The day after the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, NY, became the location of another mass shooting, I reached for A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold, a book that has been on my TBR for quite some time, but never before had I felt impelled to pick it up.
You see, when you live in the United States, gun violence is always, always close to home in some way. Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters at Columbine High School. The first major school shooting, Columbine happened in 1999, just a few months before I was to start high school, for which I was very excited. After Columbine, Americans were hyper aware that “the kids aren’t alright,” so to speak. Bullying was normal in school. It’s easy to get a gun. The internet was new, and so parents didn’t know how easy it was for teens to create hateful websites like the other shooter, Eric Harris did. I knew of one such website at my high school, dedicated specifically to tearing down a girl named Alyssa.
While parents and the media wondered about children becoming monsters, authorities speculated on what went wrong — why did it take so long to stop Eric and Dylan? Remember I said shootings are always close to home? At one point in elementary school, Eric Harris, whose father was in the military and had to move his family frequently, went to school with my husband in Michigan. Eric was just one grade above.
Since Columbine, we’ve had active shooter training drills in Kindergarten through 12th grade and colleges. I’ve been part of one myself, and since I was alone in my office with no exit, I closed and locked the door and hid in the corner. Later, I was chastised because I did not run out and alert other people that I have an office, to gather potential victims and protect them. I felt deeply ashamed and angry; am I responsible for saving people for adjunct pay?
I’ve also learned about active shooting in lectures at colleges and was told that the students and I should have a discussion in my class to figure out a plan — where we would run, where we would hide, which exits have an advantage, whether our door has a floor bolt — for if an active shooter were on campus. On the first day of school. With nervous 18-year-old, maybe away from home for the first time, students from other states and countries.
At a local public school, they ran an active shooter drill that involved a police officer pretending to be an active shooter, firing blanks that sound like live rounds. Teachers and students “hit” pretended to be dead on the floor. Every time this story was replayed on the local news station, I cried and cried, living children’s vicarious trauma from my couch. According to data for my city of South Bend, we have had 101 shootings from January 2022 to May 2022. 14 of them were fatal. Of those, 8 shootings happened on streets I travel frequently.
One of the problems with talking to family members and friends about gun violence is the laws are not the same from state to state. For example, in Michigan, you cannot take a gun into a bar. In Indiana, it’s perfectly legal to do so. Somehow, we in Indiana are not thinking about the unwise choice to mix alcohol and weapons. I’ve walked into a gas station and stood in line behind someone with a handgun stuffed in the back of his jeans and stood there frozen, knowing that given the deeply conservative nature of my state, it was probably within his right to do so.
All of this is what I was thinking about as I read A Mother’s Reckoning. And about halfway through my reading, 19 children and 2 teachers were murdered at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. There I was, reading about a school shooting that happened 23 years ago and watching one that just happened on the news. And just like Columbine, police did not coordinate themselves to enter the school, instead letting time pass and people die. Except this time, the police in Texas decided not to follow the training that all police go through, to enter and stop the threat immediately no matter what.
Let’s just say that reading A Mother’s Reckoning was hard because although Sue Klebold’s son was one of the shooters at Columbine, her son was still dead at the end. Just like the other parents, she was without a child, except in her case, she was viewed as the mother of a monster and unable to attend any grief groups due to issues around all the lawsuits filed against her family.
I learned a few things from Klebold’s truly honest, challenging memoir. Teaching your children morals and being an outstanding parent is not enough. Dylan knew about right and wrong, including the time his mother made him return one piece of candy he took from the store as a little boy. The family always ate around the table together every night. There were no guns in the home, and the Klebold’s were staunchly anti-gun. Dylan was told often how loved he was. Both parents were active in Dylan’s life; together, they rebuilt a car, folded origami, and watched Western movies. Neither parents drank or used drugs. Sue Klebold even used some parenting tactics my own mom used: throwing herself under the bus when her son was nervous about another kid:
We developed an internal shorthand: If Eric called to ask Dylan to do something, he’d say, “Let me ask my mom,” and shake his head at me. I’d say, loudly enough to be heard on the other end of the line, “I’m sorry, but you can’t go out tonight, Dylan. You promised you’d clean your room/do your homework/join us for dinner.”
In the end, Sue Klebold realized that while she lectured and instructed her children about morals and ethics, she did not listen like she (now) feels she should have.
A Mother’s Reckoning was written 16 years after Columbine, giving Sue Klebold space to think and learn. She’s since become an active advocate and spokesperson in what she calls “brain health” (a brain is more tangible than “mental health,” which sounds a bit abstract, she says) and suicide prevention. After all the analysis from pretty much everyone from every corner of the country, Klebold has come to realize her son committed murder-suicide. That while Eric Harris wanted to kill people and knew he would likely die, Dylan wanted to die and would likely kill people. To be frighteningly honest, I learned a lot about murder-suicide from the book No Visible Bruises, which is about domestic violence and how authorities can actually track and map the point at which a man is almost certainly going to murder his family and then commit suicide — in time to stop it.
But what about the stigma around claiming people with mental health and illnesses are dangerous? Klebold learns from a neuroscientist that “The best way to eliminate the belief that people with mental health issues are violent is to help them so that they’re not violent.” So, while Dylan was suicidal (his hidden diary proves that he was for at least two years before Columbine), he could have been helped had anyone known what to look for and what to do. The morning before I wrote this post I watched a news story about a push to have every student evaluated for brain health, specifically anxiety. Abnormal anxiety can appear in children as young as 6. It may manifest as separation anxiety that is not normal (missing mommy and maybe crying on the first day of school is normal vs. the parent can’t even get the child out of the car because they are having a “melt down”).
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is what I have, is more pervasive and affects daily life. Looking back, I realize I’ve had abnormal anxiety my entire life. Except no one knew what that meant back when I was little, so what were we all to do? Here’s an example that stands out: I went to a music camp several hours from home for two weeks. For about ten days I spent my time crying, not eating, and sleeping in the nurse’s station. I got special permission to call my mom. When I got home after two weeks, my weight had decreased so much that that was the first thing my neighbor and grandparents commented on (in a happy, praising way) when they saw me. I was deemed “homesick.” But homesick children tend to feel sad and then are cheered up as they are integrated into a group and play games or do crafts. That was not me. There are so many smaller examples that I don’t want to get into, but I promise you it was always there.
I’m so grateful things have changed. This past weekend I watched as my thirteen-year-old niece randomly started doing yoga poses, which I knew my brother’s kids learned during the pandemic as a stress relief technique. Thanks to cell phones, it’s easy to ask my oldest nieces how they are doing, and how they are feeling. That’s about all I can do as an aunt: be honest and try to listen, and I feel good about my role.
In A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue Klebold describes what she thought was average teen boy grumpiness, but now she realizes it was not. I do wonder where we got this idea that A) a teen has to be an a-hole and B) why we aren’t more compassionate during that time period, remembering our own struggles with hormones and social groups and self-esteem instead of sitting back and saying, “Yeah, all teenagers are nightmares. I just expect it.”
I’m happy that methods for dealing with bullying have changed since Columbine. I think in my parents’ generation people were told to stand up and fight for themselves, physically. In my generation, we were told to just ignore bullies, or that if someone bullies us it means they have a crush on us. My spouse and I lived through the era of “zero tolerance,” which was stupid and lazy. Basically, if a group of people were beating on you, and you tried to defend yourself physically to get away, everyone who did anything physical was immediately expelled. This is the same generation Dylan Klebold grew up in, and his mother later saw videos of people bullying Dylan and his friends in school. In fact, after the Columbine shooting, Sue Klebold received more mail than she could process, and much of it reflected the feelings of people who were being or had been bullied:
Dylan and Eric had already been, in certain quarters, heralded as champions for a cause. Tom and I had received chilling letters from alienated kids expressing admiration for Dylan and what he’d done. Adults who had been bullied as children wrote to tell us they could relate to the boys and their actions. Girls flooded us with love letters. Young men left messages on our answering machine calling Dylan a god, a hero. An acquaintance working at a youth correctional facility told me some of the imprisoned boys cheered as they watched television coverage of the destruction at the school.
In 2022, some things are different, including the way bullying is handled. Even since the Uvalde, Texas, shooting two weeks ago, several people have been reported to police for posting vaguely threatening comments online along with a picture of them and their guns.
And what’s frustrating is the more societal issues we tackle, the more stupidly obvious it is that guns are the problem. As people point out across social media platforms, the United States is the only country with rampant gun violence, so blaming mental health, video games, music, and bullying alone implies other countries that do not have gun violence also do not have people with mental health issues, violent video games, music with explicit lyrics, and bullies.
If you, like me, turn to books to understand what’s going on around you, A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold provides invaluable insight into parenting, grieving, gun violence, how the media responds to mass shootings, and the constant, pulsing meditation around how Klebold can love her son who died by murder-suicide and still hate the violence he committed, all while respecting Dylan’s victims, both those who died and those permanently disabled.