Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Columbine: 'A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath Of Tragedy' Review - Jennifer McKelvey

Photo of Columbine High School
Courtesy of Jennifer McKelvey, February 2016

April 20, 1999 changed our world drastically. Two boys, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold, loaded up their cars with guns and pipe bombs, after months of careful planning, and went to Columbine High School. They had one mission, to kill as many classmates as possible. When they arrived at the school, they told one student to leave. And he did. The rest were sitting ducks.

They carried duffel bags into the school cafeteria which contained two, twenty pound propane tank bombs, and were set to explode at 11:17 AM, a time that the cafeteria would have been the most crowded. They then went to their respective cars, which offered a clear view of the cafeteria area, to watch as the bombs went off. Luckily, the propane tank bombs did not detonate, as hundreds of students in the cafeteria for lunch could have been killed.  From videos the boys made prior to the attack, they originally had planned to shoot any survivors or anyone trying to flee. Their cars both had explosives with timers which were set to detonate when they went back into the school. 

The very first 911 call in this mass murder had nothing to do directly with Columbine, but everything to do with Eric and Dylan's planning. A small, timed explosion in a field about three miles away from the high school was placed by the killers to divert police so the killers could have more time to make the body count higher. Back at the school, eyewitnesses recall seeing Eric and Dylan at the highest point on campus with a clear view of the school. They were dressed in trench coats and carrying duffel bags. One student heard Eric or Dylan yell, "GO, GO", and the carnage began. The shootings started at 11:19 AM outside. The shootings end at 12:08 with the suicide of Eric and Dylan. For 49 minutes, the killers took the lives of thirteen; including twelve students, and one teacher, wounded many, and traumatized all who were there that day. They also put an end to carefree school days as students knew them.

In the time since the shootings, very little has been said by the parents of the shooters. Both parents released statements through their lawyers the next day. Eric Harris's parents have remained mostly silent since. Dylan Klebold's mother began to speak out years after the killings. In 2009, ten years after the shootings, she offered a self-written piece to Oprah's magazine about the events of that day and the aftermath. You can read it here: http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/Susan-Klebolds-O-Magazine-Essay-I-Will-Never-Know-Why

I have often wondered what the parents of Eric and Dylan endured in the days, months, and years in the aftermath of Columbine. Many were so quick to blame them almost immediately when it became known that the guilty ones had killed themselves. I never thought the parents deserved the harassment and death threats they received, but when the guilty ones die, the public goes on a witch hunt for those who knew them best, accusing them of everything under the sun. I always thought maybe they had missed signs, but now as a mother, I feel their pain more than ever.

Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter, Dylan Klebold (R).

When you become a parent, your life changes. You hope and dream for your child. You hope you aren't screwing it up. Parenting is tough. When your children are small, you instill the framework for what you hope will become the structure of their moral compass, their work ethic, accountability, and you hope that when you release them into the world, they contribute, not take away. All in all, we really never know if we've succeeded, in spite of our best efforts, until that child shows you in the decisions they make and the path they choose. In spite of honest, best efforts, many parents did it, "right", only to have their kids end up bad. 

When my kids do something bad, I hold them accountable. I explain the consequences, explain why it was wrong, and offer reasons why they should make a better decision in the future. Reading Sue Klebold's book, 'A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy', I saw she too did the same thing with both her boys, the youngest being Dylan Klebold. Dylan had a very normal and stable upbringing. He played baseball, he tinkered with old cars with his father, he was his mother's sidekick as a child. He was an exceptionally bright child. They were active in his life. He wasn't abused or abandoned. He was seemingly like every other kid in the neighborhood. Nothing seemed odd.

Sue and Dylan Klebold

As Dylan grew into a teen, he became more withdrawn, but nothing out of the ordinary. Most teenage boys want their privacy and also relish in the beginnings of independence. They make their own friends, not ones set up by mom as a playdate, they get their license, they get a car. It's a rite of passage when you get these freedoms. You test the waters as a young adult under the watchful eye of good parents. Dylan was no different.

Dylan and Eric became friends a few years before the massacre. Both boys had numerous other friends, a misconception in the aftermath of the tragedy. It was reported for years that they were loners, only having each other. This isn't true. They had mutual and individual friendships, enough of them to dispel the rumors that social isolation was a motivation for the killings.

Early on, it was clear that Eric was trouble. In 1997, he had an AOL profile, as well as a webpage, that grew increasingly violent, threatening towards students and teachers at Columbine. It also included specific threats against Brooks Brown, a friend of Dylan's. Dylan gave the website address to Brooks. Brooks's mother, concerned with what she saw, informed authorities. After viewing the website, which Eric stated he had explosives, a deputy wrote a draft affidavit asking for a search warrant of the Harris house, but never filed it. Missed red flag? In her book, Sue believes that maybe Dylan gave Brooks the web address in the hopes that Eric would be stopped.

Dylan Klebold and Brooks Brown at Columbine High School

Eric Harris AOL profile at the time of his death. 

Eric and Dylan were both arrested their junior year for breaking into a van and stealing electronic equipment. This was, no doubt, a wake up call for Sue and Tom Klebold. Dylan was ordered to complete  pre-trial intervention, which included classes and paying restitution. Eric was ordered the same, as well as to begin seeing a psychiatrist. Both boys were released from the program early and passed with rave reviews.

Dylan Klebold (L) and Eric Harris (R)

Eric and Dylan began working at Blackjack Pizza together, meeting some of the people who would eventually supply them with guns, not knowing of their plans. Senior year came. The plans were in full swing for the massacre, but to Sue and Tom, Dylan seemed to be on the upswing. They visited the University of Arizona weeks prior to the massacre, a place Dylan ultimately chose to attend for college. They looked at dorm rooms, made plans, and he even went to prom a few days before the massacre. Everything seemed normal from Sue's perspective.

Dylan Klebold, with his prom date.

When someone is going to commit a crime or kill themselves, they rarely give blaring signs that they intend to do so. The most dangerous ones stay silent until you find out when the event happens. This is what happened with Sue and Tom. Sue was at work about 25 miles away from home when she saw the blinking red light on her work phone. It was a frantic message from her husband, telling her to turn on the TV, that there had been a shooting at Columbine, and Dylan had already been mentioned as a shooter. Sue initially thought maybe Dylan was hurt or couldn't call her. When it became clear to her on the ride home that Dylan indeed may be a shooter, Sue did the opposite of what most Columbine parents did that day.

The parents of students at Columbine no doubt prayed for their children's safety from the gunmen in the school. Sue Klebold, on the other hand, prayed for her son to kill himself. Yes, to end his life, so he couldn't take any more innocent lives. Can you imagine, as a mother, to have to pray for your child to die? It sounds so foreign, but I think Sue began very quickly to connect the dots. Deep down, she knew Dylan was killing classmates as she sped home to Littleton, CO.

In her book, she gives insight into what happened when she arrived home. Cops, then a bomb squad took over her home. They were only allowed to stand in the driveway as investigators executed a search warrant on her home. They found no explosives.

Klebold home

They had to escape to somewhere safe, as the press and the masses were hunting them down. They settled in with extended family for a while. She tells of seeing Dylan's body, dressed in a hospital gown, her final goodbye. They chose cremation for Dylan, as they knew his grave would be vandalized on a regular basis. She stated that her older son, Byron, didn't feel Dylan looked like himself at the viewing. That helped all of them in that moment. Eric and Dylan both had killed themselves by a gunshot wound to the head. Eric's body sustained the most damage. While their suicide photos are readily available, I have chosen to not post them here. While what they did was senseless and evil, the photos are extremely graphic, and most importantly, I do not condone suicide regardless of the circumstance.

In the months after the massacre, Sue was lost and grieving alone for the most part. Her husband was in the throws of grief, no doubt, but a mother's grief is different I would imagine. Not more, but different. Answers were few for a long time. After some time had passed, the families were able to view the, 'Basement Tapes'. The tapes were over four hours long.  These tapes were the thing she needed to help with her being able to understand that her son, who she thought she knew, was a stranger to her. He was filled with rage. He used racial slurs, he used intense profanity and radiated hate. All of these things she and her husband had taught against. Yet, it seemed so natural to Dylan. The last tape is when the boys are heading out the door to unleash death and destruction upon kids sitting in a high school on what would normally be a standard day at Columbine had Eric and Dylan not been filled with the need to kill. The, 'Basement Tapes' largely never made it past the police. There were a few snippets and transcripts released, but a court order sealing the tapes made them pretty much inaccessible for the general public. The tapes were destroyed in 2011, along with other evidence from the shootings, at the discretion of the sheriff with the support of the families; the shooters, and the victims. They feared it may inspire copycats and bring raw pain back to the surface, both potentially disastrous and simply unnecessary. As far as we know, all copies are gone.

Dylan Klebold, seen in, 'The Basement Tapes'. 

After watching the tapes, Sue felt Dylan lied to her. He had successfully fooled her. And, she realized that he wanted to participate. Until then, Sue had a lot of suspicion that Eric took advantage of Dylan, perhaps even brainwashing him. That theory was dispelled by the tapes. She does maintain that Eric's homicidal desires were a vessel for a suicidal Dylan. In his journals, Dylan talked about being depressed, had self medicated with St. John's Wart, a natural remedy commonly used for depression. Sue felt heartbroken when she discovered the pill bottle after his death, knowing Dylan was trying to get out of his depression alone. He talked about wanting to find love but he thought he never would. Eric's journals were filled with vile fantasies about rape and murder. Sue acknowledges that Dylan killed classmates out of cold blood, but, she feels in her heart he would have never done so without Eric. Dylan wanted to die and killing students in the process was something he chose to do in order to take his own life in the library that day giving him a legitimate reason to do so.

Although it took her many years, Sue is now very active with suicide prevention and has close friendships she has established by going to survivors of suicide meetings in Colorado.  Regardless of what her son did to others, he also took his own life, a loss that any parent would feel. In the process, the massacre's aftershocks proved to be too much for Dylan's parents, and they quietly divorced recently. Not much is said about Dylan's older brother, Byron.

Sue seems to have found her new self. A mother who still loves and grieves for her son, a mass murderer, who changed the world for the worse on April 20, 1999. Much criticism for Sue has reared it's ugly head since the release of her book and accompanying book tour. I have to say that I think the, "outrage", is displaced now more than ever. Families of the victims are speaking out, berating her for the book. While I sympathize and cannot fathom their loss and pain, sixteen years on, I have to say, their blaming Sue Klebold is not well placed.

I am sure many people would love to, and probably silently do, point out our shortcomings as parents. The bottom line is that we cannot control what out children do to an extent. As small children, we have the most control over what they can and cannot do, yet they seem to trip up and embarrass us or disappoint us. We love them through it all. While I am close, but not quite the parent of a teen, I know what awaits. The constant worry, the distance that is caused by their sudden independence and figuring themselves out, and their friends we do not care for. At what point do we set our kids free to figure it out on their own? At what point do we know if we are raising mass murderers? We hope never. Statistically, we are good. Our chances of raising a killer are small. Nobody reading this would even think that one day, they could be in Sue Klebold's shoes. I feel for her. I really do. At the end of the day, no matter what your kids, do, you love them. Sue is no different, only she has a much bigger elephant in the room.

Sue Klebold,

I highly recommend, 'A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy'. Sue gives us not only a glimpse into raising one of the participants in the worst school shootings in history, but also the grief, confusion, and public witch hunt that, to this day, continues. You may find some of yourself in Sue, or Tom Klebold. A loving parent who dedicates their lives to raising good kids.

I feel the pain of the victims families. They lost an innocent child on that fateful April day. We all send our kids off to school with the comfort that they're safe. On that day, and many more school shootings since, we've been reminded that isn't always the case. We gamble when we let our children out of our sight, yet we cannot follow them everywhere. All we can do is hope and pray that they're not the victim of a senseless tragedy, or God forbid, the one who causes so much pain. Be careful not to judge Sue Klebold. Just because her child was half the cause of so much pain doesn't make her immune to pain herself. Her eyes scream of disbelief and grief after all this time. Will she ever get over all of this? No. But, if she can educate as to the warning signs that she learned in retrospect, maybe many of these terrible breaking news event be prevented. Feel her pain as well as the pain of the parents who lost their children, or spouse, that day.