Sue Klebold and the Truth About Normal Parents

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Photo: Courtesy Crown Publishers

Behind every human making bad choices, there is a bad mother. This is a common narrative in modern American culture. For as often as we put mothers on a pedestal — those nurturing, self-sacrificing Madonnas — the slightest deviation from this Platonic ideal means you failed completely. Which is no small thing, since “bad mother” is considered a close cousin to arsonist, pedophile, terrorist. She is a destroyer of lives, of sanity, of well-being. According to common wisdom, everything evil and wrong and misguided in this world is all her fault.

On the morning of April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold unknowingly entered the Bad Mother Hall of Fame as she prepared for a meeting at her office. The heavy black duffel bag her son Dylan had dragged up the stairs when his friend Eric Harris spent the night four days earlier was not filled with computer parts, as Klebold and her husband had assumed. It was filled with automatic weapons and propane bombs. But as she waved good-bye to her son earlier that morning (“Dyl?” she called out; “Bye!” he replied, with a sneer in his voice that haunted her), she never imagined he’d soon be responsible for what was then the worst high-school shooting in American history. Eric and  Dylan, both seniors at Columbine High, enacted a carefully planned attack that included diversionary tactics, car bombs, pipe bombs — 99 explosive devices — and a cache of guns. Twelve students and one teacher were killed, and 24 people were injured before the perpetrators committed suicide. The event left the country in shock and inspired several copycat shooters in the years to come.

Thanks to both the lasting impact of Columbine and the pervasive notion of “bad mother” as accomplice to every criminal act, picking up a book like Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy is fraught from the start. In spite of my better, more progressive judgment, I found myself scouring for some clue of where Klebold went astray as a mother before I was even past the first chapter. As a parent, I couldn’t stop looking for proof that I wouldn’t make the same choices that she made. But we all want to be sure that she made huge mistakes. Because if her failures are regular human failures, that means that this could happen to anyone. For the rest of us to be good parents, Sue Klebold must be an aberration.

Klebold recognizes this more clearly than anyone. She admits that mistakes were made, but she argues that most of those mistakes stem from the fact that Dylan was depressed and suicidal. Her central stated motivation for writing the book, in fact, is to raise awareness of just how invisible a child’s suicidal depression can be to parents. Her son Dylan clearly took pains to hide his loneliness and desperation and suicidal thoughts and burgeoning feelings of grandiosity (and possible schizotypal personality disorder, according to one psychologist she contacted). If we want to prevent mass school shootings, Klebold asserts, we might need tighter gun-control laws and better anti-bullying policies, but most of all, we need to understand how subtle the signs of severe depression can be in adolescents. Many researchers would back her up on this, viewing most mass shootings as spectacular suicides that we won’t prevent until we address suicide as their root cause.

Klebold’s arguments are convincing. What’s more mysterious (and thus more engrossing) is how a smart, loving parent like Sue Klebold wound up with a son who resolved to commit suicide and mass murder. Sidestepping these mysteries doesn’t serve anyone. We can admit that Klebold’s mundane parenting choices are being examined here, and that we could just as easily be in her place, and still thoughtfully evaluate those choices. Given the prevalence of mass shootings in America, in fact, it behooves us to do so.

And as difficult as it is to acknowledge, there are hauntingly familiar cultural poisons on display in Klebold’s account. They’re less a reflection of Klebold’s unique personal failings than a reflection of a larger shift in how we understand parenting, a shift that seems to leave kids feeling at once entitled and distrustful, open and secretive, wildly insecure and grandiose. In Klebold’s own telling, whenever Dylan got in trouble, she and her husband were often preoccupied with unjust punishments by his school and unjust behaviors exhibited by other students. Like so many parents, they walked an uncomfortable line between complaining vociferously about injustice and refusing to either take productive action or encourage their son to address these injustices proactively.

As a junior, Dylan got in trouble for the first time at school at his computer job, where he helped maintain the school’s servers. He accessed a list of locker combinations, opened a few kids’ lockers to test them out, and then passed the list along to Eric Harris. When Sue and her husband, Tom, were called to the school and informed that Dylan would be suspended for five days, they were angry with the school. “Tom and I thought the punishment was unnecessarily harsh,” she writes. They asked the dean to reconsider, but the dean told them that the district superintendent wanted to handle the incident “with a high level of severity.” Klebold implies that the dean was just being lazy: “An administrator myself, I recognized the dean’s need to get the papers signed so she could move on to the next problem.” Klebold warned Dylan of the consequences of his actions, but as they drove home from the meeting, “I asked him if he thought he’d be okay.” Dylan asked his mother what she thought, and she remembered saying, “‘I don’t understand the decision and I don’t agree with it, but I’m going to support it. This will be resolved quickly if we comply with the ruling, and I don’t want to make a bad situation worse by alienating you from the people running the school.’” As reasonable as this sounds, her emphasis is clear: Dylan’s very serious offense is upstaged by his victimization by unjust forces.

When Dylan was at home that week after being suspended, he “complained that the school’s administration favored athletes, making excuses for them while coming down hard on others for lesser offenses. In Dylan’s mind, school was a place where things were ‘not fair.’” This information is offered without irony; Klebold herself just told her son that school was a place where things were not fair, and then she told him the only option was to fake it and pretend to agree with unfair decisions. Taking personal responsibility for stealing was less important than recognizing the impossibility of true justice and playing along with a corrupt system.

Later, Dylan defaces a locker at school, and, Klebold writes, “Tom was irritated with him for destroying property and irritated with the school for charging so much money to repaint a locker door.” Here, Dylan’s destructive act is merely “irritating,” and the school is just as culpable for charging too much to fix the damage Dylan has done. Dylan pledges to pay his dad back for the cost. Then Klebold writes, “I told Dylan he couldn’t allow the obnoxious behavior of others to upset him.” Again, most of the blame falls squarely on “the obnoxious behavior of others.” Even if this behavior is messed up — and many accounts from Columbine indicate that bullying played a part — Dylan is told not that he should watch how he expresses his anger, but that he should try not to feel anger at all.

Even when Klebold acknowledges that Dylan wrote a hateful slur on the locker (which was in line with his racist sentiments, revealed later but never directly addressed in Klebold’s book), she doubles back to defend herself. “I have read in the years since that the scratch read ‘Fags’ — a slur I have also read was frequently leveled against Dylan and Eric in the hallways at Columbine — but we did not hear that from the school.” Klebold has a habit of introducing unnerving information and then diverting blame elsewhere within the same sentence. This happens so many times per page that the cumulative effect creates a sense of vertigo.

Raising any teenager, let alone a kid who’s as depressed and withdrawn as Dylan clearly was, is complicated and confusing. On top of that, it’s easy to assume that anyone can make their true feelings clear on the page, but non-writers like Klebold often sound dogmatic, defensive, and not all that self-aware in print. Tellingly, Sue Klebold (and her son) come across as much more thoughtful and flexible in Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, a book about exceptional children with a chapter about crime that focuses on the Klebolds. In that book, Sue Klebold tells the author that if she could see her son again, she would ask him to forgive her “for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head, for not being able to help him, for not being the person that he could confide in.”

In A Mother’s Reckoning, though, Klebold’s humility is repeatedly obscured by contradictions that Klebold herself doesn’t seem to recognize. Klebold tells us over and over that she raised Dylan to be “polite,” but she never seems to push Dylan to understand other people’s feelings, their challenges, and the pressures on them that might not be apparent on the surface. Her idea of “good” parenting, even in retrospect, seems to focus on controlling and preventing negative outcomes rather than staying engaged and helping to reframe the confused, black-and-white thinking of a teenager into a more accepting space of forgiving yourself and others for being less than perfect. After all, it’s not just school that’s sometimes not fair. The world is often a “not fair” place, and it takes a lot of patience with ourselves and others — and an ability to gently stand up for ourselves rather than either rolling over or going ballistic — to push for change.

The Klebolds both openly question the school’s authority, and, at the same time, seem to expect that the school should be monitoring their kids more closely (in ways that the parents themselves are not). When Dylan’s English teacher told Sue and Tom that Dylan had turned in a disturbing paper with “dark themes and bad language,” and said that she planned to show the original to Dylan’s guidance counselor, somehow the teacher didn’t show Klebold the paper and the Klebolds didn’t press the issue. Klebold didn’t see it until a year later. In the paper, a man dressed in black kills a bunch of popular kids at school. She writes, “This lack of follow-through on my part was uncharacteristic, but indicative: I believed Dylan was a psychologically healthy human being. I never considered that the paper could be a reflection of deep-seated problems. I knew it contained some rough language and a dark theme, but had confidence that his teacher and the school counselor would handle the situation appropriately.” Two professionals at your kid’s school are discussing “shocking” (their word) material written by your son, and you never get even a glimpse of it? This doesn’t sound like a casual oversight so much as serious denial. But even if she did see the paper, Klebold says, it might not have changed anything: “I cannot help but wonder if, as an artist myself, I would have seen it as a danger sign if I had read it before his death. Artistic expression, even when it’s unpleasant, can be a healthy way of coping with feelings.” She also writes that the school counselor merely chided Dylan about his foul language and, later, he “was understandably stricken by his failure to recognize an incipient threat.”

A Mother’s Reckoning is filled with this kind of frustrating mix of taking responsibility and pointing blame, with each moment of intelligent analysis and sensitivity ending in a mire of passivity, wishful thinking, and illogical conclusions. The school’s punishment is too harsh, but the school isn’t doing enough to identify Dylan as a threat. Expressing unpleasant feelings through art is good for you, but the few times Dylan expresses his feelings, he’s urged to be respectful and polite above all else, and he’s never pressed for details about what he’s going through. As a junior, Dylan tells his mother that Eric is crazy. “I 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.’” Dylan is trying to open a door, which his mother quickly shuts with a pat on the head. Her response amounts to “You’re fine. Don’t worry about it, and that way I don’t have to worry about it either.”

To be clear, though, this is not a study in pathological behavior. It’s a snapshot of modern parenting. Most of us are confronted with a steady flow of information about our kids, a lot of which would look disturbing and unsettling to someone who doesn’t know them (or maybe just to someone who doesn’t love them unconditionally, like we do). Kids say unsettling things from the time they’re very small. Kids clash with each other constantly. They’re naturally drawn to stories about how unfair the world is, and they’re naturally impervious to empathy. Kids are often attracted to extreme views in which everything is black or white, with no shades in between.

Making matters worse, American culture is childlike in these same ways. We view everything through a lens of good and evil, from our pop idols to our criminals to our politicians. Klebold is repeatedly reassured that Dylan is a “good kid” — and she reassures herself of this as well. Our anxiety forces us to choose: Good kid or bad kid? Good mother or bad mother? What’s never allowed to exist, what’s never acknowledged, is the very simple, inescapable, pervasive ambivalence of being alive.

I emphasize the gaps in Klebold’s story not to drag one specific parent over the coals — Klebold has suffered mightily and will continue to suffer, for mundane mistakes and missteps that any parent alive could make — but in order to underscore just how exhausting and patience-trying and difficult it is to be a good, thorough, involved parent of a preteen or teenager. It means making space for kids’ natural rage and sadness and extreme polarity of thought, and then slowly helping them move forward. It also means taking tough stances at times when it’s inconvenient to do so.

Most parents sometimes find themselves choosing the easiest solution to complex challenges. Only an unlucky few among us will discover that our choices were catastrophic. The high stakes here make a close examination of Klebold’s story uncomfortable but necessary. Because this is not just a story about how pernicious and unseen suicidal depression can be in teens. This is a story about how easy it can be to disengage from your children without even knowing it. Spending time with your kids and choosing to assume that they’re fine, and trusting that they’re “good,” is not enough. Doing what’s easy — having fun together, trying to be cheerful, never pushing any subject that feels uncomfortable, legitimizing your kids’ anger at authority but insisting that they play along — falls horribly short of the mark with a teenager, particularly a troubled teenager. Kids need a way of understanding their own complicated emotions and accepting that other people have complicated emotions, too. They need to learn ways to tolerate the imperfect give-and-take of living within a community with other complex, emotional human beings.

A Mother’s Reckoning is a very detailed book, but its stories feel dizzying because they constantly circle back on themselves, rationalizing and blaming and lashing out defensively, without adequately examining the deeply humbling facts on the ground. That’s largely the fault of Klebold’s collaborators and editors. Yet, when we unravel this anxious tangle of words, what we discover is a woman who wants, more than anything else, to be told that she did everything any normal, regular parent from a so-called “good home” would do.

Sue Klebold is a normal, regular parent. But what we consider normal parenting these days is a strange mix of coddling and struggling to keep our anxious minds from acknowledging darkness or taking on complex puzzles that aren’t easily solved. Children call their parents their best friends, but emerge from their cocoons feeling lonely, powerless, insecure, narcissistic, and angry that the world is so impossibly unfair and hostile and hard. Normal parents hover, but they don’t model how to move through an unjust world with patience and grace. They encourage their children to stand up for themselves, but they’re afraid to stand up to their own children. They tell their children to express their emotions, then stigmatize and chide their kids when they actually do so. Normal parents, in other words, share the anxious, clinging, insecure, angry, avoidant, black-and-white thinking of depressed adolescents. No wonder so many kids fall through the cracks. We unknowingly reinforce their worst impulses. We are not expansive enough or patient enough or mature enough to be worthy of their confidences.

So this is the worrisome unintended moral of Sue Klebold’s story: We “normal” parents love our children like crazy, and we are trying our best. It is not enough. Forgive us. We need to grow up. We need to try a hell of a lot harder.