'Tell Me About Dylan': A Free Flowing Conversation With Sue Klebold (Part 1 in a Series)

Like many, I watched Diane Sawyer, Dr. Oz and listened to Terry Gross' Fresh Air interview and read a number of written interviews with Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold and author of, A Mother's Reckoning -- Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. And I read her book cover to cover.

Unlike many other interviewers I am also a psychiatrist with a specialty in trauma, suicide and violence prevention and have trained FBI and police hostage negotiators. I am also a specialist in listening.

When I set out to interview Sue, my goal was to help her feel completely safe and talk freely without the anticipatory anxiety of when I would ask the inevitable, "How could you not see the warning signs?" or other questions that would put her on the spot.

That's because it felt to me that she had so much more she wanted and needed to say if only she felt safe and free to do. It was also because of how in spite of a certain caution she demonstrated in interviews, Sue very deeply loved Dylan and still does. Not for the monstrous thing he did, but for the child inside him that got lost.

To give her that chance, I told her that I would share what I wrote up with her before I published it, that I would send her the audio file of our 90 minute interview and that I would mainly be asking her three questions and try to facilitate her saying what she needed and wanted to say.

The three questions were:

  1. Tell me about Dylan
  2. As you think of the past say what comes to your mind when you think, "If only..."
  3. As you think of the future and about lessening school shootings, murder/suicides and just plain suicides say what comes to your mind when you think, "What if..."

The interview took on a life of its own and I have broken it into a several part series. This Part 1.

"Tell Me About Dylan" -- His Childhood

Dr. G: Sue, tell me about Dylan, and just speak freely from wherever you want to speak.

Sue: When I think about Dylan, and remembering him, of course I remember him as a young child the most. He was a precocious, darling, lovable child. He was very bright. I have all kinds of stories in my head of all the things that he did, how quickly he learned. He was especially good at math. And of course I had been a teacher, so I just really got a kick out of him as a youngster. My favorite story about Dylan, the thing I remember the most was when he was, he was still wearing a diaper at night, wearing four diapers at night actually, so he'd walk like he just got off a horse. But he was so young... he was... you know... he was still... he wasn't... I don't think he was 3 yet, maybe he was 3 or about 3, but he was fascinated with numbers, and he loved figuring things out.

He had these plastic magnets, and he... he knew what the numbers were, he knew the quantities they represented, and he had in that set a plus sign and a minus sign and an equals sign and he asked me what they meant and I just showed him. I got pinto beans on the floor and I showed him that plus meant, "You take this pile of 2 and you take this pile of 3 and you put them together and then you count them again." And he got that so quickly and then, minutes later, he was making equations on the refrigerator, you know, 4 + 5 = 9, and he'd get it right. He'd not only set up the equation correctly, but he would get the answers right. And he was young. I think he was about 3 when he did that. And that was just the way he was.

He learned so quickly and everything he did seemed to come easily to him. And that's one of the reasons, I think, that when he became a teen, and the world wasn't quite so easy for him, I think he just wasn't able to handle the challenges of having to work at things or having things not feel right to him. He was the kind of kid who loved to take care of things himself, he was a "me do it" kid, he wanted to learn how to do laundry and how to cook and just how to take care of himself, he loved being self-reliant.

But his need to be self-reliant, I think, also contributed to his death because I think it was just loathsome to him to have to think about getting help from somebody. That's because he wanted to be able to handle everything himself. And unfortunately, we were so used to his handling things himself, and so dependent on his doing things right and doing things well, that when he really did begin to unravel, I don't think we had any idea of what was happening to him. We couldn't even conceive of the kind of pain that he was in (becoming emotional) and didn't think to look for it.

Dr. G: Sue, say more about the self-reliance. It's almost like you felt, "Well, Dylan seems self-sufficient and pretty self-contained" and so you thought he was the easy child.

Sue: Yes, he was. I think there were so many things about Dylan that... he was shy, he was somebody that would get very uncomfortable if he was in the limelight. He didn't like to be... he was very hard on himself. If he lost at a game or if we were playing a family game or something, he would really lose his temper. And I think these are all characteristics that made his teen years much more painful for him.

If he had been in a situation, for example, where he was bullied or humiliated, I think Dylan would have felt something like that more deeply than other kids who were more easy-going and more able to just let these things roll off their backs. But he was somebody who always seemed to have a pretty high standard for himself. He had a great deal of focus. His attention span was remarkable. He could sit down, literally, as a youngster, for hours if he was playing with something... Legos, puzzles, he loved to just work at learning.

I remember him as a young child... again, probably 2 or 3 years old... if you gave him a puzzle to do, he wouldn't just do a puzzle, he would take all the puzzles he had and dump them into like a little mountain and solve all the puzzles at the same time, because he loved to be challenged. And he learned things so quickly, it was like... I don't remember teaching him anything. It just seemed that whatever he got exposed to, he got it. I don't even remember potty training him. It just seems like I must've shown him what to do at some point, but I don't even remember teaching him so many things. He learned to read... he was in an all-day kindergarten program and had gone into school a year early. So he'd gone into kindergarten at the age of 4. And by the end of kindergarten, at the age of 4, he was reading Charlotte's Web silently to himself, and Stuart Little.

Remarkable child... just a remarkable child. And well-behaved. He was not somebody who was a handful. He did have a... when he was 2 to 3, he did have a little temper tantrum phase, but it disappeared rather quickly, once he realized that he had control over that. And the incident that I remember was, he was getting ready to have a fit and he was looking around the room for an area rug to throw himself on because he didn't want to get hurt, so the thing is, he connected to the fact that he was in control, you know, he adapted very well to taking that role to control how he behaved. I don't know what to say, just keep asking me anything you want to ask me. I'm rambling...

Dr. G: No, no, you're not rambling.

Sue: When he got to be an adolescent, and he got out of the gifted program, junior high started. He was really excruciatingly painfully shy. I remember him being so uncomfortable. I remember once dropping him off in front of school and he didn't see me, I was trying to pick him up and I yelled out his name... out the window... and as soon as he got in the car he said, "Mom, don't ever say my name in front of everybody."

That's just who he was. He didn't really have the ability to laugh at himself or to lighten up. He took things very seriously. But he was also playful, and liked to do things with the family, and he liked different kinds of foods. We'd go out for dinner and he always wanted to try the most unusual things to eat. And he loved baseball and he had a good sense of humor, and he was always sending goofy emails to his dad, or sound files that would startle him when he turned on the computer.

Some of his friends said, "Dylan was like a brother to me." He was bonded to his friends. So I didn't see anything that indicated to me that he was in danger or that he was a threat to anyone else.

Dr. G: Let me tell you what I'm hearing, Sue, and tell me if I'm correct... What I'm hearing you say is Dylan had a joy of wonder.

Sue: Yes.

Dr. G: And he was passionately curious, and you actually admired Dylan.

Sue: Absolutely.

Dr. G: And what makes it really even more painful is that you so admired what was special about him.

Sue: Yes.

Dr. G: And you felt you could appreciate Dylan in ways that other people couldn't, and you even looked up to Dylan for those qualities. He had this deep curiosity and was driven to make sense of things.

Sue: Yes.

Dr. G: And then when he entered adolescence, it didn't make sense to him.

Sue: Yes, I think you're probably right about that.

Dr. G: And probably, when things didn't make sense to him, he felt out of control. And he probably took it more personally because he was someone who probably prided himself on being able to make sense out of things and be in control.

Sue: I think that's very true. I think that's absolutely true.

Dr. G: Another question, he was 6'4". Was he taller than most of the other kids?

Sue: All the way through school he was a year younger than everybody in his class and was always if not the tallest, probably the second tallest, but yes, he was taller than everybody and younger than everybody.

Dr. G: Ok, because I've seen people over the years who were tall, and since I'm not, I remember telling them it must be great to be tall, and some of the tall people would say, "It's awful!"

Sue: Yes, I'm one of those tall people.

Dr. G: Was it awful because you were always the tallest in the school pictures, you were trying to hide your height, you couldn't, you'd stick out, and if you were shy, it was even more painful and you didn't ever want a picture taken with other people because you were uncomfortable in your own skin?

Sue: Right.

Dr. G: And plus, if you're tall, you're not allowed to get angry because people will think you're big and so you have all this stuff going on in your head and... and you think that was true with him?

Sue: You know, I never thought of it before (probably because Sue was a girl), but it probably was true of him. Yes, I think that probably makes sense. The other thing... he wanted to be invisible, I mean, when he went to junior high... and he'd been in the gifted program... and he was just sort of slacking off, and they had asked him, "Do you want to go to the high school for algebra?" And he was just terrified of that. He said, "No, no, no, I don't want to do that!" So we said ok well, hang out here in junior high and take geometry, take other classes, and he just didn't want to be the focus of attention. He was just very uncomfortable with that.

Dr. G: Do you think there was a point where he almost hated being smarter than other people because it wasn't helping him to be happier?

Sue: Well, I think that's true. I mean, one of the things he told us when he was in junior high, when we were saying, "What's going on? You did such a great job in elementary school, why don't you want to keep it up?" We were encouraging him to try to stay with the smart people and he said, "It's not cool to be smart." He didn't want to be identified as someone who was different or singled out, and by the end of his 6th grade year when he was still in the gifted program, he was beginning to feel very self-conscious about being in that classroom, like he was some kind of a freak.

Dr. G: I've worked with inner city schools and I can see that the kids who aren't smart, can really take it out on the smart kids. So I'm wondering if any of that was at play because I remember in parts of your book where you said as you looked into the culture there that there seemed to be a lot of bullying going on, and so the fact that he's younger and taller... that had to have been a lot to manage.

Sue: Right, and I can't say that there was a culture of being not smart, because it was a very high-achieving school in a sort of wealthy neighborhood and these were college-bound kids and so I think it would be almost arrogant of me to say there was a culture that was not smart.

But I think there was certainly a culture of conservatism and I think Dylan enjoyed being different. He did say to us when we asked him, "Are you sure you want this coat? (the trench coat he started wearing)," "I like the way I look, I like who I am." I think he really didn't want to be one of those other people that were just wearing the white baseball hats and everybody was so perfect. So I related to that because I felt the same way when I was in high school.

Dr. G: Yes, and so instead of just maybe being a relatively good sport that you might have been in high school and just sort of sucked it in, it sounded like he responded, "Well, I'm just going to have my own identity and I'm going to get this coat and I'm going to be myself."

Sue: Well, I thought that was very healthy.

Dr. G: Yes.

Sue: I thought that was admirable, I didn't... again... I didn't think anything negative about it. My only concern was that he looked silly because he'd wear a baseball hat with his hair sticking out. It looked like a clown wig and he'd have this long coat and he was so tall and he wore glasses and I thought, for somebody who's self-conscious, you sure aren't blending in. But I also thought, this is my boy, this is what he wants to do, I thought, I didn't see anything wrong with that. In fact, I applauded him for it because this school was an upper middle class white school and I was glad to see he was trying to make a statement and be himself and be different.

Dr. G: So far in telling me about Dylan, where we've gotten to is this gifted child, kind of gawky, shy, and refusing to sort of hunker in and wanted to make a statement.

Sue: Yes.

Dr. G: So tell me more about Dylan. I've seen a lot of your interviews and read them, but I want you to just feel free to say whatever you feel like saying.

Sue: Well, let's get to his teen years when he got in trouble.

Mark: Ok.

To Be Continued - Part 2 -- "Tell Me About Dylan" -- His Teenage Years