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.

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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.

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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.

 

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ writing in the columns and articles he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine. This had two effects – one, it made me realise that Vanity Fair was much more than just a fashion magazine, and two, it made me a fan of Hitchen’s writing.

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Hitchens was a talented journalist, initially in Britain and then America. He was a prolific writer, not only of columns, but also of numerous biographies (ranging from Mother Teresa to the Clintons) and a controversial bestseller, god is not Great (I’ve not read it  yet but will soon), in which he tackles the sensitive subject of religion. His memoir, Hitch-22, was also a bestseller.

Hitchens died in 2011 of oesophageal cancer and Mortality is the short book that he wrote as he was dying. It is a reflection of his thoughts about cancer and death, yet it is never morbid, never self-pitying. There is an underlying chronological order to the text, however this is not account of what-his-cancer-did-next. He writes about religion, about pain, the side-effects of chemo, the knowledge that he might lose his voice – and he was such a vocal man, both literally and through his writings – and many other issues he encountered along the way.

He refers to cancer as being another land, where the cancer patient has leave his old domicile and move to a new country:

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. 

He refers to the image that is so often brought up with cancer – people don’t have cancer, they battle cancer – ‘you can beat this‘. He tells, however, that while sitting having chemo dripping into his arm, he felt merely ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water‘.

He manages to look at his life with such objectivity that I found the book a joy to read. For example, he says:

The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism…while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.

I felt sad reading the book, knowing that he was doing to die, but I never felt pity for him. The last chapter is made up of fragmentary jottings that were left unfinished at the time of his death and these, for me, are the most poignant, as they are private insights into a dying man’s thoughts.

Both the foreword and the afterword paint a picture of a man greatly liked and highly respected as an intellect.

In the foreword, Graydon Carter (present editor of Vanity Fair) says Hitchens was, “a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing and, above all, for conversation.”

Carter tells of Hitchen’s enthusiasm when writing for Vanity Fair – how Carter persuaded him to go on a course of self-improvement, which included dental treatment and a ‘sack, back and crack’. Apparently he paled when Carter explained what that was, yet agreed, saying “In for a penny…” (in case you don’t know, it is a wax to remove hair from the back and the other nether regions).

The afterword is written by his wife, Carol Blue, and she write about his larger than life personality, even when he had cancer – amongst others, how he organised a huge family gathering in Toronto for Thanksgiving even when he was sick from the effects of chemo. She tells us that his charisma never left him, his ‘artful conversation’ never ceased. She also writes, however, with the wistful tone of being the one who got left behind.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

I miss his perfect voice…I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of ‘his morning voice’…his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night. 

I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send when we sat in different rooms…and when he was on the road.

Mortality was a quick read but I found it to be an intensely personal book at the end of which I felt I privileged to have read it.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

I’m not sure how to categorise this debut novel. It’s a coming-of-age novel, yet it’s also a love story, a family tragedy, and one about friendship. It’s a wonderful book, very poignant, sad, heart-warming, although I didn’t ‘sob uncontrollably’ as one critic did.

ImageJune is 14 years old and is in love with her uncle Finn, a renowned artist. Desperately in love – she makes up any excuse to see him and believes that no one else understands her like he does. June doesn’t fit in at school, she’s a weird child who’s obsessed with medieval times and dresses funnily, and Finn provides her with a special friendship. Yet Finn is dying of AIDS and his last big project is to paint June and her sister, Greta. 

The book is set in the ’80s, when AIDS was still a taboo subject, and June’s parents are virulently against Finn’s partner, Toby, believing that he was the cause of Finn’s death by AIDS. When Finn dies, June is devastated and confused. She’s ashamed she loved her uncle in such a deep way and she hates the idea of him having a partner who she didn’t know about. 

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The author

But when a present arrives in the post from Toby for her, she reaches out to him and a fragile friendship develops between these two lonely people who both loved Finn. As she gets to know Toby, June’s eyes are opened to the fact that she was not the only one who loved Finn and misses him terribly. She slowly learns to trust Toby and to enjoy the friendship he offers her when she most needs it.

June’s relationship with her sister, Greta, worsens as Greta suspects that June has someone in her life that she doesn’t know about. June and Greta used to be very close and in the book, Greta is awful to her, mean and spiteful. Towards the end of the book, their relationship improves and we learn of Greta’s jealousy of June and Finn’s friendship. 

There is so much to this book that I can’t sum it up here in a short review. One of the side stories that I so enjoyed was to do with the painting of the two sisters that Finn finished before he died  (called Tell the Wolves I’m Home) – it is put in a safe box in the bank for the girls to go and look at when they want to. They each separately go and add little details to it – it’s secretive, poignant, and at the same time dreadful in that you know they are defacing a valuable painting. To them, though, it is a part of their uncle Finn and that’s all that matters. 

Brunt stays clear of sentimentality in the book, an admirable feat in that it is a sad story that she tells here, and she depicts June’s adolescent emotions with clarity and accuracy. Some reviewers haven’t liked how Brunt characterised June’s sister, Greta, yet I feel she created a true reflection of a sibling relationship where both children feel isolated in their own self-focused lives.

I loved this book – perhaps if I were a crier, I would have cried. It is tender and beautifully written, it’s not highly intellectual or particularly challenging, but I think it is well worth reading.