I was intrigued by Sue Klebold’s book from the very second I learned about it… Ever since I read Columbine for the first time in 2012, I have wondered about the families of the two boys responsible for one of our nation’s biggest events of school violence. I knew from Dave Cullen that Dylan Klebold’s parents had stayed in Littleton after Dylan and his friend Eric took the lives of twelve of their classmates and one teacher before – ultimately – killing themselves. I always found that incredibly bold and brave but confusing and sad too. From time to time (usually when I taught Columbine), I wondered about the families of all the victims from that April day, but especially the Klebolds. Most wouldn’t call them “victims,” but they lost a son that day too. In fact, a case could be made that they lost even more than a son: They lost their reputations, their safety, many of their friends, and – worst of all – the image of the boy they had raised. How does a family go on after something like that?!?
When Sue Klebold first started making the media rounds for A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath this winter – nearly 17 years after the tragedy at Columbine – I made sure to tune in. I was skeptical – I admit. Would she try to defend her son? Was she attempting to make money off of this tragedy? Was she totally crazy? BUT, first in her interview with Diane Sawyer and then on the NPR podcast “Fresh Air”, Sue Klebold surprised me… She was well-spoken. She was gentle, but also strong. She was loving towards Dylan, but not at all dismissive of his actions. She was an advocate, a survivor, a teacher, but, mostly, she was a MOTHER.
That’s what struck me the most about Sue Klebold and her story… Every other time I’ve read or thought about Columbine, I’ve seen it through the eyes of one of the students. I was a freshman in high school in 1999, so I always related as a teenager. I could have been Rachel Scott or Cassie Bernall or – for that matter – Robyn Anderson, Dylan’s prom date the weekend before. I knew all about bullies and cliques. I could, at least on some level, grasp that side of the story, but A Mother’s Reckoning made me see what happened as a mom. And, I’m not going to lie, it almost wrecked me.
Sue Klebold was a mom and – despite the image that the media has portrayed of her son over the last two decades – Dylan was her little boy. In the book, she told stories of Dylan as a child, recounted family vacations, and described how Dylan had just chosen what dorm he would live in in college the next fall, and how he smiled when he described his senior prom. She also – beautifully – asked the questions that will haunt her for the rest of her life: What could she have done better? How did she miss the signs that things had gotten so horribly out of control? WHY did this happen?
I, literally, tore through the book in a few days. At times I didn’t WANT to read it because it was so painful, and intense, and – frankly – frightening. But, I also couldn’t stop.
It’s hard to explain how exactly, but Klebold managed to strike a perfect balance of taking responsibility for Dylan’s actions and offering her sincerest apologies while never wavering in her love and devotion to him. Even she admitted that there were things she wished she’d done differently in raising both of her boys, but what mother – looking back – wouldn’t say that? While what Dylan did was absolutely inexcusable, I found myself – strangely almost – inspired by the unconditional love she had for her son.
Beyond that, I found Klebold’s account of the legal side of things – what they were advised to say and do, etc. – and her perspective on the media’s portrayal of Dylan and her family fascinating. More so, the human aspect of her grief and healing was breathtaking… Parts of the book were taken from her journals in the days and months after the shooting, and the writing was gripping and raw… In one scene, she talked about standing outside of her house on the driveway for hours BEGGING someone to tell her what had happened to her son and a police officer finally telling her – coldly – that he had killed himself. I cried. At other places, I imagined Dylan as a preschooler wearing a bucket on his head or learning to ski, and I laughed. This book – if it did nothing else – made me FEEL.
It did more though… One thing that came across very clearly in reading the book and hearing Klebold’s interviews was her intentions for it. She wanted this book to be a warning to parents about the dangers of mental illness. She, admittedly, missed signs and will live with the shame and guilt of that for the rest of her life. This book is an attempt to save other families from that same fate. In addition, she committed to giving ALL profits from the sale of the book to organizations committed to mental health.
I hate to “score” a book like this. It was well-written, captivating, and powerful. More importantly, It made me rethink how I view mental illness as something that doesn’t “happen” to “normal families.” I think I will be a better mom (and teacher) for reading this book. That’s big.
It isn’t for everyone. It is HARD to process. But, in my opinion, it is worth it.
I learned today that May is Children’s Mental Health Awareness month. In honor of that, and Mother’s Day this Sunday, read this book. Buy it for a friend. Talk about it with someone. (Email me if you want.)
And Sue, if you ever happen upon this, THANK YOU. You are brave, and if I ever had the opportunity, I’d give you a hug and tell you you are a GOOD MOM.
P.S. I apologize for the heavy topics lately, but this is something near and dear to my heart as I work with teenagers in a high school every day. It’ll be back to normal chit-chat tomorrow; but, if you do want more, check out the following older posts:
“I Feel Safe: Some Thoughts on School Violence”
Megan W says
Saying I loved the book Columbine doesn’t exactly feel right, but I absolutely think it’s one of the best and most important books I’ve ever read. After reading your review, I think I feel the same about A Mother’s Reckoning. I didn’t even realize that Sue Klebold wrote a book and I’m so glad you brought it to my attention.
Breaking the silence on mental health is so important. Not only do I constantly battle anxiety and depression, but I teach 8th and 9th graders and wow do I see the overt and covert signs of it everywhere. A few weeks ago we had a 9th grader commit suicide seemingly out of nowhere. His mother then publicly apologized for all the people her son’s suicide hurt. I’m just broken-hearted for everyone involved.
Wow, after reading this review, I definitely want to read the book. I also listened to Sue’s interview on Fresh Air and was impressed with her. Since having kids, anytime someone is on the news for some terrible crime, I always think about how, at some point, this was somebody’s baby. Or child. And that people aren’t monsters from the time they’re born. And then I get sad about how wrecked life can make us sometimes. It’s a good reminder to show love and kindness to all people, no matter what – especially during the formative school years.
One of my greatest fears as a mother is failing my kids. What if one of them had a mental illness and I missed the signs? I don’t think there’s a way to 100% ensure that doesn’t happen, but I’m grateful to people like Sue for writing about their extremely difficult experiences to try to help.
As a grieving friend of a murder-suicide perpetrator, my appreciation knows no bounds for Sue Klebold’s choice to write this book and speak at Ted and make her own side of the story more understood. I overall agree with what you say about thus review more that I’ve listened to 8 out of 11 hours of the audiobook version which she narrated herself. It’s really a testament to the complexity of humanity.
About *this *book, in this review