A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold

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A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: From the mother of one of the Columbine High School shooters, the devastating story of her son's murder–suicide and the ways it still affects her and others more than 17 years later.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: February 2017
Publisher: WH Allen
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780753556818

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Sue Klebold's son Dylan was one of the shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Her book opens on 20 April 1999, the day of the shootings. Klebold remembers the confusion and dread she and her husband and older son felt when they learned something was happening at Columbine. Early on they were told Dylan was a suspect, and before long they also knew he was dead, but they didn't know how he was involved or how he died. From the start, though, it was clear that there would be fallout: one of the first things they had to do, before they even cremated their son, was have a clandestine meeting with a lawyer. In the months that followed, they were essentially in hiding in their own hometown.

At first Klebold was able to remain in denial as to the extent of Dylan's involvement. He must have been coerced or drugged, she told herself, or maybe he didn't actually fire any shots. That was until she and her husband attended a presentation by local police six months later. They were shown the 'Basement Tapes' made by Dylan and Eric Harris, full of posturing and boasts about obtaining guns, and Dylan's journals, which were almost incoherent in places but reflected his deep depression. Police also gave them a blow-by-blow – which Klebold reconstructs here, in a markedly impassive manner – of who shot whom, where and when. She could no longer deny that her son had taken an active, deliberate role.

Klebold's own journals were an invaluable resource in recreating her family's daily life and giving the timeline leading up to Columbine. Wisely, though, she chooses only to include short, italicised passages from the journals themselves. These are raw, unedited thoughts, whereas the rest of the book benefits from hindsight. Her journaling habit allows her to give readers a real sense of what Dylan was like. Theirs was a happy and solidly moral family, and Dylan was a funny, easygoing boy with a passion for computers. Klebold delves back into his childhood and high school experience, especially his last two years of life, to search for the seeds of what was to come.

For there were signs that Dylan was struggling, but not unmissably overt ones. In his third year of high school he and Eric acted up and even got in trouble with the law for stealing electronic equipment. But their probation program went so well that they were released early. Others were concerned about Eric's violent website and pipe bomb-making equipment, but no one ever followed up on it. Dylan wrote a very dark essay for English class, but the teacher and a counsellor talked to him about it and decided nothing was wrong. He frequently acted withdrawn and sullen, but that appeared normal for a teenage boy. Moreover, he had seemed excited about applying to study computer science at the University of Arizona, and he called his prom, a few days before the shooting, the best night of his life.

Dylan hid his despair and his plans extremely well. Eric may have been a charismatic psychopath, but Dylan was the suicidal depressive whose slow-burning rage fuelled Eric's homicidal intentions. Klebold is adamant that there were signs she and others could have picked up on if only they had been better trained in recognising brain health issues. To that end, she now devotes her life to suicide prevention volunteering.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about this book is Klebold's determination to reclaim Columbine as a murder–suicide and encourage mental health awareness; all author proceeds have been donated to suicide prevention and mental health charities. I believe Klebold when she says that her son was not some indisputably evil monster and that she parented him as well as she could. I also admire her for putting personal tragedy to use. Later struggles with cancer, anxiety and divorce were further spurs to compassion as she realised that her life, however difficult, was a gift to be treasured.

The memoir is slightly repetitive – there's the constant question of how this could have happened, and Klebold's frequent refrain that she loves her son despite what he did – and also defensive in places (fair enough: the Klebolds ultimately had 36 lawsuits brought against them). I was in high school myself when Columbine happened, and it made a deep impression on me. For anyone who remembers Columbine, but especially any parent, this will be a powerful but harrowing read. There's no real redemptive arc, no easy answers; just regrets. If something similar could happen to any family, no one is immune. And Columbine was only one of many major shootings in the USA and elsewhere. I finished the book feeling spent, even desolate. Yet this is a vital book, one that everyone should read.

Further reading suggestion: For another poignant story of a child's death, we can recommend Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler. The novels Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland and We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver were both inspired in part by Columbine.

Buy A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold at Amazon.com.

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