After Columbine, a mother’s guilt and pain
This harrowing book should be required reading for the parents of adolescents. On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys, bonded by some psychopathic alchemy, killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado and injured 24 others, some of them catastrophically. Then they shot themselves. Others have done worse since, but not as a team, and not at the very moment the internet and 24hours news coverage were blossoming.
One of those two boys was Dylan Klebold and this book is written by his mother, making it, as far as I’m aware, the only full personal account of someone who gave birth to a mass murderer.
Columbine became, like the Bulger killing in Britain six years earlier, a terrible crucible — the moment when society spasmed with disbelief. Had we reached the stage where children murdered other children for fun? Yes, suggested the images being beamed around the world. We certainly had.
At the heart of this perversion, then, was Sue Klebold: not just a bad mother, with all the totemic power that carries, but the mother of someone who was, in the eyes of many, a devil incarnate. How do we square this with a middleclass, educated, caring woman who created an ideal, loving family environment to raise her two boys? How could this be?
She was a teacher, latterly working with disabled students; her husband was a geophysicist; they named their sons Byron and Dylan after the poets, renovated a rundown house in the foothills of the Rockies to give them a healthy outdoor lifestyle, taught them right from wrong, and censored violent movies and sugary cereals.
Even harder, then, for Klebold to square this with herself. It took her 17 years to reach the point where she was able to tell the story, confronting everything she did not know about her son, trying to explain. Her book, soul-piercingly honest and written with bravery and intelligence, is the story of years first spent in denial; then, gradually, in acceptance of what Dylan did and the reasons behind it. Finally comes the dreadful realisation, something that penetrates the essence of mothering: that sometimes love is not enough.
I remember seeing snatched newspaper pictures, after the 1996 Dunblane massacre in Scotland, of the mother of killer Thomas Hamilton — a pitiable old lady, shrunken, confused, scurrying from her front door. At that point, I tried to imagine how, in an age that deifies mothers, such tragic souls cope with being the creators of mass killers. Klebold answers that eloquently, and her words are hard to read.
Dylan, she says, and I believe her, was a bright, affectionate child who matured into a shy but well-mannered teenager with good friends. Serious, perfectionist, a bit geeky. He got into trouble the previous year, aged 16, but nothing that teenage boys don’t bounce back from: petty theft, hacking a school computer. All the signs were that he was coming good.
He wasn’t a secret Satanist or a drug addict. He had a place lined up at university; the week of the massacre, he hired a dinner suit, took a girlfriend to the prom dance and thanked his mother for buying him a ticket. Sue lay in bed that night and said to herself, “I’ve done a good job.” Seventy-two hours later she was trying to reconcile herself to the unthinkable: that her beloved boy, the “classic good kid”, was not only dead, he was a calculating mass killer.
People blamed video games, movies, music, bullying, access to guns, unarmed teachers, the absence of prayer in schools, drugs. Most of all, they blamed the Klebolds. “How could you not know?” one letter screamed in fat black pen. Her pride as a mother — the dedicated years spent signing permission slips, going to parents’ evenings, designing Easter egg hunts — was de-