TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, who, along with Eric Harris, was responsible for the massacre at their school, Columbine High. In 1999, armed with guns and explosives, Dylan and Eric killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24 others and then took their own lives. Sue Klebold knows people often blame her for her son's crimes. She's wrestled with guilt, despair, shame and confusion. In the 17 years since Columbine, she's made few public statements about the tragedy. But now, she's written a memoir. She says that in writing this book, she hopes to honor the memories of the people her son killed by being truthful to the best of her ability. She wants you to know that all the author revenues from the book, minus expenses, will be donated to research and charitable foundations focusing on mental health issues. In the years prior to Columbine, she worked at Colorado community colleges helping disabled children enter the job market. She's spent the past 15 years working on issues related to suicide and violence prevention. Her new memoir is called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy."
Sue Klebold, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've said that while every other mother in Littleton was praying that her child was safe, you had to pray that your son would die before he hurt anyone else. And you write, I gave the hardest prayer I ever made - that he would kill himself because then, at least, I would know that he wanted to die. Why was it important for you to know that your son Dylan wanted to die?
SUE KLEBOLD: I didn't know what was happening. And I sensed from the fragments that we were getting that this was a terribly chaotic situation. And because I had no way of knowing what he was thinking or feeling, I believe that if he killed himself - I think I believe that it would be his choice - that I would at least have the comfort of knowing that he did something that he wanted to do that was his choice in that terrible situation.
GROSS: What - but did you think of the shootings themselves as being his choice?
KLEBOLD: In the very beginning, I didn't know what to think. I didn't realize that he was there. Well, you know, I had to - this whole realization of what was happening that day and what had happened that day took place over a period of years, really. I mean, on that day that it occurred, and I was aware that there was a shooting incident occurring at school, I didn't know if Dylan was in danger - if someone was trying to shoot him, if he was doing something. I thought it might be a prank. He had made a reference to a senior prank. I didn't know what was happening. And the fact that he was there and shootings were going on - I was very much in denial about his role, and for very, very long time. So the only thing that I could glean from whatever was happening was that something terrible was happening; he was somehow involved with it. And it was at least a miniscule comfort to me - I thought it would be - to know that he had chosen to die, and he had made that decision himself, and he had not been murdered by somebody else. That was the only little piece of comfort I could carve out.
GROSS: You write that for months, you believed that he could not have killed anyone. What were some of the things you told yourself then to convince you of that despite the evidence that he had killed students?
KLEBOLD: I believed - and I was not alone in this belief. People who knew Dylan shared these beliefs. Certainly our family members and his friends, even - was that somehow he had been either tricked into doing some kind of a - some kind of theater, some kind of prank that had gone awry, that maybe he had been brainwashed or coerced in some way. Or maybe he was there as an observer. Or maybe he didn't really shoot anybody. Maybe he was just there. And those were the kinds of things I clung to for months until I learned what the truth really was.
GROSS: You thought he couldn't possibly have had a gun. You and your husband are for gun control. You were considering moving out of Colorado because the gun laws were becoming too lenient.
GROSS: But then you saw the so-called basement tapes - the videos that Eric and Dylan made, some of them shot in Eric's basement where they posed with guns and said vile things. And one of those sessions was actually recorded in your son Dylan's bedroom in your own home. So when you saw that video, made in your home, of your son and Eric Harris playing with guns and saying vile things, how did you react? How did you process that?
KLEBOLD: Seeing those tapes was one of the most shocking, dramatically traumatic things that happened in the aftermath of this. Because I had been living with such a different construct to try to cope with what I believed to be true, the basement tapes were so horrifically shocking. And when I saw that one of those scenes was actually shot in our home one night, and it was a night when Eric had spent the night, it was jaw-dropping. All I can tell you is I gasped out loud and I said, that's his room. I mean, it was just a complete shock that something could happen like that in my own home - that I didn't know the two of them had weapons and that Eric had brought weapons to our house. And we went back and thought about that evening. And we remembered when Eric spent the night, and he had brought a big duffel bag in. And we had just assumed it was - I don't know, perhaps a video camera or computer. I mean, we didn't - we weren't in the habit of asking guests what they were bringing over. And we had to sort of put these pieces together of what the boys had been doing that night. And it was a complete shock.
GROSS: And there's something else - I mean, there's a lot of things you saw on those tapes that were shot, but I want to ask you about another one. You had asked Dylan to come to a Seder. You're Jewish. Your husband is Methodist - Lutheran?
KLEBOLD: He thought he had a Lutheran background.
GROSS: Lutheran, yeah. And so you had asked your son to come to a Seder, which is the Passover ceremony, and you wanted him to say the four questions, which is - those are the questions that start with, why is tonight different from all other nights? And usually the youngest son at the tables asks those questions. He didn't want to go. He finally gave in and went with you. You saw a reference to that Seder in the basement tapes. Can you describe what you saw?
KLEBOLD: He made a reference to having to go to the Seder to Eric in passing. And he didn't want to go when he was telling his friend this. But what was surprising and shocking about that component of the tapes was that it was obvious to Eric at that moment that he didn't know that Dylan had Jewish family members - that it was a surprise to Eric. And I remember Dylan sort of backpedaling and saying, well, no, she's not really Jewish, she's really just sort of an eighth Jewish, or maybe a fourth Jewish. And Eric stared at him in the tapes. And there is a moment in observing those where you really wonder what Eric is going to do - that if he is going to extend his - sort of a condemnation to Dylan or to me. And it's very quiet for a moment, and you can see that Dylan is visibly shaken by having to reveal this. But then Eric, you know, says, you know, that's a bummer or, you know, I'm sorry man or something that's expressing his sympathy for having to deal with this. But that - yes, that was a complete surprise as well.
GROSS: My understanding of Eric is that he was not only anti-Semitic, but that he really admired Hitler and the Nazis.
KLEBOLD: And that is my understanding too. And I have not deeply explored anything about Eric too much. My research has been focused mostly on my own son and his particular mental conditions. And I haven't extensively looked at Eric.
GROSS: Did you have to even change your physical image of your son after seeing him in the basement tapes and after seeing the kind of angry, belligerent version of him - the version that he brought to Columbine? Because my impression is when you watch the tapes, he physically looked different to you - that he had a look on his face that you are unfamiliar with.
KLEBOLD: Yes, that is true. What I saw in those basement tapes - what appeared to me to be occurring - was that he was posturing. That he was putting on some kind of a performance to prove not only to Eric but possibly to himself that he was this, you know, tough, hateful human being who was kind of revving himself up to do this. So that was the sense I got from those tapes. And I think one of the things that was most frightening to me when I saw those tapes was the thought that if and when these become available to the public, how the public couldn't possibly believe that the other child that I knew existed and was so different from the one of the tape. I knew that trying to illustrate that would be impossible if they had seen this image of this hate-filled person.
GROSS: The basement tapes were destroyed. That was ordered by the local sheriff. And I know you advocated for their destruction. Why did you want them destroyed? And I ask that - your reason might sound obvious, but on the other hand, a lot of people argued these tapes could be used for research for people who are studying, you know, teenagers who commit crimes - teenagers who are suicidal and kill people and then kill themselves. So why did you advocate for their destruction?
KLEBOLD: I advocated for their destruction because there is a great deal of research to show that making these available to the public is dangerous - that vulnerable kids will look at these and copy these and use what happened at Columbine as a benchmark for other events such as this. So there is certainly a lot of documentation to support that making them public is a very poor and very risky idea. And I had an additional reason as well as that. And that is, I knew that if people believed that someone who was going to do something as heinous as Dylan did acted openly the way Dylan did in that tape, they would develop a false sense of security to be able to say, my loved one doesn't act like that; therefore, I am safe; my loved one is not at risk. And I think for me, that was one of the most dangerous things about these tapes is to realize this was not his affect on a daily level. This was the two of them acting, doing theater, doing a performance in front of a videotape. And it would be very deceptive to release that kind of information and have people expect to see behavior like that when someone was very disturbed because that is not the truth.
GROSS: Did you ever wonder to yourself, is it possible that the version of himself that he showed on the basement tapes was the real him, and he was keeping - he was showing you a false front because he had to hide who he really was?
KLEBOLD: You know, I considered that. But in looking at his writings, his writings tell a different story. His writings show that he was someone who was very focused on love. He was very focused on a sense of conscience. He had a secret crush on an unidentified female at his school. And his writings do not reveal the level of just irrational anger that the tapes revealed. And also, you know, the fact that I had known him, of course, all of his life, and known him to be a gentle and a loving person. So from everything I have been able to learn about this, from every piece of evidence that I can find, it was the behavior on the tapes that was the aberration. And it was something that he was doing in many ways, I believe, to prepare himself to do what he was about to do.
GROSS: Does the writing that you read reveal anything about his depression or suicidal tendencies?
KLEBOLD: Yes. And this is another reason why I wanted to write a book because - and when I referred to Dylan's suicidal thoughts and his behavior, I want to make it very clear that I am not trying to discount the fact that he also committed murder. I perfectly am aware, always, every minute, of the lives that he took and the lives that he ruined. But murder-suicide, which is what this event was, is a - one manifestation of suicide. It is what can happen with a suicide. It is generally now believed more and more to be motivated by the same things that motivate a suicide rather than a homicide. So I have done a lot of research on suicide and tried to understand Dylan's thinking. And yes, in his writings, a full two years before he died, he is talking about being in agony, being in pain - about his thoughts, wanting to end them. He writes about wishing he had a gun. He even wrote about cutting himself at one point. So yes, I believe that he was experiencing persistent suicidal thoughts and depression at least two years before this event grew and grew and escalated into this terrible tragedy.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Klebold. She's the mother of Dylan Klebold, who, along with Eric Harris, was responsible for the massacre at Columbine High in 1999. She's written a new memoir. It's called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Klebold. She's the mother of Dylan Klebold, who along with Eric Harris, committed the massacre at Columbine High in 1999 killing 12 students, one teacher. Twenty-four people were injured during that attack. She's written a new memoir called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." He asked you if you would get him a gun. And of course, you and your husband were mortified and you declined. How did you interpret that request?
KLEBOLD: Unfortunately, I did not respond to it as if this were a life-and-death question. Culturally, I come form Colorado. A lot of people that I know - most people that I know - own some kind of firearms. People go to shooting ranges. So gun ownership is not something that is rare where I live. So when he asked me if I would be willing to buy him a gun for Christmas, which was the last Christmas before the tragedy, you know, I just figured this was just another thing that my kid had asked me for. You know, and he'd asked me for gliding lessons, you know, he'd ask me for - you know, they ask you for a muscle car - I mean, they ask you for things. And I thought, well, he's trying to see if he can get a gun, and obviously, that's not going to happen. I told him, Dylan, you're going to be 18 soon. If you think a gun is something you want in your life, you can do that. But you know that I would never ever buy you a gun. And he smiled and he said, I know that. I just thought I'd ask. Now, as I went back and deconstructed that, that was the time at which the Tanner Gun Show was in Denver. And I think he was preparing to buy a gun and was wanting to see if he could get one from me so he wouldn't have to buy it.
GROSS: You know, in terms of what was available for you to see and what was hidden beneath the surface of what was going on and that gave a very different picture, I think of his prom night, which you write about. You know, he went to his prom. It was just a few days before the shooting...
GROSS: ...And before - you know, before the massacre. And he came back from the prom and told you it was the happiest night of his life.
GROSS: But then you later found out that the girl he took to the prom bought some of the guns that he and Eric used in the massacre at Columbine...
GROSS: ...'Cause she was older, so she was able to purchase them.
KLEBOLD: That's correct.
GROSS: And so it gives us such a completely different picture of what that happiness might've been about - that happiness at the prom.
KLEBOLD: And in my interpretation of that - and again, this is relating to a study of suicide and suicide prevention - very often when individuals who are severely depressed have made a plan to die, they feel a sense of relief, a sense of letting down and being able to get through those difficult days and hours at the end of their life. And I believe that - and I'm speculating because I don't know - but I believe Dylan wanted to experience that prom to really have one last good time. And I think that's what it was.
GROSS: And you say you couldn't reconcile how he could be happy at the prom one night and a few days later, massacre students.
KLEBOLD: Well, no...
GROSS: But since he got...
KLEBOLD: It was impossible.
GROSS: Yeah, it's impossible to reconcile that?
KLEBOLD: Yes, but again, people can be very, very good at masking what they are feeling and thinking below the surface. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to write a book and say we can't always trust what we see. We can't assume that everyone is fine. If we have any thought at all that something might be amiss with that person or they might be troubled, you know, we can dig more deeply. And we can ask questions. We can be more probing because they will be reluctant to share anything that they perceive as a failure on their part or shortcoming. And certainly, toxic thoughts are something that people do not want to share and do not want to talk about. So, yes, it was a complete disconnect for me to see that he could be going to a prom and having a good time and three days later, he was attempting to blow up a school and he was ending his life. But it shows an amazing ability to function in the throes of really an extreme end stage of a condition.
GROSS: My guest is Sue Klebold. Her new memoir is called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." After a short break, we'll talk more about her son Dylan Klebold and about her life since the Columbine massacre. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold who, along with Eric Harris, was responsible for the massacre at their school, Columbine High, 17 years ago. They killed 12 students and one teacher, injured 24, and then shot themselves to death. Sue Klebold has always been very guarded in talking about her son, but now she's written a new memoir called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." So you were telling us how difficult it was for you to reconcile that your son had actually committed this horrible act and that at first, you kept telling yourself it couldn't be. Like, maybe he was, you know, forced to go along with it, maybe he was, you know, like, hypnotized or something. You just couldn't - you couldn't really believe it. But the more facts you saw - you saw the basement tapes, you read his journals, you talked to the law enforcement and investigators, who had a lot of information about what had had happened. And so you had to accept the truth - like, he did it. He did it. He had guns, he did it. And so you had to start telling yourself a different story about who your son was and what he did. A theory that has been shared by some mental health experts and law enforcement experts is that Eric Harris was homicidal, that he was a psychopath, and that your son was a suicidal depressive and that they fed off of each other. Is that the story you've told yourself?
KLEBOLD: That is largely the story that I have told myself. But I also acknowledge that that's a very simplistic view of what might've happened. When we look at something such as just a suicide without a murder, without it being a double suicide - this is a complex action, and it occurs because of overlapping factors. There are biological factors, there are psychological factors, there are environmental and social factors, and there are triggering events, things that occur. And they all have to sort of line up and overlap for something like this to occur. And what makes Columbine really such - and in many ways, a unique situation was that this was a double murder-suicide in which people were killed. But it was two individuals working together. And when I did write my book, we did find that that dyad of a depressed youth and a psychopathic youth was not all that unusual in this small subset of school shootings, that that pairing has occurred in a significant number of them.
GROSS: Did you fear that there was something in his upbringing, something in you as a parent that had brought this out in him or instilled in him or enabled it to happen?
KLEBOLD: I, like many survivors of loss when someone takes their own life, do think those thoughts. I felt for a very long time that it must've been something I did. And I went back to ridiculous detail into our past. And I remember at one point sobbing because when Dylan turned three, I had only put sprinkles on his birthday cake but when his brother turned three, I had decorated the cake with icing, thinking it must've been something like that where he didn't feel equally loved. I mean, I know that sounds ridiculous. That is the kind of work that you do in your head when something like this happens. So I examined and I questioned and I blamed and to this day, I do it still. Occasionally, I fall back and think, you know, if I had done this, if I had not done this. But over time, with all the research I was doing into behaviors and losses due to suicide, I really began to see that these things were things within Dylan's brain and his thinking, and that I might have in some way inadvertently contributed to this perception of something at a given moment. But I did not believe and still don't believe that I caused this or caused him to have this perception of himself and his world view.
GROSS: Getting back to the theory that Eric Harris was homicidal and a psychopath, and that your son Dylan was suicidal and depressive, and that they kind of fed off of each other. How often had you met Eric, and how well did you know him? What were your impressions of him before the massacre?
KLEBOLD: Dylan and Eric became friends in junior high and their friendship seemed, to me, to be perfectly appropriate. They did what junior high kids do. They, you know, watched movies and went bowling and hung out together. I had met Eric's parents, I had been in their home because I believed in always meeting the parents of the kids that my kids played with. There was nothing that I ever saw other than the arrest when they got together and stole something when they were in junior high - in junior year of high school. There was nothing I ever saw that indicated that they were - that either one of them was dangerous or ill or someone that I didn't want my son to be with. There was one incident in the summer when I saw Eric lose his temper at a soccer game, and I remember thinking that his behavior at that moment was completely inappropriate. But I did not - you know, alarm bells didn't go off and say life-and-death, this person is a threat to someone's safety. That didn't cross my mind. All I thought of was gee, this kid really act like - acted like a jerk, which young boys tend to do sometimes.
GROSS: When you ask yourself what might you have done that you didn't do, what's one of the things that haunts you?
KLEBOLD: I wish that I had had the ability to delve deeper and ask the kinds of questions that would have encouraged him to open up more to me. I had parented my kids, in many ways, the way I had been parented, which means you listen to your kids' problems and you try to fix them. I can still remember saying to my mother, you know, oh, I'm ugly, nobody likes me, and my mother would say oh, you're beautiful, but I love you. And I think what I needed to do with Dylan more was to just shut up and listen, to try to get him to say to me what he was feeling and thinking about something rather than to automatically jumping to a way to make him not feel that way or to fix the way he felt.
GROSS: What makes you think that he would've felt comfortable telling his mother, you, about his deepest insecurities? I think, you know, a lot of people don't share that with their parents.
KLEBOLD: And that is true, and that kind of deep bonding that occurs is a healthy part of growing up. And perhaps it's just my own fantasy that I might have been able to save him if had I done that, but a lot of it is - I have spoken with other people over the years, and I did have an incident when I went back to work after Dylan died where a coworker of mine had a daughter who was starting to act more withdrawn than usual, a little more peculiar than usual. And the coworker said to me, because I knew you and because I knew your story, I probed and I dug. And when she said I'm fine and gave the message leave me alone, the mother kept finding a way to ask and ask again, and she uncovered that her 13-year-old daughter had been raped on the street by a stranger when she had snuck out of the house to visit a friend. So it is that kind of probing - without being punitive, without being judgmental, without reacting emotionally, but to try to elicit greater communication that I think is something I wish I had done. And I encourage other parents to do that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Klebold. She's the mother of the late Dylan Klebold who, along with Eric Harris, committed the massacre at Columbine High in 1999, killing 13 people, 24 people were injured, and then Eric and Dylan took their own lives. She's written a memoir called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back and talk more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Klebold. She's a mother of the late Dylan Klebold, who, along with Eric Harris, committed the massacre at Columbine High in 1999.
I think we've all heard a lot about how one of the reasons that Dylan and Eric might have rationalized what they did is that they were bullied in high school. And you write that your son was six foot, four inches. And you couldn't imagine how he could've been bullied. He was a big guy. And especially - it was said that he was bullied by freshmen when he was a junior or senior so - and he was complaining when he was a junior about freshman bullying him. And your husband, you write, was thinking, like, you can't fight them, You'll just look bad. You're a tall kid, you're older than they are. Like, they can't - what do you say, you should just ignore them? But so how was your son bullied? Like, what do you know about that, and how seriously do you take it?
KLEBOLD: I'm only aware of many anecdotal stories. And I do believe that there was a pervasive culture of bullying in all, you know, different kinds - shoving, knocking down, trash thrown on kids. I am aware of one incident only because I saw some evidence of it on Dylan. There was at some point, and I can't remember when it occurred, he came home and he had spots of ketchup on his shirt. And I believe this might have been in his junior year. And I asked him, what happened to you? What happened? And he said to me, I have had the worst day of my life, and I don't even want to talk about it. And he went to his room. And I - again, unfortunately - respected his privacy to try to deal with whatever had happened. I had no inclination that what he had experienced was - what apparently occurred was that he and Eric were surrounded by kids - and I had heard two different renditions. One was that they had been squirted with ketchup. I had also heard a version that said that tampons with ketchup on them had been thrown at the kids. They were being shoved around and humiliated in front of a group people. None of Dylan's friends witnessed this, but there were enough witnesses that I believe that occurred. And I also saw the evidence on Dylan's clothing. So I believe that incident did occur. And if they did share this horrible humiliation together, I can understand how that could be considered a triggering event, which is one of the pieces that's needed for someone to feel that there are in some kind of a crisis.
GROSS: But as you point out in your book, the people that your son and Eric Harris killed were students who had nothing to do with the bullying.
GROSS: You know, and they showed no sympathy for students who were begging for their lives.
GROSS: And the students hadn't done anything against your son.
KLEBOLD: And I can only speculate about this. Very rarely are perpetrators in shootings like this targeting individuals. More often, it is random. It is people who are targeted randomly. And I believe that Dylan had gotten to a point where he had more or less dehumanized the people as representational of the whole school. And I think at that moment they were sort of making it up as they went. The explosives were supposed to detonate. They had not. So they...
GROSS: They had pipe bombs.
KLEBOLD: Yes, they had pipe bombs. Apparently - again, I don't know to what degree they had which explosives and where - but there were things that were supposed to have happened that did not. But - and I think what they were doing was randomly shooting at that point. There was no plan at that point. They were just harming whoever was there. And one of the miracles about Columbine is that - as many people as were killed, as tragic as it was, the real miracle is that more were not killed. That they wandered through the school after initially killing the individuals who were harmed, and knew that people were there, but didn't harm anyone else. And, you know, that's always something that I found interesting - that, you know, they had - whatever this was that they were expressing came to an end, and then they took their own lives.
GROSS: But with the bombs, they were planning to blow up the whole school.
KLEBOLD: They were. And that was one of the most - well, that was probably the most disturbing thing I learned when, six months after the event, we were finally able to talk to the sheriff's department and learn what had occurred. The horror of thinking that they might have destroyed the entire school, and that would mean their friends and children of friends of ours and teachers and - you know, the awfulness of it for one brief moment seemed slightly less awful because the magnitude of what they were planning far exceeded what actually occurred.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Klebold. She's the mother of the late Dylan Klebold, who, along with Eric Harris, committed the massacre at Columbine High in 1999. She's written a memoir called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Klebold. She's the mother of the late Dylan Klebold, who along with Eric Harris, committed the massacre at Columbine High in 1999. And then Eric and Dylan took their own lives. She's written a memoir called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." You and your husband and your surviving son had a lot of grieving to do. But you write that you all grieved in different ways. And you and your husband were out of sync in how you dealt with this tragedy. What were some of the differences between how you and your husband grieved?
KLEBOLD: Well, one of the things that occurred in our process of grief - and I think - it's my understanding that this is a fairly common difference among the way mothers and fathers grieve lost children - is that I tended to grieve Dylan as a child. My dreams - most of my dreams of him still, he is a young child. And I tend to grieve for the child I have lost and for the past. And I think my husband, and men in general, tend to grieve for the person that that child would have been. And that is one difference. And another difference is just the way that we really have different personalities. I'm more extroverted than my husband. And so I sought out other people to be with. I sought out a community of suicide-loss survivors who had lost family members in suicides. And occasionally, I do encounter someone who has lost family members in murder suicide as well. And I felt a need to connect to a community. That was just who I was and how I processed my grief. And I think my husband was more solitary. And he wanted to sort of pull back and have solitude. And so that was something that - it created an imbalance sometimes. It made it difficult for us to find common ground.
GROSS: At a time when you needed each other most.
GROSS: Did the marriage stay together?
KLEBOLD: No, our marriage did end eventually - recently. When the tragedy happened, it was sort of like a lightning bolt hitting a great tree. And I think from that point forward, we really did begin to grow in two different directions. And over time, we really lost our common ground. We began to perceive the world very differently and our role in it. And it was stressful to always butt up against those differences. And eventually, we did both agree to end our marriage.
GROSS: How long ago was that?
KLEBOLD: It was about a year and a half ago.
GROSS: You were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, which is almost two years after Columbine. And you say that's what made you realize you wanted to live because you weren't so sure until you were actually facing the possibility of death. So how did it change your outlook once you realized that your life was threatened by cancer but you actually wanted to live?
KLEBOLD: Having cancer was almost like a jog in a journey. I was in the middle of all of this - all these terrible feelings related to the tragedy and the loss - feeling burdened by life, feeling that I just didn't think I could handle it. And then in the middle of all that, I got a breast cancer diagnosis. And that kind of pulled me off to the side a little bit - diverted me from thinking so much about all the sorrow and the lawsuits and all the things that were happening. But what I felt when that was over was just a sense of purpose. I felt that that was a close call, your life might have ended, you thought you wanted your life to end. But after that point, I really felt more of a calling. Like, I have work to do. There are things I want to learn and things I want to accomplish. And I want to do this for Dylan and for those who died, and I really have to do that. And I think if anything, that motivated me to live a more purpose-driven life.
GROSS: I think not too long after Columbine, there was a carpenter from Illinois who erected 15 crosses, one for each of the people who died, including your son Dylan and Eric Harris. But then other people destroyed Eric and Dylan's crosses. When it was time to deal with his - with your son's remains, you had him cremated. You were afraid if you had a - if he was buried, that his grave would be desecrated.
KLEBOLD: Yes. I do believe that - we did believe that and I still do.
GROSS: When those symbolic crosses for your son and Eric Harris were destroyed, did you both, like, understand the anger behind that? And yet also, like what - let me just ask you to put in words what was the mix of emotion that you had because I'm sure you have some comprehension of the grief that these families were living with and how angry they were.
KLEBOLD: And - absolutely. Absolutely, and I can't presume to even know what they were experiencing and what the level of their grief was. I completely understood their need to express what they were feeling and that their feelings were such that they could not tolerate having those memorializations there. And I certainly - I feel certain that I would've felt the same way. But like everything after a murder-suicide event, the feelings are so complicated that you feel so many things at once. You know, there was a part of me that felt responsible and empathetic, and of course I'd feel that way. Of course I'd want to do that. And there was a part of me, as a mother, that was very hurt by, you know, this expression of hatred for my son. But, you know, this is all part of why the experience was something I wanted to write about because there are all kinds of feelings that we have. And I can understand the need to express that kind of rage, but I hope also that people will understand my need to love the child that I lost.
GROSS: Is it still difficult to give your name when you're making an appointment or a reservation or meeting somebody for the first time?
KLEBOLD: It still can be. I have developed over the years sort of a caution. And when someone sees my name, and they recognize it, and they'll say, gee, why does that sound so familiar? I will actually study their faces and say should I tell them why it sounds familiar? Or is this not the right time and place to do that? What I use as my guide is that I want to educate people. I want people to know that even family members of people who do horrible, heinous things are still human beings. And that perhaps by meeting me and seeing that I'm not a crazed person, that maybe it will broaden their understanding and they will have a little bit more compassion for someone else.
GROSS: After the massacre that your son participated in, after all of the grief that it brought to you and to other families, do you still love your son?
KLEBOLD: I never stopped loving my son - not for a moment. And I will love him until I breathe my last breath. He's like an invisible child that I carry in my arms everywhere I go, always.
GROSS: Sue Klebold, thank you very much for talking with us.
KLEBOLD: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Sue Klebold's new memoir is called "A Mother's Reckoning: Living In The Aftermath Of Tragedy." All the author revenues from the book, minus expenses, will be donated to research and charitable foundations focusing on mental health issues. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about atheism, religion and conversion in private life and in politics. My guest will be Susan Jacoby who describes herself as an atheist. After having written "A History Of American Secularism" and a personal history of religious conversions in three generations of her family, she's written a new book called "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." I hope you'll join us.
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