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A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
Author:Andrew Solomon

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

Andrew Solomon


I began writing about the experience of Columbine almost from the moment it happened, because writing about my son’s monstrous behavior, the loss of innocent lives, and his suicide was one of the ways I coped with the tragedy. I never made a conscious decision to write. I kept writing just as I kept breathing.

Deciding what to do with the words I had put down on paper came much later. Initially, I didn’t think I had the inner strength to publish my thoughts about Dylan and our family. I was terrified that sharing my personal account might in some way be seen as dishonoring the victims, or cause members of the community as well as my own loved ones to relive the shattering experience of the Columbine shootings. I didn’t want the hate mail and the media circus to begin all over again, because I didn’t think that any of us could withstand it a second time.

It wasn’t until years after the incident that I secured a publisher and the manuscript was completed. As I inched toward the inevitable day when A Mother’s Reckoning would be released to the public and I would have to make media appearances to support the book, I felt like a rabbit ready to bolt across an open field.

In the end, I was able to take that step because the messages I hoped to convey were a matter of life and death. I felt a responsibility to educate parents and families about what happened, and why. I believed that hearing what Dylan had gone through might be beneficial to others, especially those who are struggling or who find themselves or their loved ones trapped in a cycle of hopelessness, and I particularly wanted readers to know what I failed to understand as a parent until it was too late: that anyone can be suffering and in need of expert care, regardless of how they act, what they say, or who they are. Those who are suffering can appear for all the world to be doing well, their private pain masked by accomplishments and triumphs.

That was the case with Dylan. He was surrounded by loving family and friends, and to the people closest to him everything seemed fine when it was not.

Columbine was a tragedy of epic scale, but hidden suffering can also manifest in risky behaviors or keep children or adults from reaching their full potential. Such tragedies are commonplace and they can be averted. If anyone close to Dylan had been able to grasp that he was experiencing a health crisis that impaired his judgment, compelled him to fixate on violence, mislead him to dehumanize others, and enabled him to kill his school mates and a teacher before killing himself, we could have intervened and gotten him the help he needed to move beyond the period of crisis.

In the years since the Columbine shootings, the world has changed and people are more willing to consider that behavioral health is part of health. Since the tragedy I have witnessed significant changes in mental health care, school policy, active shooter responses, and suicide prevention. More and more people recognize that many acts of violence, whether they play out on a mass scale like Columbine or in smaller but just as tragic scenarios, are preventable. We don’t lose our bearings because we’re bad people. Persistent thoughts of death and suicide are symptoms of pathology, not of flawed character.

When A Mother’s Reckoning came out, I was surprised and grateful for the heartfelt, positive response from readers and from the media. My deepest fear—that the book would regenerate a firestorm of anger and pain and reopen the wounds of April 1999—did not materialize. The message I most often hear from readers is, “Thank you for sharing your story.” A number of parents have told me that they see their own children in a new light and are listening to them more carefully. Some have gone on to say they think every parent should read the book. Others shared with me their own struggles with suicidal thinking. The book, they said, made them see for the first time how devastating their deaths would be to those who loved them. The voices I hear are part of the growing demand for improved care and treatment for those who experience disordered thinking, addictions, behavioral disabilities, and other brain health concerns.

And there was another, unexpected blessing from the book’s publication: it led several more survivors of the Columbine tragedy to contact me. I feel privileged to have had a chance to meet them, and I’m humbled by their grace and generosity. In the immediate wake of Columbine, I could only dream that one day it would be possible for me to encounter one of Dylan’s victims or one of their family members and exchange a heartfelt hug. This has finally come to pass and I am overcome with gratitude.

Since the book’s release, I have cut back on most of my local volunteer commitments and focused more on participation at the national level. I have spoken at events designed to educate school personnel, medical practitioners, and journalists. One thing that surprised me about the book’s release was the interest in it shown by readers all over the world. At the time of publication, I had no idea that the difficult subject matter would be of interest outside the United States. But to date, the book has been translated into almost a dozen languages, including Hungarian, Italian, Dutch, German, French, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, and Russian. The global level of interest is a testament to the pervasive concerns people are having about mental wellness.

Another privilege for which I am grateful is the opportunity to donate my share of book profits to organizations dedicated to suicide prevention, evidence-based programs, and brain health research. I never would have been able to make these gifts to deserving organizations had I not published the book.

One thing that has not changed during years of continual soul searching about Columbine is the way I feel about Dylan. My abiding love for him was the force that kept me writing and alive. It is what keeps me focused on the causes that I support. I carry him in my heart every waking moment and in dreams when I sleep. I like to imagine that he has walked with me through the long, heart-rending process of telling our story together. I will never stop wishing that I knew then what I know now, so I would have been better equipped to help him when he needed me. So many would have been spared if I had.

—Sue Klebold


And must I, indeed, Pain, live with you

All through my life?—sharing my fire, my bed,

Sharing—oh, worst of all things!—the same head?—

And, when I feed myself, feeding you, too?

—Edna St. Vincent Millay