We reacted right away when Columbine happened, spinning every stray hair of a rumor into a tapestry of explanation. A crisis like that draws us in, makes us nearer to the now. It rattles us where we are usually numb. It reorients our world for a time. We stare down humanity, searching every eye to find either a brother or a monster. People are a mix of those things, but we want an either/or. A definitive separator feels good, draws a clear line between monsters and humans.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were somebody’s children, as are all human monsters. Sometimes evil, the capacity for atrocity and intense cruelty, is a reaction to abuse, and that’s the kind of narrative we wanted to explain why they did what they did. So many have looked to the Harrises and Klebolds, asking them to admit to some parenting transgression, to some secret key that will give form to our terror surrounding their cold, monstrous attack. A 2004 poll showed that 83% of Americans placed some sort of blame on the parents.
A lot of blame went to the boys’ parents, because it feels good to have someone to blame. As Sue Klebold’s lawyer told her right after the shooting, “Dylan isn’t here anymore for people to hate. So people are going to hate you.”
It’s clear, however that these two upper-middle class boys had all their needs met, and concerned parents who loved them. They had both gotten into some trouble the year before their atrocity, which resulted in therapeutic help and graduation from a juvenile probation program. Dylan’s mom Sue Klebold was able to gain a bit of healing perspective on the matter from a suicide survivor who told her, speaking about people who blame her, “They’re only trying to convince themselves nothing like this could ever happen to them.”
One problem with the amount of care and support Eric recieved is that when someone has psychopathic traits, therapy can actually make their condition worse because they can learn better manipulation skills. Eric charmed the pants off of his therapists, so they thought nothing was wrong, that he had a bright future.
In her recently released memoir A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue Klebold expresses shock at the fact that her son Dylan was struggling so deeply with depression, but that’s not an uncommon thing even in the closest families. The nature of depression hides under smiles. It lingers deep under hopeful statements, frustrated reactions, and tired eyes. Most depressed kids are just a danger to themselves, which is worrying enough for a parent, but they aren’t a threat to society.
The whys behind Columbine just can’t be pinned down, and that’s the real terror. Immediately the media felt attracted to an idea that the boys were heavily bullied and had been members of an outsider group called The Trenchcoat Mafia. Dylan and Eric had social issues, mostly just related to their own self-images, but they weren’t completely isolated. They had a good amount of friends, and weren’t the targets of any direct harassment. In fact, Eric was a bit of a bully himself, an early pioneer of cyberbullying. The police even knew about a website Eric put up making specific threats to a particular friend prior to the Columbine tragedy because a concerned mom had called them about it. Nothing was done, and the file made about Eric at the time mysteriously disappeared after the massacre.
The off-base “Outsider” theory did further damage to the image of kids who are a little odd or eccentric. Video games were blamed. Marilyn Manson. Natural Born Killers. Vilifying young people who have “dark” interests like violent films and Marilyn Manson doesn’t solve anything, it just makes people more suspicious of each other. Sensitive kids can be into some very weird things, but that doesn’t mean they have the capacity to kill someone.
Even in these cases where there is past trauma, searching for motives, for backgrounds, for reasons for this type of behavior doesn’t come up with the clean answers we feel we need. Looking for motive is a drive to name evil, and it’s crucial in the legal process because lawyers are trying to tell a convincing story to a panel of jurors. In the case of Columbine, there was no need for a trial, but the public still hungered for the reasons. We needed the case to be presented to us so we could make sense of it, and deal with it. We still do. We want to develop a protocol for prevention.
It took years after the Columbine tragedy to get an expert explanation about the motives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. After nearly a decade of speculation, a fuller narrative was offered to a public that had been largely shielded from the vast trove of information the boys left behind. Most people only knew the strands of story that erupted the day it happened, culled mostly from traumatized students who just repeated details they’d heard on TV: a snake eating its own tail scenario.
What experts do know from studying the journals, written explanation, and videos Dylan and Eric left behind is that their personalities were a toxic mix. Dylan was severely depressed and suicidal for years before the incident, and like most suicidal people, he kept his dark thoughts turned towards himself. It was Eric who suggested he direct his pain in a different way, but, according to his journals, he wasn’t completely sold on the idea until soon before. The main reason why he didn’t think he’d go through with the massacre is that he thought he would kill himself long before Eric planned to do it. As the doomed date loomed near, Dylan expressed surprise that he was still around.
The big explanation can be summed up in psychological terms everyone’s kind of familiar with. Eric Harris exhibited signs of psychopathy while Dylan Klebold was suffering from major depression. Both boys fed off the darkness of each other.
But that’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough.
There are so many young people who struggle with severe mental health issues, especially depression, and they would never do what Eric and Dylan set out to do, much less what they actually did. About 11.5% of teens aged 12 to 17 experience a major depressive episode in any given year. So many teens struggle with similar thoughts and feelings to what Dylan went through. But, while he was languishing in his loneliness, obsessed with romantic fantasies and the sting of unrequited love for a girl who barely knew he existed, Eric was obsessed with murder. His journals were full of anger and obsession with eradicating all of humanity.
According to his journals, Eric saw himself as God, or at least was energized by the fantasy of seeing himself that way. As such, he felt he had a right to destroy a world he saw as offensive and imperfect. April 20, 1999 was to be Judgement Day, an act of rage and punishment. For Eric, suicide was not as much a desire to end his own life as an offshoot of his raged-fueled desire to “kill the world.” When a murderer kills someone, they’ve ended that life as far as they are concerned. When someone kills themselves, they’ve ended the whole world as far they’re concerned.
The brains of people who qualify for “psychopathic” criteria are a bit different from the rest of us, but all human behavior lies on a spectrum. The tool used to score a person’s level of psychopathy is called The Hare Psychopathy Checklist. Those who score above 30 on this list find that most of the feelings the rest of us take for granted, that color our worlds, are greyed out or missing. They often spend more time scanning faces, searching for clues about how to react in baffling circumstances. They’re often intellectually stimulated by things that stir the emotions of others. When they find the information they’re looking for, they can ease into their roles. They’re just as human as the rest of us, just with a different neurological makeup.
Dr. Kent Kiehl, author of The Psychopathy Whisperer, has studied psychopathy all his life, and found that the MRIs of people with psychopathic tendencies do not light up the way other people’s brains do with confronted with words and images associated with provocative concepts like rape, murder, and cancer. “They are so fundamentally different,” Dr. Kiehl has said about people who have “perfect” psychopathic behaviour. “You leave the room knowing that you’ve just met someone who is extremely different, even different from other psychopaths. They are absolutely and completely free from conscience.”
The FBI and Secret Service agree that being suspicious of “odd” kids is erroneous and does not keep anyone safe. It just further ostracizes sensitive kids who do not fit a specific mold of “normal.” Even if a child exhibits psychopathic-like traits, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will murder anyone. Many school shooters and other violent perpetrators don’t exhibit psychopathic traits. There isn’t a clear profile. Human monsters are still a mystery.
Columbine High was named after a flower, a symbol of beauty and life. Soon after the shootings, the students and community sought to reclaim their name, which had been tarnished with death. There was talk of renaming the school, but they stood firm. They would remain Columbine.
In a similar vein, in an act of strength and resistance to the mark of evil on her life, Sue Klebold refused to move or change her name. The love for her son runs deep, but she’s also angry and ashamed about what he did, what he destroyed. She lives, partly, in defiance of Dylan. There are two sons for Sue: the one who killed and the one she knew. Her reality, her identity, her place in the world, was shattered and rearranged by her son. What little control she had over her life was diminished to almost zero. For a while, her only choice was whether to continue breathing another second. Now, with her words, with speaking out, she is regaining a tiny bit more of her own life. Children lost their lives in the attack her son is responsible fore, others were life-shatteringly injured, and that trumps every pain Sue has endured. That doesn’t mean her hell isn’t real for her, though, or that her side of the story isn’t important. We need to know. We need to know that she really doesn’t have any answers. We need to hear her confusion and grief. We need to be reminded that some things are never settled, they just are; cold, hard and unfathomable.
Anne Marie Hochhalter, a young woman who was paralyzed in the attack, has chosen to acknowledge Sue’s pain, and her repeated apologies. Before Sue appeared on a 20/20 special earlier this year, Anne Marie published a heartfelt and honest response to the handwritten apology letter Sue sent her right after the attacks:
“I have no ill-will towards you,” Anne Marie concluded. “Just as I wouldn’t want to be judged by the sins of my family members, I hold you in that same regard. It’s been a rough road for me, with many medical issues because of my spinal cord injury and intense nerve pain, but I choose not to be bitter towards you. A good friend once told me, ‘Bitterness is like swallowing a poison pill and expecting the other person to die.’ It only harms yourself. I have forgiven you and only wish you the best.”
Dylan’s friend Chad Laughlin has also spoken out about his baffling experience, which is in many ways simply inexpressible. “I could talk and talk, and nobody will know exactly how I felt,” he said. “Like maybe I could have done something. If I wasn’t so obsessed with my own life, with chasing girls around — all of us who knew them know that we could have done something. But at the same time, we have to forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do. And we have to forgive them. That’s what I’ve come to realize in the last year or two.”
Evil persists, it can’t be erased. The only thing we can do is chose the opposite of evil in the face of the present moment. Every second is a choice, and sometimes that choice is to sit with blame in our hands, blame the shadow product of sorrow and anger, accepting that there’s not always a place to put it definitively. Maybe one answer is to let it go, to let the blame sink into the dark depths of sorrow and blend in to the undercurrent of grief pulsing in the heart of humanity. As Anne Marie suggests, maybe it is to spit out the bitter pill. Swallowing a bitter pill can feel validating. Its poison complements the mark of evil in our lives. But that dark feeling doesn’t give us the answers we seek. Harming ourselves to spite someone else doens’t change a thing.
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