by Danny Stout
A long-awaited news story, Diane Sawyer’s interview with Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the teen Columbine murderers yields inevitably new revelations. In 20/20’s “Silence Broken,” Sawyer’s journalism is thorough given the compressed medium of television. Does Klebold’s new book, “A Mother’s Reckoning” reveal after almost two decades how parents could overlook signs that their son was on the verge of one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history? Thirteen were killed and 24 wounded. From the journalism critic’s standpoint, Sawyer’s interview is artful, getting her subject to talk freely, but she also bypasses some key questions.
We see Klebold nervously pacing before the interview, “wondering,” as Sawyer says, “if she’s made a mistake by agreeing to disclose her story.” Klebold explains why she never left Colorado for a different identity somewhere she would be less known. “I can’t run from this,” she responds, “It is hard to live with the fact that your son has killed people and you have to own that.”
Tearfully, she continues, “I am so sorry for what my son did. Never a day goes by that I don’t think about it.” Sawyer narrates between questions, giving her own interpretation intermittently. One example is when she inquires, “Why do you use the word ‘harm’ instead of ‘kill?” The reply is softly given: “I don’t know.” Then Klebold admits the softer term helps her cope. She is trapped in a contradiction, Sawyer observes, and “all the lessons of her regret are in the book,” which is a sneaky way of saying if I’ve missed something, it’s all in the book anyway.
Sawyer covers a lot of ground, thus a synopsis is difficult. The crux of the story goes like this: Sue Klebold considers herself a good parent; she was involved in Dylan’s life. After listening to recorded conversations between her son and Eric Harris, she admits that parents fool themselves into a sense of normalcy, that things are Okay. Parents must look harder for clues of teen distress. Dylan was clearly depressed, but Eric Harris had deeper psychological problems; he drew pictures of decapitations and swastikas. His personality disorder was a God complex, and perhaps he convinced Dylan to hate the world. “We have guns. I feel more Godlike,” Eric wrote in his journal. Sue Klebold doesn’t blame the Harrises, however, and occasionally converses with them.
She is far from healed. The Klebolds divorced due to differences about how to cope. Her book forced her to turn over every stone in a process of healing and understanding. “She’s gone over her life with a magnifying glass,” Sawyer observes. Klebold asserts, however, that some things cannot be entirely comprehended. Proceeds from the book will be donated to suicide prevention groups.
Sawyer’s historical and cultural context of the tragedy is thin yet provides a helpful, although brief timeline. The first comparable mass murder, according to the journalist, occurred at the University of Texas when Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 and wounded another 32 from a tower on the campus. Columbine, the next crime like it, came 30 years later. Since then, there have been 50 rampage shootings, and 79 foiled plots.
Sawyer relies on statistics related to violence in the media and gun access. Few question the salience of these factors, but she never gets to the heart of the matter which is clearly mental illness, despite the fact that her two expert guests identify this as the root of what happened. Sawyer doesn’t seem to want to talk about psychological issues.
Klebold’s claim that a teenager’s privacy must be protected by not searching their rooms could have been teased out more extensively. Both teens had guns, and explosives were in both homes.
Viewers will be compassionate for a mother’s humble attempt to cope with such sadness. Klebold remains perplexed by the the responsibility question.
Admitting on the one hand that she should have been a better listener, she denies that some clues were crystal clear. For example, Dylan wrote a paper for school describing someone looking like himself pulling out a gun and mowing down students. Many take this as a clear indication of something to come. “We didn’t take that paper seriously,” she defends. It’s common for kids to write stuff like that using their wild imaginations.” She hearkens back to her own wild creativity as an art student. Her description of the Klebold household sounds like a million families across America. The perception of normalcy with so much going on backstage is much more interesting than Sawyer’s statistics about media violence and gun ownership. Family communication, perhaps, is the subject Sawyer misses. For this reason, all parents should see the interview.
Finally, journalists get an average to poor grade in covering the event. Dave Cullen’s 2009 book, Columbine argues that reporters did little to broaden knowledge about underlying motives for what happened. Covering the story for various news outlets, Cullen regrets the inaccuracies of the information Sue Klebold had to straighten out herself. For example, the two teens were not bullied to a large extent as was reported. They were not members of the “Trench Coat Mafia;” Dylan just liked the way the coats looked. They didn’t intend to kill jocks nor believers in God specifically as many reporters claimed. The highly circulated story of the victim that said “yes” when asked whether she believed in God, and then was promptly shot has now been discredited. It’s ironic that the most valuable insights about Columbine have just come out in a book by the mother of one of the perpetrators, when public discussion should have been more substantive. And, how can it be when news reporters are so off base?