My Sunday column in today’s Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette arose from reading one of the most emotionally stirring books I’ve read in a long, long time. Here is the column…
The painful emotions I felt reading Sue Klebold’s book “A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the aftermath of Tragedy,” (Crown Publishers, 2016), took me back to the feelings I felt in my college days when I read 3 books that helped build a foundation for my understanding of pain and suffering.
In his book “Night,” Elie Wiesel recounts his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944 and 1945. “Hiroshima” by John Hersey is his journalistic account of 6 survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima August 6, 1945. And “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fictional telling of a single day in the life of an ordinary prisoner set in a 1950s Soviet labor camp.
Reading Sue Klebold’s newly released book about the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, produced a similar grief and sadness I felt as a young man when reading those pivotal books. Dylan Klebold, Sue’s youngest son, was one of the two shooters that fateful day when 12 students and a teacher were killed and 24 students were injured before he and Eric Harris ended their own lives.
Though Klebold writes with the tenderness of a mother’s love for her son, she also puts herself in the shoes of those who her son killed. She tries to imagine what she would feel if her son had been murdered by a fellow classmate. “Even if we were held financially responsible, there was not enough money in the world to relieve the suffering Dylan had caused,” she laments.
Looking back 17 years has eased Klebold’s deep sadness but only marginally. Over the years she has been hated, vilified and sued. Today she commits her life to studying the mental health of struggling teen-agers, trying to give hope to families filled with despair.
In the introduction Andrew Solomon writes, “Part of the nobility of this book is that it doesn’t try to render what he [Dylan] did into sense. Sue Klebold’s refusal to blame the bullies, the school or her son’s biochemistry reflects her ultimate determination that one must simply accept what can never be explained away. She does not try to elucidate the permanently confused borderline between evil and disease.”
Rather, Klebold repeatedly takes her pain. The anguish of lives lost or destroyed by her son’s hand, and the untold pain and suffering this caused their families and friends, not to mention her son’s own suicide, is with Klebold every day. “It will never go away, as long as I live. I will never see a mother in the cereal aisle with her little girl without wondering if that beautiful child will reach adulthood. … I will never see a family enjoying a picnic or a baseball game or walking into church without thinking of the relatives of those my son murdered.”
After the killings, Klebold said she wished she never had children. She wished she never had crossed paths with her husband-to-be. Her son would never have existed then and “this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened. But over time, I’ve come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life. When I say that, I am speaking of my own pain, and not of the pain of other people. But I accept my own pain; life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”
After a joy-filled childhood, Klebold’s son Dylan did have struggles in high school. He was bullied and taunted, but he kept much of that from his parents. Even though she was not overly worried then about Dylan’s depression – he had a great time at prom 3 days before the shootings, including fun pictures taken at the Klebold home – she now deeply regrets not trying to know more of what Dylan’s internal life was like.
As Klebold devotes much of her time studying the association between bullying and depression and suicide, she listens to hurting families and tries to give them hope to hang in there. The proceeds of this book go to charities focusing on mental health issues. “Of course, even if Dylan did endure humiliation at the hands of classmates, it cannot absolve him in any way of responsibility of what he did,” she writes.
In short, though, Klebold has found no easy answers. Her multi-year search into the question “How in the world could this have happen?” brings to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s poignant observation: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Lent is a time to lament our personal and corporate sins. Thus, as I read Klebold’s book I kept lamenting and wondering how Dylan Klebold ultimately entered into a plot so diabolical it defies description. I kept thinking of the prophet Jeremiah saying the heart is evil above all things and beyond understanding. And I kept praying the only prayer that made any sense after reading Sue Klebold’s book: “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”