On April 20, 1999, 12th-graders Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School before killing themselves. They’d intended to kill hundreds more, but most of their homemade bombs failed to detonate. Many subsequent school shooters have referenced Columbine, or a desire to “top” it, as inspiration. In A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue Klebold, now a suicide prevention activist, writes that “the ordinariness of our lives before Columbine will perhaps be the hardest thing” for readers to accept. The Klebolds were, by all accounts, highly involved, loving parents; Tom, a geophysicist, and Sue, a community college administrator who worked with disabled students, were also passionately anti-gun. There were no clues her son Dylan was violent, she writes, but she missed “subtle signs of psychological deterioration.” This is the first time any of the parents has spoken publicly at length, or provided details of the killers’ family histories. All Klebold’s profits from book sales will be donated to mental health research.
Q: Many people think of Columbine in terms of losers vs. jocks. But jocks were not targeted in the killings and your son wasn’t a loser, was he?
A: No. That was some of the mythology that sprang up afterwards. He was in the gifted program. From my perspective he had many friends, males and females. He did the sound for school plays, went bowling with friends, they had a fantasy baseball league.
Didn’t he volunteer at a daycare centre?
He did. He was a wonderful, beloved son to me. He was considered a very thoughtful and caring friend. It’s very hard still to grasp that he was able to do what he did because that isn’t who he was to me or to anyone who knew him.
But Dylan did get into serious trouble in high school: he and Eric Harris broke into a van and stole equipment. Instead of jail, they were sentenced to a diversion program where they got counselling and did community service. Wasn’t that a sign that something was really wrong?
He was the kind of kid who didn’t get into trouble, who was responsible, so of course I was very upset and concerned. This was the biggest problem we’d ever had to that point. But everybody I communicated with said, “Boys act out, they do stupid things.” Dylan said, “I promise you I don’t need help, I’m going to get this together.” And he did. In that last year of his life, he was involved in activities with friends, he had a job, he applied and was accepted to four colleges—that’s not the behaviour you’d expect of someone who’s coming unglued. There wasn’t any feeling that he or anyone else was in any kind of danger. If that had been the case, I would have been frantically trying to get him help.
In the first six months after the shootings you had no detailed information about Dylan’s role. What did you think had happened?
My mind was like a hurricane—I would circle around and around. He was getting ready to go to college, he’d just gone to the prom. The idea that he could have been there on purpose was so foreign to what we’d seen, that we really believed—by “we” I mean his family and his friends—that he was somehow there by accident. We thought maybe this was a prank where something went terribly wrong, that they were planning just to act out something but not use real guns, but at the last minute they became real. I know that sounds ridiculous but these were the kinds of thoughts we were having. I thought maybe he’d acted on impulse, that it was a moment of madness.
And you prayed that in the autopsy, they’d find drugs in his system.
It would’ve explained how he could be altered into somebody who was so different from who he really was. In my mind, it couldn’t have been deliberate or vicious. When [my then-husband and I] went to hear the police report [and see the tapes the boys had made, outlining their plan] six months later and they told us about the premeditation—I was in a state of shock that was just about as severe as it was the first day. I couldn’t believe that Dylan could be so cruel, and say such horrible things, and do such terrible things.
You say you saw no signs that Dylan was capable of violence. But two years before Columbine, he was writing in his journal about wanting to die. Were his mental health issues invisible?
No. Everybody saw a little piece of the puzzle, but without the whole we couldn’t put the story together. For example, Dylan had written a paper that was very dark and violent, and his teacher mentioned that to us when we went to a [parent-teacher] meeting [a few months before the attack], but we didn’t see the paper. She said, “We’ll talk to the school counsellor, if there’s a problem, he’ll call.” He didn’t call. His math teacher said, “Dylan keeps sleeping in his calculus class.” That’s not unusual, but if you put that together with all these other pieces you might be able to say, “This person is very likely in distress and needing some help.” It isn’t a common occurrence, though, that a child who was acting like that would be planning a school shooting. It is far more likely that someone who is feeling depressed would be a danger to himself. I’m trying to help people understand that if any little thing is amiss, it could be the tip of that iceberg, it could be that you need to dig a little more deeply.
But how deeply can or should a parent try to delve into a child’s inner life?
Having been through what I’ve been through, I’d say, “Dig! Open diaries, read them.” Yet there’s a lot of evidence that that would be invasive and destroy trust. This is why I’m giving the money from this book to [mental health] research: there have to be better diagnostics, better screening, better treatments, so that if you sense there’s something wrong, you could get help.
In teenagers, the symptoms of depression look a lot like garden-variety adolescent behaviour: irritability, withdrawing. What should we look for?
One of the first things to look for is a change in behaviour. With us, the catalyst was probably when Dylan was arrested, when he’d never been in trouble in his life. Depression in kids can manifest all different ways. It can be changes in sleeping patterns, maybe they’re sleeping too much, maybe they’re not sleeping enough. With boys, it can be irritability. It can be somatic complaints, like not feeling well. With girls, maybe they would cry more. There are many different things to look for, but they are all behaviours you would see in someone who’s normal and healthy. The degree to which they experience it, the persistence, is the thing to be concerned about.
Related: Inside your teen’s scary brain
FBI profilers say your son was depressive and suicidal but likely wouldn’t have killed anyone else on his own, while Eric Harris, who masterminded the attack, was a classic psychopath, charming and incapable of empathy. Did you see signs of psychopathy in Eric?
None. I didn’t see him a lot, but every time I did I thought he acted just like any other kid. He was not overly polite or obsequious or manipulative, you couldn’t pick that up. After they had gotten into trouble we had made efforts to try to separate them, and from what I could see Dylan was doing things with other friends. Eric was part of some of the activities, but this closeness that I heard about afterward, that they had this private little world—that’s not what I observed. What I observed was my son going to a prom with 12 kids three days before he died.
And Eric was not one of them?
Eric had a website broadcasting threats, which the police had been made aware of long before Columbine by Judy Brown, the mother of a boy he threatened to kill. Should the Harrises have known their son was dangerous?
If they had been told about this website that might have made a huge difference. Seeing that site, there’s no question this individual was highly disturbed, and it was, I think, what parents would need to see to really understand the magnitude of their child’s problems. [However] Judy Brown didn’t want to make things more dangerous for her son, so she [only] told the police. But then the police didn’t follow through, and she was not aware of that. She thought they had.
Do you blame the police?
I don’t blame anyone for anything. I keep going back to the fact that Columbine hadn’t happened yet and we were a different people 17 years ago than we are now. I think that’s true for the police too, and for schools. There was a lot of naïveté in those days.
How can you love the side of Dylan you saw on those tapes?
To me, his death was one manifestation of suicide. If I were to explain it to a child, I would say that Dylan became very sick in his brain and his thinking wasn’t the same, and because of that sickness he killed himself and other people. That is my truth. How do you hold onto anger when you feel that someone was ill, and this was how their illness played out?
What would you say to people who say, “You should have known he was capable of this”?
If they had known Dylan, I don’t think they would have perceived, either, that he was capable of violence. One of Dylan’s friends was aware that he’d bought a gun, and one of his friends helped him buy a gun. But it wasn’t in either of their heads that he would use it to hurt people because that wasn’t who Dylan was.
What did they think he was going to do with it?
Maybe that Dylan wanted to do target practice, which is what he told me when he mentioned a gun to me one time. I also have to accept that there are no explanations that would satisfy me if I had lost my child in the horrible manner that their children were lost. My perception and someone else’s perception are just never going to be in sync, and that’s part of the difficulty for both of us. I believe in my heart very strongly that Dylan and Eric were also victims of the tragedy they helped create, victims because of their own malfunctioning thinking. The community isn’t able to perceive it that way because their loss is too great, and the boys were just so cruel and sadistic.
In 2001, investigators showed you Dylan’s journal, which they’d removed from his room within hours of the shootings. While Eric’s theme was hate, Dylan’s was love. How did it feel to discover that?
It broke my heart that not only did I not know his feelings of anger, I did not know his feelings of longing. I felt overwhelming sadness that I didn’t know he had someone he was passionately in love with though she did not know he existed—literally. It just makes the whole tragedy all the more baffling.
Have you ever spoken to her?
No. And she’s not aware [of how Dylan felt about her].
In recent years, you’ve asked various experts to analyze his journal. Why?
Yes, he felt suicidal, but that doesn’t explain why he wanted to blow up the school, why he was willing to kill people. Did his writing reveal some kind of disorder in his mind, something where we could have a diagnosis? Different experts gave me different opinions.
But they were all consistent on one point: he was not in his right mind toward the end of his life. Correct?
I kept getting that, yes. But I don’t think we really have a good idea of what “not in his right mind” really means, especially in terms of these behaviours he exhibited at the end of his life, this willingness to disregard humanity and do this terrible thing.
Dylan was very close to his father—
We certainly thought so.
But I gather there’s been a divide in terms of how you’ve responded to the tragedy?
Most people who’ve lived through something like this hate what their family member did, they loathe their actions, they are humiliated, they feel scarred by the taint of what happened. They don’t want to talk about their feelings and their experience. I know a lot of people who feel that way and among them are some people in my own family. So I don’t want to represent them or say what I think they would think.
All right, but can I ask whether your other son is doing okay?
Yes. He’s grown up to be a productive, wonderful adult.
In the immediate aftermath, while grieving the loss of your son, you were dealing with hatred and more than 30 lawsuits from victims’ families. You couldn’t use a credit card because your last name is recognizable. Well-wishers sent food for your family but your lawyer said, “Don’t eat it, it might be poisoned.” What was that like?
It was so surreal, like walking through a mirror and living on the other side of a life that you’d never imagined. It’s like a magnifying glass on an ant with the sun pouring down. Everything you do is being observed, judged, criticized. I got very paranoid and fearful. If I was in a waiting room in a doctor’s office, I would just hold my breath, hoping they didn’t say, “Mrs. Klebold, you’re next.” I didn’t want anyone to know who I was, or that I was out in public. You wouldn’t pull out of your driveway until you could see if anybody was observing you. When I went back to work my supervisor took me on a tour of the building to show me where all the fire escapes were so that if the media came, I could get away. I had co-workers whose friends and family members had been in the school, and I had to face them and know that maybe their children had had to run for their lives. The husband of one of my co-workers was a teacher at Columbine, and his dear friend was the teacher who was killed. Trauma was all around me, and I felt so horrible about it. What do I do? What do I say? There’s no protocol. It was a nightmare.
In a fundamental way, it sounds like you couldn’t really grieve.
For a long, long time I went to a therapist who specialized in grief. With all the trauma around the publicity, and the hatred, I found myself responding to those things, and that prevented me from grieving. My therapist was very good at saying to me, “Your principal job right now is to grieve for the loss of your son. If you don’t do that, your chances of getting through this and doing well are not great.” Yes, I was feeling grief for all the [victims’] families, and for the community, but I had to allow myself to grieve for Dylan and just put down the burden of worrying about lawsuits and all the other things that were occurring.
I can’t imagine anything more devastating to your sense of yourself as a good person than worrying that if people simply clapped eyes on you, it would re-traumatize them.
I still feel that way today. I’m fearful this book will re-traumatize people. But I really believe that sharing this story might be beneficial to people.
It must be hugely isolating, even with people who’ve known you your whole life, because at a certain point they’re ready to have cocktail parties again and you’re still carrying this tremendous baggage.
People were wonderful to us. We didn’t lose any friends. Our family and friends rallied, they tried to protect us, they were amazing. “We’re having a party, would you come?” But it’s very different from just having lost someone who died and no one else was hurt, where you say, “Well, maybe I’ll go to that party, give it a try.” I had to go through this process of “Who’s going to be there? Do they know any family members of victims?” I soon became comfortable saying, “I appreciate the invitation but I’m just not up to it right now.” It’s just very, very difficult to be around people who don’t have your perspective and experience. That’s one of the reasons I got so involved with the suicide prevention community and started volunteering, because I knew that they, to some degree, understood what I was going through and had faced some of the same things I had.
With new people is it a little bit like fame, in that you’re never really sure why someone is talking to you: genuine interest, or they want an anecdote?
Exactly. There is a lot of voyeurism. When I meet somebody I really carefully watch expressions, and gestures, and personal space. Being public with this book was something I was dreading for years.
From financial ruin to being perceived as “the worst mother in the world,” as you put it, you’ve lost a great deal more than your son. Have you come to terms with the loss of your previous identity?
I think so. Before Columbine happened, I very often defined myself by what other people thought of me. I think a lot of women tend to do that. Afterwards some people vilified me and hated me, and there were some people who perceived me as superhuman because I survived this. My therapist pointed out to me that both of those perceptions are equally false. You can’t get upset by what people say about you if it’s bad, any more than you can be elated by someone else’s overestimation of you as a human being. She said, “You are just a blank movie screen and people are projecting onto you what they want to believe, and the important thing is to try to be who you are, love yourself, understand yourself, accept yourself.”
Do you have moments or days where you feel happiness or joy?
I do now. I knew from the very beginning that if life was to go on for me, there had to be joy and happiness. Very early on, every day I’d make myself sit down and watch Seinfeld or America’s Funniest Videos or I would do something to make my body laugh, to get that conditioned response, to remind myself that even if you cry all day laughter can still live.
In the days after Columbine you wrote to all the victims’ families, and over the years you’ve heard back from a few. Did that help you?
It meant more to me than I can say. I just wanted to know that we connected in some way. And it was just good to know that I wasn’t hated so much that they couldn’t have some sort of communication with me.
Why, if you didn’t know Dylan was capable of violence, do you have what seems to be a need to atone?
I guess because I raised the individual who did this. When our children do things, we tend to feel responsible. If your third grader gets a “D” in a class you think, “This is my D, not his D. Why didn’t I help him more?” The same thing, on a grand scale, applies here. I just kept thinking about walking a dog, and while you’re holding the leash, that dog attacks and kills somebody. Well, you were holding the leash. That’s very much what this whole experience has felt like. Dylan was in my care and this happened. Every time I look at a child in a grocery store, I have this jolt of thinking, “Dylan killed somebody’s child, just like that one.” I will never stop thinking about all the people who were harmed. This is never something that’s going to be behind me—and I’ve moved on.
Do you think he had any understanding of that?
No. I believe he was so wrapped up in what was going on inside his head that he wasn’t even able to think beyond himself to how this would affect members of his community, his family or his friends. On the tapes [Dylan and Eric] were speaking to the world and saying, “This wasn’t our parents’ fault, they don’t know anything about it”—as if that would make everything okay and get everybody off our backs. I’ve talked with people who’ve attempted suicide and survived, and one of the things they’ve made very clear is that at that moment, when you are preparing to die, you are in so much pain, you’re not thinking of other people. It’s like a horse is standing on your foot and your reaction is just, “Get this off of me!”
Our job as parents is to let our children go, but you’ve been excavating your son’s life for years now.
It’s very odd but I really feel Dylan is sort of this invisible child that I carry with me always. Working on this book, year after year, it’s made me feel closer to him and given me the opportunity to keep him alive in a way.
What’s one of your favourite memories of him?
His whole childhood to me was this golden blur of cuddliness, and precociousness, and giggliness. Oh my gosh, I remember one time we were traveling and we stopped at a hotel after being in the car all day, so he was very rambunctious. In the hotel room there were two beds, and he started jumping on them like a frog. He jumped on one and went “Ribbit, ribbit” then jumped to the next, “Ribbit, ribbit”—he was so adorable, so funny. I could keep you here all day telling you things I remember.
Do you ever allow yourself to daydream about what Dylan would be doing if he were still alive?
All the time. I try not to so much anymore, but I do sometimes think of him as a young married man with a career that he’s trying to build, and maybe a child. Someone who’d be with us on holidays, and I’d go over and babysit—simple little dreams, nothing grandiose.
Do you still think of yourself as a good mother?
I almost hate to answer that question because I’m sure that if I say that I do, it will be uproariously funny to some people. But I think in most ways I was a good mother. I did everything I knew how to do, I made a sincere effort, and I guess that’s about all we can say.