A Mother’s Reckoning

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
Published: 2016
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting rampage in their highschool, Columbine High, killing 12 students and 1 teacher, and inflicting harm on countless lives not just among students that day but among the members of a quiet, suburban community. Columbine would become a byword for school shootings, a sick kind of gold standard other disturbed young people aspire to. This book came 17 years after the tragedy, written…

“I had a short, vivid vision that I was standing with a multitude of spirits, all of whom suffered. They were all ages, sizes, and races; I couldn’t tell who was male & who was female. Their heads were bowed and covered with tattered white robes. My old life had come to an end, and a new one had begun; a life in which joy, once so abundant, would simply be a memory. Sorrow, I understood with a painful clarify, would transport me through the rest of this life.” – Sue Klebold

Nothing at all could have prepared me for this book. I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to read it, I was afraid of the usual money-grab that happens in the wake of a tragedy. But this book was published 17 years after what happened. Reading the official website for the book, majority of the profits go to charitable causes for suicide prevention, including including Mental Health America (MHA), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), American Association of Suicidology (AAS) and Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

I came across this book in a roundabout way. I was reading Irresistible by Adam Alter, a book about behavioral addiction. He mentioned in his book that Eric Harris was textbook psychopath, but Dylan Klebold  had been suicidal, depressed. That surprised me. I read the book Columbine by David Coulter after that, curious about this piece of information. I read A Mother’s Reckoning after, fresh from the insights I gleaned from David Coulter’s book.

Sue Klebold’s account is very simply written, it was like listening to somebody very carefully trying to recall that life-changing moment and the earthquakes that came after. Trying to balance being honest and avoiding retraumatizing the victims. I was on my junior year in college when the Columbine shooting happened, and honestly I never gave a thought to the parents of the shooters. In my mind they were just as guilty as their children for missing the signs of psychological deterioration that led to the massacre. David Coulter’s book showed how Eric and Dylan lied and manipulated the adults around them, they lied even to people they consider their friends.

Sue Klebold’s book is a rare peek inside a parent’s perspective. It shows how she struggled with fear that her son was in the line of fire in a school shooting, and the horror that unfolded when she realized that it was her son who was doing the shooting. The book alternates pre-shooting and post-shooting memories, giving the readers an understanding that before Dylan became this monster, he was somebody’s beloved son. In a very motherly, gentle way, she humanized him without removing his culpability in the shooting. It included not just tender memories of Dylan as a kind, precocious, emotionally demonstrative child, but also snippets from her journal entries before and after the shooting.

The book asks the question we all probably ask every time we read about a school shooting; how could the parents not know? Many people would like to think that they can spot a troubled child capable of horrific violence, and that only parents who don’t have a good relationship with their children will miss the warning signs. We want to believe that we can easily pick out a monster from the crowd, but this book is a reminder that oftentimes, the signs are really easy to miss. In the same way that parents and other family members who had to suffer through another family member’s suicide can often ask themselves how could I miss the signs? Children often manage their parents’ expectations by showing them only what they want to show them. My own mother once told me that she realized how parents are often the last to know when something is not going right in their children’s lives. The quality of a young person’s inner life is often very well-hidden from the adults around them.

The book relates how Sue’s family had to face the lawsuits that drove them to bankruptcy afterwards, how it affected her marriage, how she would spend her life both in a kind of solitary confinement and a public spotlight. The way that she described her grief, the guilt that she felt, the heartbreak of losing and grieving for her son and for the people he had hurt, it really touched me to the core.

This is an unforgettable book, and many times while reading it, I find myself crying and pausing because it’s simply so emotionally overwhelming. The book ended with a recounting of how she tried to move forward with the new reality of what was now her life, and how she used the painful lessons to help other parents like her understand depression. In a community of suicide survivors, she finally found her bearings again.

The book is emotionally engaging, and written with a sensitive tone. It’s insightful and honest, admitting the fact that in the end, it’s quite impossible to make complete sense of tragedies such as this. It chronicles how she embraced the full immensity of grieving for the death of her son, and realizing that in spite of how she and her husband had raised him, he had done what he did.

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