It must be the parents’ fault.
That’s what most of us assumed after the massacre at Columbine High School. In the absence of any other easy explanation, polls showed 85 percent of Americans figured bad parenting caused Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to kill a dozen students and a teacher and wound 24 others before turning their guns on themselves.
For 17 years, all four parents have stayed silent about that widely held assumption. In fact, they’ve kept quiet about pretty much everything. This week, one of them, Sue Klebold — mother of shooter Dylan Klebold – breaks the silence with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. The interview is set to air on “20/20” this Friday, coinciding with the release of Klebold’s memoir.
Dave Cullen is a journalist who rushed to the JeffCo high school when news of gunfire broke the morning of April 20, 1999. He spent the next ten years researching the rampage for his book, “Columbine.” In painstaking detail, Cullen chronicled Eric Harris’s profile as a classic psychopath intent on killing as many people as possible. Cullen’s portrait of Dylan Klebold was more empathetic. His research showed Dylan as a depressed, suicidal follower — a sidekick who reminded Cullen of himself when he was a teen.
Researching “Eric was like examining a disease under a microscope. He didn’t get inside me,” Cullen writes in the epilogue of a new edition released this week.
“Dylan seeped in surreptitiously. His funeral scene was the second-hardest to write. I cried for his parents, and his brother… I realized later that I was grieving for Dylan, too. What a sweet, loving kid. Most of his life. That shocked me, but I didn’t grasp how it tormented me.”
Cullen conducted hundreds of interviews for his book, but never snagged the one he wanted most – a meeting with Sue Klebold to learn what she knew about the hole into which Dylan had spiraled. Although Sue Klebold still hasn’t granted Cullen an interview, she recently interviewed him about his research on her son. They spent many hours chatting last year in what Cullen lauds as her “search for the truth.”
Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene recently spoke with Cullen about Sue and Dylan Klebold, about patterns he sees among school shooters and about what, in hindsight, Cullen calls “the real lessons” of Columbine. Here’s part of their conversation:
Greene: The Klebolds did interviews with David Brooks at The New York Times in 2004 and later with Andrew Solomon for his book, Far from the Tree. Sue Klebold also wrote an essay about Columbine for O Magazine in 2009. So, what’s newsworthy about her TV interview this week?
Cullen: We’ve only gotten glimpses. I am so ready for the full story. It can also be revelatory to hear a person like this, and watch her respond on camera. Print is ideal for complexity and breadth, but TV helps us get a sense of what she’s like.
To put these two sets of parents in context, they’ve lived pretty much invisibly since the shooting. The Harrises and Klebolds have gone on with their lives without anyone outside their circles knowing what they look like or sound like. From the public’s perspective, we’ve never heard their voices before. And, from their perspectives, they’ve been walking around all these years knowing most people blame them directly for what happened. These families have been living with that snap judgment all these years. Sue’s interview is a chance to see how accurate – or inaccurate – that snap judgment really was.
Greene: You’ve not met Sue Klebold in person, despite many requests. What do you know about her?
Cullen: From everything I’ve learned about Sue over the years, she’s educated, bright, and compassionate— and approaches the world with a hopeful view. She and her husband named their boys after famous Romantic poets – Dylan after Dylan Thomas – which projects that hopeful, aspirational view. I know she has been enormously concerned and protective of her surviving son, in the aftermath all these years. I know that, unlike her husband and Dylan, she’s an extrovert, which made it unsurprising after the shooting that she went right back to work at Arapahoe Community College, where she was counseling disabled kids. She wanted to be around people and she wanted to contribute. She has been active over the years in non-profit causes around mental health and depression. Those are the issues I bet she’ll be discussing Friday night.
Greene: Can you talk a bit about her son, Dylan Klebold’s motivations compared to fellow shooter Eric Harris’s?
Cullen: Eric was a psychopath. He wanted to kill people, plain and simple. If he had waited another year or two, his plan probably would have been bigger than just Columbine, bigger even than Oklahoma City. He would have taken down a skyscraper or two skyscrapers in downtown Denver, if he could have. For him, as with most psychopaths, being captured wasn’t an option, so dying was the price he knew he had to pay to get the killing done.
Dylan was totally different. While the most frequently used word in Eric’s journal is ‘hate’; the word used most in Dylan’s is ‘love.’ His journal is gushing with love — and hearts, entire pages filled with them — as well as feverish outbursts of rage. The primary target of his anger was himself. (Second most frequent target was God: for making a creature as pathetic and miserable as him.) This is classic depression — deep, suicidal depression. Even on the first pages of his journals written two years before the shooting, he was referring to suicide. He had been looking for a way out for a long time. Following the plan Eric was pushing to carry out the shooting was his way out.
Greene: How does Dylan Klebold’s story relate to other school shooters you’ve researched?
Cullen: Dylan is pretty much a classic case study. He had clinical depression, from which the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates 6 percent of U.S. adolescents suffer. That’s two million kids, most undiagnosed. On top of that, he was suicidal. A study by the Secret Service showed that 61 percent of school shooters were “extremely depressed or desperate,” and 78 percent had a history of suicide attempts or thoughts. Depression is the biggest factor for these shooters – murder as a method to end their own lives. Teen depression and suicide are the real story behind the blight of school shootings in this country. And they were by far the biggest factors for Dylan. I get asked all the time about “lessons” of this tragedy. The great unlearned lesson of Columbine is dealing with teen depression.
Greene: Did Sue Klebold see what was happening with her son?
Cullen: That’s what will be really interesting about Sue’s book — how she missed the signs like so many parents miss the signs. Dylan was painfully shy. He was terrified of strangers. And he was alienated. From what I could tell, his shyness and fear were what his parents thought were his biggest problems. They thought his challenges were pretty much just about not having figured out how to speak out or be part of a group and adjust. There was an inability to see the bigger picture of depression. How many parents know how to spot depression, or how it’s fundamentally different from just being “sad”? Hopefully, that’s what Sue’s book will do — address why she missed it, and how other parents can learn from her, and put depression front and center on the radar screen where it should have been for the last 17 years.
Greene: But the Klebolds did have signs about Dylan. More than a year before Columbine, after he and Eric were arrested for breaking into a van, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about her son and they wrote: “He is often angry or sullen, and behaviors seem disrespectful to others. He seems intolerant of those in authority and intolerant of others.” The phrase, “He seems intolerant of those in authority” had been crossed out. Doesn’t that show that Dylan’s parents had some pretty strong warning signs that they were ignoring?
Cullen: I’m glad you posed the question that way, because that’s the pervasive line of thinking, and I get where it comes from. But I think there’s a hidden assumption in there leading us astray. To answer your question directly: warning signs, yes — of a troubled teen — but the “ignoring” suggests us imagining Tom and Sue Klebold just shrugging it off. Why would we assume that? All the evidence suggests the opposite: including this answer on this form, where a negligent or denialist parent would have hid the problem or denied it. Tom and Sue bluntly admitted all sorts of distasteful things about Dylan in that answer. They said he was often angry, sullen and disrespectful, and then first wrote the phrase you quoted about authority figures, but then crossed it out to write “intolerant of others”— meaning everyone, a broader statement. So they were copping to the problem here because they were concerned about it, looking for help. And we know from everyone around them that they were on Dylan about it, disciplining him. But kids continue to misbehave. Why do we assume they were OK with it? Because it ended horribly. Did they see that coming? Definitely not. How many parents have sullen, angry, disrespectful boys? And how many of them foresee mass murder?
Greene: I’m interested in this notion of blame, especially because the vast majority of Americans were convinced the shooters’ parents were even more directly responsible for the massacre than the shooters themselves. Eighty-five percent is a huge number. How do you look at blame and responsibility – and the penchant to point the finger — in the context of Columbine?
Cullen: I think the Klebolds raised this sweet kid who befriended Eric – a bad-seed and really monstrous kid who wanted to kill off the entire species and the entire planet. They had the horrible bad luck of their son falling in with the wrong friend. If Dylan hadn’t been hanging out with Eric, he probably wouldn’t have been involved. That’s really the extent of what they did wrong. As for not detecting the extent of Dylan’s depression, I think that happens far more widely than we know. Teenagers’ brain chemistry changes and, so often, parents think it’s a blip rather than the start of a life of adolescent and adult mental illness. They don’t see that their kid needs help. This story plays out in families all over the place all the time. I’m not sure blame and culpability are as helpful as the need for public awareness and detection. And that’s why what Sue Klebold has to say is important.
Greene: How is Sue Klebold feeling about going public after 17 years?
Cullen: She said she’s terrified. She’s expecting this to be rough. Not that it hasn’t been rough for her. But the anonymity and invisibility she has walked around with will end – just like that — with that interview Friday night. People will recognize her at the grocery store or at Target. That’ll be a big change for her.
Greene: And what do you expect the public’s reaction will be?
Cullen: I think that some people, right off the bat, will assume motives of greed because Sue’s coming out with a book. But they should know that she’s donating all proceeds to charity. That dispenses with a huge elephant in the room – assumptions that she’s coming forward for some sort of personal gain. Because she isn’t.
That said, I have a feeling that the reaction won’t be as bad as her fears. For the people who watch the interview or read her book, I think maybe some will re-evaluate past judgments they made and maybe even grieve with her. Maybe.
At the very least, I think people will give her credit for having asked questions about what went wrong with her son and trying to piece it all together. She didn’t have to step out and risk this kind of public shaming. It takes guts. I hope people can see how much guts it really takes.