, inspires copycat behaviour, sensationalising as it does what went on. She also discusses, in this section, markers for depression and suicidal thoughts in children and young adults, and the signs which both she and her husband had just put down to the difficulties of hormonal and bodily changes.
Klebold says: ‘This Pandora’s box will never empty; I will spend the rest of my life reconciling the reality of the child I knew with what he did.’ The Columbine tragedy has affected everything in her life, and changed the way in which she views the world around her. She talks openly about the suicidal thoughts which she and her husband had, and the sheer panic which she would feel every time her older son, Byron, was out of her sight. A Mother’s Reckoning is touching and moving; it is as chilling as it is insightful, and aims to help those who may be at risk of carrying out similar attacks. Klebold has discussed not only her own feelings, but has talked about the aftermath’s effects in the wider community, in a compassionate way. A Mother’s Reckoning is an important memoir, in which Klebold exhibits such bravery, and lays her own self open.