A Mother’s Reckoning

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Rarely has a book affected me so profoundly that I immediately felt compelled to record my thoughts on it. This is one of those books. On April 20th, 1999 I was just another freshman in high school dragging through another boring school day. As my world history teacher walked into class, I knew something was terribly wrong. A normally vibrant and engaged man, he walked past his students with barely an acknowledgement of their existence, turned on the TV, and sat down at his desk and wept, openly and with zero regard for the students in his care. Our normally rambunctious group sat completely mesmerized by what we saw playing out on the TV.

In a word, it was a massacre. I’d see the student scrambling out the window a hundred times in the coming weeks, and I’d be haunted by the imagery that was being broadcast across every TV in the country. I’d see Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ faces on every news channel and newspaper for months. The coverage was nonstop. How could something like this happen? The natural progression was to ask where had their parents been? How could those closest to them not realize something was terribly amiss? How had the professionals involved in their lives missed something that was so blatantly obvious? Who could we hold responsible for this senseless tragedy?

Sixteen years later, we’re no closer to an answer to those questions, and a rash of mass shootings hasn’t made the questions disappear. There is little solace in the fact that school shootings are actually DOWN in the last 20 years, media coverage has just made it that much more KNOWN to more people. I’m sure the victims in these shootings take no comfort in that fact. That didn’t save a school full of children in Newtown,  nor a theater full of people just a short drive from Columbine.

In the months and years after Columbine, it was easy for me to blame their parents. They should have known, they should have realized something was terribly wrong with their children. They should have pushed harder when they broke the rules to find out why they were acting out. Then September 23rd, 2007 happened in my life, and it suddenly wasn’t so simple. My own spiral into mental illness left me reeling, and I realized how easy it was for Dylan and Eric to hide something so terrible from the people they claimed to love, because I hid it so well. My own friends and family didn’t realize how close I was to ending my own life, much in the same way my ex had just a few short months before. No one had any reason to believe my ex was going to commit suicide. No one knew the terrible secrets he was keeping until it was too late. And then I understood how easy it was for the Klebold’s and the Harris’ to not realize just how sick their sons were.

I hesitated purchasing this book because I didn’t want to confront the reality. It was easier for me to hide behind denial. She was his MOTHER, she should have known. Even though I realized logically there was nothing she could do, it was easier for me to stick my head in the sand and pretend that she was responsible. Sue Klebold’s interview on 20/20 prompted me to order the book. As Joe and I embark on the journey to start a family, I HAD to know where she had gone so wrong. Over the course of less than an hour, I realized there was very little to nothing she could have done to prevent this, short of locking him in a dungeon and throwing away the key. Even then, she would have had to know there was a problem in the first place.

On the outside, Dylan Klebold was just like any other teenager in the 90’s. He didn’t like doing chores, loved playing video games, and valued his privacy and independence. He’d gotten in trouble the year before, but the diversion program counselors said he was doing really well. Three days before Dylan and Eric would kill 13 people and injure 2 dozen more, Dylan took a girl to prom, a girl who helped him and Eric secure the weapons they would use to terrorize the students and staff at Columbine High School. He was planning to attend University of Arizona in the fall. He was working and had fixed a car with his dad. He spent a lot of his free time with friends, or playing video games on the internet with those friends. He was a sullen teenager, just like millions of other teenagers. Most of whom haven’t killed a dozen people.

In her book, Sue Klebold outlines the kind of life they had. It was, for all intents and purposes, normal. They were attentive parents. Tom Klebold worked from home, and she only worked 4 days a week. They had dinner together regularly. They watched movies together. She was involved in his life, they were far from absentee or neglectful parents. Their household wasn’t abusive. She’d known all of his friends for years, and with the exception of the breaking and entering incident in his junior year, didn’t really think of her son or his friends as troublemakers. By all accounts, they were normal teenagers pushing normal boundaries to see what they could get away with.

In 1999, bullying wasn’t the hot button issue it is today, and there are reports that the staff at Columbine turned a blind eye when the jocks and popular students would bully the less popular kids. No one realized what the effects of bullying were because it wasn’t seen as a widespread problem. Kids will be kids was the mantra of the day, up until 11:15am on April 20th, 1999 when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into school just a few short weeks before graduation with duffel bags filled with explosives and guns. The only thing more terrifying than the actual tragedy is what they had planned on doing. If we’re to judge by the explosives that didn’t go off, they were planning to kill hundreds, if not thousands of people that day.

About a month before the horrible events of that day, the first inkling that something was really wrong blipped across the radar, but even the school counselor admitted she didn’t think much of it until after. They dismissed the invective filled paper as the ramblings of a teenage male, nothing more than fantasy and an over active imagination. Should they have pushed harder? Sure, in hindsight. But come back to 1999 with me if you will. We live in a pre-columbine world. No one thought it was even POSSIBLE. These were good kids from good homes in an upper middle class neighborhood. Yea, they dressed a little differently, but teenagers are nothing if not stubborn. They wanted to stand out, no big deal. They had friends, they held down jobs, and got passing grades. Dylan was going to college in the fall, he’d even been accepted to several universities and had decided to attend UofA after he graduated high school. No one had any real reason to think Dylan and Eric were going to come to school with guns and explosives, least of all their parents.

The tapes and diaries of both boys painted pictures no one recognized. They hid their mental illness from the very people who could help them, and they hid it incredibly well. Anyone who has spent any time around a teenager knows they can be sullen and withdrawn, even on the best of days. Any parent or person who works closely with teenagers will tell you they live to push boundaries and exert their independence. Parent’s days are spent picking the battles they choose to fight, because if they fought for everything, they’d lose their damn minds.

The most terrifying thing to me is Sue Klebold’s complete and utter inability to see this coming. Even as I sit here writing this, I question how she didn’t even have an inkling of what her SON, her own flesh and blood, was up to. And then there are all the other tragedies. Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurura. The list is endless, and it just keeps growing. If these seemingly attentive and involved parents could miss this, how does anyone stand a chance? And how can I protect my future children from such atrocities? And what the hell would I do if I was in Sue Klebold’s shoes? The urge to helicopter parent is strong, and I get it. I can understand how parents don’t want to let their children out of their sight.

Joe and I went to get lunch this afternoon. There was a young mother with three children at the fast food place we stopped at. While she was tending to the youngest the two older ones snuck into the bathroom without telling her. The minute she realized her two daughters were missing, the panic was evident on her face. Neither of us saw the two girls go to the restroom, so I panicked as well. But the look of sheer terror on her face stopped me in my tracks. She was paralyzed with fear, unable to even put one foot in front of the other. The relief was palpable on her face when the two girls emerged from the bathroom a short while later. Knowing that is what I’m signing up for terrifies me, and that was nothing compared to what some parents have gone through. Given the horror stories I’ve heard, it’s a miracle I even want to have kids.

I couldn’t imagine being the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It’s a miracle none of them committed suicide in the months and years since their son’s heinous crimes. I’m not saying they should, but I could understand if they did. The guilt would be unbearable, and I’d drive myself crazy going over everything I could have done to stop them. But at the end of the day, there was nothing they could have done, no measures they could have taken to stop them. If they were determined to do it, they were going to do it, and no amount of parental guilt is going to bring them or their victims back. As much as I’d like to assign blame to the Klebolds’s and Harris’, after reading this book, I realize it isn’t so simple.

I understand people’s reluctance to purchase the book, I really do. Many people still blame the Klebolds for what happened and don’t want to support them in anyway. If that is how you feel, I will let you know the proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated to mental health and suicide prevention, so they will not be profiting from the sale of the book. If that doesn’t help, I would be willing to lend you my copy so you can read for yourself, because I truly believe this is a must read for any parent, or anyone who is thinking about becoming a parent.

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