Monday, November 7, 2016

Non-Fiction November: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold (Review)

Release date: February 15th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Website
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 336

Description (from Goodreads):

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives. 
For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently? 

These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In"A Mother s Reckoning," she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing upon her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and on countless interviews with mental health experts. 

Filled with hard-won wisdom and compassion, "A Mother s Reckoning"is a powerful and haunting book that sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time. And with fresh wounds from the recent Newtown and Charleston shootings, never has the need for understanding been more urgent. 
"All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues."

Dave Cullen's Columbine is one of the most impressive non-fiction books I have read -- the scope of research, the analysis of the events and their impact, and so on, astounded me and made me interested in other perspectives into the tragedy. Sue Klebold's perspective in A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy definitely offers a much more personal perspective, one that places more attention on the people, namely her son Dylan, one of the shooters, rather than the actual events themselves.

It has taken an incredible amount of bravery for Sue Klebold to write this book. Ever since April 20, 1999, she has been judged publicly -- she must have been a bad parent because she did not know what her son was planning. The aim for Klebold's books become evident quite quickly -- to clear her own name (in some sense) and to prove that she had provided a happy and healthy family for Dylan (and that she missed the signs that there was something wrong with him), and to state that Dylan's principal motive was suicide. She does not try to gloss over the horror and grief Dylan caused, but focuses heavily on the suicidal signs that she missed and argues, that if she could have seen them (if she would have known how to identify them), the horrors at Columbine might not have happened, at least not to the extent that they did.

Klebold writes quite a lot about suicide survivors/survivors of suicide -- the friends and family of someone who has committed a suicide. Few years after Columbine she, in a way, finds her place in the post-Columbine world, and become active in Suicide awareness activism, identifying herself as a survivor of murder-suicide. I didn't expect the book to focus on the suicide aspect quite so much and believe that if I would have known, I probably wouldn't have picked this book up. I am a survivor of a suicide of 13 years now, and often find research on suicide difficult to read, because I start to battle in my mind with questions of what I could have done differently. I guess Klebold struggles with those same questions, just in a very different kind of context.

"These other survivors of murder-suicide believed, as I did, that suicide had been a driving factor behind their loss, and yet the public persisted in seeing these acts exclusively as murders."

Klebold is passionate about showing the world that Dylan used to be a normal, happy boy. Yes, he was shy and quiet and liked to keep to himself from time to time, but he never showed the kind of rage that he must have shown when going to the school with guns. While Klebold probably does not do it entirely on purpose, she definitely presents Dylan as the most "innocent" one in comparison to Eric Harris -- she writes about the people Dylan did not shoot while focusing on the details of Eric's brutality. She is not the first person to do so -- in many accounts, Dylan is portrayed as someone who just went along with Eric's diabolical plans.

I suspect believing in something like this, creating this certain image of Dylan in her mind, has been a process Sue Klebold has had to take in order to save her own sanity. It has been something she has had to do in order to somehow keep going. It would be interesting to read an account from the side of the Harris family to determine how they see the dynamic between Dylan and Eric. Eric undoubtedly was the more troubled on, but there must have been something in Dylan too that made him willing to participate in such a plan. Something more than just a willingness to kill himself.

It is difficult to judge a situation like this and to contest Sue Klebold's thinking, from a position that is so unlike anything that she must have been going through. I do share the sorrow that comes from losing to someone to suicide with her, but that is where it ends. I am not a mother, and never want to be one, and I believe that if I were one, this book most likely would have hit me harder, because of more than anything, it is a mother's reflection on her own parenting, a questioning narrative about her own role in the tragedy. 

Klebold writes well, and the observations she makes are often interesting and eloquently put together. I know some readers have criticized Sue Klebold for not giving more thought to the victims of Dylan and Eric, but I think she has consciously made the decision to focus on Dylan. Also, maybe she wanted to include the victims there, but their families did not want to have them included. The excerpts from Sue's diary from the days after Columbine add an extra harrowing element to the book, giving the reader a glimpse of the horror of a mother just days after her life has completely been obliterated. 

As someone looking in from the outside (from a place very distanced from what Sue's going through), I highly appreciated this book and Sue's bravery to write it. Someone, who lost a family member in Columbine, or who has lost someone in a situation similar to Columbine, might feel differently about Klebold's words. More than anything, A Mother's Reckoning: A Living in The Aftermath of Tragedy is a very personal account of what happened on April 20, 1999, and during its aftermath. If you are looking for a more objective, analytical account, I recommend picking up the aforementioned Columbine by Dave Cullen. 

All of the profits from A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy are donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues!

"I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me."

"Much has been written in the years since about the media coverage of the event -- in particular about how quickly early misinformation about the boys solidified into received truth." (Dave Cullen's book looks more into this!)

"I know telling these stories here exposes me to further criticism. The though fills me with fear, although there's no criticism of my parenting I have not already heard over the last sixteen years. I've heard that Tom and I were too lenient with Dylan, and that we were too restrictive. I've been told that our family's position on gun control caused Columbine; perhaps if Dylan had been habituated to guns, they would not have had the same mystique for him. People have asked me if we abused Dylan, if we permitted someone else to abuse him, if we ever hugged him, if we ever told him that he was loved."

"Survivors often comment about how remote suicide seemed to them before they lost a loved one to it; the real question is why we persist in believing it's rare, when it is really anything but."



  1. I am due up for this at the library. I am really interested to see what she has to say. I will have to look into Dave Cullen's Columbine as well. Great review!

    1. Her perspective is obviously a very personal one, and I admire her bravery to do this, to really come out in public and to talk about this with the world. Cullen's book was more interesting to me as a whole, but this definitely was quite a reading experience too.


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