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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thank you, Susan Klebold

In thirty years of teaching writing and literature and 55 years of editing writing, I have been asked what I think are the most significant works I have encountered.    It is hard for me to list "favorite" authors because I appreciate the accomplishments of so many writers, including some whose works I don't particularly like but who have command of their art in ways that require that attention be paid to them.  But some of the most affecting and significant works that come to mind were written by non-professional writers and student writers.

One such example was in the take-home part of a final examination for the early American literature course, which covers little fiction and poetry and much in the way of letters exchanged between people like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and critical essays such as The Federalist Papers, speeches, and many personal journals and accounts.  In recent decades, "literature" has come to mean fiction, poetry, and drama. Those other genres are not considered literature.  But they are, and they are essential to any understanding of what comprises good literature and how it operates within a culture.  The question on the examination asked students to choose a work covered in the course and explain how it illuminated their understanding of the history and circumstances in which the work was produced. 

The essay that still has a hold on my mind came from a young woman from a South Dakota reservation.  She wrote about Mary Rowlandson's account of her captivity by American Indians during which her five-year-old daughter died in her arms from injuries the child received from the attack on the household.     The student noted the racial attitudes and bigotry expressed in the account but she also could feel the desolation and hopelessness that Rowlandson experienced, and she admired Rowlandson's strength in faith.  And she noted that readers tended to express great sympathy for Rowlandson but could muster little understanding of why the Indians attacked the settlement where Rowlandson lived and why they took her captive.  The part that the young woman found most moving and informing was the account of Rowlandson carrying the wounded child from place to place as the Indians moved  to avoid pursuers.  The Rowlandson child dies and is buried in the wilderness, and the student found a point of conciliation in the death of the child.  This young South Dakota woman recalled sitting in a desolate shack on the reservation holding her baby sister while the infant died from a severe respiratory infection.  She noted that what she and Rowlandson shared was a lack of sympathy or comfort in their great distress and grief.  The captivity narrative did not provide any consolation or comfort for the student, but it did demonstrate to her that she needed to look for such things in her own culture.  And to do so with greater appreciation and discernment was why she was attending college.

What the young woman did that she had in common with great writers was to take the reader on her quest for understanding and finding the resources of spirit that can sustain one.  She was drawn out of herself by Rowlandson's account and found that she could look at the situation surrounding the death of her infant sister as a hard reality to be confronted, not as an occasion for sympathy.  Her conclusion was that there are people who do not wish others well and one has to build life around those who do.

The image of that young woman in a reservation cabin holding a dying infant is one that is always present with me.  It was a literary gift.

When people write of great, anguishing human tragedies with honesty and perception and tell of their own quests to reach points of understanding,  we have the stuff of true literature, whether fiction, poetry, drama, or prose accounts.  The shootings at Columbine ten years ago have produced such attempts.  The most comprehensive and literarily rendered is Dave Cullen's Columbine which was published last spring.  Cullen blew away myths about the Columbine incident and the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Cullen covered the Columbine incident from the day it occurred and searched out and analyzed information relentlessly.  In checking and verifying the facts, he performed a great journalistic service for those who care about knowing the true facts and realities and think they are the basis for any progress humanity makes.

During the past week, another dimension was added to the literature about Columbine that complements Dave Cullen's.  Susan Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, has written an essay providing a response to what it is to be the parent of a troubled child who is driven to such violence.  Her essay appears in the November issue of Oprah Winfrey's magazine. In a time, when a large part of the nation is consumed by carping against other  people and fabricating blame to place on them for the nation's ills, Susan Klebold has written an account of the Klebold family that offers a truthful and unsettling account of Klebold family life.  I am sure that it will be maligned by the malice-minded, but for those who earnestly want to solve problems, the essay provides a basis for new understanding.

What is unsettling about the account is that Susan Klebold had no inkling of Dylan's mental state.  It took her ten years, but she came to recognize the fact that when Dylan left the house that April morning, he did not intend to ever return.  He intended to take lives and commit suicide.

The conventional notion promoted by people singularly unqualified to offer advice is that when young people are troubled, they telegraph their troubled state.  Good parents, the notion contends, will spot the signals and intervene.

As a parent and professor,  I know that is not true.  Young people are very good at masking and hiding their troubled states from those they are close to.  They do not want to burden those they love and regard with problems.  A highly respected high school counselor told me some years ago that the most unpleasant part of his job was to inform parents of problems with their children that the parents did not know about.

While the media like to take up the issue of peer pressure,  it is banalized and reduced to simple-minded and absurd axioms.  The impulse in young people as they enter their high school years is to reject parental influence.  It has always been so.  But during the latter decades of the 20th century, adolescents became recognized as a market.  All-pervasive marketing messages are directed toward them.  This occurred simultaneously with the conferring of autonomy on adolescents that severely limited parental influence and discipline.  They were given the power and the means to reform society on their terms.  My high school counselor friend called it "The Lord of the Flies" syndrome.  The most pronounced symptom of this syndrome is juvenile gangs.

The counselor says that kids cannot think past lunch, but they are empowered to make and enforce value decisions.  Those decisions often evolve around cliques and factions, and kids see these cliques and factions as the controlling factors in their destiny, not their families.  In fact, families are rendered powerless to counteract the social predations in teenage society.

All the high school and college shooters have a sense of alienation and oppression in common.  The psychic disturbances that most adolescents experience drive some into depressive trauma.   It is built into the culture and the time.

Susan Klebold, like my student writer from the reservation, had to come to terms with something she had not suspected:

"From the writings Dylan left behind, criminal psychologists have concluded that he was depressed and suicidal. When I first saw copied pages of these writings, they broke my heart. I'd had no inkling of the battle Dylan was waging in his mind."
"For the rest of my life, I will be haunted by the horror and anguish Dylan caused. I cannot look at a child in a grocery store or on the street without thinking about how my son's schoolmates spent the last moments of their lives. Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love."

Progress is made only from the confrontation with harsh and unpleasant facts.  Thank you, Susan Klebold, for guiding us to such a confrontation.  You have given people of good will and good purpose and intelligence something to work with. It will be noted and not forgotten.  

Susan Klebold and Dylan on his fifth birthday. 


gm said...

Denver Post
guest commentary
Klebold may not know what she knows

By Jeff Kass

One of the most compelling questions after Columbine was, "Who are the parents?" Ten years later, it remains unanswered.

This essay was also sad for the lack of new revelations and for the questions it didn't answer, including two of the most compelling and troubling statements the Klebolds have ever made about their son (statements that in both instances were also recanted).

Some of the stories Klebold told are eerily similar to others that already have been reported. For example, Klebold tells of how Dylan's voice "sounded sharp" when he said goodbye the morning of the shootings, which has been widely recounted. And Klebold talks of a survey indicating that "83 percent of respondents said that the parents' failure to teach Dylan and Eric proper values played a major part in the Columbine killings."

Yet in 2004, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a small piece after speaking with the Klebolds and noted, "(Dylan's father) Tom had in front of him the poll results, news stories and documents showing that 83 percent of Americans had believed the parents were partly to blame."

One Klebold writing I have yet to fathom occurred over one year before Columbine when Eric and Dylan were busted for breaking into a van and sent to a juvenile diversion program. Their parents were required to fill out a questionnaire, and it is unclear which parent actually wrote the answers, but the writing for Dylan's parents appears feminine. When asked about their son the Klebolds wrote: "Dylan is introverted and has grown up isolated from those who are different in age, culture or other factors. He is often angry or sullen, and behaviors seem disrespectful to others. He seems intolerant of those in authority and intolerant of others." The parent then crossed out the phrase, "He seems intolerant of those in authority."

On the day of Columbine police swarmed the Klebold and Harris houses. Among them was Lakewood officer Rollie Inskeep, who spoke with the Klebolds. "When asked about guns or explosives, she (Susan Klebold) stated that Dylan has always been fascinated by explosives and guns," Inskeep wrote in his report. "She stated that Dylan wore combat-looking boots and that he liked the look that he had established." Then, a familiar twist. "She then recanted her previous statement," Inskeep added, "and stated that Dylan did not really talk about explosives and guns but he just likes to have the look of the trench coat and boots."

I was hoping to read more about those statements in Klebold's essay. Instead, I read this: "I Will Never Know Why." That's the title. And that may be true for Susan Klebold. But at the same time, she may not know what she knows. Her knowledge might help experts figure out the why — or at least a piece of it. If only she'd talk to them. Or us.

Jeff Kass is the author of "Columbine: A True Crime Story; A Victim, the Killers and the Nation's Search for Answers (Ghost Road Press, April 2009).

Vicki said...

Kass makes points that have to be considered. Dave Cullen reiterated his take last Sunday in Grand Rapids. He does not try to assign total blame to the parents, which seems to make most people feel better about what is going on with youth. He said,

Harris, an outgoing, egomaniacal psychopath, wrote in his journal how he intended to segue from being a petty criminal to mass murderer.

“Eric did it because he was a psychopath who had no empathy, no feelings, no regard for other people,” said Cullen, 48, who lives in Denver. “He was a rare, sadistic psychopath who enjoyed it.

“It’s as simple and horrible as that.”

Klebold, on the other hand, suffered from depression and low self-esteem. His journal chronicles his transition from going on a spiritual quest to profound hopelessness.

They were not so much friends as criminal cohorts who fed off each other, said Cullen.

“It’s not as if Eric and Dylan were of one mind,” he said. “That’s were we really go wrong. They were polar opposites and personalities who had vastly different motives.

The aftermath of Columbine carries with it a timeless, didactic lesson, Cullen said.

“We’ve got kids every month who are still planning Columbine style attacks,” said Cullen. “Parents are still terrified and still need to know (what to do).

“We need to examine what really happened and what really causes these kids to go awry and start learning from that.”

starviego said...

You are still being lied to. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say:

Dave Cullen said...

Thank you David, for that thoughtful take on Sue's essay.

You are right on the mark about kids' revelations to their parents. I have spent much of the past six months discussing Columbine on tour, on the radio, etc., and a staggering number of people still blame the parents, and can't understand how they "didn't know." I don't think they're really listening. Tom and Sue did know that Dylan had problems--they just didn't project those problems to mass murder. Who would?

I'm happy to report that well over 90% of the people who have read my book tell me they have flipped their view of the parents. I don't take a stand on them either way in the book, but after readers see what they knew and what they were dealing with, most see it very differently.

I thought Sue Klebold delivered a really powerful and candid essay, and I've been saddened though not surprised by some of the flack she has taken for it. I don't quite understand the desire to squeeze information out of someone that doesn't exist.

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