Sue Klebold: ...how to react when someone who you love says that they are depressed or suicidal
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens. Nearly 20 years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold armed themselves with guns and explosives and walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. They killed 12 students and a teacher, and wounded 24 other people before taking their own lives.
Jan: Joining us on this episode is Dylan Klebold's mother, Sue, who has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day, and tried to understand how her son's life could have escalated into such a disaster on her watch. Sue has written about her quest to comprehend what happened in her book, A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. Sue, we thank you so much for joining us.
Sue: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.
Jan: You've written that you would give your own life to reverse what happened that day in 1999, at Columbine High School. I'm wondering if you still find your mind playing and replaying that day, over and over, in an effort to make some kind of sense of it?
Sue: It has been about 20 years since this happened. I think the way that I think about it over time has changed. Certainly, in the beginning, for many, many years, for most of these 20 years, there was a replaying, a constant replaying, thinking about all the victims of this tragedy and how horrible it was. As the years have gone by, and as I've tried to learn more about some of the factors involved in this process of doing a mass shooting such as this, I am slightly more intellectualizing about it now. I find myself looking more at trying hard to understand the process by which someone gets to this desperate state, the complexity of it, and all the factors involved. That's not to say that I still don't have horrible days still, of sorrow and remembering. Much of my attention now is focused on trying to make a difference.
Laura: Did Dylan have a medically diagnosed mental illness at the time? Or did he show signs of being mentally ill?
Sue: No, he did not have any signs that I was aware of. He did not have a diagnosis. The conclusion was reached by experts that he probably was experiencing depression. This was based on writings that the police found and gave to us after his death. He was writing privately to himself on pieces of paper stuck in notebooks starting at about the age of 15, expressing thoughts of suicide, of being in agony, of wanting to die, of wanting to end his life. But he didn't share those thoughts with anyone that we are aware of. No one knew that he was experiencing those things. In fact, those of us who were closest to him, when we learned these things, long after the tragedy, we had a terrible time even comprehending that he felt that way.
Jan: Why do you think he was in such pain?
Sue: I think Dylan is not alone in feeling such pain. I think huge numbers of people, our youth as well as adults, are experiencing pain and having thoughts of suicidality. I can't tell you all the reasons because I don't know them. I believe that he experienced some bullying at the school. There was a lot of, I would say, some social dysfunction going on. But his response to it was excessive. That would indicate that he wasn't able to process and recover in a healthy way for some reason. He was hanging on to whatever grievances he was experiencing. Over time they were magnifying, they were pulling him down. That's the way I would understand that.
Laura: You've said that you feel that you just didn't listen enough, that some of your guilt comes from talking just to fill the spaces, and not being quiet enough to feel what he was really experiencing. I think that's really important for parents to listen to. I think it's difficult for them to know how to get their kids to open up to them. What advice do you have about that?
Sue: As a parent, as I look back on all of this, the thing that I regret most is that I didn't know how to just shut up and listen. I was raised this way too. But as a parent, what we try to do when our children are suffering, or unhappy, or struggling, our first thought is to make them feel better. I think we have to begin to understand that our role might be just to help them feel, to give them an opportunity to talk about how they're feeling, and what they are suffering, what their suffering means to them, and what it is to them.
I was not aware that my child was suffering. I was not aware of all the struggles he was having. That is what I regret the most, is that I didn't have those words to just say, “Tell me how you feel. What are you thinking?” If he had shared something as terrifying as saying that he had suicidal thoughts, to not, right away, try to contradict that and say, “But you're fine. Everybody has tough times. It really can't be that bad,” which is our tendency as parents because we want to bring comfort, we want to fix the problem.
If I had had the ability, the wherewithal, and the knowledge, I would have been able to say things like, “Tell me more. Just tell me more about that. I will listen. I'm not here to judge. I will do anything I can to support you.” Those are the kind of conversations that we never had and that I certainly regret not having and not knowing that it was something I could have. It wasn't part of my experience then.
Jan: Why and how do you think his suicidal thinking became homicidal?
Sue: There's some data on this, but not a lot. When it comes to mass shooters, school shooters in particular, in an FBI report from 2004, it was estimated that about 78% of school shooters are suicidal, they feel suicidal at the time. This comes through as a life indifference, the willingness to die to carry out whatever it is that one feels that they're going to do. A small percentage of suicides involve homicide, it may be 1% to 2%. We know, of those people who do mass shootings, a significant proportion of these people are feeling suicidal.
But there are other factors, mitigating factors, that pull this into homicide. I think with Dylan, he had a friendship with a boy who was feeling very homicidal, according to his writings, his journals. He was also a very controlling kid. They had bad experiences at the school. They had been shoved, had garbage thrown at them, been knocked down in the halls, which was sort of a standard practice back then in the school. I think for the two of them, having gone through these things together, they nursed and developed feelings of rage. I think in cases such as that, sometimes suicide and homicide can develop together. That is what I think happened with Dylan.
Laura: How did you first meet Eric Harris? What did you think about his impact on Dylan?
Sue: They were friends starting in junior high. They were friends for years. I liked Eric, there was nothing in his behavior that made me think that he was dangerous. If I did think that, I certainly wouldn't have allowed them to be friends. They did get in trouble in their junior year together, they stole something from a parked van. They were arrested, they were allowed to go through the diversion program rather than going to a detention facility. Both Eric's family, and Dylan's, we were all horrified that they would do this. They went through a program of regular drug testing, anger management, counseling. It was everyone's opinion, who had any contact with them, that they were doing extremely well. They were actually released from that program early, which was very unusual. The counselor had said that they were both doing an exemplary job and recommended early termination from the program, which they said they hardly ever did.
I thought Eric Harris was a likable, bright kid. He and Dylan were friends for a long time. I had met his parents, I had been in his home. I know that after the boys got in trouble, I sensed that there was tension between them. We were trying to limit their contact with each other because we thought, with the kind of behavior we'd seen, that maybe having a friendship was not healthy for them. As time went by, there were 14 months between the time they got arrested and between the actual shootings. During that time, the boys had progressed. They were graduating seniors. Dylan had been accepted at four colleges. I didn't see any reason, at that point, to try to keep the boys apart, they seemed to both be functioning well. Certainly, there was nothing that I saw in Eric that made me think that I should be working to keep these two graduating seniors away from each other.
Jan: Do you think that either one of them would have done this on their own?
Sue: I'm going to answer that in reverse. I cannot speak for Eric because I don't know him well enough, I don't know the details of his process of deterioration, I don't have all those details. But I feel very certain that without Eric, Dylan would not have done this. I think there was a chance that Dylan could have had problems with depression, possibly suicide. But I think that the violent act they had caught themselves up in, I think, in many ways, they fed each other. There was a very strong commitment there to each other. I think, at any time, if someone had managed to step in and stop that process, gotten them away from each other, I think there was a very good chance that intervention would have made this not happen.
Laura: I read a story about how you found out about this. When you first heard about the shooting at Columbine High, you were concerned that, perhaps, Dylan was a victim of it. Can you talk to us about how you found out that he was, indeed, involved and was a shooter along with Eric, and how that felt for you?
Sue: That particular day, I can give you how that occurred. Dylan would have been graduating from high school in three weeks. He had done well, he'd been released from diversion early, he'd been accepted at four colleges, had accepted the University of his choice. Everything seemed to be going well. He had gone to a prom that weekend with six couples. From what I could see, he had really gotten his life on track.
As we approached the day of the shootings, that weekend, that Saturday, the shootings occurred on a Tuesday, Dylan and his friends went to a prom. They talked with each other about their future. He talked with me that night when he came home. He thanked me for making the evening possible because I paid for everything, and told me he had the best time of his life. These were the things that were going on in his life at that time. When the day happened, that weekend, Dylan had gone to the prom and he had chosen a dorm room for college. He had measured the square footage of a room and selected the room that he wanted. On my radar screen, I saw nothing that indicated, to me, that tragedy was around the corner.
My husband, that weekend, all these things going on, did say to me, “Dylan's voice seems tight.” He said, “He sounds like that when he gets stressed.” He said, “Do you know if something is bothering him?” I said, “No, I don't know of anything that could be bothering him. Except maybe this is a stressed time. He's doing all these activities with his friends, school's getting ready to end, maybe he stressed about that." He said, “Maybe he is.”
The day of the shootings, I got up very early for work. It was still dark out, it was quite early in the morning. Normally I woke up Dylan to get him to his morning class. That particular morning, Dylan bounded down the stairs, in the dark, past my bedroom door. My bedroom was on the main level, his was upstairs. I wondered why he was up so early. I opened my bedroom door, the house was pitch black, I couldn't see him. I yelled into the darkness, “Dyl?” All he said was, “Bye. Bye.” Very definitive, “Bye,” then he slammed the door. I said to my husband, “You’re right. Something is bothering him. What's he doing up?” It was just all so odd that he would be up so early. I said, “Will you be here to talk with him when he comes home?” He said, “Yes, I will.” I went on to work, I didn't think much of it. I thought whatever was bothering Dylan, my husband would talk with him about it and everything would be fine.
At noon that day, I was away from my desk, I was getting ready for a meeting where I had to drive somewhere. When I got back, there was a message from my husband saying, “Susan, this is an emergency. Call me back immediately.” I could tell from his voice that something had happened to one of our two sons. I was terrified. I called him back. He just said, “Listen to the television.” He put the phone down in front of the TV. I couldn't hear, I was yelling, “What's happened? What's happened?” He just blurted out, he said, “There's a shooting at the high school. Kids with trench coats are shooting people.” Dylan and Eric both had trench coats, they were two of the kids that wear those larger black coats. He said, "His friends don't know where he is. They think maybe Dylan might be one of the shooters." He was just gushing all this information. I just said, “I'm coming home right now.” And I hung up.
On that ride home, I was trying to piece all this together. I thought, “No, it seemed impossible that Dylan could really be a shooter, could really be hurting people.” I thought perhaps it was some kind of theater or prank. Then I thought maybe Dylan has been shot. Maybe nobody knows where he is because he's one of the victims of this thing, whatever it is. There was just turmoil. When we got home, the police said they were coming. They confirmed that he was one of the perpetrators. That day just turned from one level of Hell, to a deeper one, to a deeper one. It's a very long answer, but that's the only way I could explain.
Jan: How did you feel when the enormity of it sunk in? When you realized that your own son was dead, in addition to all of these other people?
Sue: I didn't know, really, who had been killed, who had been hurt, how many had been hurt. I didn't really know any of that on the first day. On the first day, I was just asking the police who were there with us, they had us leave our house, we had to sit outside. I just kept asking the SWAT Team and these people over and over again, “Is my son alive? Is my son okay? Is my son okay?” Finally that afternoon, I asked someone once again, “Is my son dead?” One of the policemen said, “Yes, he is.” I said, “How did he die?” He said, “I don't know.” There is no single moment where it felt worse than any other moment. It was the succession of horrible, horrible things that I just kept learning. Everything I learned, it just got bleaker and bleaker.
Losing your child, knowing that your child is dead, is a horrible experience. Knowing that your child killed others, made others suffer, is also a horrible experience. All of these things that kept happening, everything just went from one nightmare to a deeper nightmare. There was no single moment that stood out. It was just, for hours and days and weeks, I didn't even know what happened in the school until six months later. It was a long, drawn-out process of learning what actually happened.
Laura: How did that affect you mentally? I know afterwards you said that you experienced some sort of depression that maybe made you feel like you were a little bit closer to Dylan and understood more of what he was going through.
Sue: In the years following this tragedy, of course there was a great personal toll on me. Grief and depression can act very much alike. I was in therapy for a long, long time, paying very close attention to my own mental health, trying to stay balanced. I think my real psychological issues started, I started having really severe panic attacks and anxiety, around four years after the tragedy when I was going to meet, in depositions, the families for the first time. Then again at six years, when I was preparing to speak publicly for the first time. Those were incapacitating.
What they taught me, and what they were illustrative of, is that sometimes our minds really trick us, fool us, give us information that is false. No matter how hard we try to think our way out of these horrible, bad feelings, our brains and our bodies sometimes work together. There's no better example I know of than an anxiety disorder, when your brain and your endocrine system work together to produce stimulants and throw you into a flight-or-fight mode. I began to really understand that sometimes our brains do things to us that, if we don't know how to manage them and handle them, they can make our lives Hell and make just taking our next breath, facing our next moments can make that extremely painful. That period of time I went through really gave me some clarification on what life must have been like for Dylan, to feel so desperate that death seemed to be a reasonable option for him.
Jan: How have you reached out to the victims and the families of Columbine victims? What's been the response?
Sue: In the very beginning when this first happened, it was in my mind that Dylan somehow was tricked into being there. I didn't understand. I thought maybe this was something that was impulsive, something that was supposed to happen and happen differently. I wanted to reach out to the families early on and just try to let them know that my heart was broken for them. And to let them know that I am not my son, that he didn't do this because of the way he was raised, or because of attitudes or practices in our home. That was really important for me to do that.
I wrote to all the families who had lost family members, and also those who had injured family members. It was very difficult. I could see in the paper that it was painful for them, they hated us, they blamed us. I would read that somebody tore up my letter and didn't read it, it was difficult to watch that happen. Yet, very early on, there were a couple of parents who did reach out to me. The mother of one of the girls who was killed, the father of one of the boys, within the first year did contact me, wrote us back, we met personally. It was such a gift for me to meet them and to talk about our children, to try to understand, try to comfort each other in any way that we could.
Over time I have met, I would say, a few individuals who have also reached out since that time. Certainly, most of the individuals, I suspect, that it's very, very traumatic for them to be contacted by me and to think of me. I don't want to inflict myself on anyone. Past these initial letters that I wrote and making it public that I would be honored to speak with anyone who wishes to, there's no other way I know of to reach out. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable and make them relive any kind of trauma by my presence.
Laura: What have you learned about forgiveness? You touched on it a little bit there. I'm wondering about what you learned, forgiveness that you've been the recipient of and that you've had to give out yourself.
Sue: One of the complexities of this tragedy, some people are offended by my saying this. I feel that I am a victim of this tragedy, just as other people are. If people tell me that they forgive me, that is something that indicates to me that they find me responsible for this, or culpable in some way. I have come to believe that forgiveness, number one, is a gift that we give to ourselves. A synonym for forgiveness, in my book, is empathy. Once we can put ourselves in someone else's shoes, that is what forgiveness is; it is empathy, it is understanding what their journey has been, feeling compassion for them.
I feel that the act of forgiveness, of forgiving someone, carries a lot of self-righteousness and condescension in it; that forgiving someone is a gift that you perceive that you're giving someone else. In reality, it's a gift we are giving ourselves by not holding onto anger and blame. We are allowing ourselves to be at peace with another individual or with the world. That is what I think of when I think of forgiveness. I don't seek to be forgiven. I don't even consider hoping that someone would forgive Dylan. I don't think really anything he did is forgivable. I think we all, in our own way, have to find our own place, our own peace, our own comfort, in whatever we can.
Jan: You have said it feels like a punch in the gut every time someone asks you, “How could you not have known what your son was contemplating?” What do you say to them?
Sue: Early on, when I was so raw, damaged, and hurting, if someone would ask that question, I would literally be in an extreme state of anxiety for days, I would be upset. As years have gone by, and as I have done so much research, now, believe it or not, I actually welcome when someone asks me that question. Then I have an opportunity to educate and share what I've learned, certainly with just suicide, that does not include the small percentage that are murder-suicide.
With suicide, about half of us know when our loved one is struggling. Maybe they've been in and out of the hospital, maybe they've had treatment, maybe their death has resulted after years of struggle. But the other half of us are totally caught off guard, we have no idea. This is the opportunity to talk about the message that I was speaking of earlier, of how we cannot assume that we know what someone is thinking and feeling unless we are able to ask, able to listen, to make ourselves fully available. Even then, people have reasons for hiding those things. They don't want to appear that they are not in control. They don't want to appear weak. They don't want anyone to perceive that they are not capable, or not capable of doing their jobs, or taking care of themselves. There are many reasons why people might hide when they are having life-and-death thoughts and really suffering.
That question of, “How could you not know?” provides me with an opportunity to talk about that and to try to help people understand. I was just reading an article about that today, in fact, when we were talking about mass shooters. To date, there is no way to tell. There is no test, there is no protocol for telling if anyone is in an imminent risk of doing these things. We have risk factors, we can say this person has these risk factors, but we don't yet know if someone is definitely a threat and that something terrible will happen within a specific time period. We don't have the science for that yet. I think we're working on it, but we just don't. It's hard to accept, but we don't know what our loved ones are thinking and feeling very often. Even though we love them, we believe our love is protective of them, our love is not always enough. In fact, love is never enough.
Laura: I really think one of the only things you can do is just to listen to that person and listen to how they're feeling and try and pick up if they seem off in any way. If you do feel like your loved one is struggling, what's the first step?
Sue: The first step, I think, would be to thank them for sharing, to assure them that you care for them, that you're there for them, you're there to support, you're there to listen. Try to get them to talk about what it is they are experiencing, their thoughts. We, so often as parents, immediately try to downplay when someone tells us something bad about what they're thinking and feeling. That is not appropriate in this situation.
If someone says, “I just feel like I can't go on. I just feel, every day, that I wish I were dead.” We can ask them questions about that. We can say, “Do you ever have feelings that you just like to die? Do you have a plan? Have you thought about killing yourself?” If someone does reveal that they are really struggling, then we can stay calm and say, “There are some great resources for that. One thing we can do right now is, let's call The National Suicide Lifeline. There's a number we can call and talk to somebody, they can help us sort this out.” There's a chat for people who don't want to talk to somebody directly, there's a suicide chat line. The important thing is, you want to let them know you are there for them and you care for them, and to validate what they're feeling without alarming them, without contradicting them, but just be there.
Jan: When you look back on what happened, what comes to mind, in terms of whether there is anything you could have done to prevent this?
Sue: I've asked myself that question a thousand times. That's why I had come to the conclusion that if I had perhaps listened differently, or knew the words to say to get Dylan to open up to me and share what he was feeling, that's the thing I wish I had done differently. Very often, people who are feeling either suicidal, or in rare, rare cases when they are feeling homicidal and suicidal, just talking about it, getting it on the table, giving them an opportunity to express what they're feeling, to talk about their grievances, that is a valve that releases pressure in itself. I wish I had known the power that I had to talk about those things. Remember that people who express these feelings, especially kids, very often they will tell somebody something.
Dylan told his closest friend that he had bought a gun. We had no knowledge that he had purchased a gun. We had no guns in our house, we didn't even think to look for them. Nowadays, kids need to be more savvy. If they are aware that one of their friends has obtained lethal means for carrying out their own death, or the harm of someone else, that that is a concern. That might be an indication that a plan is in place. That is something that they should be encouraged to talk to a trusted adult about. Again, talk to someone at the Lifeline. These are things that people need to know. Maybe they reveal this in writings, but not to another human being. Maybe somewhere there's a piece of paper in a notebook, just as Dylan had, where he was talking about these things but no one knew that they were there, no one knew to look for them. There are things that I think we all have to think differently about because the suicide rates are continuing to increase. We need to do a much more effective job of helping people through these times of crisis.
Laura: Sue, as our final question, we always ask our guests, “What is your nobody told me lesson?” What is it that you wish someone had told you that would have helped you get through these very dark days?
Sue: There are two pieces to that question. That nobody told me part was, I wish I had known how troubled an individual could be, someone that I love, and I might not know it. That's the first part of that question. What might have helped me get through the darkest days? That is just simply the fact that, as bad as we feel at times in life, when we feel that there is no hope, that life is so full of pain that we just can't face another day, to just remember that it's a transition, we are growing. When we have terrible losses and traumas that happened to us, we can experience what is known as post-traumatic growth. Not everything that happens, that gives us pain, is necessarily going to ruin our lives.
I think in those early days, when I felt that my life was changed forever, that I would never again be happy, it was as if I was seeing the world in black-and-white, and there was no color for years and years, I wish someone had said to me, “The terrible things that you go through are what builds you into a better human being. In some ways, this is going to change you. You are not going to be the person you were before this happened, but it doesn't mean that things are going to always be bad and feel bad. You will emerge a more sensitive person, a more non-judgmental person. You will see the world differently. These will make good changes in who you are as a human being."
Jan: Sue, how can people read more about your story online?
Sue: There is a little website attached to my book, it is amothersreckoning.com. I'm not on any social media. This has been something that I have chosen not to do for many reasons. One of them is my own need for privacy. If there are people who claim to be me, or websites where people have claimed to be me, it's not me. The only one I have is The Mother's Reckoning website. I keep a pretty low profile. I do that because I'm trying to take care of me.
Laura: Sue, we thank you so much for being here today with us. Our thanks to Sue Klebold for being so open and honest about the terrible tragedy of Columbine and her own son's role in it. Again, her book is called, A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. You can learn more about it at, amothersreckoning.com. She's donating all profits from sales of the book to mental health and suicide prevention organizations.
I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thanks for joining us.