On April 20, 1999, 17 days before his graduation, Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris, killed 13 people, wounded 24 more before shooting themselves to death at Columbine High School. It was one of the worst school shootings American history.
Almost immediately, everyone was asking how could this happen? What was wrong with him? And, what was wrong with his parents? As his mom, Sue Klebold relates at the beginning of her TedMed 2016 talk, everyone was wondering, how could you not know? What kind of a mother were you? These are questions that she has spent almost 17 years trying to figure out.
She told the audience that the tragedy convinced her that she had failed as a parent. He was a completely different person from the one that she thought she knew. She said,
“Aside from his father, I was the one person who knew and loved Dylan the most. If anyone could have known what was happening, it should have been me. But, I didn’t know.”
Sue Klebold has spent the ensuing years combing through her memories to try to figure out where she had failed as a parent. But, she said,
“The truth is there are no clear answers. I can’t give you any solutions…I can only tell you what I have learned.”
By reading through his diaries after the tragedy, she discovered that Dylan had written two years before that he was cutting himself; he wrote that he was in agony and wished he could get a gun to end his life. She did not know this at the time—Dylan was very good a keeping his feelings and actions hidden from his parents. Once she discovered that he had been depressed and suicidal, she tried to learn how suicidal thinking could lead to murder.
Suicide is a brain health problem
She became active in the suicide prevention community and spent a lot of time talking to suicide survivors. Sue came to realize that the problem of suicide is a matter of mental health—brain health as she prefers to call it—because…”from 75% to maybe more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness of some sort.”
But many of them are never assessed or treated. People who have persistent ongoing thoughts of suicide and go on to devise a plan to carry out the act have a brain pathology. Their thinking is impaired. They are unable to make choices in the same way as people who are not so afflicted. She calls it a Stage 4 medical health emergency.
Dylan, she told us, had a perfectionistic, self-reliant personality and that probably played a role in his response to triggering events that had occurred at school. In addition, he had a complicated relationship with his friend, Eric Harris, a boy that she says was disturbed, controlling, and homicidal. Finally, she said, it was easy, way too easy, for him to get guns without her knowledge.
Being Dylan’s mom
According to her 2016 book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, it took her a long time to accept that Dylan had been an active participate in planning and carrying out the horrific acts that April day. She initially believed that he must have been duped by Eric or that he went along with it at the last minute. But the evidence that he was a full participant was incontrovertible, including videos he had made with Eric that showed the depth of his rage and intent to kill.
She alternated between grieving for her beloved son—the little boy she cuddled and the young man who was weeks away from attending the college of his choice—and shame and self-loathing for being the mother who raised a mass murderer. She wrote letters to all of the victim’s families even though she knew many hated her and blamed her, in part, for what happened.
The aftermath of Columbine took its toll on her. Two years after it happened, she developed breast cancer. And, four years after, she began having panic attacks that would last for weeks. She said,
“My mind would suddenly lock into this spinning cycle of terror…It felt as if my brain was trying to kill me.”
For the first time, she told us, she found out what it felt like to have a dysfunctional mind.
If love were enough
Every time someone asks her, “How could you not have known?“, it feels like a punch in the gut. It carries accusation and plays into her feelings of guilt that no matter how much therapy she has had, she will never fully irradicate them. But she said, “here is something I have learned,
if love were enough to stop someone who was suicidal from hurting themselves, Suicides would hardly ever happen. But love is not enough.
No matter how much we believe that we can control everything that our loved ones think and feel, we cannot. And no matter how much we think we are different, that someone we love would never hurt themselves or someone else, can cause us to miss what is hidden in plain sight.”
We must learn, she says, to forgive ourselves for not knowing, for not asking the right questions, or finding the right treatment. When someone we love is in distress, we must listen with our whole being, without judgment and without offering solutions. In the end, however, we must accept the tragic fact that even the most vigilant and responsible amongst us may not be able to help.
“But for love’s sake, we must never stop trying to know the unknowable.”