Sue Klebold: When Your Son Does The Unthinkable, Can You Forgive Him And Yourself?

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 8:46 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Forgiveness.

About Sue Klebold's TED Talk

Sue Klebold's son Dylan was one of the two shooters at Columbine High School. Nearly 20 years later, she talks about her struggle to understand his actions, and to find forgiveness.

About Sue Klebold

Sue Klebold is a mental health and suicide prevention advocate. She is also the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at Columbine High School in 1999. Sue is the author of A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath of Tragedy.

Profits from her memoir go toward mental health research and charities, and suicide prevention.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Ideas About Forgiveness - asking for it, offering it and why it can be so hard to forgive others and even ourselves. And in this episode, we're going to hear some pretty difficult stories, stories that have to do with loss and violence and betrayal, stories that would test anyone's willingness to forgive.

So first of all, can you introduce yourself, please?

SUE KLEBOLD: Yes. This is Sue Klebold.

RAZ: And you are talking to us from...

KLEBOLD: Denver, Colo.

RAZ: So nearly 20 years ago, something happened that for Sue really shattered her world and her whole life. And what happened is still with her all the time.

KLEBOLD: I'll hear a name that might be a family name of one of the victims, or I see an individual going down the street in a wheelchair, and they're about the age that they would have been if they'd been injured, and I get a visceral reaction.

RAZ: What Sue's talking about was a national tragedy. And if you're too young to remember hearing about it on the news, you've definitely heard about it since. Here's Sue on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KLEBOLD: The last time I heard my son's voice was when he walked out the front door on his way to school. He called out one word in the darkness - bye. It was April 20, 1999. Later that morning at Columbine High School, my son Dylan and his friend Eric killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded more than 20 others before taking their own lives. Thirteen innocent people were killed. Others sustained injuries, some resulting in disfigurement and permanent disability.

There's no way to assess the magnitude of a tragedy like Columbine, especially when it can be a blueprint for other shooters who go on to commit atrocities of their own. Columbine was a tidal wave. And when the crash ended, it would take years for the community and for society to comprehend its impact.

Today, I'm here to share the experience of what it's like to be the mother of someone who kills and hurts. The tragedy convinced me that I failed as a parent, and it's partially this sense of failure that brings me here today. Aside from his father, I was the one person who knew and loved Dylan the most. If anyone could have known what was happening, it should have been me, right? But I didn't know,

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: For many years after the tragedy, did you ask yourself, what could I have done? Did you ask yourself that question all the time?

KLEBOLD: I asked myself that question all the time. I continue to ask myself that question all the time. In my mind, as the mother of someone who took his own life and killed and hurt other people, I feel tremendous guilt. Now, of course, guilt is part of parenting. I don't think I've met any parents that don't feel guilty about something...

RAZ: No.

KLEBOLD: ...Even if their children turned out just fine. But in this case, you know, I couldn't think of anything I had done to teach him that violence was a solution to any problem. But for me, I have to own this. This is the path of my life. I didn't choose it, but I own it. And there's no way to run away from it.

RAZ: After the Columbine shootings, Sue's entire life unraveled. For years, she and her husband dealt with lawsuits which forced them into bankruptcy. They eventually split up. In 2001, Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer. And then she began to suffer from extreme anxiety and panic attacks. And all this while trying to understand and to process what Dylan did.

Has forgiveness been something that you've thought a lot about over the years?

KLEBOLD: My synonym for forgiveness is empathy. For me, what forgiveness is, it is the ability to understand and put yourself in the other person's shoes to see what they were thinking, experiencing and feeling because the need to forgive disappears once we have understanding. It has helped me to do the research I've done on brain health to try to understand in my thinking that Dylan didn't merely choose to do this in the same way that you and I would make this decision as we're sitting here talking.

RAZ: Yeah.

KLEBOLD: And if I had to explain suicide to a child, if someone lost an uncle, for example, what we would say to a child is your uncle became sick in his brain. And he couldn't think the way we think. And because of that, he hurt himself, or in Dylan's case, he hurt other people. And that's sort of the way I've processed this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KLEBOLD: When I talk about my son's death as a suicide, I'm talking about mental health. And in the same breath, I'm talking about violence. But the last thing I want to do is to contribute to the misunderstanding that already exists around mental illness. Only a very small percent of those who have a mental illness are violent toward other people, but of those who died by suicide, it's estimated that about 75 to maybe more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental health condition of some kind. But my son's death was not purely a suicide. It involved mass murder. I wanted to know how his suicidal thinking became homicidal, but research is sparse and there are no simple answers. Yes, he probably had ongoing depression. He had experienced triggering events at the school that left him feeling debased and humiliated and mad. It was appallingly easy for a 17-year-old boy to buy guns, both legally and illegally, without my permission or knowledge. And somehow, 17 years and many school shootings later, it's still appallingly easy.

It has taken me years to try to accept my son's legacy. The cruel behavior that defined the end of his life showed me that he was a completely different person from the one I knew. Afterwards, people asked - how could you not know? What kind of a mother were you? I still ask myself those same questions.

People would say to me, didn't you ever tell Dylan that you loved him? Didn't you, you know - did you ever hug Dylan? And that would infuriate me. It would infuriate me. And I would say, of course, I did. I, you know, took his face in my hands, and I told him I loved him, you know, with my eyes eight inches from his. But the truth is - before this had happened to me, I was sort of like everyone else. I believed that, you know, some people were bad or did bad things, and I would certainly - if it was a young person - instantly think that the parents were responsible.

I think people are horrified, terrified by the thought that something like this could happen. And I think they had a need to believe that it had to have been something that was done through negligence or poor parenting. And that has helped me a lot to try to understand and cope with when I am attacked, when people are angry with me, when people blame me. It's terrifying to think that we can do our best and do things that are good and right, and something as horrible as this can still happen.

RAZ: As a parent, do you struggle with the idea of forgiving yourself?

KLEBOLD: That's the hardest part. That - if there's anything that I still struggle with, it's that. I don't think you can lose a child to suicide and not look back and wish you had done something differently to save them. And the other question, of course, I have dealt with is the concept of whether or not people forgive me. And, you know, in my heart, I think I tried in every way to love my son, to raise him. I did not know if there were magic words that could have been said, if there were interventions that could have been made. At the time, I did the best I could do for him because of him because I loved him. And I would not want him to come to any harm under any circumstances.

RAZ: How have you interacted with families who were affected by the tragedy? Do you have any interaction with any of them?

KLEBOLD: I do. This has always been one of the most difficult things that I've had to deal with because right from the beginning, I wanted to connect. I wrote letters to the families. I - we made a public apology in the newspaper. But honestly, there's no rulebook for how to do this. All of the families - everybody was different. Everyone was an individual. And even in one family, their reactions to this tragedy would be different. I didn't want to retraumatize people. But over the years, a few of the family members - and I will say individuals from families - no entire families - but the individuals have reached out to me, and we've developed a relationship. And it's been, from my perspective, wonderful and healing, I think for both of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KLEBOLD: I know that I will live with this tragedy for the rest of my life. I know that in the minds of many, what I lost can't compare to what the other families lost. I know my struggle doesn't make theirs any easier. But here's something I've learned. If love were enough to stop someone who was suicidal from hurting themselves, suicides would hardly ever happen. But love is not enough. I've learned that no matter how much we want to believe we can, we cannot know or control everything our loved ones think and feel.

And the stubborn belief that we are somehow different, that someone we love would never think of hurting themselves or someone else can cause us to miss what's hidden in plain sight. And if worst-case scenarios do come to pass, we all have to learn to forgive ourselves for not knowing or for not asking the right questions or not finding the right treatment. In the end, what I know comes down to this: Even the most vigilant and responsible of us may not be able to help. But for love's sake, we must never stop trying. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Sue Klebold - she wrote about her story in a book called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." By the way, all the profits from that book are being donated to organizations that work for mental health awareness research and suicide prevention. You can see Sue's entire talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about Forgiveness. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.