An odd sense of kinship came to me recently when I read an essay by New York writer Andrew Solomon about his new book Far From the Tree, in which he examines and gives voice to Tom and Sue Klebold, parents of Dylan Klebold, who with his friend Eric Harris killed 11 students and one teacher before killing themselves on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Solomon and I have trod similar paths.
In the essay published online by The Daily Beast, Solomon talks about his initial expectation — his quest, in fact — when he talked the Klebolds into sitting down for long interviews:
"I set out to interview Tom and Sue Klebold with the expectation that meeting them would help to illuminate their son's actions," Solomon writes. "The better I came to know the Klebolds, the more deeply mystified I became. Sue Klebold's kindness (before Dylan's death, she worked with people with disabilities) would be the answered prayer of many a neglected or abused child, and Tom's bullish enthusiasm would lift anyone's tired spirits.
"Among the many families I've met in writing this book, the Klebolds are among those I would be most game to join."
Over a period of three years in the mid 1990s, I worked on a true-crime book, published by Harper-Collins in 1997 as Bully, about a group of blue-collar to middle-class suburban kids in Broward County, Florida, who savagely murdered a young man with knives and baseball bats. The bully of the title was the murder victim. The path I think I share with Solomon comes from working on that book and then collaborating on several failed attempts by major film studios to turn it into a movie.
All of this was already on my mind before reading the essay on The Daily Beast, because of Newtown. Before that it was in my head because of Aurora. Every iteration tolls the same gloomy bell deep in my heart.
Bobby Kent was killed on July 15, 1993, in a semi-reclaimed swamp west of Hollywood, Florida, 17 miles north of Miami. Some of the seven murderers barely knew him. One was his best friend. They knocked his head in with a bat, slit his throat, spilled his bowels and then dumped him into the Everglades still barely alive hoping he would be devoured by alligators. Instead he was nibbled by crabs.
Like Solomon, I set out on my reporting with what I now realize was a completely unexamined assumption on my part. I took it on faith that children are products of their parents. Therefore, the logic runs, the actions of children can be explained by the quality of parents they had.
I did not hear Solomon saying this additional thing in his essay, so I assume he's smarter than I am: I also carried with me another completely unquestioned belief that whatever could not be explained by parenting could be assigned to some sort of diagnosis. You know, psychiatry. Freud. Psych 101 and whatever novels and movies had provided me with the rest of my psychiatric sophistication. It's a simple enough algorithm: Parents plus shrinks equals behavior.
In my case there were other incentives for blaming the parents that Solomon would not have encountered. True crime, no matter what anybody tells you about Truman Capote, is an inherently sleazy genre. Editors keep sharp eyes on the target demographics for book sales. This one was aimed at young adult readers. I found there was great enthusiasm for a thesis that would assign blame to someone other than the young adult people who had committed this crime.
An editor said to me, "They can't just be evil! They're young!"
I scoured the parents for blame. I actually put a couple of years into it. Had they been blameworthy in any plausible detail or interpretation, I might have blamed the hell out of them. But as a group they were not involved in any way nor did they contribute to this awful crime. They just didn't.
A few of them were bad parents. Some of them were terrific parents. Most were somewhere in the middle, struggling against tough odds to do the best they could. In other words, they were parents — the same old anxious, tired, uncertain shmoos going for a batting average that I see in the mirror every time I examine myself as a parent.
They were exactly the same kind of parents I had known to produce children who became top med students, art teachers and truck drivers over the years. And drug addicts. And criminals.
When my venture went to Hollywood, I began dealing with what are mysteriously called "development people." The pressure to absolve the killers of blame grew much stronger. And before I start sounding like I think I'm smarter than development people, let me hasten to say I'm not, certainly not about the movie business.