Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall

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The ‘Sherman’ in the title of this non-fiction book is a donkey, and this book is literally one about the author running with Sherman.  Chris McDougall wrote the bestselling book, Born to Run, in which he tells of going in search of the greatest long-distance runners in the world – the elusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico – who help him overcome a foot injury he had been told would prevent him from ever running again.  I’m not a runner, but McDougall is a great storyteller.

When McDougall comes across a mistreated donkey in his neighbourhood (in Pennsylvania, near an Amish community), he decides to adopt it to nurse it back to health. On arrival, however, Sherman is worse than he realised – as well as being malnourished, depressed, stinking, and in a terrible condition, Sherman’s hooves have curled up like long nails from months of standing locked up in a soggy pen, making it virtually impossible for him to walk. Even once the extra growth has been removed with a hacksaw, Sherman remains unresponsive. The vet who cleans him up tells McDougall,

Look … He’s been abused and abandoned, and that can make any animal sick with despair. You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.’

Hooves
Sherman having his hooves hack-sawed

And so starts the incredible tale of how McDougall starts running with Sherman, training him up for the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Colorado. Who ever thought there was even such a thing as burro racing? It dates back to 19th-century-silver-mining days in Colorado when prospectors loaded their donkey with tools and food, and headed into the mountains in search of the precious metal. There are a number of races throughout the summer series in Colorado, including the World Championship into which McDougall enters himself and Sherman.

Donkey are notoriously stubborn – Sherman is no exception – and one of the delights of this book is the descriptions of the various methods with which McDougall gets Sherman running – including the help of two high-spirited goats, the locals from the Amish running community (who run with all their black clothes on), and McDougall’s wife and friends. Among these is the son of a friend who has dropped out of college because of severe depression. He and Sherman bond particularly well and both exercise themselves out of their debilitating moods.

Sherman
Sherman and Chris McDougall

Against all odds, Sherman and McDougall run and finish the race, a feat which made me want to stand up and whoop with delight.

While the book concentrates on Sherman’s recovery from abusive treatment, it also highlights how exposure to nature and exercise can have a profound effect on mood and motivation, and the incredible nature of the human-animal relationship. Overall,  it is a delightful story – never sentimental – that made me feel happier for having read it.

 

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

If I asked you who Dylan Klebold is, I reckon most of you won’t know. I didn’t. But if I asked you if you remembered the Columbine High School massacre, most of you will. Dylan Klebold was one of the Columbine shooters who, with his friend Eric Harris, walked into the high school on the morning of 20 April 1999 with a backpack filled with guns and explosives. In the course of about an hour, the two of them killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24, and then took their own lives.

Klebold book

Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, has written this memoir (subtitled Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy) as a way of trying to understand what happened to her son that he  landed up committing murder-suicide in the most horrific manner . She attempts to get us to understand, but also, it seemed to me that she needed to write it to try to get herself to understand. And, as an extension of that, to forgive herself. The introduction is written by Andrew Solomon, an author who has experienced suicidal depressions and written extensively on the topic.

On the day of the shootings, Sue was getting up when she heard Dylan run down their stairs and open the front door.  Surprised at how early he was up, she shouted his name, but he just replied, ‘Bye’ and shut the door behind him. She was unsettled by this:

There had been an edge to Dylan’s voice in that single word I’d never heard before – a sneer, almost, as if he’d been caught in the middle of a fight with someone.

But later in the morning when she heard about the shooting going on at her son’s high school, her first thought was, “Is Dylan safe?” When, however, she realised that her son was in some way involved in the shooting, she prayed that he would die before he hurt anyone else further.

Sue Klebold had no idea her son was as depressed as he was, so far gone down a black hole that he wanted to commit suicide and, along the way, harm others.This is what the author was faced with – the truth that she had raised a child who could be responsible for such horror and that she had not known something was wrong. This anguish runs as a thread throughout the book: the shame, the questioning, the probing,  the trying to understand; and along with this, the deep deep love she has for her child and the grief of losing him to suicide.

Much of the book, therefore, is looking back on Dylan’s life and at how she and her husband brought up their children (there is an older son). The thing is that their lives were pretty normal – loving, attentive parents with kids who achieved at school, ‘nice’ kids. Kids like you and I have. There are photos of a sweet toddler, one of family groups, another of an awkward tween. A photo of him with his prom date, just days before the shootings. She was a typical suburban mother who had two boys who grew into teenagers and, like many teenagers, they both got into a bit of trouble. She thought Dylan’s issues were caused by typical hormonal teenage angst.

dylan_klebold

This is an incredibly honest book. Sue Klebold never makes up excuses for herself or for her son; she acknowledges that she missed signs that Dylan was unhappy or depressed.  He was sometimes sullen and withdrawn, he got suspended from school for breaking into students’ lockers, he wrote an essay that disturbed the teacher enough to talk to the Klebolds about it. Sue and her husband put it down to his being a teenager – Dylan had friends, he was socialising, he was chatting over the dinner table; he seemed ‘normal’.

Yet when the Klebolds were shown the evidence that police had collected, she was shocked and profoundly shaken to learn the reality of her son’s inner world. His journals were full of rambling, sometimes incoherent, sentences that reflected a deep depression and a wish to die. He had stashed guns in his room. He and Eric had made videos before the massacre – known as The Basement Tapes – and in them she saw a son she had never ever known.

He and Eric were preposterous, posturing, given a performance for each other and their invisible audience. I had never seen that expression of sneering superiority on Dylan’s face. My mouth gaped open when I heard the language they were using – abominable, hate-filled, racist, derogatory words, words never heard or spoken in our home.

Tape
From one of the videos

After all his ugly ranting, by the end of the tape, surrounded by their weaponry, Dylan’s last words were: ‘Just know I’m going to a better place. I didn’t like life too much…

The one interpretation that she clings onto throughout the book and examines closely in relation to Dylan is that he was depressed and suicidal, not psychotic or evil. As one the FBI’s psychologists put it: ‘I believe Eric went to school to kill people and didn’t care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died as well.‘ Another expert told her that it was not her fault that she had not picked up on Dylan’s depression because he had hidden it to incredibly well.

This was an emotional read, and sometimes a difficult one, yet I could not help but sympathise with Sue Klebold. Any mother could relate to some of what she says, and to the depth of her grief. She never excused what Dylan did, but tried to understand it and down the line became very involved in helping parents with children who had committed suicide or tried to commit suicide. I would recommend this book for parents of teenage children – not to scare them, but to make them aware of  what might being going on in their children’s lives, and to seek help as soon as possible.