Twenty years after Columbine, the world is still grappling with the consequences of the mass shooting, perhaps none more so than Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the mass murderers.
Klebold was in Rochester Tuesday to give the keynote address for this year’s Power of the Purse, a community fundraiser, at the Rochester International Event Center.
It’s one thing to lose a son. But what happens when that son, Dylan Klebold, perpetuates a school mass murder along with another student, Eric Harris, that leaves 13 people dead and 24 wounded, making Columbine a byword for such crimes? And how, as a parent of such a child, do you carry on?
Klebold said the heartache never goes away. In the immediate aftermath of such a “terrible and traumatic” event, it was hard to imagine having a life again, you are so beaten down. You take it one step at a time. Eventually, over time, your sense of isolation lessens little by little.
“I learned that I wasn’t the only one that had an experience that made me feel that I was living on a different planet than the rest of the world,” Klebold told local media during an interview at AmericInn in Rochester. As she spoke, a two-person security detail stood nearby.
“When you get to that stage, then you become what I call a survivor. You change from victimhood to survivorhood, and at that point, you begin to try to help other people,” Klebold said.
20th anniversary of shooting
Klebold’s address came several days after the superintendent of Jefferson County School District proposed tearing down and rebuilding the Littleton, Colo., school to end the “morbid fascination” with the massacre.
Klebold, 70, said she didn’t want to weigh in on the controversy, but the proposal underscored the “lasting traumatic effects” such acts have on communities and the world.
She said she was unsure that tearing down the building would solve the problems that school officials are struggling with.
“It just adds to my own heartache,” Klebold said. “That even 20 years later, they’re even considering something like this. It’s a tragic thing that continues to be tragic, decade after decade.”
This April marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, which occasioned a series of articles by the Denver Post.
Klebold said she declined to participate in any interviews, because she believed it was not a “safe or healthy thing” to commemorate mass murder, and it increased the risk of contagion.
“You know, it’s very difficult for me locally,” Klebold said. “It’s not the same as when I travel, because there are still people who hold me personally accountable for a child who did that.”
Coming to terms
Klebold says it took a long time for her to come to terms with the idea that her son — “a perfectly normal happy kid” as a child — was capable of such murderous acts.
Dylan was in a gifted program at school and was involved in Little League and Cub Scouts.
It was only after the rampage that police found writings by Dylan that revealed a side to her son that she wasn’t aware existed. Dylan began to use the word “agony” in these entries to describe his state of mind, of his desire to die, when he was 15.
“We were not aware that he had those thoughts and feelings,” said Klebold, adding that in the months leading up to the murders, Dylan had been accepted at four colleges and had attended prom. Dylan and Harris both killed themselves in the school’s library after going on the shooting spree.
Officials later determined that Harris and Klebold had planned the shooting for nearly a year and timed it to coincide with Hitler’s birthday.
After months of denial, Klebold said she began to accept her son’s role in the massacre and “understand what happened” the more she learned about her son’s suicidal desires. He had gone into the Columbine that day in April 1999 with the intention of dying. He had left behind a taped message saying good-bye.
“The more I learned about suicidality and suicide, the more it became a little more understandable of why and how one could take part in such a terrible thing,” she said.
“I am still searching,” she said.
Klebold said she has never been able to view her son as evil, as some do. She believes he was “deeply disturbed.” The problem with people and actions viewed through a prism of good and evil is that it's “not operational. It’s inactionable.”
Being in the public eye after a family member kills people is not an easy thing to do, she said. The first instinct is to hide, because you feel like a failure and a fool, humiliated and embarrassed.
”For people to come forth and talk about this kind of event, it’s a pretty rare thing,” she said. “Just because I’m doing it, I don’t think most people would want to do that or be able to do that, because it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Klebold said she and her husband were sued by 36 families in the community after Columbine. Although she gave thought to leaving the Colorado community after the shooting, she never did, because that’s where her family and friends who “protected us and kept us safe” were.
”I often thought of leaving the community, but then I thought, ‘well, if I left the community, I’d go somewhere else and just be that killer’s mother, and no one would know us,’” Klebold said.