Just in time for Mother’s Day week, I finished reading a horror story—“A Mother’s Reckoning”, the memoir by Sue Klebold, Dylan Klebold’s mother. (I know, it’s not billed as horror, but if you are a mom, it reads like it.) Nineteen years ago Sue’s son, along with Eric Harris, killed 13 people at Columbine High School and then turned his weapon on himself. On that day Sue entered the Bad Mother Hall of Fame in the national mind, but as a mom, I know it can’t be as black and white as the “kid did something awful, it must be the mom’s fault” narrative. If anything, Sue is most guilty of missing the signs of her son’s depression and of believing, maybe too forcefully, that he was a normal kid. It’s easy to forget in light of all those murdered, but she lost a son to suicide that day, and one of her stated reasons for writing this book is to bring attention to how pernicious unseen suicidal depression is, especially in teens.
The most compelling theme in the book is how Dylan’s outward behavior around his family belied the pain and rage he felt. He cheerfully posed for pre-prom photos, joking around with his father just three days before the massacre. He recorded hateful, racist, and anti-semitic videos while writing sappy love poems in his journal and celebrating Passover with his family. As I read, I was reminded that you say your bi-polar condition lies to you and it seems the same was true for Dylan. Even as he lived an externally “normal” life, with friends and parents who cared for him, his depression told him he was worthless. And it obviously told him other, much more sinister, lies.
But if Dylan’s depression was creating a false reality for him, it seems that Sue was also holding on to an idealized view of motherhood. Repeatedly stating that Dylan was an easy kid and that she was a normal mom, Sue seemed to equate “normal” with “untroubled.” I get the sense that she made excuses, whitewashed or downplayed situations in order to maintain her sense of competence and control. Of course it’s easy to see in hindsight, but when, just a few days before the shooting, Eric came over bearing a very heavy black duffle bag and left it in Dylan’s room, she didn’t look in it or even ask about it, even though the two had been arrested for breaking into a van and stealing electronic equipment the year before. (And Dylan expressed no remorse over the crime.) She writes, “I was sure that was behind them and things were back to normal.”
I’ve raised three teenage boys and I get it—the temptation to put your head in the sand and just pray that everything is fine is strong. Keeping your mom-radar activated, alert to clues that the kids are up to something (and if they are teens, they probably are!) or that their mood is something beyond ordinary teen angst, is wearying. But Sue Klebold seemed to deflect any incident that would force her to reexamine her carefully constructed reality.
Soon after the two met, Dylan confided to his mom that Eric was “crazy”—a plea for help with an unhealthy relationship, it would appear. Yet she responded, “You’re going to meet people all your life who are difficult, and I’m glad you have enough common sense to recognize it when you see it”. It felt like a pat on the head to a child who saw a monster in the closet–almost saying, “Don’t worry about it, that way I don’t have to worry about it.” When Dylan’s English teacher expressed concern over an essay he wrote, full of graphic depictions of school violence, Sue didn’t even ask to see the paper. It felt like if she looked in that bag, if she read that paper, she might have to know things about her son that she didn’t want to, and then she would be forced to face them.
Sue Klebold’s situation was extreme, a perfect storm of influences turning her son’s suicidal thoughts into murderous actions. Only a minuscule number of moms will have to deal with such horrifying heartache, but only a minuscule number of moms (if any) will have children who never give them a moment’s pain, either. Parenting is messy, and even as we love our imperfect children, we need to love our imperfect selves, too. This Mother’s Day, I pray that troubled (that is, normal) mothers will trust their intuition, get help, or just reach out to supportive friends. Guilt and regret accompany mothers like stretch marks and spit-up stains—we need to accept that reality and the reality that “normal” doesn’t mean we have it all under control.