Parents of young adults who are accused of murder are confronted with an intense emotional minefield and have, in many cases, reported experiencing feelings ranging from guilt and shame to horror and despair. Susan Klebold, whose son Dylan, alongside classmate Eric Harris, carried out the massacre of 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 has stated, "For the rest of my life, I will be haunted by the horror and anguish Dylan caused... Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love." Susan Klebold's description of raising her son, how she learned about the atrocities perpetrated by her offspring, and her intense and crippling battle with depression and guilt in the aftermath, make the possibility of a normal parent having to deal with an unexpected terror frighteningly real. She describes her extreme humiliation, noting that in one newspaper survey, "83 percent of respondents said that the parents' failure to teach Dylan and Eric proper values played a major part in the Columbine killings" and that "our elected officials stated publicly that bad parenting was the cause of the massacre."
The human desire to seek causality, coupled with the perennially frenzied state of the mass media, can lead to an intense and sudden growth of rage and blame. That cultural anger commonly finds its way to the doorstep of a killer's parents, where it might be expected that parenting should be scrutinized, failure determined, and blame assessed. This may be a rational pursuit in some cases, however, in many such situations, the violent youths suffer from severe mental illnesses. According to the U.S. Secret Service Safe School Initiative, 78% of school attackers have a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts, and 61% of the attackers have a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate.
After the shooting of Arizona state representative Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, who killed six people and injured 14 on January 8, 2011, a federal judge ruled that Jared Loughner was not mentally competent to stand trial and ordered him to a facility for treatment. He has since been forced by law to take psychotropic drugs as part of a treatment for schizophrenia, having been committed to a federal prison hospital. (While psychiatrists once thought that poor parenting could cause a person to become schizophrenic, the biological roots of schizophrenia have become better understood, and the disorder is now characterized more accurately as a brain disorder than an emotional illness. However, other relevant factors in its development, including psychosocial factors, are not well understood.)
The topic of parental responsibility and experience upon learning a child has committed murder has seen significant attention in film. Beautiful Boy (2010), starring Maria Bello and Michael Sheen, explores the difficult path faced by two parents who learn that their 18 year old son has committed mass murder on a college campus before killing himself. Beyond dealing with their immense grief and the consequences that the shooting has on their marriage, Bello and Sheen must endure scathing public media attention. As has been observed in many such situations, including the aftermath of the Loughner shooting in Arizona, public reaction can swing from scorn to pity to apathy and back at an unpredictable tempo.
Another recent film, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, is a meditation on the interaction between a mother's struggle with a violent young son. Along with the apparent increase in the frequency of senseless acts of violence, artistic works have arisen in order to tackle the particularly delicate and often incredibly complicated dynamics that ensue when a child commits murder.
Click on the video below to learn about Susan Kelbold's response to her son's violent acts.
This article was originally published in April 2012, and has been updated for the
January 2013 paperback release.
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