TOPICS > Nation > Gun violence

The mother of a Columbine shooter on the son she thought she knew

February 25, 2016 at 8:02 PM EST
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in April 1999 carrying guns and homemade pipe bombs. Within an hour, 12 students and a teacher were dead, and 24 others injured. Seventeen years later, Dylan’s mother Sue writes of a son she thought she knew in her new book, “A Mother’s Reckoning.” Sue Klebold joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss her life in the shadow of tragedy.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: coming to terms with a beloved son-turned-killer in a mass murder that would shock the nation.

Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the “NewsHour” bookshelf.

A warning: The conversation grapples with subjects that may be upsetting to some viewers.

JEFFREY BROWN: April 20, 1999, Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Two seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, walked into the school armed with weapons and homemade bombs. Less than an hour later, 12 students and one teacher were dead, 24 students injured, and the two shooters had turned the guns on themselves.

It was a searing time for the community, for the victims’ families, and for the nation.

Seventeen years later, Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan, writes of a son she thought she knew, the parent she thought she was, a tragedy and its aftermath. Her new book is, “A Mother’s Reckoning.”

Sue Klebold joins us now from Denver.

Sue Klebold, welcome to you.

You write early in this book: “The ordinariness of our lives before Columbine will perhaps be the hardest thing for people to understand about my story. For me, it is also the most important.”

Why is that the most important thing?

SUE KLEBOLD, Author, “A Mother’s Reckoning”: Because I want people to understand that, if someone is struggling with thoughts of suicide or, in some cases, homicide, that these issues can be hidden.

And we should all try to be more mindful of what our loved ones are thinking, what might be hidden behind their expressions, and how their behaviors can lie if they’re very sophisticated at hiding what they’re thinking and feeling.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, just days before the shooting, Dylan went to the prom. You write of seeing him as he came home. And you write of saying to yourself that night, “I have done a good job with this kid.”

You truly believed that at that moment?

SUE KLEBOLD: I truly believed that at that moment.

I felt that he had — he had had a good year, a good evening. I felt that he was contented and that he was healthy and that he was moving forward with his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: The questions from everyone, of course, whether in sorrow or anger or just utter confusion, is, how could you not have known, right? How could you not have known that your son was so troubled that he was capable of something like this?

And you write about incidents along the way, which, in retrospect, might have said something. But how do you answer that question, how could you not have known?

SUE KLEBOLD: Sometimes, teen behaviors, such as sullenness, maybe differing sleep patterns, maybe they sleep too much or too little, these can all be perceived as normal teen behaviors.

Dylan did get into trouble in his junior year of high school, and he stole something. He got in trouble at school. He scratched a locker. Those were indicators that something might be wrong, but, at that time, I wasn’t aware that those could be indicators of depression or possibly some kind of brain health issue.

But what did happen after that was, he promised us that he would get his life on track, and he did. He had a full 14 months after that, from that moment until the tragedy, where he was doing all the things a healthy person would do. He was going to school. He held a job. He had applied at four colleges.

Just the weekend before the tragedy, he picked out his dorm room for college, and he went to a prom with 12 of his friends, came home and told me he had the best time of his life. These are not behaviors that one would expect of someone who is preparing to die or to kill.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, perhaps the roughest chapter, at least for me in my reading, was one titled “The End of Denial,” and because you write about the denial that you were in for a long time after the — after the shootings, after the killings, even six months afterwards, until you were shown evidence by the police, walked through the timeline of what happened, see exactly what Dylan had done in shooting individuals, what he said to them, and kind of realizing for the first time that he had not been coerced, that he had not been duped, that he had not been whatever it was you thought, right?

SUE KLEBOLD: Well, as you said, up until that point, knowing Dylan and knowing the kind of person he was, those of us who loved him and knew him didn’t believe he was capable of intentionally harming people or killing people.

So, we clung to beliefs, such as you suggested, that he had been coerced or tricked, or that this was a prank that had somehow gone wrong. Six months after the tragedy, when I was finally shown the evidence at the sheriff’s department, and we saw things such as the basement tapes, we saw photographs of some of their weapons, I remember being — feeling just ill.

I stood up and thought I was going to be sick. I — it was such a shock to me, because it didn’t make sense that the child that I loved could actually be doing those things or could have planned to do those things. And, for me, that was almost the beginning of grief all over again, because I had to grieve for a different human being than I had loved before.

JEFFREY BROWN: You focus later on, on the suicide aspect to this, not pushing aside the murder aspect, but the suicide of your own son, which really forces and focuses the issue on depression.

Now, explain that. What, in the end, do you — what, in the end, do you think led him to commit these atrocities?

SUE KLEBOLD: I think, when we look at suicide, and we look at murder-suicide as one small subset of suicidal acts, we have to understand that this is a very complex issue, that there are no simple answers or simple reasons or explanations.

The things that occur for someone to experience that level of suicidality, they are things such as biological factors, genetic factors, environmental factors, both the home, the school, the culture, personality factors, and also triggering factors, such as events that occur, losses, bullying, arrests. And it is all of those things working together operating for that one vulnerable person.

And when someone begins to deteriorate, when their thoughts are becoming suicidal, they are in the process of losing access to their own tools of self-governments, of conscience, of reason.

And they reach a state where they are not thinking the way the rest of us are thinking, if we are healthy. They don’t have the same decision points. And I believe that Dylan’s brain health was the reason that he was involved. He wasn’t able to act in a way that he would have if he were not unwell.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write often here of the victims, of their families, of the pain that you have felt from the beginning.

You’re donating your profits, I understand, from the book to charitable organizations that look at mental health issues. But why write the book at all? Why in the first place? You know that, from the moment this happened until now, people wonder about you, wonder about — probably wonder now about the motives in writing the book.

Why did you want to do it?

SUE KLEBOLD: The reasons for me, I think, were primarily because people who knew me or knew Dylan or knew our story would give me feedback that they were affected, that their parenting changed because of this.

I had met an individual, among many individuals, one who had problems with a youngster who was 13, and her daughter acted a little bit different, a little bit more withdrawn. And the mother told me, “Because I know you and because I know that kids can hide things and some of the things that they hide can be lethal,” she explored. She dug into the kid’s life, asked her daughter repeatedly and in depth, and finally was able to learn from her daughter that she had been raped while she had left the house once when she wasn’t supposed to.

So, I feel that we all have — the most important thing we can do is accept the concept that someone we love may not be feeling inside the way they present to us, and that is a responsibility we have as parents and family members to try to help them, to try to elicit from them what they’re experiencing and to — and if we do learn that they are having suicidal thoughts or other thoughts that are symptomatic of illness, to get them help.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The book is “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.”

Sue Klebold. Thank you very much.

SUE KLEBOLD: Thank you.

SHARE VIA TEXT