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Video: Klebold family opens up about Columbine in new book

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    >>> for his new book, "far from the tree," andrew sullivan looks at how parents love children who are different than they are. one of the chapters on one of the columbine shooters.

    >>> but first, rock center's kate snow is here with more on the story.

    >> soloman spoke with 300 families facing everything from autism to death to child prodigies with down syndrome. but one family in particular are getting a lot of attention. they have never spoken publicly before, but tom and sue opened up to soloman about what their son did that spring day in 1999 .

    >> reporter: we all remember his name, dylan klebold was one of the kids responsible for columbine. during the past six years, author andrew soloman has had unprecedented access to tom and sue klebold .

    >> i had dinner with sue last night.

    >> how is she doing?

    >> it's a lot to bear, but she's a really courageous woman. and she's tried to go on with her life.

    >> reporter: in his new book, the klebold 's story is but ten pages out of nearly 1,000.

    >> when i went out to meet the klebolds, i thought if i got to know them, i would understand this had happened and i would detect whatever was off in their household.

    >> reporter: instead, he says, he found a loving family.

    >> you think his parents had no idea what was brewing?

    >> i think his parents had absolutely no idea. i think if they had known, they would have done something about it.

    >> reporter: by the time the massacre was over, dylan klebold and eric harris had killed 12 students and a teacher, then turned their guns on themselves.

    >> and sue said to me, once i understood that it was actually dylan who was doing this, she said i had to pray that he got killed before he hurt any more people. and he did it. i was probably right, it probably was the best thing for him. but to have made that prayer and had that happen, it's a terrible thing to have to live with.

    >> soloman once asked sue klebold what she would ask dylan if he were here now.

    >> she says, i would ask him to forgive me for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head.

    >> hey, boys, this is how it's going to go.

    >> sue klebold says she loves her son and, quote, while i recognize it would have been better for the world if dylan had not been born, i would it would not have been better for me.

    >> i know you'll have more on this tonight on "rock center" with brian williams . but meantime, andrew soloman is with us now. good morning.

    >> what a pleasure to be here.

    >> there's so much in this book. and i know it's 11 years in the making, and i want to get to that. but let's pick up where kate left off. they have spoken so very rarely, they still live in this very town in the same house?

    >> in the same house. i said to them, i was surprised they hadn't moved. and his parents said, you know, if we'd moved, everyone who met us would've met us as the parents of that killer. and his mother says, and here there were people who knew and loved us, but more important, there were people that loved dylan and that's what we needed to be with.

    >> it's quite extraordinary you were able to have this access to them. i can imagine in many ways, i'm sure they had shut themselves off to the outside world . did you detect anything that would've at all explained what happened here?

    >> you know, it used to be thought we could understand almost everything as being somehow from the parents. so autism was caused by cold mothers, schizophrenia caused by mothers who wish their children didn't exist. 100 years ago, it was -- we dropped it in all of those areas, but we still think in crime. come on, it has to be the parents, they have to have done something, they have to have known. and i spent hundreds of hours with these people, i've come to love them and i really genuinely think they had no clue and no way of having a clue.

    >> i know sue told you at one point she'd written letters to each of the families of the victims but advised not to send it out of concern she would traumatize them more. she says, quote, i think the other parents believed they had experienced loss and i had not because their children were of value and mine was not. my child died too, he died after making a terrible decision and doing a terrible thing, but he was still my child. and he still died. you know, it's such an awful thing. but i guess what the book does is show there's need to be compassionate on everyone involved.

    >> and i can think of nothing worse, i have children, the idea is so terrifying and sickening to me. but to have to lose your child because he's died as they did and also to lose the understanding your child behaved in a monstrous way.

    >> let's move on. as i said, this book has so many fascinating aspects to it. and the basic premise is, ways in which children are different than their parents and it covers a variety of topics. give us some examples.

    >> so, it's about the idea there are many conditions that are hereditary. there are all of these other conditions in which the parents say he's a surprise. there's some of that in every parenting experience. i looked at people with autism , with down syndrome, people with schizophrenia and disabilities, i looked at families of people who committed crimes or were transgender. and when i was born, being gay was an illness. what people had to say about it was so dark. and now i'm a gay adult and in my lived experience, it's an identity. i said how did we make that switch? what is an illness? what is an identity?

    >> you cover all of these different types of conditions or situations, did you detect any common thread with how parents do deal with children that are different than them?

    >> i think what i discovered is that acceptance is a gradual process. but that parents were able to find meaning in the experience are able to be better parents than the parents who don't. there was one family, for instance, they had a son with down syndrome, and they got very involved in how kids with down syndrome are educated. and i said to them at the end of a long talk. i said do you wish you never had this experience? and his mother said, for our son david i wish that because for him it would be an easier way to be in the world and i'd like to make his life easier. but speaking for myself so i would never have believed 30 years ago when he was born that i could come to such a moment, speaking for myself i'd say i wouldn't give it up for anything in the world.

    >> profound is a good way to describe the book. there's so much there. more than a decade in the making, but you've done a good thing and it's great to have you here. thank you.

    >> thank you, it's a pleasure.

    >> and the book is called "far from the tree." we

TODAY books
updated 11/8/2012 8:45:18 AM ET 2012-11-08T13:45:18

In “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon examines a broad spectrum of families coping with children in exceptional circumstances and how they’ve not only dealt with their respective obstacles, but gained insight, solace and stronger senses of identity in the process. Here’s an excerpt.

An excerpt from Chapter Three: Dwarfs

When Clinton Brown III was born, his father, Clinton Sr., remembered, “I could see right away his arms were straight out, his legs were straight out, and his body was small. I almost fainted.” A curtain blocked the view for Clinton’s mother, Cheryl, but it did not block her hearing; the baby didn’t cry, and none of the doctors or nurses said anything. When Cheryl cried out, “What’s wrong?” one of the doctors replied in a hushed voice, “We have a problem here.” Although Cheryl wanted to see and hold her baby, he was whisked away. Later, a doctor explained that her son was terribly deformed and likely to die, the result of diastrophic dysplasia. Such profoundly affected children are usually institutionalized, he said, and offered to handle Clinton’s placement without her involvement, since it was sometimes easier for parents to give up a child they’d never seen. Cheryl was indignant. “That’s my baby,” she said. “I want to see my baby.” The doctors were vague about prognosis; only a few thousand people in the world were known to have diastrophic dwarfism. “The information they had on it was two paragraphs,” Cheryl recalled. “Two paragraphs on what the rest of our lives were going to be.”

Clinton was in an incubator when Cheryl finally saw him, and she was allowed only to touch his toe, but when she did, his eyes opened and she saw that they were blue and beautiful. She also saw everything she would come to know as signposts of diastrophic dwarfism: the unjointed hitchhiker thumb that springs from the bottom of the palm, the flat nose, the cauliflower ears, and the cleft palate. He had scoliosis and clubfeet, and his legs were bunched up under him like airplane landing gear. His head was gigantic. “Some kids have a mild version of this, but he had every symptom possible,” Cheryl said. “I think of it as the deluxe package.” Clinton Sr. said, “We came home without him. I remember pulling into our street, looking at Cheryl, and it was just empty, you know?” Clinton Sr. went back to work as an engineer for a cable TV company, and Cheryl to her job at a call center. Clinton had his first surgery when he was two weeks old to repair an umbilical hernia. When the Browns brought him home a month later, he was so tiny that Clinton Sr. could hold him in one hand.

Once they had him at home, Cheryl tried to treat him as she would have treated any baby. “When I was young, I thought life went on a schedule. You go to high school; you find a job; you get married. When you have a child like Clinton, it’s ‘What happened to all that stuff I always counted on?’” When Clinton was eleven months old, Cheryl found Steven Kopits. “From that moment on,” Cheryl said, “he controlled everything that happened to Clinton. Without him, Clinton wouldn’t have walked.” Clinton Sr. said, “You went into his office depressed, and you came out enlightened and with new hope.” Cheryl said, “They weren’t patients to him; they were his children. Nobody else ever comes up to that level. And no one will, because there’ll never again be an angel like that on this earth.”

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Kopits was famous for developing long-term surgical programs for his patients; rather than perform a single operation in the unlikely hope of correcting all of a patient’s problems, he would perform one that promised to reap benefits down the road and facilitate subsequent operations. In the end, he performed twenty-nine surgeries on Clinton Brown Jr. “I had asked my pediatrician what Clinton was going to look like,” Cheryl said. “So he gave me a book on people in the circus. I went to Dr. Kopits. He said, ‘Let me tell you something. That’s gonna be a handsome young man.’” The long waits in Kopits’s waiting room were notorious; a routine visit often became an all-day affair. “No question in my mind I would wait ten hours,” Cheryl said. “He would say, ‘I’m sorry, I have to see this one.’ We knew if our child needed him that he would say the same to another family.”

When Clinton was almost three, after six months of constant surgery, Dr. Kopits assigned him to one of his staff physiotherapists, and Clinton began to walk. Kopits worked on Clinton’s clubfeet, his tibiae, his fibulae, his knees, his hips. Clinton had eleven back surgeries, cleft palate surgery, surgery to correct an inguinal hernia. He spent six months in a body cast, flat on his back, with a circle of metal with four pins fixed in his skull to immobilize his neck and spine. “I lived in the hospital with him for one month, two months, whatever it took for him to be rehabbed,” Cheryl said. The call center where Cheryl worked gave her extra time off. The Browns needed two parental insurance policies for Clinton’s surgical program; even then, the uncovered expenses were catastrophic. “You’ve heard of the Six Million Dollar Man?” Cheryl said to me, pointing at her son. “This is the Million Dollar Dwarf you’re talking to.”

Since diastrophic dwarfism is a recessive genetic trait, any other child Cheryl and Clinton Sr. might produce would have a one-in-four chance of inheriting it, so they decided not to have more children. “In the beginning, you live in six-month increments,” Clinton Sr. said. “With our kind of kid, you don’t look long range.” Cheryl said, “The hardest thing was going out in public, that first negative comment or stare. I always had it in the back of my head that it should be a learning experience for everybody that encountered Clinton and me. We made it a little joke: ‘Okay, look at that one, Mom. They’re staring at me!’ Then Clinton would just do a nice little wave and smile.” Clinton Sr. said, “We were in a store once, and this little kid was hovering. So Clinton, who was twelve, ran around the next aisle and, as the kid came by, jumped in front of him and spooked him. The kid freaked out and broke down crying. I said to Clinton, ‘That wasn’t the right thing to do.’ He says, ‘But it felt so good, Dad.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, okay. That one’s for you.’”

Clinton said, “When I was a kid, I was bitter towards the fact that I was little. Angry that I didn’t have the same opportunities as everybody else. You either face the war, or you falter. It was everyone else’s problem, that they didn’t know how to handle it, and it was my problem that I didn’t know how to teach them how.” Clinton Sr. added, “Once he said, ‘If I was average-size, I’d be great, wouldn’t I?’ He was eleven, in that hospital room. So now I had to leave the room ’cause I was crying, and I felt so helpless. When I came back, he said, ‘That’s okay, Dad. I have the answer.’”

“I was such a sports fan, and I wanted to be an athlete,” Clinton said. “We used to play hockey in the street, but everybody started getting huge, and running me over, so I couldn’t play. It’s just a big piece of childhood that I missed out on.” During the long periods of immobility and surgery, Clinton was homeschooled. It was his primary distraction, and he worked hard. “I figured I had nothing else to do, so I got ahead of my class on most things. I decided to do really well academically, ’cause I just had to be the best at something.” When he graduated, Clinton was accepted at Hofstra—the first member of his family to enroll in college. He decided to major in banking and finance, volunteered to be a peer counselor, and helped run orientation week for new students. “I wish all life was college. I’m in the big, macho fraternity; I’m friends with all the girls on campus. I’ve dated here and there. I have fun.”

With his unjointed fingers, Clinton still needed help buttoning a shirt, but he became increasingly independent in other regards, and he got a driver’s license and a specially fitted car. “I remember when he told us he was driving,” Clinton Sr. said. “A friend of mine tells me he saw Clinton on the Long Island Expressway! I go, ‘You saw Clinton in a van, driving on the LIE?!’ So I found his schedule, and I snuck down to school. I didn’t want him to know that I was there, so I parked in the back. I’m thinking the teacher’s drunk or he’s a saint. Because they had a makeshift seat and steering wheel for Clinton. He drove right out. I didn’t say a word because—well, I couldn’t talk. I was amazed.”

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“When he first went to Hofstra, he met this group of guys that he’s been hanging out with for the last four years,” Cheryl said. “They would go out to bars and stuff. I said, ‘Well, how do you get on that bar stool?’ He goes, ‘They lift me up, Ma.’ I said to him, ‘Your body is three feet tall; your friends are six feet tall. If you drink two beers, that’s them drinking four beers.’ I was terrified about his drinking and driving. I went past a bar and I saw his car parked there—it’s very easy to recognize with all those fittings. I didn’t think I could march in there like I wanted, but I left him three messages and sat home by the phone waiting for him to call. So I told this to the mother of a child who had gone to school with Clinton. She said to me, ‘You’re so lucky that he is at a bar.’ I thought, ‘Okay, if you’d told me when he was born that my worry would be that he’d go out driving after drinking with his college buddies, I’d have been overjoyed.’”

Clinton has learned to set boundaries with a public that takes his size as a waiver of all social rules. “I used to become really upset,” he said. “I would cry. Now I just go right up to the person. My mom’s always, ‘Be nice, be nice.’ But sometimes you can’t be nice. I walked by this guy’s table, and he goes to his friend, ‘Oh, my God, lookit that midget.’ I said, ‘Don’t ever do that,’ and I knocked his beer into his lap. You can’t yell at kids. They don’t know any better. So I go up to the parent: ‘Listen. Why don’t you teach your kid some manners and have some class about you?’ And it’s no better in classy places.” I remembered this conversation when Clinton and I had lunch a year later in a nice restaurant in midtown Manhattan, a place he had chosen near his office. As we walked to our table, every person we passed stopped talking and stared, except a few who looked out of the corners of their eyes. If I had shown up with a ring-tailed lemur or with Madonna, there wouldn’t have been more focused attention. It wasn’t hostile, but it was certainly not relaxing—and it was completely different from the experience I had, for example, pushing a multiply disabled child down a pier in San Diego. Benign pity can wear thin, but it’s still easier than astonished fascination.

At eighteen, Clinton found his first summer job in finance; five days a week, he made the solo commute by scooter, train, and subway, an hour and a half each way, to the Manhattan offices of Merrill Lynch. “I want to have everything I can in my arsenal of education. My parents worry about me too much, and my way for them to let that go is for me to be financially and physically independent. I was in the hospital so much, so my parents were my best friends. Now I have no boundaries; I have no inhibitions; I want to do so much.”

The great question in Clinton’s life is mobility. For longer distances, he rides his scooter. He is in pain whenever he walks any distance—much sooner than Taylor van Putten, for example. “My hips and knees and joints are real bad. There’s a lack of cartilage between the bones. The cold makes it worse.” Despite this, I was impressed at how gracefully Clinton could swing his body around. He could weave his unbending fingers around the handle of a fork or a knife. “I figured out a lot by myself. I used to pick up pizza or a sandwich and put it on the top of my hand. Writing, I use two fingers. If I could change one thing, I would love to walk like a normal person. But I’m dancing all night; I’m doing everything.” In fact, when I first met Clinton at LPA, he was dancing; he stayed long after I’d gone to bed. The next day, he was hobbled with pain but also on cloud nine, and he teased me about being the only person of average height on the dance floor: “You stuck out like a little person.”

Find out more about author Andrew Solomon at www.farfromthetree.com

The summer job Clinton had at Merrill Lynch was in their legal department, filling out forms, and he was determined to secure a promotion. After he graduated, he was hired by Mutual of America Capital Management Corporation, where he prepared income statements and reports for technical analysts, obtained real-time stock quotes, and helped brokers identify trends in certain Internet stocks. During his time there, he had a bad experience with inadequate access on the subway. He obtained permission to address the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority at their next public meeting. Arriving at the midtown conference room, I found a mob of his friends and relatives who had turned out to support him. “I am standing in front of you as a representative of all disabled citizens of New York,” Clinton said, poised and confident. “My story is of a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a violation of civil rights, and a blatantly dangerous situation presented to all wheelchair-bound citizens who use the MTA’s subways and trains. The purpose of this speech is to illustrate what is going on out there in your transportation system, let you know what it means to the people it is affecting, and drill down to a resolution. I am asking you to be my teammates in a quest for equality, and to work to fix this issue.” At breakfast afterward, Cheryl confided in me that she could never, ever have done such a thing.

Cheryl said she thinks often about whether she would have wanted things to go another way. “When he was born, one of the nurses started crying and said, ‘Oh, I feel so terrible. Why you? You’re such nice people.’ I said, ‘Why not us?’ Would I trade it? I would never trade it now.” Clinton Sr. agreed, “I have to work with new, young guys on the job, and when they’re lazy or say they can’t do certain things, I don’t tell ’em it’s my son, but I mention that I know someone that it takes half an hour to get dressed in the morning, just to get outside and breathe fresh air. ‘You guys have two hands, two arms, and a head. You’ve got every God-given tool you could have, and you’re wasting it.’” He paused. “And you know what? I used to waste it, too. I learned that lesson from Clinton myself.”

Both Cheryl and Clinton Sr. are somewhat in awe of their son—his courage, his academic and professional achievements, his big heart. “I don’t think we did anything to make him into him,” Cheryl said. “What did I do? I loved him. That’s all. The other day these people, much higher up than us socially, much more educated, called me up and said they couldn’t handle this. They were in Texas politics and thought the stigma would be harmful to them, and they gave their baby up for adoption. That’s just what they were going to do, and it’s the opposite of what I was going to do right from the beginning. The other day Clinton came home, and he goes, ‘Ma, I saw a blind man today with a stick, in Manhattan. There were people rushing back and forth, and he was all alone. I just felt like crying, I felt so sorry for him, so I offered to bring him to where he needed to go.’ Clinton just always had that light in him, and we were lucky enough to be the first to see it there.”

Excerpted from FAR FROM THE TREE: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Solomon. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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