On April 20, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Colorado, USA. In a matter of minutes, they killed 12 students and a teacher, and wounded 24 others before taking their own lives. For the last 17 years, Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? Now, she shares her story
His hair still wet from the shower, my son, Dylan, 17, hauled his tuxedo into our bedroom. Then, while his dad, Tom, helped him get ready for his formal, I took photos.
As we posed for one together, Dylan clowned around, pretending to be a professional model. When he got home later, he said he’d had the best night of his life.
‘I even danced,’ he laughed.
Life was perfect. I had a loving husband of 28 years and a beautiful son about to graduate and head off to university.
Then three days after his formal, I was in my office when I noticed the message light on my desk phone flashing. It was Tom. When I called him back, he sounded hysterical.
‘Gunman… shooter… school!’ he blurted.
‘I’m coming home,’ I said, hanging up.
Driving back, I was so panicked it didn’t occur to me to turn on the radio. Dylan was in danger, I just knew it. Was he lying somewhere injured or dead?
I could barely breathe. But as I got home, my whole world fell apart. I had just walked inside when police arrived. They told us they suspected Dylan was one of the gunmen.
My brain couldn’t grasp what I was hearing.
They wouldn’t tell us anything else, except that they were searching our house for explosives.
None of it made sense. They couldn’t be talking about our son. With his halo of blond hair, we’d called him our Sunshine Boy. He was gentle, sensible…
But if he really was killing people, I knew he had to be stopped. As a mother, it was the most difficult prayer I’d ever made. But in that moment, I prayed for his death to save others.
As the day turned to darkness, I begged an officer for answers.
‘Is my son dead?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he told me.
Dylan, my golden boy, was not only gone – he was one of the gunmen.
Our family lawyer warned us there’d be a firestorm of hatred and we had to think about our safety. So we sought sanctuary in the basement of a family member’s house.
My mind was in a fog. How could he? Why did he?
News reports were filled with different theories. Dylan and Eric had been goths, members of a cult, spoiled, gay, outcasts, bullied.
They were talking about someone I didn’t recognise. Dylan had a group of close friends. He’d fixed up cars with his dad, had a part-time job.
We’d hugged him often, told him we loved him. So what went wrong?
When we went to say goodbye to him, I smoothed his hair and kissed his forehead, searching for clues and finding none.
After four days, Tom and I returned home. Waking was the cruellest moment of the day – the split second where it was possible to believe it had all been a nightmare. But it wasn’t.
I forced myself to read newspaper articles and learn about each person that had been lost.
‘I wish he’d killed us too,’ Tom said one particularly bad night.
Our grief was unrelenting. One morning I sat on the edge of the bed trying to get dressed. I put on one sock then stared into space for an hour before I could put on the other.
I was stunned when boxes of mail arrived from all over the world. People offered legal services, confidential talks, private cabins where we could hide from the press. Our lawyer had employed someone to remove death threats and hate mail before they came to us.
But one letter demanded, HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW?!
It was a question I asked myself day and night.
I was no closer to understanding how the child I loved and raised could’ve done this. How could anyone?
Then, that October, the sheriff’s department agreed to share with us the evidence they’d collected. It was a relief to know we’d finally have the truth. At the same time, I was petrified.
I don’t want them to destroy the Dylan I am holding onto in my mind, I wrote in my journal.
One letter demanded, HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW?!
It was a question I asked myself day and night.
We were convinced Dylan had either been a reluctant participant or accidentally entangled in something bigger than he understood. But then the officer began to speak…
The massacre had been carefully planned. Eric and Dylan drove to the school and entered at around 11.15am with two duffel bags containing propane bombs. They placed the bombs in the cafeteria and headed back to their cars to wait.
When the bombs didn’t explode as planned, they went back and began shooting at students. Some were killed instantly, others paralysed. They moved through a hallway throwing pipe bombs and shooting at random.
In the library, they shot at classmates hiding under desks. Reloading their weapons, they shot out the window at rescue workers helping the students outside. One boy asked Dylan what they were doing.
‘Oh just killing people,’ he said.
They eventually killed themselves. Numb, I realised one thing: Dylan had done this. He had shot a teacher, killed children in cold blood. He was a mass murderer.
As the details sank in, so did one of the most terrifying revelations – the attack was a failed attempt to blow up the whole school.
Still, Tom and I clung to hope. Had he been coerced, brainwashed, drugged? The answer was no. The boys had created a series of videotapes before the attack.
Shocking, hateful words spilled out of Dylan’s mouth. He and Eric listed the people they want to hurt and describe what they would do. Viewing the tapes finally forced me to see my son as the rest of the world saw him.
I had raised a murderer without knowing it.
Over time, a therapist helped me see there was no lasting comfort in casting Dylan as a monster.
His journals, released by police later, revealed depressed and suicidal thoughts two years before his death. If we’d recognised the signs, we would have had a chance to prevent what became known as the Columbine High School Massacre.
Because I had been so focused on the murders he’d committed, I hadn’t considered the significance of Dylan’s death by suicide. So in the second year after Columbine, I went to a support group to connect with other parents who had lost children to suicide. The opportunity to grieve for Dylan – no matter what he’d done – was invaluable.
After that, I became involved in initiatives to prevent suicide and violence. I was still grappling with the reality of Dylan’s violence though. The person I saw raging in the tapes had been completely unrecognisable, a stranger in my son’s body.
Understanding his suicide was an important first step. But it was only the beginning. In 2014, after 43 years of marriage, Tom and I parted ways. We still loved and respected each other, but we’d been through too much pain to ever recover.
Seventeen years on, I still can’t fathom what Eric and Dylan did. It’s not something I will ever get used to or get over. Our life before Columbine was thoroughly ordinary.
I still feel a sense of overwhelming guilt every day. I wish I had known what Dylan was planning. I wish I had stopped him.
But I know I can’t go back. So the work I do now is in memory of his victims.
Depression and other brain disorders can impair judgement and distort a person’s sense of reality. When we do a better job of helping people before their lives are in crisis, the world will become safer for us all.
Regardless of what my boy did, I will always love him. Now I’m living a life I know he’d be proud of.
This story was originally published in that's life! Issue 44, 3 Nov 2016.