Saturday, April 9, 2016

Book Review: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

"A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy" by Sue Klebold
First published in 2016
280 pages
My rating: 3.5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

The Short Of It:
This was an intriguing memoir by the mother of one of the Columbine High School shooters that addresses the massacre itself, the grieving process, and the question of how on earth she didn't see it coming. Sue's main focus is educating the public on mental health issues like depression and suicidal impulses, which Dylan was suffering from, which no one in his life save fellow shooter Eric Harris knew about, and which directly contributed to his involvement in murdering his fellow students and ultimately turning his gun on himself.

The Long Of It:
When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 14 people and injured 24 at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, I was a middle-schooler in Colorado Springs. I have a clear memory of donating $1 for a Columbine ribbon pin to wear the day after the attack. I also recall the thought crossing my mind -- as I'm sure it did every other student in my middle school -- that if something like this could happen just an hour away, could a horrific shooting happen at my school too? That's why, though I normally avoid tragedy memoirs, I was intrigued to read the new book by Sue Klebold, Dylan's mother.

Sue's purpose in telling her very difficult story is an important one, and one that now defines her life: to do as much as she can to educate the public on brain health issues and help parents recognize hidden signs that their child might be silently suffering.

"It's not easy for me to come forward," she writes, "but if the understanding and insights I have gained in the terrible crucible of Columbine can help, then I have a moral imperative to share them. Speaking out is frightening, but it is also the right thing to do. The list of things I have learned is long. Those are my failures. But what I have learned implies the need for a broader call to action, a comprehensive overview of what should be in place to stop not only tragedies like the one committed by my son by the hidden suffering of any child."

One of the most ubiquitous questions surrounding Columbine is how the boys' parents could have possibly failed to see that their children were planning this horrible event -- which they boys intended to be so very much worse than it was -- right under their noses. Obviously any good, caring parent would notice their child floundering under such profound depression, anxiety, rage, hate and suicidal thoughts, and that he was being bullied at school -- right?! But Sue and her husband did not know. They were completely clueless and for months after the tragedy Sue held on to the belief that Dylan must not have been a willing participant.

One of the main takeaways I got from Sue's account is that even the best parents -- and, according to the book, Sue and Tom were wonderful, loving, involved parents, if a little overprotective in my opinion -- can't know everything about their child; kids are masters at hiding things from their parents. But, in retrospect, there were signs -- however minuscule -- that something was going on with Dylan. And Sue's goal is to educate other parents on these potential warning signals. Of course most troubled teens aren't going to kill over a dozen of their classmates, but they may very well be planning to take their own lives. And, as Sue points out many times, Dylan went to his high school that day with the primary purpose of dying himself.

Sue was very brave coming forward and laid her soul bare in these pages, even including very personal grief-soaked passages from the journal she'd written in the months after Columbine. This memoir is unflinchingly honest and Sue doesn't hold anything back, no matter how it may make her look. I appreciated her candor, even though I had to keep reminding myself not to be judge-y. (Sue and Tom were extremely conservative parents and their views are not in keeping with mine on several things. I'm slight ashamed to admit that I thought more than once, "You were almost ridiculously overprotective and sheltering, and look how your son turned out.") Instead, I reminded myself to appreciate Sue's courage in coming forward with this most painful story.

Too, I appreciated the perspective of another family member left behind by a horrific suicide, as it's something my husband and I have experienced ourselves. I could completely relate to Sue's description of trying to grieve for the boy she knew while constantly having to adjust her image of who that boy really was.

I was also impressed that Sue wrote the book entirely on her own, since memoirs of this type are usually composed "with" an established writer. But there were times when the book dragged, and I found several passages to be repetitive, and certain thoughts and facts were reiterated over and over again. By the last chapter or two, I was actually skimming. Maybe it would've helped if Sue had brought on a more experienced author to assist.

Still, this is a must-read for anyone interested in the Columbine tragedy, the what-ifs and how-could-they-possiblys associated with it, the psychology of mass shootings, surviving grief and loss, suicide research and prevention, and how you might possibly save a life by recognizing that someone needs help. I applaud Sue for coming forward with her heartbreaking tale in the hopes that she might be able to help someone else. 


  1. My son and I were buddy-reading it (he's an adult). I finished it a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed most of it, but you are right-- some parts were repetitive and that made it drag.

    She wanted to tell "her story" so she did it alone, a tough job to do so I applaud her, but wish she had left off a chunk of the story. I also read Columbine a few years ago, and that one moved along much quicker... but this one gave insight the other could never have come up with. Thanks for a good review.

  2. The Klebolds were interviewed for a book called Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, in a chapter about families of people who committed crimes. It was a fantastic book altogether, but I especially remember feeling for the Klebolds. They seemed like such decent people, but carried so much guilt and kind of felt like they weren't allowed to mourn. It was heart-wrenching. I may read this book someday too.


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