A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, reviewed.

Sue Klebold’s Memoir Shows Us What It’s Like to Live With the Devastating Guilt of “What If”

Sue Klebold’s Memoir Shows Us What It’s Like to Live With the Devastating Guilt of “What If”

Reading between the lines.
March 9 2016 3:07 PM

“This Child Will Bring Me a Terrible Sorrow”

A devastating memoir by Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, explains what it’s like to live with guilt of “what if.”

Sue Klebold
Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, poses for a portrait on Feb. 23, 2016.

AAron Ontiveroz/the Denver Post via Getty Images

On Sept. 11, 1981, the day Sue Klebold gave birth to her second son, Dylan, she was struck with a sense of foreboding as she held him in her arms. “It was as if a bird of prey had passed overhead, casting us into shadow. Looking down at the prefect bundle in my arms, I was overcome by a strong premonition: this child would bring me a terrible sorrow.”

There is a particular sort of tightrope the author of a book about a mass killing has to walk in order to sufficiently humanize the killers without excusing them—especially if that author happens to be the mother of the mass murderer, as is the case with A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold. Her son Dylan Klebold killed himself after he and his classmate Eric Harris carried out the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in which 12 students and one teacher died and more than 20 others were wounded.

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The tightrope Sue Klebold is walking here is evident from out the outset. In the book’s introduction, written by one of the world’s most accomplished authorities on the subject, Andrew Solomon—who authored Far From the Tree, a book about extreme relationships between parents and children, and also profiled Newtown shooter Adam Lanza’s father for the New Yorkerwrites: “The ultimate message of this book is terrifying: you may not know your own children, and worse yet, your children may be unknowable to you. The stranger you fear may be your own son or daughter.” Thus he establishes the narrative minefield Klebold will have to navigate: delving into the psychology of her son without sympathizing with his actions, conveying the unique heartbreak of having your own flesh and blood turn into something you don’t even recognize.   

Klebold recollects a confident, if unremarkable, child. All the tropes of such post-tragedy retrospectives are here: how normal everything seemed, how absent of portents. She worked with disabled college students, and Dylan’s dad, Tom, operated a mortgage management business from his home. Father and son bonded over a shared love of baseball. “This wasn’t a kid we worried and prayed over, hoping he would eventually find his way and lead a productive life,” Klebold says. “We called him ‘The Sunshine Boy’—not just because of his halo of blond hair, but because everything seemed to come easily to him.”

Because he was tall and academically gifted, Dylan entered school a year early and was quick to adapt. He seemed to be a happy child who dealt well with adversity. Klebold fondly recalls when her son, at age 10, insisted on going sightseeing with friends shortly after having a misplaced, deeply embedded tooth removed.

“I winced whenever I looked at his pale, swollen face,” Klebold writes, “but he didn’t miss a beat—riding go-karts, eating ice cream, and taking the train up Pikes Peak, a mountain with an elevation of more than 14,000 feet and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. When I anxiously made eye contact with him through the rearview mirror on our way from one place to the next, he smiled softly at me to dispel my worries.”

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She recalls that she and her husband were shocked after Dylan and his friend Eric Harris were arrested during their junior year for breaking into a van and stealing electronic equipment. But after Dylan successfully navigated through a counseling program offered as an alternative to jail time, his parents dismissed it as an out-of-character act. Three days before the shooting, Dylan was smiling in prom pictures with his date. And then, at 12:05 p.m. on April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold noticed that the red light on her office phone was blinking.

The message was from her husband: “Susan—this is an emergency! Call me back immediately.” Klebold continues: “He didn’t say anything more. He didn’t have to: I knew just from the sound of his voice that something had happened to one of our boys.”

Klebold only realized after the attack that her son was suffering in silence from depression. And so her memoir picks up most of its emotional momentum in the wake of the shooting, when Klebold becomes obsessed with putting the pieces together and agonizes over missed clues.

There was the story Dylan had written for class about a man dressed in black attacking some popular kids. It was enough to alarm a teacher, but the Klebolds never saw the essay since Dylan never showed it to them. The Klebolds also had no idea that their son smoked, drank, or thought obsessively of ending his own life. They also knew little of his co-conspirator, Eric Harris, who had been stockpiling weapons and whose diary entries revealed psychotic tendencies.

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Amid all the “what if”s, one looms particularly large in Klebold’s memory. The morning of April 20, upon hearing the quiet commotion of her son getting ready for school a little earlier than usual, she called out to him. She remembers: “Out of the blackness, his voice sharp and decisive, I heard my son yell, ‘Bye,’ and then the front door shut firmly behind him. He was gone before I could even turn on the hallway light. Unsettled by the exchange, I turned back to the bed and woke Tom. There had been an edge to Dylan’s voice in that single word I’d never heard before—a sneer, almost, as if he’d been caught in the middle of a fight with someone.” Even now, the moment replays like a loop her mind. What if she had stopped him? It’s a question the reader can’t escape, either.

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A Mother’s Reckoning spends some time trying to come up with a solution to the rash of mass shootings, mulling the disastrous failure of our gun legislation. But this book doesn’t make a particularly useful cautionary tale for the merits of gun control laws. Not only was the Klebold family fiercely against firearms to begin with, but Dylan acted outside of existing laws by illegally purchasing his firearms from his friends.

No memoir is going to end the debate over gun control in America. But this book has different activist aims: Klebold, who has become an advocate in suicide prevention, sees brain health as the key to unlocking the mystery behind her son and the countless tragedies that had preceded his death. She wants to save other parents from her own plight. She admits that she and her husband knew from his demeanor that something was bothering Dylan his senior year, but they “simply—drastically and lethally—underestimated the depth and severity of his pain and everything he was capable of doing to make it stop.”

It’s hard not to feel like Klebold’s arguments, no matter how compelling, are ultimately undermined by her own experience. She writes: “Because if anyone had peeked inside our lives before Columbine, I believe that what they would have seen, even with the tightest zoom lens, was thoroughly ordinary, no different from the lives unfolding in countless homes across the country.” This is the central tragedy of A Mother’s Reckoning: Klebold’s helplessness, despite her retroactive insistence that there were warning signs, the insistent sense that her son seemed so much like an average, troubled kid.

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And so A Mother’s Reckoning ultimately shines most as a vehicle for humanizing Klebold herself: as a compelling story about the perseverance of a mother trying to survive under some of the most unthinkable and extraordinary of circumstances, reminding us that both sides of any tragedy, no matter the scale and barbarity, are often more complicated than they seem. We are taken through several stages of her mourning, from the carefully crafted letters she sent to all the victims, to the paralyzing fears that her husband and oldest son Byron would follow Dylan and take their own lives too.

For many readers, the mother will always carry some form of culpability. This is a fact Klebold doesn’t run away from. For years, the Klebolds shunned the press out of fear about how their comments would be construed and even fear for their lives, in light of threats they received. Sue Klebold is keenly self-aware that her readership might include her son’s victims, and her feelings of guilt looms large over every page. At several points she says, “I know how telling these stories here exposes me to further criticism” or some variation of this, of rationalizing her right to tell her story. In the first half of the book, these postures can sometimes break up an otherwise rich narrative. But it is also that pure rawness, her almost stream-of-consciousness writing, that makes A Mother’s Reckoning so powerful. In some ways it’s a book that every parent could benefit from reading: It has the potential to prime all parents to assess their children’s emotional landscape with new empathy and alertness, as impossible as it may be to forestall every tragedy. (It is also worth noting that all author proceeds are going to charity.)

The prose can be awkward, but its very stiltedness gives it a kind of tortured eloquence. Take the passage where Klebold describes Dylan’s cremation: “It was a chilly spring day, and I was overcome by a compulsive, almost biological need to make Dylan warm. I could not stop rubbing his ice-cold arms, exposed by the short-sleeved hospital gown he was wearing. I had to hold myself back from climbing into the casket so I could cover him with the warmth of my body.”

Through it all, we are left, above all, with the anguish of a mother who lost a son. It is a fate Klebold is condemned to visit again and again in a cryptic dream: “In it, I see Dylan’s bloody bones scattered across a forest floor. I collect them, one by one in my arms, afraid to put them down lest they be stolen or lost, but there is no safe place for them, so I am left helplessly clutching the sticky, blood-soaked bones to my chest.”

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold. Crown.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.