Sue Klebold Speaks About Columbine, Her New Memoir, and Teen Depression

Klebold's first book, A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, was released earlier this year.

March 31 2016, 1:00 PM

"Dylan Klebold was my son."

It's been nearly 17 years since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 people and injured more than 20 others at Columbine High School before taking their own lives. Dylan's mother, Sue, has spent the intervening years attempting to understand what signs she missed with Dylan—and what lessons she can pass on to prevent similar tragedies. "The list of things I would have done differently if I had known more is long. Those are my failures," she writes in A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (Crown Publishing, February 2016), a heartrending journey into one woman's grief and a candid reflection on the childhood and teenage years of a boy who grew up to be a school shooter.

They had a normal suburban family home, Klebold writes. Other than an incident his junior year when Dylan and Eric were caught stealing electronic equipment, Dylan was a good kid, she says. But in secret, he had a desire to die, one that was amplified by a seriously troubled friend. She's well aware that Dylan was a murderer at the end of his life, but Klebold has found some closure and understanding by seeing what he did as a murder-suicide. She spent years learning about brain health and suicide; today, she volunteers much of her time to suicide prevention efforts, including the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado. By writing this book, Klebold hopes people will find lessons they can apply as parents, as friends, as teachers, so they can connect with those who are troubled, like Dylan was, before they're too far beyond help. In that way, A Mother's Reckoning is a terrifying read because the way Sue sees it, Dylan could have been anybody—she perceived his issues as typical teenage problems. Of course, they weren't.

Certainly many will be angered by the book and Klebold's reasons for writing it; she carefully words her mentions of the victims and their families, stating clearly that she wants to honor them but that the book's purpose is in trying to understand Dylan and what caused Columbine. By putting her deepest, truest thoughts in the public eye—much of the book is based on years of diaries Klebold kept—she offers important insight into how a troubled mind works, and how we can all do a better job looking for its signs. As Klebold writes so devastatingly: "What I do know is that Dylan did show outward signals of depression, signs Tom [her husband] and I observed but were not able to decode. If we had known enough to understand what those signs meant, I believe that we would have been able to prevent Columbine." 

I sat down with Klebold to learn more about the book, what she wishes she'd known back then, and teen depression. 

5280: Why write a book, and why write it now? 

Sue Klebold: I was journaling, I was keeping a diary. When [Columbine] happened, I just wrote and kept writing; writing was so healing because I couldn’t talk [to anybody]. It was all this horror and hubbub and furor, so I wrote and I wrote. The tough decision was whether or not to publish, because I had gotten my life to a place where I was air quotes “ok,” but I knew that if I published I would have all this renewed interest, and I wasn’t sure I could be strong enough to do it. In the work that I did volunteering with suicide prevention and being on boards, I became pretty convinced that people might learn from my story, that there might be something that might allow them to help other people. And I could donate the money, do some good with that. I just came to the conclusion that whether or not it was comfortable for me, it was the right thing to do. [Editor's Note: Klebold is donating the author's share of the profits, after expenses, to a number of organizations, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology, Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental IllnessBrain & Behavior Research Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health gift fund.]

The beginning of A Mother's Reckoning focuses on the immediate aftermath of Columbine, and you talk a lot about and how you were coping. You tell a story about it taking four hours for you to get out of bed and get dressed. How do you compare how you’re coping today to back then?

I refer to Dylan’s death as a suicide because that was how I lost Dylan, he took his own life. But in saying that, I’m not imagining or pretending that he didn’t kill other people first. In my mind, his death was a murder-suicide, and he was motivated to take part in this because of his desire to die. With that being said, for many survivors of suicide loss, we follow a similar progression, and that progression is when it first happens we are victims; we feel that the world has just crashed down on us. We are confused, we are lost, we feel helpless, we feel hopeless. It’s really a state of trauma and shock and disbelief. As time goes by, if we are fortunate enough, we begin to identify as a survivor—somebody who says, 'I’ve been through hell but I’m going to survive this.' And you reach out and you talk to other survivors of suicide loss, and you begin to learn about suicide, you begin to understand the brain dysfunction that occurred and that it’s not a personal rejection. As time goes by, if you stay in that community and you want to learn, you eventually become an advocate. So now I’m in the advocate phase of this. I still cry, I still look back and have regrets and tears, but I also feel a very strong sense of wanting to help others through this, especially other survivors of murder-suicide because it’s such an unbelievably isolated place to be. 

Stepping into that advocate arena had to be terrifying, with how international and publicized Columbine was. Did it take awhile for you to feel comfortable?

I did it incrementally. One of the first things I did was write the O article in 2009. I was really putting a toe in the water with that article to see what would happen, and it was received well enough. Of course there were people who were still very imprinted with anger and judgment and could not let go of that and to this day cannot let go of it. And that’s really hurtful and difficult for me to read. But on the other hand, far more people said, 'This was helpful to me, this changed my life.' I think people were genuinely curious to know what had gone on in our home. A lot of people found comfort in believing that we were very different, very evil, very dysfunctional. I think it kind of shakes people to learn that that’s not the case.

It's a scary message for parents to hear: There's there’s a very thin line between typical teenage behavior and something more serious. Dylan could be anybody.

That’s one of the things we struggled with in writing this book because people have said, 'This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read.' And I think it should be terrifying. We know that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth [ages 15 to 34]. The way I see it is, yes, we do have a potentially lethal health condition here, and one of the manifestations of it is that the person hides it and wants to hide it. I invite people to question more, to be aware more, to take more of a stand, to begin asking their family physicians what training they've had in dealing with this. It’s not just a simple matter of let’s put this kid on some pills and he’s going to be OK. We have to all be more mindful that depression and other kinds of illnesses can lead to feelings and thoughts of suicidality if they’re not treated early. There are many, many pieces to this. It’s not just in the home—it’s the whole culture. 

You write, "There were hints that Dylan was troubled, and I take responsibility for missing them, but there was no deafening klaxon, no blinking neon danger sign." Can you talk about some of the things you know now that you wish you had understood then? 

When Dylan first got into trouble in his junior year, that was a change in behavior for him. He had never been in trouble before. What’s very hard for parents in general is to identify with teen behavior what is normal and what is an indication that something is seriously wrong. That’s what’s so hard about parenting teens: They are impulsive. They get moody. They like to be alone and be in their rooms. They get easily angered. They have sleep disturbances, which is also a sign of depression. So it’s very hard to tell. One of the hallmarks that we might look for that a teen is beginning to struggle with mental health issues is a change in behavior. I didn’t know that at the time. We just thought, He’s having a tough time. We’re going to be the best parents we can be. He got put into a diversion program where he had counseling, he had classes. We talked with him. I searched his room. We changed some rules. We said, 'You’re going to spend more time with us.' So we were doing what we thought was fair and reasonable and in his best interest. He made a promise to us that he would get his life on track and he did.

But knowing now what I didn’t know then, I would have talked with him differently. I didn’t know how to ask open-ended questions. I would ask Dylan, 'Are you OK?' Well the answer to that is 'Yes I’m OK.' Now I would say something like, 'Tell me something about yourself that other people don’t know that is causing you concern.' And then I'd just listen to the answer. I wish someone had told me don’t fix it—just listen. We think our job as parents is to try and fix our children and make them feel good. And I’m proposing that our job is to listen to their pain and not try to fix it but to connect with where they are and what they’re experiencing and then, if we are fortunate enough to identify that someone really is struggling, to be able to find someone to help.

The interesting conundrum here is based on what Dylan’s probable health diagnosis was—depression—therapy would have been helpful to him. But for psychopathy, which is probably what Eric had, therapy is contraindicated—it’s not something they believe works, and not only that, therapy might make it worse. So how does a parent know? This is why I’m trying to give the money to research because we have to have better care. We have to be able to take someone who is troubled or is having bad thoughts and find caregivers who are skilled enough to understand the complete difference in these two kids and what their mental health conditions were, and how one treatment might have helped one kid and might have made it worse for the other one.

In the book, you’re very careful about getting into these issues, while not excusing what Dylan did as simply the result of his depression.

I didn’t want it to seem that I was writing this off or saying just because someone has a mental health issue they’re a danger to themselves or someone else. That isn’t statistically true; most people who have mental health issues are not dangerous to others. In fact, they are more likely to be the victims of violence from others. But in Dylan’s case it was this Venn diagram of circumstances that occurred that made him this one in millions that would do this. This is part of the problem in trying to explain this. When you consider something that occurs in someone’s life—their genetic factors and biological factors of their family history, the biology of their own brains, what’s happening, their personalities, how they interpret what happens to them, how they see it, the environmental factors—and then you get imprinted on top of that with a triggering event, for example a toxic environment in a school or workplace, and then the icing on the cake, in Dylan’s case, this finding of another friend who was the other side of that polarity. This one-in-millions kind of thing can happen. I don’t ever want to imply that having a mental illness causes these things, but very often people who have mental health disorders are suicidal. And I believe Dylan’s own suicidality led to his participation. But it got to a stage 4: It got to a lethal place where there was no turning back.

Fear comes up again and again in the book. After Columbine, you and your now ex-husband were very worried for your own safety. Does that concern about retaliation still exist for you, especially since the book came out?

There’s always a concern about safety because my son was one of these people who did something mad and evil and nasty. I know that there are people out there who are struggling and don’t have the same sense of reality that I do. I’m very aware. If I’m in a Burger King, I’m always aware that a shooter could walk in the door. I’m very conscious of that all the time, perhaps more so than other people. But I made the decision to break that barrier and put myself out there. I believe that I’m probably at more risk by some measures, but at less risk by other measures. It was a calculated risk, and I chose to take it.

The other fine line you’ve had to toe with the book is being respectful to the victims and their families. You point out that you're focusing on Dylan not to ignore them, but because of your mission in writing the book. How did you determine how to approach that? 

It’s been very difficult. Much soul-searching has gone on. For example, I debated about whether to dedicate the book to all the victims of this tragedy. And I concluded that that was very presumptuous of me because that might have been offensive: How dare you try to write a book and dedicate it to my loved one when your child killed my loved one? So I chose not to.

One of the challenges in the book came where we had to describe what actually happened in the school. A lot of discussion went into that, a lot of thoughtful consideration. At one point, we considered leaving out a description of what happened in the school. And then we thought, Well that really flips it, it makes it all about the killer. We wanted to acknowledge the human beings who were there that day and suffered and experienced trauma and who died and who lost friends and family members. What we ended up doing was to describe it very non-graphically. It’s very rigid. We don’t give any visual imagery. We don’t talk about interactions. We try to acknowledge who was hurt and who was killed but without giving any details about the incident. That we felt was the safest way to do it and the most thoughtful way.

You preface that section with an explanation for including those details, which was that learning about exactly what happened that day was part of your grieving process. You had largely been in the dark for six or so months after Columbine, and you note that sitting down with the police really changed your perspective of Dylan. What was that experience like?

I think people often think I try to avoid or discount the fact that Dylan was a sadistic killer at the end of his life, and if I hadn’t put [the description] in there, that would have been a convincing argument that I had blinders on about that. I don’t. I’ve had to really think hard about what he did and how he did it and how terrified people were and how much suffering was occurring. I have spent a lot of years focusing on that. 

[That day] was horrible. It was a terrible shock because I’d never seen Dylan in his evil mode. He’d never…Dylan didn’t talk about killing. He didn’t talk about dying. Part of it [the Basement Tapes] was recognizable as Dylan play-acting, Dylan trying to be cool and tough. That piece I could accept. But the words that were coming out, the things that he was saying, and the way he and Eric were dehumanizing and were so detached from feeling, it was just appalling to me. There are two reasons that I didn’t want the tapes to be available [to the public]: One of them, of course, is experts tell us that they are dangerous; we are setting up a blueprint for people to follow. But the other piece that concerned me so greatly was if people think that this is the way he acted around me and I ignored it, oh my god. Because what he was acting like on that tape was so different from the way he presented to us. And I felt it would be far more dangerous, not only for us, but for other people with their own family members ('Well nobody in my family acts like that, therefore I’m not at risk'). His behavior in the tapes was horrifying and hateful. It was like he was desperately trying to find some way to be angry and to hang on to the anger. It was just horrible to see that. But it also helped me see him the way other people see him. I instantly got this feeling of no wonder he’s hated, no wonder people are saying what they’re saying, because I finally saw it.

You write a lot about having to reconcile the Dylan you knew with Dylan the Columbine shooter—the day in the police station being a turning point. Have you been able to reconcile those two versions of your son?

I have and I haven’t. I notice I can still go back to that place where I have to re-reconcile it. I think it’s behind me, I think I’ve moved on, but then something will pull me back to that place again. Or I might talk to somebody who was there and hear their fear and see how it’s damaged their lives, and then I go right back to that place again. Pathology explains so much, and the fact that he somehow was able to kill people and do what he did, but there’s always that little [area] where that nerve connection doesn’t quite explain everything to me. But that’s the place where I’ve sought answers.

Suicide affects the people left behind in myriad ways. You, for instance, stopped watching and reading local news. Beyond that, what changed for you, or what perceptions of yourself changed?

I have always been, ever since childhood, a very fearful person. I was the kid if an ant crawled across the sidewalk in front of me, I would squeal and jump up and down. I was just a really chicken kid. And it’s taken a lot of courage to do this book. A therapist said to me, 'Courage is not the same thing as fear. Courage is the ability to move forward despite feelings of fear.' That was a game changer for me. It made me see I don’t have to wait until I’m not afraid to publish a book. All I have to be able to do is do it and still be afraid. I learned that you don’t have to let fear stop you from doing what you think is the right thing to do. 

The other thing that I think has changed for me as a human being is I feel a great connectedness to so many people. I’m much more tuned in to other people’s suffering, and I want to help other people through their suffering. I want to make it so people don’t have to suffer. I’m less judgmental now than I ever was. Certainly I was like many of the people who criticize me, saying 'That wouldn’t have happened in my family because I’m one of the good moms, and I know how to talk to my children, and they can tell me anything, and I’m there for them.' I realized that I was so wrong. After you’ve had something like this happen to you, how in the world could you judge anyone else? You can’t. 

Did you ever think about changing your name or moving out of Colorado?

Yes. A lot. And I even thought about changing my name before doing the book, but I decided not to. After this first happened, I did give a fake name a lot, like at a conference or something. I thought about moving away, I really did. I have siblings in another state. I thought of moving and going to be with them. But I realized that I couldn’t run from it, that changing my name wouldn’t prevent me from hearing bad things about myself. It also wouldn’t make the fact that I was the mother of a killer go away. I had this sense of, this is what you’ve been handed, you can’t run from it. Even if you change your name and move, you're still dealing with the same things. So why would you move? By moving I’d be removing myself from all my support systems, my friends, and where I’d worked for all those years, and it was too big a sacrifice to lose those things in addition to everything else. 

"The mother of a killer": Do you think that's how people will perceive you for the rest of your life? Is that how you perceive yourself?

Yeah I think so. But it doesn’t have to stop there. And that’s another reason why I wanted to do a book, because I wanted to have other identities besides being the mother of a murderer. I’d like to be a writer or somebody who volunteers. Those are identities as well. I can’t change that identity; I will always have it. But I have other identities, too, and that’s where I can pour my energy. 

What are the takeaways you hope people glean from reading the book? 

I think one of the takeaways is for people to be very skeptical and to not necessarily trust what they see. If anything in your gut just doesn’t feel that someone is happy for whatever reason, to be able to use some skills that I didn’t have to be able to talk to people. I want people to be aware that suicide is a health condition just like heart disease, just like diabetes. We can make it better. There are things we can do to help people. We should all have knowledge of that and an awareness of the fact that sometimes if someone is acting a little different, it could be a pathway to some lethal condition and nothing should be taken for granted.

I would say to parents: Dig deeper. If you find a diary, as a parent do you read the diary? Do you open it? Do you search? The ethical parent would be told, 'No, don’t do that.' But every parent I've talked to who’s lost a child to suicide would say, 'Yes, read that diary.' Don’t take a chance that someone you know is struggling or cutting or doing something that you don’t know about. But if you do invade their privacy and betray trust like that, you’ve got to have the right tools to have a conversation because that can destroy a relationship if you don’t know how to talk about it.

Inset image courtesy of J-K Photography

(Read a profile of Columbine High School's former principal, Frank DeAngelis)

Follow senior associate editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger