School shootings are fortunately a very infrequent phenomenon. Still, the horrendous nature of these acts, and the fact that children are the perpetrators, raises questions regarding their possible causes and preventability. “Columbine” is a name that will forever be connected with one of the first school shootings that was elaborately publicized in the global media. On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and killed 12 fellow-students and a teacher, before committing suicide. They injured many more.
Over the years, many authors have investigated the Columbine case and the number of myths about the causes of the massacre is enormous: from violent video games to high school bullying. One of the best books I have read about the Columbine attack is Dave Cullen’s Columbine (2009). Cullen’s widely researched book debunks many of the myths and provides insight into the dynamic between Eric Harris (most likely post mortem diagnosis: psychopathic personality disorder) and Dylan Klebold (most likely post mortem diagnosis: depression), already mentioned in a Slate article (2004) five years after the massacre.
Sue Klebold’s book, A Mother’s Reckoning (2016) is a harrowingly honest and courageous account of her struggle to come to terms with the suffering her son caused to others and to herself and her family. The book starts with the phone call Sue Klebold receives at her work from her husband Tom at 12.05 P.M. on April 20, 1999, telling her there has been a shooting at her son Dylan’s high school. At first, she is mainly worried about her son’s safety, but as information rolls in, she starts to realize he is the perpetrator. Police officers start searching their home and journalists flock to their house like bees to a pot of honey. On that same day, Tom and Sue escape to the relative anonymity of a couple with whom they have been good friends. Sue has been a diary-keeper for years, and she uses the notes she took during this time, to share her experience of great agony during these first days after Columbine. She is torn between the love for her deceased son and her guilt about what he did. She often apologizes to the victims and survivors, as if continually defending her right to her feelings about the tragedy. Foremost is her disbelief at what her son did, and her fear of being somehow responsible as a parent; the latter exacerbated by reports in the press about her and Tom being ‘bad parents’ and by the legal claims victims’ families start against them.
Subsequent chapters dive into her family life, and the way she and her husband raised their two boys, Dylan and his older brother Byron. On a superficial level, they seemed like a ‘model American family’, both parents involved in a professional career, spending leisure time together outdoors and actively participating in the local community. What did strike me in her writing is the emphasis Sue Klebold and her husband put on their boys becoming “good men”. Instead of listening to them, her favored response to their inevitable transgressions (in early childhood, but also when they reached adolescence) was to tell them what they should do different or better. There is only one paragraph on p. 263 when she acknowledges that she wished she “had listened more instead of lecturing”. I believe listening to your child is a very important and underrated aspect of parenting; especially teenagers can sometimes say very little to a parent, but when they say something it is always important. Asking follow through questions at these moments can be crucial, as this book shows. One such moment, years before Columbine happened, was the time Dylan told his mother that his friend Eric Harris was “crazy”. Instead of asking her son what he meant by the word “crazy”, she starts to lecture that there are all kinds of people and some are a bit different or strange.
The second part of the book is devoted to a description of Sue Klebold’s journey to find answers to what may have caused Dylan to team up with Eric to plan the attack on their high school. She takes up contact with many American experts in the field of threat assessment, suicide and murder-suicide, and each of them help her reconstruct the puzzle. She starts to see Dylan was seriously depressed and suicidal on the basis of his diary notes during the months before Columbine. She also has a nervous breakdown herself around four years after the tragedy, suffering from symptoms of PTSD and panic attacks, in relation to giving testimony in the civil law suit against her and her husband. She is finally able to get professional help, because she doesn’t have to fear any longer that what she discloses to her therapist might be used against her in court. This aspect of her story is quite shocking and often overlooked; not only was she victimized by what her son did, but she was also blamed for it and unable to get professional help for years. A support group for survivors of suicide by a loved one brought her much needed relief.
Currently, Sue Klebold is an activist working to understand the association between mental health problems and violence. Raising mental health awareness and early intervention have become her mission. There is a moving TEDMED talk Sue Klebold on YouTube: My son was a Columbine shooter. All profits from the book are donated to research and charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues.
Obviously, forensic psychologists learn a lot from reading relevant handbooks and scientific papers. However, this type of experience-near book is also a must-read for (aspiring) forensic psychologists. They teach us important lessons. First, think twice before blaming a parent. Second, media portrayals of forensic cases are often superficial and flawed. Third and foremost, forensic cases are always complex and multifaceted. Nothing is as it seems.