When Sue Klebold viewed her son’s body, she was, she writes in her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning, “overcome by a compulsive, almost biological need to make Dylan warm. I could not stop rubbing his ice-cold arms, exposed by the short-sleeved hospital gown he was wearing. I had to hold myself back from climbing into the casket so I could cover him with the warmth of my body.” But Sue Klebold knew it was too late to protect her son, or to protect the world from him. The full weight of that knowledge—its staggering implications, its impossible demands, and finally the hard wisdom it led her to—is present in every page of her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.
The book itself is nearly 20 years in the making, and describes the aftermath of a tragedy that forever altered not just a school or a community, but a nation. Dylan Klebold was 17 years old when he and his friend Eric Harris opened fire on Colorado’s Columbine High School. The two boys shot and killed 13 people and wounded 24 before turning their guns on themselves. The word “Columbine” no longer needs any explanation: It now stands in for a communal loss of innocence, and for the beginning of a series of public debates that still rage on about the cultural forces children grow up with. In the aftermath of the shooting, Sue Klebold writes, “people blamed video games, movies, music, bullying, access to guns, unarmed teachers, the absence of prayer in schools, secular humanism, psychiatric medication. Mostly, though, they blamed us.”
Sue Klebold may have found herself at the center of a national tragedy, but she was, first and foremost, a mother mourning the death of her youngest child, and trying to reconcile the memory of the boy she loved with the young man who murdered his fellow students without apparent reason or remorse. She writes that, for her, “there was no lasting comfort in casting Dylan as a monster… The rest of the world could explain away what he had done: either he was born evil—a bad seed—or he’d been raised without moral guidance. I knew it wasn’t nearly so simple.”
Columbine was not the first school shooting in America, but it was the first to make Americans realize just how easily a classroom could become a killing field. It was knowledge that seemed capable of changing us forever. It hasn’t. Two decades later, we seem to have learned very little about how to prevent similar violence. The problem has grown not better, but worse. If Columbine held a lesson for us, then we have been unable or unwilling to understand it. One of the most crucial questions A Mother’s Reckoning poses is whether the lessons we can take from such crimes are most visible to those who have known—and loved—their perpetrators.
There are some names—Bundy, Dahmer, Manson, Gacy, Ramírez—that can sell any book, no matter how poorly written or void of insight it may be. Books like these are also easy to write, as long as you know the formula. “Ramírez prowled the quiet suburban streets of a dozen communities outside Los Angeles like a demon from Hell, spreading fear, agony, and violence wherever he walked,” reads one of the many quickie paperbacks inspired by the Night Stalker murders of the 1980s.
It’s a description that could just as easily be applied to any other serial killer whose crimes became headline news around the same time, and in fact it still is. It’s a template that flattens the murderer into a personification of evil, void of the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies that might otherwise denote him as human. It’s also an approach that seems to make everyone happy, up to and sometimes including the killer himself (“I’m the Night Stalker!” Richard Ramírez gleefully told one of his victims, after reporters coined that dark honorific). If the public narrative holds that crimes like these amount to evil taking human form, then ensuring they will never happen again is as easy as destroying or incarcerating that evil’s earthly vessel.
Often, the people who have the most to tell us about the perpetrators of these crimes are those whose stories are the hardest to share. Memoirs written by people who have known and loved notorious murderers are extraordinarily rare, and understandably so. Less understandable is the fact that they receive far less attention than accounts slapped together by strangers. If you search for “Ted Bundy,” you’ll turn up countless straight-to-video movies and true crime books, including three released in the last few months: Nearly 30 years after his execution, Bundy is not just a name, but an industry. Yet if you want to find The Phantom Prince, the memoir his longtime girlfriend wrote about their relationship, you’ll need to shell out at least $120 for a mildewed second-hand copy from 1981. The book was released by a small Seattle publisher and is now long out of print, and its contents have never seeped into the groundwater of Ted Bundy mythology—perhaps because they reveal him as all too human.
The Phantom Prince is
credited to an author named Elizabeth Kendall. “Kendall” is a pseudonym, chosen
to protect the identity of a woman who was already risking a great deal by
admitting to a relationship with a man accused of murdering more than 30 young women. “Elizabeth” is not. Liz, as Ted Bundy knew her, was a shy and
insecure 24-year-old when she moved to Seattle with her daughter in 1969. Ted,
as Liz knew him, was a 23-year-old student destined for success. Their
attraction was instant, both physically—“Oh God, I hadn’t remembered how gorgeous
he was,” Liz remembers thinking when Ted woke her with a cup of coffee—and emotionally.
Liz, fresh from a divorce, wanted to feel like she and her daughter were still
a family. Ted wanted to belong to one. The first time they went to bed, Liz
wrote, “We made love as though this would be the last time we would ever see
each other, as if we were trying to get enough of each other to last a
lifetime... I had never felt this close to any man before.”
The relationship The Phantom Prince describes is one between two vulnerable young adults who hungered for affection and stability. The Ted that Liz knew was a warm, charming, and impulsive young man who lusted after badges of achievement—jobs, degrees, titles—while remaining childishly reluctant to work for what he wanted, so long as he could secure it through other means. He watched cartoons with Liz’s daughter, cooked her fancy dinners, stole the luxury items he couldn’t afford, procrastinated on work projects, and lied about being enrolled in law school. Liz became a mother figure to him, and even after his trial and imprisonment in Utah—and his subsequent escape and flight to Florida, where he committed the three murders that ultimately led to his execution—she was often less afraid of him than for him.
Any of the dozens of true crime writers who have weighed in on the Bundy case in the ensuing decades would likely say this was all part of a psychopath’s master plan: that Bundy carefully cultivated a human side which he then used to dupe women, including Liz, while remaining a bloodthirsty killing machine just below the surface. The version of Ted Bundy that Liz’s book depicts is more complicated, but no less believable. He is a man who was capable of being both gentle and violent, and whose greatest cruelties issued not from some dark and inhuman strength, but from denial, compulsion, and brokenness. “I just can’t seem to connect with people,” he told Liz, less than a year before his arrest. “Sure I can hold doors open for women and smile and be charming, but when it comes to basic relationships I just don’t have it. There’s something wrong with me.”
Liz also yearned for Ted even as she began to suspect him of terrible crimes, and her honesty in expressing that impossible combination of desires—to both flee and comfort the man she loved—suffuses The Phantom Prince, which was published just one year after Ted Bundy was sentenced to die in the electric chair. The book is breathtaking in its vulnerability, and by its end, Liz still does not know what to think about the man she once thought she understood.
Throughout the years her memoir describes, Liz at least had the dubious luxury of a grace period: a time during which she could see the evidence mounting against Ted as troubling, but not necessarily damning. As the news broke about his son’s crimes, Lionel Dahmer had no such freedom. When his son Jeffrey was arrested in July of 1991, his apartment and its shocking, putrefying contents immediately made national headlines. “Dahmer”—like “Bundy” and “Klebold”—is a name that has come to signify evil in human form; it is a good name to spit, to hurl, to whisper. But “Jeff” is a boy’s name, and throughout his book Lionel refers to his boy as “Jeff,” describing a relationship that was close and loving until, decades before the murders, it suddenly wasn’t.
Lionel Dahmer describes his son’s profound withdrawal from the world, beginning in adolescence. Without blaming himself for his son’s crimes, he endlessly revisits the cruelly hopeful calculus of mourning, wondering whether some chance word or action could have made a difference. A Father’s Story—which has also been out of print for years—ends with a father’s longing not just to alter the past but to reconnect with a son of who seems lost to the world. The book is all the more harrowing for the fact that this effort was cut short when Dahmer—or Jeff, depending on whose version of him you see—was murdered by a fellow inmate in 1994.
Both The Phantom Prince and A Father’s Story end on notes of loss and confusion, and both authors’ greatest gift to us is their willingness to present their bewilderment as it is, and to resist what must, at times, be an overwhelming need to latch on to any answer to the questions that plague them, so long as it will save them from living in the presence of such loss: of a loved one, of the belief that their love was enough, and of a life they could understand.
“I find that I remain in the grip of a great unknowing,”
Lionel Dahmer writes in the last lines of A
Father’s Story, “both in terms of Jeff himself, and my effect upon him as a
father.” At the end of The Phantom
Prince, Liz’s grief is similarly fresh. “The tragedy,” she writes, “is that
this warm and loving man is driven to kill.” But she does not know what creates
such a drive, and she does not pretend to.
Throughout A Mother’s
Reckoning, Sue Klebold quotes from the diaries she kept in the days, months,
and years following Columbine, but the book itself is the clear product of decades’
worth of time and thought. It is also not a catharsis: Sue is writing not
primarily for herself, but for us. She has gotten through, to the extent that
anyone could ever “get through,” the work of reconciling “the cherub with the
halo of golden hair who used to giggle while smashing kisses into my face, and
the man—the killer—on [the television] screen.” She knows what she believes
about her son. She knows what he did, and she knows that she still loves him. She
has learned as much as a mother can from such a tragedy. The question, now, is
what the reader will do with the knowledge she has gleaned from her personal
tour of Hell.
Yet before Sue Klebold shares this knowledge, she has to show us that the boy she knew really existed. This information is not for her, but for anyone who looked at images of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris—or of the other young men who have committed similar crimes in the years since—and thought that those around them just had to know something was wrong. The Dylan Klebold that Sue describes gave no sign of such potential. The Dylan she shows us is a shy, affectionate child, and a thoughtful, responsible adolescent who puts care into family gifts, who works hard at after-school jobs, who loves eating Oreos and playing poker and watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, and who seems happily enfolded in a circle of loving family and friends.
In some ways he is. In others he isn’t. Dylan is also a perfectionist whose fear of failure and humiliation arrest his efforts at school, and a people pleaser who cultivates such a wall of secrecy around his depression that his family does not learn of it until after his death. In one keenly devastating moment, Sue Klebold reads her son’s writings and learns that he fantasized about suicide for a full two years before Columbine. During those two years, she tells us, she never once suspected that he might be depressed.
A Mother’s Reckoning is a remarkable book not just for what it does contain, but for what it doesn’t. Throughout, Sue Klebold traces her own slow path away from denial: her initial desire to believe that Dylan had been drugged or brainwashed into taking part in the shooting, her disbelief at the apparent coldness with which he shot and killed his fellow students, and her longing to describe his actions as the result of a “moment of madness.” Even at a distance of nearly 20 years, and even knowing all she does now, Sue Klebold could still take shelter in denial. It would be difficult to blame her if, within this book, she claimed that Eric Harris had coerced and abused her innocent son into joining him, or that reports of the callous remarks Dylan made during the shooting must have been fabricated, or that the Dylan who terrorized and killed helpless people was not the Dylan she knew—that he had “snapped” and become unrecognizable, no longer a boy but a killing machine, as some media accounts have in fact argued. She could claim that violent video games were the sole culprit, or that bullying was, or that her son had been a closeted psychopath who hid his true face from her for his entire life.
People have said as much, and still do. People who do not have to carry the debilitating weight of this tragedy through their daily lives have simplified Columbine into something simple and disposable, and Dylan into as simple a figure: a bloodthirsty villain or a blameless dupe. But Sue Klebold, in the course of both the period of her life that A Mother’s Reckoning details and the book itself, remains utterly determined to resist easy answers. At heart, the book is not a portrait of Dylan, but a portrait of Sue Klebold’s grief, because her grief has taught her that Dylan will always be, in some ways, unknowable.
Sue Klebold is now a suicide prevention activist, and throughout A Mother’s Reckoning she appeals to parents to learn how to recognize depression in children and adolescents, and to resist the belief that their own children are immune. “I believe Eric went to school to kill people and didn’t care if he died,” an FBI psychologist tells Sue, “while Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died as well.” By telling the story not just of an infamous crime but of her son’s depression and suicide, Sue Klebold makes it impossible for the reader to keep her experience at a distance.
She is also careful not to reduce Columbine—or, by extension, any similar tragedy—to this single issue. But by focusing on her son’s suicidal depression, she shows how such seemingly incomprehensible events can be broken down to their component parts, whatever they may be.
It is difficult to imagine preventing a notorious crime, especially when crimes of such magnitude are so often presented to us as inevitable collisions between good and evil. But suicide prevention inspires a different conversation altogether. It leads us to ask not “Why?” but “How?”—and, according to Sue Klebold, this is the question we should be asking. “Asking ‘how’ instead of ‘why’ allows us to frame the descent into self-destructive behavior as the process that it is,” she writes. “How does someone progress along a path toward hurting oneself or others? How does the brain obscure access to its own tools of self-governance, self-preservation, and conscience? ... Asking ‘why’ only makes us feel helpless. Asking ‘how’ points the way forward, and shows us what we must do.”