A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
is a 2016 memoir by American author Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the two Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold. Dylan Klebold joined classmate Eric Harris in the premeditated massacre of thirteen students and teachers at Columbine High School in 1999. Klebold’s memoir looks back on her son’s troubled childhood and adolescence, reflecting with regret on her ignorance of what she later saw to be signals of severe depression. She also reflects on how she processed her grief in the aftermath of the tragedy, and how this process was complicated by being thrust into a public spotlight. The book provides insight into the family and social life of a school shooter, inviting questions about the role community and socialization can play in preventing armed violence.
Klebold begins by moving through a number of memories before and after the Columbine shooting. These vignettes give context to Klebold’s unique position as a shooter’s mother, both during and after the event. Klebold speaks out against the way the media has depicted her son and the rest of her family. She argues that, though hindsight is 20-20, there were no unique or particularly troubling factors in Dylan’s family life that can be seen as the “reason” for his criminal act. Rather, the desire to commit a massacre seemed to rise in his own mind from an illness no one recognized. Klebold depicts her son as an ordinary student who suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression – as many teenagers and adults do. She rebukes mass media, which portrayed Dylan as a monster, using him as an example to make a bigger argument against the stigmatization of mental illness.
Klebold also describes the agony and shame she experienced for years after the Columbine tragedy. While remaining compassionate for the victims and their loved ones, she criticizes the media for the way it distorted the background of her son and preyed on the victims’ despair to generate hype and attention. She emphasizes how “normal” her family was, but also recognizes that her son had many signals of severe depressive disorder that she and her husband did not adequately interpret.
After characterizing her family life and her son’s mental health situation before the massacre, Klebold reflects on the time after the shooting. As investigators dove deep into Dylan’s private life, particularly his Internet activity, she gained new insights into her son and was shocked by his bizarre behavior patterns. She began to build a persona for Dylan in her mind that existed separate from the one she raised and “knew.” Therefore, as she grieved, she felt sometimes that she was grieving the deaths of two very different sons. She comes to newly understand how deeply depression can affect the human mind, making people capable of crimes most find unimaginable. Ultimately, in order to recover from the trauma, Klebold had to integrate her memory of the son she raised with the son that the investigators constructed from evidence about his private life.A Mother’s Reckoning
challenges its audience to think critically about the normative ways of talking about gun violence, mass murder, suicide, and depression. Klebold attempts to humanize her son’s story without minimizing his accountability for his unimaginable crime. Klebold mounts a wide criticism of the media’s role in exacerbating mass murders and impeding the progress of mental illness discourse by casting murderers as one-dimensional monsters. Ultimately, Klebold’s hope is that her son’s story will help catalyze research and education around mental illness and mental illness stigma.