On April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold’s son and his friend went into Columbine High School and committed one of the largest mass shootings in US history. Over the last 18 years, Klebold has been forced to cope with this horrible tragedy while managing anxiety attacks and being blamed by so many. Klebold talks about her story and the mental health massages she wants every American to know.
- Sue Klebold, author of the book A Mother’s Reckoning.
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17-10 Life In the Shadow of the Columbine High School Shooting
Gary Price: On April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold’s ordinary suburban life was shattered. Her son and his friend killed thirteen innocent people and injured twenty-four others before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. For years, Klebold remained publicly silent, but last year she released “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.” The book is available now and all profits are being donated to mental health charities. Klebold says writing the book felt like an important way she could contribute to the mental health conversation, which is infiltrating homes across America.
Sue Klebold: He had gotten arrested and gotten in trouble at school for scratching a locker and for hacking into the school’s computer system and getting locker combinations, because he was one of the computer technicians for the school. All those things happened in a little cluster in his junior year. Now, if I had known then what I know now, that changes in behavior like that can be symptomatic of some kind of developing mental illness, that he could have been dealing with depression, I didn’t know those things, but that is certainly something to watch for.
Price: She said her son also showed signs that he was planning a violent act, but again, they went undetected.
Klebold: He was showing signs that he was in danger, but he wasn’t showing them consistently to the same person. So it was as if everybody had a little piece of a puzzle. For example, he had a friend who had purchased a gun for him and he had another friend who knew that he had a gun. But nobody realized that just simply buying a gun, or that gun ownership at his age and in his vulnerable state was an indication that he might be thinking of harming either himself or someone else. There were these signs. There was a paper he’d written at school in the last couple… a few weeks of his life. In the end the school didn’t have a protocol for how to handle that. They had him talk to the school psychologist. He just said, Dylan you’re not supposed to write bad words in a paper and Dylan said yes, I know. And he said, well don’t do it again. And he said, I won’t. You have to understand that in the context of 18 years ago, we didn’t have a framework to look for signs of danger and we just didn’t read these things right.
Price: Despite these rough patches, Klebold felt at the time that her son was straightening things out. That he was on the right path…
Klebold: Dylan was a graduating senior. He was getting ready to go away to college. He’d been accepted at four schools. He spent the weekend at a prom; he’d gone with friends. So from our perspective he was a normal healthy kid just living a normal life.
Price: Because she thought things were getting better, Klebold was especially alarmed the morning of April 20 when her son acted a little abnormally before school.
Klebold: I had awakened early in the morning because I had to get to work. The house was dark, and I heard Dylan up, he was up early and he was rushing down the stairs, past my bedroom door and I was surprised that he was up so early. I opened the bedroom door and the house was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything and I yelled his name. I said, Dyl? And then I heard the front door open and he called out, bye. And slammed the door and left, and that was the last time I heard his voice. I was alarmed; I didn’t know why he was up early or what was going on in his head.
Price: Still, Klebold never expected anything like the phone call she received later that day.
Klebold: It was my husband, he’d left me a message saying that, he said, Susan this is an emergency, call me back immediately, on the recording. I knew from the tone in his voice that something had happened to one of our kids. And I called him back and the only thing he said was listen to the television. And I’m thinking whoa, something is on television, and I thought what could this be? Are we at war? What has happened? And then he got back on the phone and just started blurting out all the information that he’d been given in the previous few minutes was that there was a shooting at the school. They believe that people in trench coats were killing people that Dylan’s best friend could not find him, that he hadn’t been in class. The early morning class that I thought he’d gotten up for he hadn’t attended. And everybody was wondering where Dylan was and so the information that I had in my head as I was driving the 26 miles to get to our house was something horrible was happening at the school. What could it be? How could Dylan be involved? And is Dylan involved, or is he possibly a victim?
Price: In the hours and days that followed, it became clear her son was a perpetrator. That’s when the blame for the tragedy began being assigned.
Klebold: From the beginning it became believed for many reasons that the raising of this child was the factor that caused the tragedy to happen. So I think as his family members we were viewed certainly if not perpetrators as accomplices, as being part of the reason that this terrible, terrible tragedy was taking place. Our governor went on national television to say that this is the fault of the parents. When all this was happening I don’t think it’s possible to even understand the chaos of not knowing what had happened, knowing only that my youngest son had died, we were asked to evacuate from our home. We had nowhere to go, we couldn’t go to a hotel because of our name. We were afraid people would recognize us. Thousands of media people were swarming into the city. So it felt very much…the only metaphor I can use is very much like a Nazi Germany situation where we really felt that we were in hiding, we were afraid of what would happen if someone learned who we were. We ended up living in a family member’s basement for a number of days and we were cut off from everyone that we knew and loved.
Price: Then, in the midst of all this hiding and shame, Klebold received the first sign that her family could return to society.
Klebold: One day in the newspaper we saw a sign. Some of my friends and colleagues and neighbors had posted a great big sign on our front gate that said, “Sue and Tom we’re here for you. Call us.” And they had signed their names because they had no way to reach me. When I saw that message from all these loving people that I couldn’t get to, it was such a heart wrenching feeling. All I could think of, it was kind of like Radio Free Europe, they had managed to get a message to us across all these obstacles so that I knew that there were people out there who were trying to help us.
Price: In the ensuing months, with the support of her friends and family, Klebold tried to put her life back together. She even wrote letters to her son’s victims…
Klebold: In order to write about their loved ones and to write a letter personally to each family I had to read about the individual who was killed or hurt from newspaper articles. It was so painful for me. It’s one thing to think of someone as a number; it’s quite something else to realize that these were precious beloved human beings and that Dylan robbed them of their lives, their… it was just so terribly hard. Yet, I felt that it might in some way be helpful to them to hear from me, to know that my son did something terrible, but I am not my son and that I am sorry for what he did. I felt compelled to say that and to reach out.
Price: However, facing the trauma inflicted by her son continued to be a struggle that would wear on Klebold every day.
Klebold: As we approached the depositions where I’d have to meet the victims families face to face, as we approached that it was four years out, I began to have severe panic attacks and became almost unable to function. I would get these attacks randomly and they would happen… any little thing could trigger them. For example, I could be watching a movie and see a cowboy throw a stick of dynamite into a barn and then I would be in a full-fledged panic attack. My endocrine system would kick in with all these physical symptoms. So our minds and our bodies are so closely related. One of the things I had to work through after this tragedy was the toll that this level of stress and sorrow and humiliation had taken on myself. I think that was the point at which I began to understand what it feels like to have a malfunctioning mind and how we do lose our access to some of our tools of self-governance and to reason when we’re in a very disturbed state of mind.
Price: She says it was then, struggling through her own brain health, that she began to see her son’s illness more clearly… and learned lessons she wished she had known years earlier.
Klebold: One of the things I wished that people knew is something I wish I had known and that is, love is not enough, that people who are struggling with toxic thoughts, with thoughts of suicide, that if we tell them that we love them and we make an effort to connect with them, I think I really believe that just knowing that I love my son would make him feel protected and safe and not alone. And what I realized was that is not true — that our love is not protective. How we feel about someone else is not necessarily how they feel about us or about the world. That’s one of the things I want people to understand is that if someone is really struggling and has thoughts of suicide or homicide or is having persistent feelings that they would like to end their lives or leave the planet, this is not a character flaw, this is not something we can tell them we love them and it will go away, these are signs of pathology. There are signs that someone is becoming more and more ill and they really need to get some care before it gets to a stage four condition as Dylan eventually did.
Price: Despite her story, Klebold says parents need to know that mental illnesses are not inherently violent.
Klebold: People who do have a mental illness are rarely violent or dangerous to other people. I have to be very very careful of associating mental illness with violence. Most often if they are a threat to anyone they are a threat to themselves.
Price: And even if people can’t identify completely with Klebold’s trauma, there is still an important lesson to learn in the tragedy of Columbine.
Klebold: The chances that your child or one of your loved ones would ever take part in a mass shooting, the chances are one in millions, but the chances that someone you love may be having thoughts of suicide or maybe struggling feeling some internal agony or pain, those chances are much much greater because we know certainly for youth suicide is the number two cause of death for young people. So it’s very very important for all of us to learn to listen better, to ask questions more effectively. I recommend that everyone take mental health first aid training so that we can learn a little bit better how to listen without judgment, to listen without trying to correct people’s feelings or tell them what they should feel. I also want people to know that if they are struggling with emotional distress or thoughts of suicide, a very simple first step is they can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK and that is all day everyday. A trained professional will answer the phone and help them sort things out, get them in touch with resources if they need them. These are this I was not aware of before.
Price: Again, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK, that’s 1-800-273-8255. Sue Klebold’s book “A Mother’s Reckoning” is available now and all profits are being donated to mental health charities. For more resources on mental health and suicide intervention, visit our site viewpointsonline.net. You can find more information about our guests and archives of past programs there as well. I’m Gary Price.
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