Written by Dotty Winters

Arts

What can we learn from tragedy?

Dotty Winters reviews A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold and finds that, while it might not be an easy read, we still have a lot to learn from the Columbine killings.

A Mother's Reckoning book coverOn April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold armed themselves with guns and explosives and walked into Columbine High School. They killed twelve students and a teacher and wounded twenty-four others, before taking their own lives. It was the worst school shooting in history. Dylan Klebold was my son.”

Those are the startling opening lines of Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. The whole book is startling, and terrifying, but not in the ways I had expected.

It’s a compelling read, I rattled through it in a couple of sittings, stopping only to grab my children for cuddles and stare deep into their eyes and wonder if I knew them at all.

This book has been carefully written; the author seems to understand it’s unavoidable that its publication will upset the parents of the other children who died that day.

All author profits from the book are going to mental health charities and Sue Klebold is clear she has no justification, excuse or explanation for what Dylan did that day.

She is meticulous in pointing out that mental illness is not an excuse. It is also clear she desperately wants to be heard; she needs us to know that this could happen to any family.

The underlying message of the book is that our societal tendency to look to parents for answers for their children’s actions is at odds with the reality of how little we really know about our children and how unwilling we are to face up to their mental health challenges.

The behaviours she now recognises were warning signs are not things we are primed to spot in our children. Who among us would take urgent action because their teenager spent more time alone, became more independent or had occasional mood swings? If they complained of occasional stomach pains and stopped talking about their feelings as often? To some degree, these are all the behaviours we expect as part of normal teen development.

I didn’t enjoy this book, not one little bit. I made myself read it, right to the end and I am very glad I did. Sometimes we need to hear about things which make us uncomfortable. If I hadn’t been reviewing this book I wonder if I would have put it down rather than face up to it. As I read I had to fight my instinct to assume she must have known. How could she not have known?

But if she didn’t, if she is right, then her message is important. We can’t continue to write off teenage angst as developmental; we need to change our conversation about children and mental health.

“Even in the best family relationships there are times when we don’t turn to each other for help and support.”

In the UK, successive cuts of Children and Adolescent Mental Health services (CAMHS) have left us ill-equipped to find additional support if it is required; the risk to these cuts is much broader than the high-drama risk of a murder-suicide.

Most people who suffer from depression won’t commit a crime; but they will suffer, and so will their families as they try to navigate their way round a system and an illness which still remains hidden and not discussed.

For me, one of the messages which stuck with me most from this book was an extract from a letter someone wrote to Sue:

“This is what SHOULD have happened for Dylan. A friend, a peer should have been there for him. A friend who could guide Dylan away from anger and depression, not feed it.

Please know this. That friend could not have been you. […]

The process of growing up and separation makes it extremely difficult for children to seek out their parents and siblings for help with these hidden, painful problems.”

The memorial library at Columbine high school, where 13 people died in 1999. Photo by Qqqqqq, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The memorial library at Columbine high school, where 13 people died in 1999. Photo by Qqqqqq, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Last week I had coffee with a friend. She’s been going through some tough times. Knowing that she is close to her mother I asked if she had talked to her about it. She hadn’t; she didn’t want to worry her.

As she said those words, I imagined hearing them from one of my children and it hurt. But I also know I’ve made the same judgement. Even in the best family relationships there are times when we don’t turn to each other for help and support.

Perhaps our best chance of supporting a future generation to find mental wellness is by doing all we can to promote open and stigma-free discussion of mental health and ill health? When talking about our mental wellbeing is commonplace, perhaps it will be more likely that our children will talk to each other, support each other and look out for each other; even when they don’t feel like they can talk to us?

For me, this approach goes beyond that of ‘I want to be your parent, not your friend’; it’s more than that. I want to be your parent and I recognise that means I can’t always be your friend, but I will do everything in my power to equip you with the tools you need to surround yourself with all the brilliant people you might need one day.

They will offer you protection, understanding and love which is different from, but just as important as, anything I will be able to provide. It isn’t a whole answer, not even nearly, but baby steps matter.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.