What This Columbine Killer's Mom Wants Every Parent to Know

Susan Klebold

You might not have heard of Susan Klebold, but you've heard of her son, Dylan. He’s one of the two teenage boys who went on a shooting spree in their Littleton, Colorado, high school on April 20, 1999. Along with 19-year-old Eric Harris, Dylan Klebod, 17, murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured 24 more people -- and, finally, they turned their guns on themselves. In their wake, they left heartbreak, horror, and countless grieving family members, all asking the same devastating question: Why? Susan Klebold was one of those survivors, and now, after all these years of guilt, regret, and grief, she's sharing her story.

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 A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (Susan’s memoir about her life before -- and after -- the tragedy) is the kind of book that breaks your heart. As a fellow mother, I find that it’s hard to read. But it’s also important, and it’s beautiful in its raw honestly. Susan Klebold doesn’t spare herself, she doesn’t ever try to excuse herself, but what she does do is shine a light onto the darkness. A light that can help all parents see their own child better, if we’re not afraid to look.

This bravery and honesty is why Susan Klebold deserves to be one of our Moms Who Inspire this month. She is a mom who went through unimaginable loss, a mom who has had to face the abyss for 17 years. Yet she is a mom who has since then led a life of advocacy, of searching for understanding, of working to prevent other parents from experiencing even a fraction of the agony she’s endured, not just from losing her child, but from knowing that her son -- her baby -- caused so much unspeakable horror.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Susan about what drove her to go public with her experience, and what she wishes all moms knew.

Now that your book has been out for a little while, what has that been like for you, knowing that people are reading it?
It was something I was afraid of for many, many years. Now that it’s out and people are talking about it, and I made myself public, I think it’s kind of a relief. I feel that I’ve been climbing a mountain for many years, and I finally made it to the tip-top. After this happened I had to be just so careful and protective -- we had to go into hiding, and I was never able to really tell the story. In order to process trauma, such as this, one of the needs we have is to talk about it, and I was never able to. So to me, it was such a privilege to be able to actually write down what I wanted to say and have it all in one place. I’m very grateful to finally have the opportunity to speak.

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Why was it important to you for people to know the whole story -- to know who your son Dylan was and what your family life was like?
Well, one of the things that happened after Columbine, and continues to happen, is that we have a tendency to want to simplify why these things happen. We look for easy explanations and there really aren't any. My son’s death was a suicide. Of course, he killed other people, but he died because he took his own life. I started doing a lot of research around suicide, and the more I learned about it, the more I realized most people don’t know much about it. And I just felt that I needed to help make people safer. I felt that people who knew me, and knew Dylan, parented differently because they knew my story. And I just felt a need to share what I had learned: that we can help our children.

The chances that your child will become a shooter in an incident such as this is one in a million, but the chance that your child may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, or with depression, is a much, much higher percentage. So I want parents to know that what they see is not always what is. And behind the face there are often some very troubled thoughts, troubled people.

What do you mean that some of the people who were close to you parented differently after this tragedy?
One of the ladies I worked with knew my story … she noticed that her 13-year-old was acting a little bit different, a little more withdrawn. She told me she was just going to let it go, and just say, oh this is just teenage behavior, but because she knew my story, she decided to press, to dig a little more deeply, and she learned her daughter had been raped. Her daughter had been going to see a friend at a time when she had been told to stay home, so she didn’t want to tell her mother this. For my inner circle of people who knew, they really felt this responsibility to get past the surface, and really, really listen to their children differently.

One of the things that really struck me in your book is how you say you really had no idea about what Dylan’s daily experience was like at school. What do you want parents to know about being better in tune with what’s going on beneath the surface of their kids’ daily lives?
Parents need to be more comfortable having dialogues with their kids in which they are able to uncover whether or not their child is at risk for harm -- harming themselves or others. And these kinds of conversations are difficult to have, and they take some practice and they take some training. So I believe every parent should have a mental health first aid course or have some exposure to different ways of having conversations with their kids.

I mention in the book [that] there was this quiz that I took and said an ethical parent wouldn’t read their kid’s diary -- and before this happened, I would have agreed with that. But now I say that your child’s safety and well-being are incredibly important and I think it’s everybody’s job to make the assumption there may be something there we need to look for.

But this is just the beginning. Once we do identify someone is at risk --  someone is having suicidal thoughts ... [or] struggling with a situation at school such as bullying ... then [we need those] systems that support our children. The medical system,  the school system ... the juvenile justice system. All of these systems have to do a much better job of assessing risk, and of helping children through these crises. … So for example, if Dylan had written a violent paper, and he had gotten in trouble, slept through math class, that might have been enough of a flag, so that a protocol would have been in place for someone to say, I think we need to look a little more deeply. And those kinds of things were not in place 17 years ago. So this is the kind of thing I advocate.

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What do you want people to know about suicide?
That it’s not a simple thing. It’s a medical condition, and just like heart disease and cancer, there are factors that contribute to this. There are biological factors, there may be some genetic predisposition, there are personality factors, which relate to how this person lives and interacts with the world. There are environmental factors that include both the home and the school and the culture, and on top of all that there can be a triggering factor, such as a bullying incident or a breakup. So all these things come into play when someone is really struggling with a suicidal crisis.

And I think parents need to know that suicide is preventable. Just because someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings -- and I do believe Dylan wished to die, that these were feelings he was struggling with for a long time -- that there are effective treatments, and we need to be very proactive in finding professionals who can provide those kinds of treatments, and be ready to talk to more than one if necessary.

You also talked in your book the importance of parents sharing information with each other -- can you talk a little bit about that?
There was a mom of one of Dylan’s friends who was aware of [a website created by Eric Harris]. Eric had threatened her son; she was aware of this very dangerous website. And she went to the police to tell them about this website, but she did not show it to Eric’s parents or to us. And I look back and think if anything could have changed the outcome of this tragedy … But we didn’t see, and we didn’t know that it existed. So the one thing I would urge parents to do is if you see something that indicates someone is at risk or is a danger, the people who need to know this are the people who are the closest, the people who love that kid. It’s very, very important for parents to share with each other evidence that something may be wrong. You’re not there to condemn them, to say "Your kid is picking on mine" -- what you’re saying is, "I’m concerned about this, and you need to see this."

What is the number one thing, mother to mother, that you want to tell fellow moms?
"Shut up and listen." I think as parents, so often, when our children come to us with problems, we want to fix the problem; we tell them how they should feel. As an example, from my own childhood, I would go to my mom and say, “oh I’m ugly” or “nobody likes me,” and she would say, “You’re beautiful to me, I love you.”  So basically, she was contradicting or denying my feelings. As parents we want to fix things so our children don’t hurt, but the important thing to do is elicit their feelings, allow them to express their feelings, and then remain calm and don’t freak out, and have a plan for what we are going to do, how we’re going to give them help.

And I urge people, very simply, if you or your loved ones are experiencing thoughts of suicide, at the very least, remember to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK. People who are experiencing these thoughts do not have access to the tools of reasoning and judgment the way the rest of us do when we are healthy. So you have to be able to get them access to qualified help.

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In the introduction of your book, you say that if you could talk to Dylan, you ask him to forgive you. Why do you feel that way?
Especially when we lose loved ones to suicide, we feel that we let them down, that maybe we didn’t do what we should have to help them, and I certainly have feelings like that. I want him to forgive me for not being the kind of mom who could listen and get him to talk, to know how to help him, that’s what I think about.

As moms, we feel eternally guilty.
I think as moms, we always blame ourselves for anything our kids do that isn’t right. And part of it is cultural, where we expect the mothers to be the ones to save their children, be intuitive about their children, and we tend to believe that love is a protective factor. And so yes, there’s this feeling inside myself that if I’d said and done the right thing, if I had recognized things it might have turned out differently. But I think the big issue here is that people didn’t see these signs in Dylan, and that’s why I’m saying just be aware of that, be aware that you may not see these things that are standing out glowing, where you can pick them off and identify them. Sometimes they’re hidden and it’s very hard to tell what’s normal and what isn’t, so, the moral of the story is, don’t assume everything’s okay. Ever.

 

Image via AAron Ontiveroz /Getty Images; design by Anne Meadows

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