Having just finished “A Mother’s Reckoning,” by Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the two killers, Dylan Klebold, responsible for the Columbine massacre in 1999, I am moved, emotionally and into action. As a mother of a teenage boy, I have profound sympathy – having never been through that I certainly couldn’t empathize. Also, making it more acute, as I wrote about in my previous post “Our Child Has ADHD and Bipolar Disorder,” I am always concerned and hyper vigilant – even stable on medication, my son has a higher likelihood of committing suicide than a non Bipolar child. Now that I’ve read this poignant memoir packed with insight and information, I’m on even higher alert. Scared shitless actually.
My fascination for her perspective and her writing style made this book a very fast read. I was transfixed. I was devastated throughout most of it, in tears much of the time and wide-eyed the rest. Two days later, I can bring myself to publish a post about it.
There are many lessons I took away from this book. I share them here in the hopes of highlighting themes that may resonate with other parents and caregivers. With that said, if you are raising a teenager, or if you are involved with teenagers, please read this book. Whether they are “happy and thriving” or “troubled,” we have a responsibility to be informed at a minimum. This book screams for our attention. For what it’s worth, the author doesn’t profit from the book. All proceeds go to mental health research efforts and organizations.
[image of author Sue Klebold with her son Dylan]
Lesson #1: Murder-Suicide killings such as Columbine and the many school massacres since, almost always have a suicidal motivation. As concluded in the book by prominent researchers, it’s likely that Dylan (her son) was suicidal first and didn’t care if other people died too and that Eric, the other killer, was a homocidal psychopath who didn’t care if he died in the process. The author has become an activist for mental health and suicide awareness.
Lesson #2: The parents were not responsible. And it’s my feeling that parents are not responsible for their children’s behavior barring a sociopathic or negligent upbringing. This was far from the case. They were great parents doing their best to raise their children with morality and love. Her son grew up loved and cared for in a stable home.
Lesson #3: They were dealing with a “normal kid.” No mental health diagnosis, no major problems most of his life. With that said, the author says that looking back with what she has learned since, there were signs of trouble beyond normal teenage blips. They were simply unaware of the extent of the problems and their potential implications. It wasn’t due to neglect – it was due to ignorance.
Lesson #4: Friends…must be vetted. We must talk with parents, coordinate, be open. If there is a sign of stress over a friendship, we need to probe. While she didn’t suspect anything of her son’s friend Eric, the other killer, there was a time in their friendship where he was conflicted and questioning, maybe even afraid. He asked his mom to support him in that if the boy Eric called wanting to hang-out he would say “I have to ask my mom” and she would say loudly in the background “No Dylan you can’t go out.” That phase seemed to pass but it is something to watch for.
Lesson #5: She recommends parents searching their children’s rooms regularly, and thoroughly. Look for writings, and other obvious contraband. She didn’t do this because he gave her no reason to be suspicious. Her hindsight is that as parents, we simply don’t really know what’s going on inside our teenager’s head. In his case, his inner world was deeply troubled, sad, lonely and longing for love as discovered only after the killings from notes he had kept hidden in notebooks and random places.
Lesson #6: This goes back to #3, her son showed signs of depression and suicidal thinking at least 2 years prior to the killings, unbeknownst to her. At one point though, she suggested therapy and he assured her he didn’t need it. She said he was always successful at allaying concerns. She wishes she had probed and listened more, and of course, known more.
Lesson #7: Being broken-hearted or having feelings of unrequited love is a powerful trigger especially at that age. It’s another piece of the puzzle.
Lesson #8: Adolescent Murder-Sucides are usually done in pairs. As noted in #1, there is an enabling dynamic that goes on in all friendships for sure, healthy or ill. In this case it was two people with brain illnesses who came together meeting each other’s needs with their intentions. While this is likely not something we are privy to as parents we can inquire and watch and listen.
Lesson #9: All mental illnesses are not created equal. There is a big difference between Bipolar and Sociopathy or Depression or Anxiety or Schizophrenia. Let’s please not paint people with a broad brush in ignorance as “crazy.” Be informed. And watch for signs in your own children. There is treatment. It takes vigilance.
Lesson #10: Repressed anger…she discovered later that her son was full of anger, rage. He gave no indication of this, in fact he under-reacted to stimulus that would have made most people angry, including an incident with the other killer that she witnessed.
Lesson #11: Look for CHANGES in behaviors and patterns. Change in sleep habits, friends, trouble with the law, grade fluctuations, eating, sociability, family relationships. I noted that she said that psycho-somatic pain/illness is a red flag of a problem, depression at least. Her son had an inexplicable run to the emergency room for stomach pain shortly before the killings.
Lesson #12: According to experts referenced in the book, there are two key indicators for suicidal intentions: “thwarted belongingness” (I am alone.) and “perceived burdensomeness” (I am a burden.). Further, there is a vast chasm between perceived reality and apparent reality. In this case, her son was shown love but felt alone and there were no communications directed toward him as being burdensome in any way. The author did acknowledge that she regrets her conversations with her then husband where they may have worried out loud about how to pay for his college.
Lesson #13: Listen more than talk. We need to make ourselves available to our children consistently. It’s critical that our child trust’s someone with their best interest at heart. It’s likely not a parent according to the author’s research, but someone to share their inner world with.
Lesson #14: Truly, “it takes a village” to address distress and potential threats. Teachers, police, parents, friends, employers, counselors – they each get a unique view into a child’s life/demeanor and it needs to be shared. Communities are better about this since the mass epidemic of mass school shootings. In 1999, nobody had any idea about the power of coordination and the potential consequences without it.
Lesson #15: We can’t assume that bullying is not a problem. Even with a mainstream kid, seemingly strong, bullying is a reality. From what I took from the book, her son was not physically bullied but emotionally bullied and left to feel humiliated and embarrassed, true for the other killer as well (reportedly, the two boys were called “gay” on at least one occasion.) This type of verbal assault is a trigger for some kids, while others can just let it roll. Obviously, bullying is an ever-present topic being addressed in schools across the country now, in 1999, not so much. The author encourages parents to understand the culture of the school where our kids spend the better part of their day.
As for my own action steps, when I closed the book (after taking copious notes and several deep breaths) I opened up a conversation with my son Lively late one night when he would have normally been up alone. I made myself available. I began to gently and curiously probe. We already have what I’ve always considered to be an open dialogue but its sufficiency was now in question after the insights I gained from the book. My probing wasn’t unprecedented, but this time, it was more pointed and I listened with more attuned, aware ears. In the end, I discovered that he had one of the two indicators for suicidal intent. First, he feels like a huge burden on our family. This of course made my gut wrench. Second, he harbors intense anger at specific people both currently and previously in his life. And by the grace of God or Goodness or the Universe he was able to tell me who and exactly what he wanted to do about it. I was relieved – he trusted me enough to share and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, including himself – at least he was emphatic that he had to intention of hurting himself or anyone else, consistent with what he says in his regular psychiatric check-ups. All he wants to do is yell at the top of his longs at each person about how mad he is and why. Phew.
Relieved in a way, scared mostly though, I have found a recommended therapist who specializes in “angry teens” and my son’s first appointment is in two days. As for the rest of it, I will heed these lessons with both of my boys for as long as it takes to maintain wellness, or to get well, whichever the case may be. I see it as my duty as a parent, my greatest act of love. It’s my gift to the world. It’s the best I have to offer.
I am so grateful for Sue Klebold’s courage in writing this book and for her tireless efforts to raise awareness about mental health.
The author sites several resources to address key issues. One resource noted in the book that all parents can participate in is:
www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org – offering an 8 hour course training people to identify mental health distress in youth.