By now, people are probably tired of the constant reminders of mass shootings in the past. Namely, the story of Columbine, as it has certainly been told and re-told more times than any other school shooting in history. However, this obsession, as it seems to be, with rehashing old information derives from the ever-present need to learn what we have yet to learn from that fateful April day in Littleton. “American Tragedy” struck me differently than any other documentary of its caliber. It’s a deeply emotional story about a mother, who watched as her own son developed from a newborn in her arms to a murderer, gone forever from this world. It brings to the surface every parent’s worst nightmare, as it asks us — perhaps, even begs us — tp pay more care and attention to the mental and emotional wellbeing of the ones we love most.
When I first came across “American Tragedy,” the first thing that caught my attention was the cover photo: It was a photograph of one of the two Columbine shooters, when he was a child, with his face either ripped out or burned off. It’s a gripping picture that made me feel strangely sad and uneasy at the same time. Reading the summary, I remember the first thought that came to me. Sue Klebold’s bravery and strength are unmatched. What an inspiring human being she is for doing this project. It’s more than a mother’s reckoning, geared towards a broader audience than just parents. I won’t lie to you, though; I had no choice but to watch this through the eyes of a mother. The one thing that connects me to Sue Klebold, dubbed the mother of a vicious killer, is motherhood. And I can say without a doubt that her documentary has expanded my awareness. It expanded mhy awareness, not only of the hidden epidemic we face in mass murderers, but of the possibility of my own son facing similar mental/emotional issues. If/when they arise, I need the tools and the knowledge to be able to identify the problem(s) and seek help.
The film starts out as one would expect — with Sue Klebold’s harrowing first-hand account of April 20, 1999. She explains where she was and what she was doing the moment she got the call that would ultimately change her life forever. Fastforwarding to immediately after the horrible event, the middle-class suburban mom describes the first six months following her son, Dylan’s death as putting the pieces of what happened together. Rebuilding, however, was no easy task. On top of unimaginable brokenheartedness and turmoil, she had to endure unrelenting and insensitive reporters as well as accusations from the general public. “I was afraid for years,” she says. In the aftermath of Columbine, people immediately looked at the parents.
When atrocities like this happen, the kneejerk reaction is to seek an immediate answer for it all, one that’s both cut-and-dry and acceptable. What seems impossible to accept is that a parent can live with their troubled kid at home and not see any “warning signs.” “How does a child build a bomb in his parents’ basement without them noticing?” That was a popular question reverberating around the country. “Where were the parents?” “How did they not know?” It is incorrect and unhelpful to place all blame on parents’ shoulders and this documentary establishes that case quite well. The notion that there has to be these so-called “warning signs” in someone’s behavior (even a child’s), that tells of killer-like tendencies — or even suicidal tendencies, for that matter — is simply not true. For Sue Klebold, that was not true.
“Dylan was taught right and wrong in every conceivable way. And Dylan was the kind of person who helped his friends. He’d stop and run to go get a can of gas for a stranger. He was a nice person.
“We never had a bad teacher conference. He was always a good student and had friends and interests and, you know, he was just — he was a pleasure. He was a joy.”
As a matter of fact, just three days before the killing spree, Klebold remembers when her son, the “joy” had gone to prom. He had a good time, was all smiles and acting normal. He had life goals and thoughts of going to college, which he shared with others. She does talk for a bit about the “cluster” of trouble he had gotten into in the months prior but he had promised her he’d do better. And he did. Sue did know that there was something going on with Dylan that was bothering him and it concerned her. But she had no idea at the time what that might have been. So where were the warning signs? What was she supposed to be looking for?
As mentioned earlier, Klebold, initially, spent the first six months of her grieving process mapping out exactly what she believed had happened to her family. That was when the police finally came forward and showed parents close to the tragedy “The Basement Tapes.” Up to that point, Sue explains, the heartsick mother had come to an agreement with herself that Dylan was coerced into shooting his peers to death. He had to have been, by his friend, Eric. There was just no way her sweet, good boy could have done this on his own free will. And then she watched the tapes and her small hope was shattered. By none other than Dylan himself. With his own words, he told his mom that he had participated deliberately in the Columbine Massacre. “It was horrible,” Klebold says, “to envision him really doing those things and saying those things.” She felt angry at her son for having said the hateful things that he did on those tapes. She goes on to say, “An explosion had gone off and I’d been blown back into the past to have to re-grieve, reinvent my son, my relationship, myself.” At a complete loss, the infamous Dylan Klebold’s beloved mommy turned to an expert in psychology for answers.
There was no preparing school psychologist Peter Langman for the question a young mother posed to him one day: “What happened to Dylan?” Using evidence from the Klebold son’s journal writings, he did his best to explain it to her. At a certain point in his short life, her son had decided that “He’s not the same Dylan” she knew and loved anymore. At least, not on the inside. Based on several journal entries and painstaking analysis, Langman was able to discover a certain theme of suicidal thoughts and feelings of isolation from his classmates. Albeit, “He was not always easy to make sense of,” Langman shares. As teenagers go, how many are truly always easy to make sense of?
With evidence of being suicidal, how did D.K. grow to became homicidal? Here is where Peter Langman helps us out once again. “Most people who are suicidal are not homicidal, but a fairly high percentage of those who are homicidal are also suicidal.” As it turns out, thoughts of suicide could actually be early symptoms of a future killer. Statistics support this. Seventy-eight percent of school shooters exhibited a history of suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide, according to the United States Secret Service Department of Education. With this knowledge, Sue Klebold came to the conclusion that Dylan’s wish to die was what motivated him in the shooting. She believes that he ended up in a suicidal crisis due to something going on, implicitly psychological, which “impaired his ability to access those tools that he had: of empathy and judgement and hope.” The big question is: How did he end up in this mindset? The big problem is: We still don’t know. We don’t know the answer to that very question for countless others.
What I appreciate most about this documentary is that about forty minutes into it, the sole focus becomes mental health — More specifically, the topic becomes murder-suicide and what leads to it. The topic of guns is merely skimmed over. This is the first documentary I’ve seen to date that really gets at the heart of the issue. I can’t express enough how badly I believe this nation needs to see more of this. We need to have more discussions, receive better education, and ultimately devote more of our time and efforts, maybe even our money at times, to the cause. At the forefront of this project, Sue Klebold explains what seems to be her newfound mission in life:
“I began to have a real desire to do something about murder-suicide to try to educate people, to try to speak, to try to share what I’d learned.”
There is a very real and desperate need to change, especially on a systemic level, how psychological disorders, like Depression and Paranoid Schizophrenia, are identified and how they are perceived. We can all think of several mass murderers in the past decade who fell through the cracks, as it were. They were showing real signs of mental disturbance, yet there was no follow-up done for them. No preventive measures were put in place by either school officials or families, counselors or behavioral specialists, police or other crisis workers. This is the case even today and it is unacceptable. As a nation full of parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. we have to ask ourselves, “What if that was my…?” Simply put, we all have to be better. For them.
Even so, how do we change? This is explored in “American Tragedy.” It is suggested that a sort of mental-fitness program be introduced to schools and taught to children from a young age. One that’s a lot like the jump roping for the Heart Association — Do you remember that? I sure do. Studies have shown that mental wellness in kindergartners by way of sound social and emotional skills can lead to positive long-term success in their lives. Personally, I have been to the same suicide prevention event twice in the Tucson area. It is an eye-opening experience. As we come near to the end of an incredible film, we see Sue Klebold attending a kindergarten class, then attending a local support group.
The key word here is “Action.” Take action, big or small. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter whether you think you know someone struggling with a mental disorder or not. Attend a community event, join a club or online group, talk to someone who’s willing to be open about their experiences. Do you own research. Or just give all the love, care, and support you have to those you cherish. You never know which one of your loved ones could be suffering. Just think, if we all did these things, how drastically would our world change with the power of knowledge?
If you haven’t watched this documentary film, please watch it. Let it inspire you. Let it educate you. Let it break your heart. Even if you’re not a parent, it should be on your watchlist. In closing, allow me to share with you one more quote from Ms. Klebold. In a nutshell, it states why this film is so important better than I ever could.
“I remember certainly going to health fairs, and I’d see a table, and they might have suicide prevention materials on there. I would walk right past it, because I’d say, ‘This doesn’t apply to me.’ No one I love would ever die by suicide because I love them too much and I wouldn’t let that happen.’
“I see now that many other people do that, too. They look at my story and they say, ‘Well, my son would never do that. My child would never do something like this.’ And they kind of dismiss anything I might have to say because they think it doesn’t apply to them.
“But unfortunately, one of the lessons I’ve learned was that… certainly the rare event of murder-cide and the far less rare event of suicide, it did apply to me, but I didn’t have any way of — I didn’t know that. And so, I try to make people aware that it could happen to you.”
It could happen to you…