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7 July 2021

Raising a School Shooter is a profoundly moving documentary

“Do you bring a casserole to the house of somebody whose son has shot up a school?” asks Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold. 

By Rachel Cooke

Someone drives to a car wash, someone else has coffee with a friend. A man carefully unpacks his supermarket shopping. A woman lies on a yoga mat and gently stretches her calves. In Raising a School Shooter (7 July, 10pm) the Scandinavian film makers Frida and Lasse Barkfors devote quite a lot of time to the tedious and the quotidian, the message of their searching and ultimately profoundly moving documentary being not only that life must (and does) go on even after something unimaginably terrible has happened, but that human survival often depends on the humdrum. For those whose world has been razed to the ground – and for the people in this film, the devastation has been total – domestic routine is a kind of hand rail, a rope to be used to pull themselves along as the hours turn into days, and the days into weeks, months and (eventually) years.

Since 1970, there have been 1,677 shootings in American schools; 598 people have been killed, and 1,626 injured. What protocols have come to surround these all-too-common crimes? The news crews arrive. Behind a cordon, a crowd weeps. Later, there are funerals and memorial services, and a usually futile argument about gun laws. But for the parents of those who embark on such sprees – most are under 18, and still living at home – there is no etiquette. “Do you bring a casserole to the house of somebody whose son has shot up a school?” asks Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenagers who, in 1999, killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School, Colorado. Her neighbours were mostly very kind, turning up on her doorstep bearing homemade food. The scrutiny elsewhere, however, was hard to bear. She and her husband were now “lesser human beings”. When, she wanted to know, would she be allowed to say sorry to Dylan’s victims? The authorities thought this an inappropriate question, perhaps even an inappropriate impulse.

[see also: Sky’s Murder at the Cottage is an extraordinary piece of true crime]

Klebold has dealt with her all-consuming guilt by facing up, utterly open-eyed, to the magnitude of Dylan’s crime – though it never really goes away. There came a time, not so long ago, when she was sometimes able to feel happy for 20 minutes, at which point, she began to hate herself all over again, for what right did she have even to that relief? On the morning of the killings, as the news came in, she prayed Dylan would turn his gun on himself. But that prayer having been answered, she wishes now that she could take it back. If he was in prison, they would be able to talk. She would be able to ask – I found this hard to hear – for his forgiveness. She believes that she did not talk to him enough about his feelings, and that if she had, things might have been different.

Blame. Where does it lie? Whose job is it to apportion it? The other two parents in the film needed to displace culpability, to spread it about a little, even as they accepted what their children, both serving long prison sentences, had done. Jeff Williams, whose son, Andy, killed two students and injured 13 at his Californian high school in 2001, insisted that his boy had been bullied, raging at the press’s refusal to report this. At Andy’s sentencing, he “had to listen”, he said, to four hours of victim impact statements. His voice was on the edge of plaintiveness.

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Clarence Elliot, whose son Nicholas shot dead his teacher, also in California, in 1988, spoke of bullying, too, though with less conviction. Nicholas, having already served 31 years, has been refused parole six times; the supposed indignities of the schoolyard must seem almost irrelevant at this point, the weight of time and hopelessness pressing on his father like a coffin stone. I have nothing but pity for both men. Listening to them talking on the phone to their incarcerated sons, so stilted and awkward, I felt, not love’s strength, but its crushing powerlessness. But beside Klebold, so full of grace, they also seemed timorous, somehow, their eyes carefully averted. She has reckoned it all up. She is ready: for the rest of this life, and, perhaps, for the next. She walks tall. Her back is straight, and not only because of the yoga. 

Raising a School Shooter 
BBC Four

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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust