The most harrowing book I have read is the one I have just finished, the recently published memoir-journal, A Mother’s Reckoning, by Sue Klebold, parent of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenage murder-suicide shooters of the Columbine school massacre in 1999.
Though tragic, it is unfortunately not that uncommon for parents to deal with the loss of a child. It is less common and more horrific to lose one through suicide. The parents (if they are balanced and healthy individuals, which has a shade of irony) go through excruciating guilt, “why couldn’t I see it?” “What could I have done better?” profound loss, and often they divorce. However, it is frighteningly horrific to find out, slowly but surely, from the initially confused reports on the TV that day of the massacre, and from the police arriving at your home, that your son helped murder more than twenty people and then committed suicide. Imagine being that parent. The utter helplessness and horror of it all. Sue Klebold writes that she went from praying for the safety of her son (not knowing yet he was one of the killers) to praying that her own beloved son would die before he caused more harm. In this tragic event she and her husband and her other son were unique. They could not expect the other families on their street to come to their home with meals and offers of help and comfort because of the tragic loss of their son. Their son was one of the monsters. The Klebold family had to go into hiding for fear of their lives.
A Mother’s Reckoning is an incomparable tale of growth, forbearance and suffering, unlike anything I have ever read, because it is so immediate, so filled with the mad, media-saturated world you and I live in. Sue wanted to ask for forgiveness from all the parents and families who lost loved ones because of her son and his school friend Eric Harris. However, because of legal requirements and the utter bizarreness of her perceived role in the massacre (someone whom the media and society painted as a monster along with her son), she could not ask. She wanted to show compassion, help where she could, make amends where she may, but “monsters” cannot be allowed to reach out to suffering parents and other family members.
But Sue Klebold is not a monster. She and her family had no clue what her son and his friend Eric were going to do. A Mother’s Reckoning shows her desperate search to find out what clues she had missed. Yes, there were incidents of inappropriate behaviour, even trouble with the law once for theft, but for God’s sake, who hasn’t had some strife with their teenagers? As the awful information came together that day to point at her son, soon dead by suicide, she writes, for example:
My mind reeled. How could there be no way to press a reset button, to live the last weeks of Dylan’s life over again, to … stop what happened? I ached for the other parents grieving … had to constantly remind myself no magical thinking would rewind the clock … there was nothing I could do to stop it … all I wanted to do was to hold my son – and then to have one more chance to stop him before he committed his final, terrible act.
That last thought, to somehow “stop him”, became a feedback loop in her mind. It made a hell of her life for years as she vicariously owned her son’s behaviour (not hers), and felt, as mothers often may do, that she was responsible for what Dylan did. Nine years after Columbine, she still writes entries like:
I try to find something that gives me a sense of peace and I can’t find one thing. Not writing, drawing, nature. I feel on the edge of disaster all the time. I’m still weeping over Dylan and hating myself for what he did. The image of him on the video [Columbine High School’s CCTV footage] is plastered on my brain. I feel as if his entire life and death are unresolved and I haven’t grieved yet or put any of this into perspective. Everything I think about to comfort myself is a double-edged sword.
In the light of the above, and given that Columbine was a precursor for many other mass shootings, the latest of which is Orlando, I confess the following. An underlying theme in much of my writing, though it may not be explicit, is a hellish thought, one that you may reject as abhorrent. It is this. Why bother having children? Why bother bringing into the world – often with great joy and fanfare – infants who will, for absolute certain, go through suffering and grief? Why bring them into a world so sick and twisted, filled with incidents like Columbine and Orlando? Immigrants dying as they cross the Mediterranean? The unspoken, unspeakable suffering of millions? And often, though not on the scale of Sue Klebold, children themselves who bring their parents so much heartache? What is it about us that we do not think (apparently) about all that as we purposefully couple with our loved one and bring tiny, vulnerable infants into this awful world where they will definitely know at least some measure of grief and hell?
By the way, I do not like the questions I ask in the above paragraph. But they are true, and insist like barbed wire cutting through flesh.
I have never had children. Yet I want children. Though I no longer do, most of my life I have taught kids and they brought me alive and taught me to laugh in a way adults cannot. I am here reminded of that sobering movie, Children of Men. The premise in the apocalyptic world of the film is that due to a virus the whole human race became sterile. The film depicts the hopelessness, the hollowness of life without little loved ones coming into being. Visuals of, say, an empty swing in a silent park jostling in a breeze. The remnants of a teddy bear. A window squeaking – just for a second – so like a baby’s cry. These all take on such poignancy and remind one of things, oh the sheer, shimmering miracle of things, like small fingers and sparkling eyes, which we too easily forget.
My questions are harsh. But the awful meme (and it is now a meme!) of incidents from Columbine to Orlando in that strange, gun-mad country brings me, and surely you, to ask them. Sue Klebold of course asks herself these questions, not using the same words necessarily, but they are in the subtext of her book. Their answers? Now is not the time to rush into that, if ever. Let their cold luminescence be a guiding light in a world that arguably has none. On this, Sue Klebold quotes from that great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes in Letter to a Young Poet:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
(To be continued)
Follow Rod on Twitter @rod_in_china