In Dunblane Cathedral a couple of Sundays ago a prayer of intercession was given up on behalf of people who struggle at this time of year with the recollection of an event which in the magnitude of its evil seems completely incomprehensible. On March 13th 1996 a man entered Dunblane Primary School and shot dead a school teacher and sixteen members of her class. Ten other pupils and three teachers were wounded. The perpetrator committed suicide. It so happened that week I read A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold (W H Allen, 2016). Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two perpetrators of the Columbine High School Massacre in Denver, Colorado, 20th April 1999. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two students at the school, shot twelve students and killed one teacher. Twenty four other students were injured. Klebold and Harris committed suicide. Seventeen years after the event, Sue Klebold has written a book about Columbine which is an attempt to understand why her son did what he did.
I probably wouldn’t have read her book but for two factors. I was lucky enough to win the Impress Prize for New Writers in 2014 with my book Click, Double-Click. In Click, Double-Click, the narrator of the story becomes convinced that somebody is going to “do a Columbine” on a specific University Campus. For reasons intrinsic to the structure of the book, I needed to cite four previous, I might say notorious, examples of similar events. I chose Dunblane, Hoddle Street, Aramoana, and Columbine. Why did I choose these specifically? I live fifteen minutes’ drive from Dunblane. I spent the better part of fifteen years in Australasia – hence Hoddle Street (Melbourne) and Aramoana (South Island, New Zealand.) And Columbine? Well, Columbine is so notorious that it is a kind of archetype for these sorts of events.
The second factor compelling me to read Sue Klebold’s book was that recently I happened to hear Private Passions on Radio 3 with Michael Barclay. (Curiously enough that shows up in Click, Double-Click as well.) On this occasion the guest was Andrew Solomon. Andrew Solomon has written a book about unusual children, be they gifted or challenged. During the course of his research he met with Sue and Tom Klebold, Dylan’s parents, confident that he would discover the cause of Dylan’s catastrophically aberrant behaviour. He was disconcerted to find that he liked the Klebolds. He was left struggling to explain how an apparently normal teenager raised in a normal, and indeed loving, environment, could have perpetrated such an act. Solomon wrote the preface to A Mother’s Reckoning. That was a nudge to make me read it.
A Mother’s Reckoning was not an easy read. Not that the book was in any sense dull, turgid, or obscure. Quite the contrary. It is extremely well written, lucid, highly intelligent, heartfelt, and at times compulsive. It is just the pure pain of the narration that makes the read so difficult. Any act of grieving involves going over the same material again and again and so it can hardly be surprising that the book contains a lot of repetition of angst and fear and horror. Sue Klebold also knew that in her narration she was laying herself open to criticism. Was this simply to be some kind of exercise in self-expiation? No. Instead, there is incessant self-condemnation. She says, frequently, I should have seen this coming.
So Sue Klebold compels us to ask ourselves, the readers, would we, to avoid a tragedy, have done any better? I fell to wondering if the home life she depicted in an idyllic setting just outside Denver held any clues. I tried, specifically, to envisage Dylan’s life, his home life, his school life, his social life, as he would have envisaged it.
I got the strong sense of a personality who, faced with the “norms” of North American life, the need to aspire to the American dream, to do well in class and at sports, to be part of the community, to please his parents and his mentors and his peers, to “shape up”, just found it utterly impossible. But why did he choose to make his final act an act of brutality? That remains an enigma.