In her essay in O Magazine, the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold offers advice to people who "have lost someone to suicide." But is she the right person to speak for suicide victims and their families?
In raising Dylan, I taught him how to protect himself from a host of dangers: lightning, snake bites, head injuries, skin cancer, smoking, drinking, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, reckless driving, even carbon monoxide poisoning. It never occurred to me that the gravest danger-to him and, as it turned out, to so many others-might come from within. Most of us do not see suicidal thinking as the health threat that it is. We are not trained to identify it in others, to help others appropriately, or to respond in a healthy way if we have these feelings ourselves.
In closing, she adds, "I only hope my story can help those who can still be helped. I hope that, by reading of my experience, someone will see what I missed." But Meghan Daum of the LA Times isn't having it. She says,
The ostensible reason for her article appearing now is that Nov. 21 is National Survivors of Suicide Day. But imagine being the mother of a suicide victim who didn't happen to take 13 people along with him. Would you want to commemorate Nov. 21 with Susan Klebold? Or would you prefer she speak solely for herself, even if what she had to say offered no comfort because it fit no familiar idiom and offered no resolution?
My guess is the latter.
Daum may be right that many families of suicide victims wouldn't want their dead loved ones compared to a killer. And it's certainly strange to focus on Dylan Klebold's suicide when most of us remember him for his murders. After Columbine, most people put Klebold in the category of "killers who turn the gun on themselves," but his mother thinks of him as a member of "that small percentage" of people whose "suicides involve the killing of an additional person or people." This reversal is odd, if not off-putting, at least at first.
But Susan Klebold doesn't gloss over the fact that her son killed people. She speaks movingly of her guilt and shame, and of the soul-searching she did when everyone from radio commentators to state officials blamed her for her son's crimes. She does make some excuses — saying, for instance, that Dylan's school dropped the ball when he wrote an essay about killing — but ultimately she sees her own failure to recognize warning signs as a major factor in the deaths of Dylan and his victims.
Daum writes that Klebold's essay "seems like a form of pandering — to readers' sympathies and, more important, to the American obsession with 'closure.'" But the piece reads less like "pandering to an American obsession" and more like a mother's attempt to gain personal closure by helping other people. She seems to have been a loving parent, and the criticisms lobbed at her after Columbine had an element of scapegoating — especially when they were delivered by people who advocated personal and family responsibility as the way to prevent such attacks, rather than better school safety or gun control laws. Yes, parents bear some responsibility for the actions of their minor children, but the kids of good parents can sometimes do terrible things, and to settle all the blame for Columbine on Susan Klebold's shoulders was also a way of avoiding making any systemic changes. It shows grace that Klebold doesn't make these points herself, and instead seeks to expiate some of her guilt by reaching out to people and families in need.
So can her story actually do anything for those who have lost a loved one to suicide? Some will undoubtedly be angry, but others might identify with her struggle to figure out what she could have done, something that does, despite what Daum says, "fit a familiar idiom" for many families of suicide victims. And for some parents of depressed kids like Dylan, kids at risk of harming themselves or others, perhaps Klebold's essay will serve as a wake-up call. She clearly hopes to prevent other tragedies like Columbine, and maybe she will. But as useful as it is to learn "warning signs" — signs that, as Gavin de Becker points out, both families and law enforcement often ignore — not every suicidal kid displays them, and not every act of violence can be prevented. Daum acknowledges that for Susan Klebold, who must spend her life wondering what she did wrong, there's likely no complete closure. So it seems cruel to begrudge her what little she can get.