Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, delivers a revealing account of dealing with the aftermath of tragedy in A Mother's Reckoning. Read an extract from the gripping first chapter.
'There’s Been a Shooting at Columbine High School'
APRIL 20, 1999, 12:05 P.M.
I was in my office in downtown Denver, getting ready to leave for a meeting about college scholarships for students with disabilities, when I noticed the red message light on my desk phone flashing. I checked, on the off chance my meeting had been canceled, but the message was from my husband, Tom, his voice tight, ragged, urgent.
“Susan— this is an emergency! Call me back immediately!”
He didn’t say anything more. He didn’t have to: I knew just from the sound of his voice that something had happened to one of our boys.
It felt as if it took hours for my shaking fingers to dial our home phone number. Panic crashed over me like a wave; my heart pounded in my ears. Our youngest son, Dylan, was at school; his older brother, Byron, was at work. Had there been an accident?
Tom picked up and immediately yelled: “Listen to the television!”
But I couldn’t make out any distinct words. It terrified me that whatever had happened was big enough to be on TV. My fear, seconds earlier, of a car wreck suddenly seemed tame. Were we at war? Was the country under attack?
“What’s happening?” I screamed into the receiver. There was only static and indecipherable television noise on the other end. Tom came back on the line, finally, but my ordinarily steadfast husband sounded like a madman. The scrambled words pouring out of him in staccato bursts made no sense: “gunman . . . shooter . . . school.”
I struggled to understand what Tom was telling me: Nate, Dylan’s best friend, had called Tom’s home office minutes before to ask, “Is Dylan home?”
A call like that in the middle of the school day would have been alarming enough, but the reason for Nate’s call was every parent’s worst nightmare come to life: gunmen were shooting at people at Columbine High School, where Dylan was a senior.
There was more: Nate had said the shooters had been wearing black trench coats, like the one we’d bought for Dylan.
“I don’t want to alarm you,” he’d said to Tom. “But I know all the kids who wear black coats, and the only ones I can’t find are Dylan and Eric. They weren’t in bowling this morning, either.”
Tom’s voice was hoarse with fear as he told me he’d hung up with Nate and ripped the house apart looking for Dylan’s trench coat, irrationally convinced that if he could find it, Dylan was fine. But the coat was gone, and Tom was frantic.
“I’m coming home,” I said, panic numbing my spine. We hung up without saying good-bye.
Helplessly fighting for composure, I asked a coworker to cancel my meeting. Leaving the office, I found my hands shaking so uncontrollably that I had to steady my right hand with my left in order to press the button for my floor in the elevator. My fellow passengers were cheerfully chatting with one another on the way out to lunch. I explained my strange behavior by saying, “There’s been a shooting at Columbine High School. I have to go home and make sure my son’s okay.” A colleague offered to drive me home. Unable to speak further, I shook my head.
As I got into the car, my mind raced. It didn’t occur to me to turn on the radio; I was barely keeping the car safely on the road as it was. My one constant thought, as I drove the twenty-six miles to our home: Dylan is in danger.
Paroxysms of fear clutched at my chest as I sifted again and again through the same jagged fragments of information. The coat could be anywhere, I told myself: in Dylan’s locker or in his car. Surely a teenager’s missing coat didn’t mean anything. Yet my sturdy, dependable husband had sounded close to hysterical; I’d never heard him like that before.
The drive felt like an eternity, like I was traveling in slow motion, although my mind spun at lightning speed and my heart pounded in my ears. I kept trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together so it would come out okay, but there was little comfort to be found in the meager facts I had, and I knew I’d never recover if anything happened to Dylan.
As I drove, I talked out loud to myself and burst into uncontrollable sobs. Analytic by nature, I tried to talk myself down: I didn’t have enough information yet. Columbine High School was enormous, with more than two thousand students. Just because Nate hadn’t been able to find Dylan in the chaos didn’t necessarily mean our son was hurt or dead. I had to stop allowing Tom’s panic to infect me. Even as terror continued to roll over me in waves, I told myself we were probably freaking out unnecessarily, as any parent of an unaccounted-for child would in the same situation. Maybe no one was hurt. I was going to walk into our kitchen to find Dylan raiding our fridge, ready to tease me for overreacting.
I nonetheless couldn’t stop my mind from careening from one terrible scenario to another. Tom had said there were gunmen in the school. Palms sweaty on the wheel, I shook my head as if Tom were there to see. Gunmen! Maybe no one knew where Dylan was because he had been shot. Maybe he was lying injured or dead in the school building— trapped, unable to get word to us. Maybe he was being held hostage. The thought was so awful I could barely breathe.
Nate had said the shooters had been wearing black trench coats, like the one we’d bought for Dylan...
But there was, too, a nagging tug at my stomach. I’d frozen in fear when I heard Tom mention Eric Harris. The one time Dylan had been in serious trouble, he’d been with Eric. I shook my head again. Dylan had always been a playful, loving child, and he’d grown into an even-tempered, sensible adolescent. He’d learned his lesson, I reassured myself. He wouldn’t allow himself to get drawn into something stupid a second time.
Along with the dozens of other frightening scenarios whirling through my fevered brain, I wondered if the horror unfolding at the school might not be an innocently planned senior prank, spun terribly out of hand.
One thing was for sure: Dylan couldn’t possibly have a gun. Tom and I were so adamantly anti- gun, we were considering moving away from Colorado because the laws were changing, making it easier to carry concealed firearms. No matter how hideously ill-conceived the stunt, there was no way Dylan would ever have gotten involved with a real gun, even as a joke.
And so it went, for twenty-six long miles. One minute I was awash with images of Dylan hurt, wounded, crying out for help, and then I’d be flooded with happier snapshots: Dylan as a boy, blowing out his birthday candles; squealing with happy pleasure as he rode the plastic slide with his brother into the wading pool in the backyard. They say your life flashes before you when you die, but on that car ride home, it was my son’s life flashing before me, like a movie reel— each precious frame both breaking my heart and filling me with desperate hope.
That hellish ride home was the first step in what would become a lifetime’s work of coming to terms with the impossible.
All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable organisations focusing on mental health issues.
Find out more about the author
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.