“The terror and total disbelief are overwhelming. The sorrow of losing my son, the shame of what he has done, the fear of the world’s hate. There is no respite from the agony.”
Imagine the worst thing that can happen to a parent.
Far worse befell Sue Klebold.
Yes, that Klebold, a name as synonymous with the 1999 mass shootings as Columbine High School and the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado.
It was Klebold’s son Dylan, along with his friend Eric Harris, who killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 24 more in a secret plan a year in the making.
As other mothers hoped for their children’s lives on that April day 17 years ago, “I knew the greatest mercy I could pray for was not for my son’s safety,” Klebold recalls, “but for his death.”
Moments past noon in the school library, the two shooters killed themselves.
The next day, Klebold wrote the words quoted above in her journal.
She has now published “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy,” culled in part from that journal and the 39 that followed, chronicling the life she was forced to live after her old one was extinguished. She always knew that she would write the book. “The big decision was to publish,” she says. All the profits are earmarked for mental-health and suicide-prevention organizations, her new community.
It is a memoir of sheer terror, heartbreak and mystery, not because Dylan was some monster, but because he was like so many teenagers - withdrawn yet loving, who apparently managed to shield suicidal thoughts and searing depression from his parents, friends and teachers. He fit no model of the alienated, violent loner.
The mass killings occurred three days after Dylan went to his prom. He had recently visited the University of Arizona, which he planned to attend after graduation. Or so his parents believed.
His mother found new ways of coping with a situation few parents ever experience. “You build a construct in your head which allows you to accept what is impossible to accept,” says Klebold, 66, sitting in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room holding a large coffee cup from which she rarely sips.
Tall, slim and graceful (her younger son was a gangly 6-foot-4), she is given to direct eye contact, frequent smiles and sensible shoes. She is gracious, outgoing, considerate and, in her own assessment, “a profoundly honest person - sometimes to a fault.” She needed to know the truth about her son, even though there was no way she would ever know the whole truth.
Why would Klebold wish to revisit the nightmare so many years later?
“I don’t think it’s anything I have any control over. If I’m in a grocery store, if I see other people’s children, I always think of the victims, of these beautiful young people who were killed, of the teacher,” she says calmly. “Any mention of the victims and their families is always very, very difficult for me. I have such a visceral reaction because I have so much horror and shame and anguish over what Dylan did.”
She never became angry at Dylan, except when seeing what she calls “the basement tapes,” the hate-spewing videos the two seniors recorded primarily in Harris’s bedroom.
“Just know I’m going to a better place,” Dylan says flatly on one tape. “I didn’t like life too much.”
His parents had no idea. This was not the son they knew. She writes in the memoir, “In the immediate aftershock of the tragedy, we weren’t mourning simply Dylan, but also his very identity - and ours.”
Time magazine published a cover of Harris and Klebold, one of her favorite photos of her smiling son, with the headline “The Monsters Next Door.” She thought she knew him, that they were close, but learned that his last two years were filled with anger and depression. “One of the peculiarities of a murder-suicide is that the perpetrator is never considered to be a victim,” says Klebold. “I believe Dylan was a victim of whatever was going on in his head.”
Her memoir re-creates the horror of the aftermath, the days so jarring and revelatory, the first half barely progresses six months.
The Klebolds loved their home, a mountain sanctuary miles from Littleton. Immediately after the tragedy, they were forced to vacate for days as a SWAT team searched for evidence. When they returned, it became a sort of prison. To keep reporters and others from peering in, the oversize windows had to be covered with newsprint, blocking the mountain views.
A lawyer was hired before an undertaker. He told them, “There will be a firestorm of hatred leveled against your family.” It took four years to settle the 36 lawsuits they were hit with.
Relatives received death threats. Small acts of generosity were suspect: Though some strangers offered comfort, sending food to Tom Klebold’s office, it was declined for fear of poisoning. Dylan couldn’t be buried for risk of vandalism. His body was cremated.
The mystery was, Dylan grew up in a house without weapons. She and her husband, Klebold writes, “were so adamantly anti-gun.” They were inspired by literature. Tom, a property manager, and she, then a community-college counselor, named their children after poets: older son Byron after Lord Byron and Dylan after Dylan Thomas. Dylan was their “Sunshine Boy,” for his golden hair and “because everything came easy to him.”
Klebold was unhappy about her son’s friendship with Harris. Their junior year, the two teenagers were caught stealing electronic equipment and had to attend a probationary counseling program to avoid criminal charges. She believed that he was on the mend, receiving early dismissal from the program for good behavior and staying out of trouble his senior year.
Until April 20.
The Klebolds were not close to the Harrises, whom she liked. “I like to protect their privacy,” she says. “We certainly have communicated with each other over the years.”
A month after the killings, Klebold wrote condolence letters to all the victims’ families. It took a full month to write them all.
She received two responses, from one victim’s sister, who said she did not blame the family and, 11 months later, from the father of a slain boy who offered compassion and help. Years later, after the lawsuits were settled, the Klebolds met separately with the parents of three victims. Of one encounter, she writes in the memoir: “We wept, shared photos, and talked about our children. When we parted, he said he didn’t hold us responsible.”
Others, however, did blame them. One of her many hopes for the book is that “when things like this happen, people won’t automatically jump to the conclusion that a perpetrator is either evil or hasn’t been raised properly.”
She thought about changing her last name. She thought about moving.
“What I realized very quickly is you can’t get away from this,” and that she would lose her support group of friends. She thought about suicide. Tom once said, “I wish he’d killed us, too,” a thought “we would have on many occasions.” When she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years after the massacre, it seemed almost like a lark.
Dylan’s actions have defined her life and her mission: meeting the families of people who have committed suicide or murder and deal with mental-health issues. “Most people have an incident like this in their family, and they hate what this person did, they are humiliated,” she says. “They just want to live their lives in privacy. Almost everyone I’ve talked to feels that way. My choosing to do this is the aberration.”
“Most people” includes son Byron, now 37, and Tom, now her ex-husband. After 43 years of marriage, they divorced in 2014.
“We seemed to be on different pages,” she says. “There was nothing we had in common. Except the shared tragedy. But we didn’t feel the same way about it, we didn’t process it the same way.” Tom and Byron “were not comfortable” about the book’s publication, she says, “but they never tried to stop me, which is amazing to me. And I love them for it.”
“Sue was absolutely clear about the mission of the book. Anything she can do to stop anyone from doing this, helping parents in any way, then she’s gotten something back from the tragedy,” says her editor at Crown, Roger Scholl. “It’s your worst nightmare. You realize about teenagers, I don’t know what they’re thinking. I might not know if they’re in trouble.” That is the memoir’s message, recognition of her denial, the search for clues and knowledge.
At first, Klebold says, “when you lose a loved one, you feel like a victim. This has happened to you. You feel helpless and confused.” You progress “to feeling like a survivor,” and “survivors reach out to each other, create support groups, band together and share their feelings. And then, after a while, we become advocates. We just want to make a difference. We want things to be better.”
Klebold understands that her revelations may prove painful. “I fear I’m going to re-traumatize people by putting this book out there,” she says, her long fingers curled around her undrunk cup. “I considered the alternative of doing nothing.”
But, no. “I would be missing the thing I was supposed to be doing in my life, which was to share what I know,” she says. “Knowing my story has the potential to help those who are in distress.”
Now, her story is out there, sunlight on a private hell.