Af­ter Columbine, a mother’s guilt and pain

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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