I’ve been reading Columbine, by Dave Cullen. It was published in 2009, but I put off reading it, because I have this weird disconnect in my head when it comes to Columbine stuff. I both want to know everything, to try and understand, but whenever I think about it for long I go into my 17-year-old headspace of being confused and angry and other emotions that I don’t understand. So mostly I avoid Columbine stuff. But recently, Sue Klebold (Dylan Klebold’s mother) released a memoir, and I read that, and decided to finally read Columbine while I was on a roll, so to speak. (If you want to read other thoughts of mine on school shootings, I wrote an entry after the shooting in 2013 at Arapahoe High School here.)
So I’m reading this book. About the murderers and about the victims and what happened that day. And before and after. And something struck me.
When Cassie Bernall was 13 or 14, she went through a bad bout of depression (my word, not Cullen’s). She threatened to commit suicide, she cut herself, hit her head against walls and bathroom counters. In a journal that her parents found after she died, Cassie said, “I cannot explain in words how much I hurt. I didn’t know how to deal with this hurt, so I physically hurt myself.” Cassie’s family was(is) deeply Christian, so their method of coping with this behavior, after consulting with their minister, was to pull Cassie out of public school and put her in a private Christian school, take away the phone in her room, and basically forbid all activities that weren’t church- or youth group-related. This strategy worked, and Cassie stabilized enough that they let her return to public school when she was a freshman, to Columbine High School. She said that she wanted to bring the word of Christ into the public school.
A little over a year before the massacre at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were arrested for theft. They broke into a parked van and stole some electronics equipment out of it. They’d gotten in trouble a few times before this, the sort of trouble that involves parents and school administrators, not the police. But getting arrested for anything when you’re 17 is a big deal in suburban white-collar Littleton, so both sets of parents took it seriously. Eric Harris’ parents, in particular, besides grounding him and taking away his computer and the usual punitive parental things, sent him to a psychiatrist who got him started on anti-depressants (both boys were sent to counseling as part of their sentencing, but Harris’ dad was apparently moving towards putting his son into therapy within days of his arrest). Both boys completed their court-ordered Diversion program, and Harris was on his full dose of antidepressants right up until his death (as shown by his autopsy).
So. These kids. All with significant emotional and/or behavioral issues. All at Columbine High School.
One family did the textbook version of “everything right.” Sent their kid to therapy, tried to get underlying causes diagnosed, let legal consequences stand. The other went with a strategy that would strike a lot of people as abusive or harmful, or, at the very least, not helpful. But two kids ended up murderers, and the other kid ended up murdered.
I’m not trying to make a broad point about either of these treatment options, if we can call them that. Eric Harris got sent to therapy, and it didn’t help him; but Dylan didn’t ever go to a therapist outside of his court-ordered counseling, but he probably had depression and was definitely suicidal (as evidenced by journals found after his death), and getting properly diagnosed and treated could have made an enormous difference to him–and, by extension, an enormous difference to the people he ended up terrorizing. Similarly, just because Cassie’s outward mood and demeanor changed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was no longer depressed or that she wasn’t still in need of treatment besides whatever comfort she found in church. If she’d lived, she may have had a recurrence once she went off to college. She could have been faking happiness so that she could leave her house and use the telephone (I have some friends who have diagnoses of depression who think she was doing exactly that). Or, maybe she really did feel better, feel loved, feel like she was a person of value. I don’t know. I know that Leelah Alcorn, when subjected to a similar parental plan of therapy-by-Christianity, ended up killing herself by stepping out into freeway traffic. I also know that my own religious community has been a comfort to me when precious little else has. I also know that there doesn’t seem to be a reason why either of those outcomes happened. Why Cassie chose one direction and Dylan chose another.
If anything, I guess I’m making a broad point about how scary humans are, not to mention how scary it is to be one, especially when adolescence and mental illness manifest at the same time. I’m not a psychologist by any sense of the imagination. I’m also not a parent. It just seems insane, the leap of faith parents have to make. You can pretend all you want that kids are a computer, that behavior is a science, that when you input Software Program A into Port 1, it will update the drivers and your beta human will respond and improve in a predictable, quantifiable way. And that just isn’t how it works. I know that every parent knows this in a way that I don’t, but also, it seems like one of those things that’s easier to deal with if you just don’t think about it. I don’t know how you decide on a course of action when the potential consequences range from “everything fixed” to “dead kid.” I don’t know how you do that.
The scary thing, the risky thing, is that I think the strategy that has the best chance of working is anything that brings people closer. That broadens a community and brings more people in. And I’m not talking anymore just about school shooters, but anything to lessen the violence we humans seem to inflict on each other. You need to be an empathic person in order to make a commitment to not hurt people, and some people can’t be taught that no matter what, but some people (most people?) just need to be reminded. But you never know who’s who until you try, and that’s the hard part. The part where you’re asked to risk literally everything for an outcome that has no real assurance of actually happening. When you’re in a situation that your culture and your upbringing and your education and your experience with humans has not prepared you for, you have to trust a human and put your faith in them, and humans–for all the power that our religious institutions have these days–are actually really bad at having faith and trusting each other.
But what else is there to do?