image from amazon.com
A Mother's Reckoning is a hard book to read. Not because the language is difficult or the structure hard to follow. It is because it's about a subject none of us wants to think about. Mass murder. And more difficult yet is child-on-child mass murder.
Dylan Klebold aged 17 and Eric Harris age 18 shot and killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 20 others before killing themselves at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999. They were seniors at the 2,000 student high school located in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb southwest of Denver.
In April of 1999 my son was 24, living in Texas with his beautiful wife and expecting their first child, my first grandchild. My husband and I were living in Southeast Arkansas, busy trying to keep our business afloat. My daughter was nine years old and dealing with the vagaries of elementary school.
Four years earlier, almost to the day of the Columbine tragedy, I was living in El Reno, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.
On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. One hundred sixty-eight people died there and almost 700 were injured.
My credit union was in that building. I had been in the building less than two weeks before the bombing. Many of my friends worked there. I watched the extensive TV coverage looking for people I knew. Wanting to see them alive. Walking. Outside the devastated building. My son was just finishing EMT training. My tender-hearted son was somewhere down in that destruction, helping.
Nine years before that, a man opened fire in the post office of another Oklahoma City suburb where I lived. Edmond. He killed 15 people including himself.
Edmond was my hometown. I was driving past the area while it was going on. Police and fire department vehicles blocked my regular route to work. Helicopters circled the area. I didn't find out what was happening until I got to work.
My little town. My quiet, little college town. I graduated from high school there. My grandparents had lived there. I don't remember ever hearing about a murder there before that day.
Already tenuous at best, any sense of security that had survived into my adulthood was shattered.
The tragedy at Columbine took up only a minimal amount of news time in Southeast Arkansas. During the few days that followed, I read the articles that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas's major state-wide newspaper. I did not see any television coverage of it.
It was far away from me and my life. I had my own mass murder events.
In January, my walking group walked around the lake in Clement Park. Columbine High School is located on the east side of the park. It's just over a rise so you can't see it from the lake, but my fellow walkers pointed out the memorial area and talked a little about the shooting.
And last week, as I listened to Colorado Public Radio I heard interviews with Sue Klebold about her recently released book A Mother's Reckoning.
listen to the interview or read the transcript here
This mass murder became much more real to me. And it brought up my need to understand. A need that I'd felt especially strongly with the Edmond Post Office shootings. A need that I'd filed away somewhere in the back of my mind with the belief that they were irrational acts by irrational people and could never be understood.
In her interview, Klebold came across as a calm, rational, person who'd done research into the possible cause or causes of her son's rampage. I wanted to know what she'd learned. Was there a rational explanation? Could it apply to the inconceivable acts that have affected my life? Could these murderous episodes be prevented in the future?
Sue Klebold lost her son. She lost her son on so many levels. A son she had loved and been proud of. A son she had nurtured and watched grow from birth to a 6-foot-4 young man. A son she thought she knew.
But she didn't know the deeply disturbed young man who helped build bombs and planted them in his school intending to destroy the building and kill as many people as possible. She did not know the high school senior who used a gun to kill his fellow students. She did not know the architect of a murder-suicide living in her own house.
She does not discount the horrendous nature of the murders and maimings, but she has come to believe that his action was one primarily of suicide. He went to the school and did those horrible things planning to die.
Of suicide, she says,
"Even after more than ten years as a suicide prevention activist, I still find the general
public's ignorance about [suicide] staggering."
"Almost everything I knew about suicide was wrong. [People who] tried to kill themselves
were selfish or too cowardly to face their problems, or captive to a passing impulse."
"According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people aged
10-14, and the second among people aged 15-34."
What suicide actually is:
"Suicidal thought is a symptom of illness, of something else gone wrong. A suicidal person
is someone who is unable to tolerate their suffering any longer."
In Dylan's case depression and anger.
In 1999 she "did not know the difference between the sadness and lethargy I had always called depression and clinical depression which many sufferers describe as a feeling of nothingness." She notes a recent CDC report that close to 30% of teenagers experience a depressive episode.
As with many suicides, the people around Dylan had no idea what he was planning with Eric Harris. Klebold does not speak for the Harrises. Apparently, they knew their son was having trouble, but they were getting him help. He was in therapy. Again Klebold does not say, but I assume that Eric's therapist also did not see the danger.
From her first attendance at a suicide prevention conference Sue Klebold came away with three realizations:
"One: There is more to suicide prevention than loving someone and telling them so.
Two: Many of us [the loss-by-suicide survivors] believed there were no signs of trouble....we hadn't recognized indicators of potential risk....we hadn't even known there was cause to be on heightened alert.
Three: ...while there are effective interventions for depression and other risk factors for suicide, we cannot yet rely on their effectiveness."
She explains that symptoms of depression in adults can be sadness and low-energy. In teens (especially boys) "they may withdraw, show increased irritability, self-criticism, frustration, and anger." In younger children, depression may present as "unexplained pains, whininess,sleep disorders, and clinginess."
With teens and younger children it's too easy to chalk these things up to being in a phase.
She encourages us to listen to our children -- not just as interested and supportive parents, but be probing. Pay attention to their friends. Pay attention to their interactions with their friends. Be sensitive to changes in their behavior. If there are changes, be nosy. Check their rooms. Read their journals. Know their internet activities.
And, you know what, pay attention to your adult family members and your close friends. Certainly not all depressives end up committing suicide or murder, but don't we need to do what we can to help people close to us through those hard times?
Klebold talks about ramifications of this tragedy, both immediate and long-term. Things I never thought about.
Her close family and friends, and Dylan's friends who were not involved in the shooting were at risk from distressed people in the community.
She understands distraught families and friends of the victims holding her son's actions against the family, but they received death threats from people far and wide not involved in or directly affected by the tragedy. Even a distant relative who lives outside of Colorado and had never had contact with Dylan, received death threats because his name is Klebold.
Sue and her husband had to have Dylan cremated, because burying him would have subjected not only his grave to probable desecration but other graves in the cemetery.
She was terrified that her other son might commit suicide under the weight of this situation. There was the very real possibility that her husband could choose to die. That she could choose to die.
In addition to losing a beloved son in these horrific circumstances, they were sued by their son's victims' families. Those lawsuits took more than four years to settle and during that time, Sue Klebold could not attend a support group.
I'm a big proponent of support groups. People who have been through the same or a similar experience can be a great help. And unfortunately, many people have lost loved ones to suicide and murder-suicide. But she could not benefit from a support group because the other people attending the might be called to testify in the lawsuits.
Was there a rational explanation? I think the book helps me understand a little bit about Dylan.
Maybe even about Patrick Sherrill, the man who shot the people in the Edmond Post Office, then shot himself.
And now that I think about it, I must reconsider the man who murdered my friend Sue many years ago. He was her husband. He killed her, then himself leaving their infant son to grow up without them.
And can we prevent like events? I think we must try.