It’s not really relevant to the tragedy, but much like I remember exactly where I was on 9/11, I remember where I was on April 20, 1999, when I heard about what had happened at Columbine High School. I was ten years old, in the fourth grade, and I was with my dad on one of his side jobs after he’d picked me up from school. I think he was fixing a refrigerator or something at a bar or pizza joint of some sort. I remember sitting in the dimly lit bar watching CNN on one of the TVs most likely reserved for viewing ESPN mounted in the corner of the room, seeing footage of kids running frantically down the hill away from the school. I was a naturally anxious kid, but I always thought I was safe at school. Columbine was a watershed moment in the way it forced people to look at security in schools, our nation’s growing obsession with guns, bullying, and adolescent mental health. “Columbine” alone is one of those words that is inextricably linked to human suffering. Everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say it; there is no need for further explanation.
Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two boys (the other being Eric Harris) who killed twelve students and a teacher and injured more than twenty others that day at Columbine. She is a brain health advocate and works in suicide prevention. Her book takes the reader through Dylan’s childhood and upbringing as context for what happened at Columbine, and also to identify certain warning signs in Dylan’s behavior that she and her husband, Tom, didn’t realize were red flags. The whole book is really an answer to accusations that any decent parent would know that their child was planning a massacre of this magnitude. How could the Klebolds not know their son was colluding with his friend to murder their schoolmates?
In making her claim (supported by interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, and other brain health and criminal justice professionals) that Dylan was suicidally depressed for years prior to Columbine and viewed the tragedy as an opportunity to end his life without caring who else he took with him, Klebold tries not to make excuses for her son; although she maintains that Dylan would not have planned an attack on the school without the influence of Eric Harris, she holds him accountable for his actions, especially when recounting the day when the Littleton police presented their account of what happened. It took six months for the timeline and play-by-play of the events of April 20 to be finalized and presented to the victims’ families, the Klebolds, and the Harrises, and in that time Klebold imagined that Dylan had merely gone along with Eric’s plan1, but they learned from the police reports that Dylan killed five of the victims and shot several others. It was just really sad to read about the fresh wave of grief this realization caused her. It would be so easy to blame it on the other kid, but she didn’t.
I started reading this book already knowing a lot about the Columbine massacre because I’ve read the Wikipedia page pretty thoroughly,2 and when I was in sixth grade (and again in my final year of Sunday school as a high school junior) I read Misty Bernall’s She Said Yes, which is about her daughter, Cassie, one of the girls who was killed at Columbine. So I was less interested in the factual background of the tragedy than I was in how a kid with engaged parents and a fairly normal upbringing ended up dying so violently. It was particularly fascinating and frightening to me as a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety since childhood, although never to a suicidal degree. I always feel the need to clarify this because I think that people who don’t suffer from brain disorders assume we are all constantly on the brink of suicide, or at the very least a nervous breakdown. I’ve been in treatment since I was sixteen years old and am fairly self-aware when it comes to my symptoms. If you want someone to worry about, worry about the folks who are untreated—like Dylan.
I know there is a collective exhaustion with pathologizing middle-class, white, male mass shooters when horrific events like Columbine and Sandy Hook happen. In the media and in popular opinion, white boys who commit crimes are troubled and mentally ill but were probably good people at one point, but the rash of young black men who have been killed in recent years for any number of smaller infractions (if any) don’t seem to get handled with kid gloves in the same way. But in this particular case, I think it’s warranted because Dylan Klebold was a suicidal depressive who wanted to die but might not have acted on that desire without the influence of Eric Harris. Sue Klebold cites Thomas Joiner’s theory of suicide, a Venn diagram with three interlocking circles: thwarted belongingness (feeling isolated), perceived burdensomeness (feeling that family and friends would be better off without you), and capability for suicide (not fearing death). When the first two circles meet, that’s where a desire to die by suicide arises, but without the final circle, the suicide will most likely not happen.
Klebold shows that Dylan’s diaries (well, they’re more like scribblings on scrap paper cobbled together in his school binders) make his desire for suicide strikingly clear, but until Eric broached the plan to attack the school, he had no intention of acting on that desire. Klebold writes that Columbine probably still would have happened without Dylan, but it most certainly wouldn’t have happened without Eric. Her description of the so-called “Basement Tapes”3 is especially chilling. It might be a mother’s wishful thinking, but there are points in her description of the videos’ contents where she thinks she can hear Dylan’s hesitance to go along with Eric and his unwillingness to say bad things about his family. It’s just really sad. I never expected to empathize with a school shooter, and I think that’s why I had to get this all out in writing. Obviously, I feel worse for his parents and for the families of the students and staff whose lives were brutally cut short by these two very disturbed individuals, and I’m angry that they were able to obtain that kind of firepower because of this country’s deeply misguided attitude toward gun control.
I worry that this review is maybe too lenient and lets the Klebolds off the hook for not recognizing the seriousness of Dylan’s descent into destruction—I mean, he had a criminal record before the shooting. But hindsight is 20/20 and people who struggle with mental illness quickly learn to become very good at hiding it.4 Of course Sue Klebold isn’t going to be (and honestly can’t be) one hundred percent objective on the topic of the Columbine shooting; Dylan was her son and she still carries a lot of guilt and sorrow about the way he left this world and ruined so many lives in the process. But I’m also pretty sure I was emotionally manipulated to some degree, so you sort of have to take all of this with a grain of salt. I think it’s worth a read, anyway.
- Harris honestly sounds like a real psychopath in the true sense of the word, and I’m sort of impressed that Sue Klebold didn’t paint an uglier picture of him in the book or place more blame on him. Of course, having fifteen years’ worth of perspective on it is bound to dull some of the anger.
- This is a blog, not a term paper. Wikipedia’s a pretty good resource/jumping-off point for further research, too.
- This isn’t a link to the tapes; it’s an article about how they were destroyed. They were never released to the public because Sue Klebold was worried about copycat killers being inspired by the invective contained within the recordings.
- I mean, I had to lie about my antidepressant usage on my application to teach English in South Korea because I never would have made it through the screening process otherwise, and once I actually moved there, I made a point of seeing a psychiatrist on the opposite end of the city to get my prescriptions refilled so I wouldn’t run the risk of bumping into one of my students or colleagues. It’s only in the last two or three years that I’ve opened up about my anxiety and depression and ADHD because the tide seems to be changing somewhat regarding the stigma surrounding mental health issues.