Monday, April 11, 2016


Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine High School school gunmen. I just finished reading her terrible (in subject matter, not rendition) book about her son Dylan. It describes who he was as a child, his shocking crime, who she was as a mother, and who she has become since. None of us need to exercise much critical thinking to imagine that perhaps the only thing worse than having a child murdered would be to be the mother of a child who murdered other children, before killing himself. Not that Sue Klebold ever says that, or even brushes up against it, on every page is her awareness of the suffering brought to the families of her son's victims and her sense that she has no place comparing her grief to theirs. 

It is a thing too terrible to grasp and Sue Klebold has spent the last 17 years reckoning with it. Her book is called A Mother's Reckoning. Reckoning has been all she can do, there will never be peace, understanding or resolution for her. It's not a thing she wants our pity for, I read this book feeling keenly aware that she wants us to know the parts of her son that were invisible to her, that we might not be so blind when looking in our own homes. 

In Sue Klebold's audit of herself as a mother she punishes herself over things as insignificant as putting sprinkles on Dylan's 3rd birthday cake instead of icing, she finds infinite ways to blame herself while the rest of the world joins in, in tabloid headlines and blaring talkback radio invective. She describes a son who showed no outward signs of suffering from depression and yet as long as two years before the shooting at Columbine High School, Dylan Klebold had expressed a desire to end his life in his writings, writings that she would not see until months after the tragedy. While she resists the temptation to take hold of the lifeline that might exist (for her) in connecting Dylan's actions with his depression, she demonstrates a connection between the two and is careful to point out not all people suffering from mental illness are violent, while many violent people have a mental illness. 

Sue Klebold steers well clear of Eric Harris' (the other shooter) story, it's not hers to tell. But further reading of reliable reporting describes Harris as being the dominant personality in the partnership. Dr Dwayne Fuselier is a clinical psychologist and was the supervisor in charge of the FBI team during the investigation and told Sue Klebold, "I believe Eric went to the school to kill people and didn't care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn't care if others died as well."

Sue Klebold's message is this, she had no idea anything was wrong, and I believe her when she says it. This is the story of a boy who had no way of processing the feelings that threatened to, and ultimately would, annihilate himself and many others.

I think it's possible to teach a child to know what to do with those feelings, based on my empirical data of one story. My story.

It makes my stomach lurch to discuss my son in any way that connects him to Dylan Klebold - but I knew I had a child whose feelings threatened to engulf him, and I knew it early. I had an uncle who committed suicide, I had thought about suicide as a teenager - the statistics on teenagers who consider suicide are high so it's no great shakes that I'm one of them. When we become parents we know we can guard against so many external things that might hurt our children, I didn't need to work hard to imagine that the threat could be internal. 

I remember the first time I was aware of the notion that my child's manners might reflect on me as a mother, it was unavoidable, really.

The bustling mother who lived across the road from my place bailed me up one day to tell me that her four year old son was distressed that my kid was getting away without saying please and thank you and it was troubling him (her kid) that my kid didn't appear to be suffering from any consequences. This struck him (her kid) as profoundly unfair because he was copping consequences left right and centre, mostly being  made to stand in the bathroom with the door shut. 

I tried to defend my kid, I said, well, he's only three years old but Manners Police was well ahead of me and her attack was planned, she said her kid had thought about that, and Joey*, who was also three, and lived up at number 17, Joey had his pleases and thank yous down pat. She repeated to me the conversation she had had with her son, about my son's manners, verbatim. I think I mumbled that I'd try to do something about it. (*Not his real name.)

It still makes me shake. I can't believe I gave her the time of day. In 1998 I had bigger fish to fry than please and thank you. 

My kid was a ball of feelings and at some point most days, those feelings looked and sounded like rage. He destroyed his bedroom, hit the back of his door with a tiny cricket bat, scrawled crayon over the dents, became purple faced, screamed between clenched teeth. I felt like I was at war with the tiny human I had given birth to. My love for him was so great there was nothing in the known universe large enough to compare it to. Feeling that much love for someone else feels like your days should be filled with fluffy ducklings and puppies, instead I felt visited by emotional violence, I was terrified.  Not of him, but of what overwhelmed him. The worry that his behaviour might invite judgement from others was overridden by a belief that if I forced this kid to suppress his unpleasant feelings I would be inviting danger later. I wasn't firm in that belief, I was as shaky as all get out, women like my neighbour made sure of that. 

We were wading into dark water, every day.

I read parenting books, I went to parenting classes, I asked other parents for advice. I was told to enfold him in my arms and hold him tight until the rage passed, I was told to ignore him, lock him in his room and why don't you just bloody smack him? 

I don't like to admit to the smacking, but I did it a few times, it didn't help. I tried the other stuff too. But eventually I did a thing that no one had told me to do, I gave his tantrums commentary. I told him how he was feeling, sometimes while holding him, sometimes while he flailed at me. I knew he was pissed off at being told it was time to turn the telly off, I knew he was frustrated that his mate wouldn't let him touch his trains, I knew he was furious it was time to go to bed. You are furious, I said, you don't want to go to bed, going to bed SUCKS, I know, I know how that feels, it's awful. Eventually his hot, tear streaked face would slump on my shoulder, both of us exhausted. 

I suspected his rages had something to do with language, at three he didn't have the vocabulary he needed for his little life. I can hear "use your words" coming out of the mouths of others, but what if no one ever bothered to give you the words in the first place? I was trying to give him words, to teach him to describe the feelings that frightened him into rage. 

The tantrums went on until he was five, publicly and privately. I stayed in this dark water with my son, whispering words into his ear and eventually we came ashore.


He made a small collage on straw board, the face of a bonny baby, cut out from a magazine, glued to the plain background. On it he wrote "I am twelve and I can no longer feel joy." We had been looking at a book of glorious handmade postcards from the Post Secret project, this was his secret. 

No one likes swimming in dark water, not knowing what's at the bottom, maybe it's bottomless. I dived in after him and tried to stay calm.

How do you not get busy with that knowledge? The temptation being to leap into all kinds of reassurance that there is so much to be joyful about, I can hear my own mother saying "Don't be silly!". I wanted to list the members of our family who loved him unimaginably but I knew that he already knew that, it was incontrovertible, a given, and in that moment it wasn't enough. I wanted to bat that feeling away, not give it permission to be in my house, in my son. Acknowledging it felt like inviting it in. It was counter-intuitive to be still. 

Staying calm felt like fixing my feet to the earth as a hurricane bore down. Staying calm meant not telling him I was frightened. Staying calm meant asking him if it felt like despair ... despair is the loss of hope, I said, is it like that? He said yes. 

I told him that I thought I was a good help with a lot of things, but that I thought he needed someone better qualified than me to help with this. We got help, eventually we came ashore.


At fifteen he told me about a loneliness that had infected his heart. He described wanting someone to share his innermost thoughts with, rightly so at fifteen that person should no longer be his mother. He was telling me there were things he wanted to talk about, that he couldn't talk to me or his friends about. I said I think you need a girlfriend? He said he thought so too. I told him it was still possible to feel lonely while snuggled next to someone on the couch, posting a note to his future, girlfriends won't complete you.

Girlfriends! Lucky him, tall, handsome, funny, mostly not shy but with a gyroscopic wobble deep inside him that could shut down the funny and the not-so-shy and replace it with an awkward cold sweat in seconds, if he let it. From where I stood it looked like there was a queue of eager girls looking up at him with unabashed wonder in their eyes, they would come over to hang out, which usually meant draping on him. But none of us is looking out of the same window, he didn't see it that way.

We had stood on the little diving board at the edge of dark water and leapt in so many times, my son and I, and we had not drowned. Maybe asking a girl out is a bit like that kind of fear. He asked a girl out, she said yes. 


It's not like I was an Emotionally Tooled Up person all the time. I'm as capable of being unreasonable and intractable as anyone, but I've tried my hardest to own up to it in the event. 

There were times the storming teenager said "Fuck You!" or worse, "Fuck you, Amber!" (demoted) and times when I roared "NO! Fuck YOU!" right back, like a perfectly formed idiot. I'd go to bed wondering what parental success felt like. Do any of us go to bed on successive nights, weeks, months, years - telling ourselves "Good job girlie, you're doing it right!" Would it ever be done, this job of making a person? Lol. 

The woman who passed on her son's complaints about my son's manners in 1998 was the first in a long line of mothers I would compare myself to and find myself coming up woefully short. Twenty years later I'm much steadier at the helm.

Those wild storms that possessed him at three years old, four years old, right up to five - I learned to read the weather of him and to teach him to forecast himself. I tried to teach him that there was no shame in feeling despair, anger, loneliness and to try to differentiate between fear and rage, which so often blow the same valves in us. We talked about all of that, and still do.

I asked him to read this and if it would it be okay to publish. He said he wanted me to make it clear that so much of what caused him grief when he was young was what was going on at school. I remember telling him that school was a benchmark for later in life, to give him something to compare to, that things would never be that bad again. School isn't like that for all kids, but it was for Dylan Klebold.

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