Men Appear to Me as Monsters

Megan Doney


On October 28, 2022, James and Jehn Crumbley, the parents of a 15-year-old school shooter, were formally charged in Michigan for involuntary manslaughter. They bought their son a Sig Sauer 9-mm semiautomatic pistol last November, as an early Christmas present. He used it to murder four classmates (Hana, Madisyn, Tate, Justin). Their son pled guilty to multiple charges of first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, and terrorism.

The Crumbleys’ mug shots are often placed side by side, a triptych of mussed, sullen resentment.

A family.


I was nineteen the first time I went to a funeral for a friend. The summer after my first year of college, my high school class president, a boy named Scott—gregarious, athletic, bright, friendly—died of natural causes while on a summer internship in Colorado. It’s a cliché to say that he was the popular guy who everyone liked, but he was the popular guy who everyone liked. Scott was an only child. I came home from my summer job one night and my parents told me the news. I ran, weeping, to a friend’s house. A few days later, we attended the funeral together. It was the first time someone our age had died.

More than twenty years later, I still remember Scott’s mother walking down the aisle of Holy Family Church, supported by her husband on one side and Scott’s father on the other. I remember the rictus of grief on her face, paralyzed by the shock of attending her own child’s funeral. After the service, I shook hands with Scott’s father and stepfather, and hugged his mother, telling her, “I’m so proud to be able to say I knew him.” I remember how thin she felt, not like an adult at all. Her body trembled as she hugged me back. I could not recall an adult ever holding on to me that way, as though I, a teenager, was the one giving comfort. I had a strange, inchoate awareness that I was seeing an adult who had become completely unmoored by, as Jon Krakauer writes, “a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure.”


During my sabbatical at the University of the Free State, a South African colleague asked what was known about the parents of school shooters. I didn’t have an answer. One might think that given the frequency of school shootings in the U.S., there would be reams of articles about parents, but there aren’t. It is easy to pretend that school shooters emerge into the world as howling, murderous homunculi; however, their ordinariness gives the lie to our stereotypes. As Lucinda Roy, who tutored the Virginia Tech shooter, writes ruefully, “ ‘we’ are always ‘they’ in the end.”


When the Crumbleys heard that there had been a shooting at their son’s school (where they had been summoned, just that day, because their son was drawing pictures of a gun and writing “Blood everywhere Help me” on his homework), “they fled their home on East Street—now a crime scene—for a hotel. Upon learning that they were also to be charged, they holed up in an artist’s studio in a Detroit warehouse belonging to one of Jehn’s acquaintances and stopped responding to phone calls. Prosecutors say they had four burner phones (one they’d tried to destroy), four gift cards, ten credit cards, and $6,600 in cash. They had cleaned out [their son’s] bank account.”[1]


I often teach Frankenstein in my college composition classes. So many students come into Frankenstein with preconceptions of the story—not the least of which is that Frankenstein is the Creature, not the scientist— but they are surprised by how it can be read as a parable about parents, children, and families. I tell them about Mary Shelley’s shocking number of miscarriages and child deaths, how Percy Shelley once brought her a block of ice to sit on, to staunch the bleeding.

Victor Frankenstein is devastated by his mother’s early death. He rails against the injustice of mortality; “I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil,” he thinks. Death is not the inevitable, unifying end to all life, but evil. Thus his fatal trajectory is set: he will reanimate life and become a god on his own terms: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”

After countless hours scouring charnel-houses and cemeteries for body parts, his Creature is complete. But when light enlivens the Creature’s eyes, and his hand stretches out in affection to take Victor’s, Frankenstein literally runs out of the room in horror, repulsed by the Creature’s appearance. My students are bewildered by this. “If he wanted a pretty monster, he should have used prettier parts,” they’ve said, or more bluntly, “That’s messed up.” Frankenstein’s rejection, and countless subsequent rejections, ignite the Creature’s indignant rage. “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful,” the Creature warns. “I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.”


It’s not until Frankenstein himself has suffered the losses of his brother, servant, confidant, and wife that he’s able to articulate the hubris that led him. There are so many lessons to take from the story, but for me the critical one is that we are responsible for what we bring into the world: inventions, art, children. We don’t get to run away when our creations don’t turn out the way we imagined.


“According to a prosecutor’s motion, Jehn told a friend that ‘her son’s destiny is done and she has to take care of herself.’”


In February 2016, Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine murderers, spoke with Diane Sawyer on 20/20.  A few years ago, she and her husband were profiled in a chapter of Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Solomon also interviewed Peter Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer’s father, in the New Yorker, and explored these parents’ labyrinthine journey through guilt, bafflement, and grief. I downloaded Klebold’s new memoir a few days after it was released, and read it in three nights. I finished it in the morning, over a third cup of tea, and my last thought was that I had never read such a brutal, unflinching confession of unconditional love.


“Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not,” writes Solomon in Far From The Tree. “We heal our wounds with the love we wish we’d received, but are often blind to the wounds we inflict.”


I watch Sue Klebold’s interview with Sawyer. Before it begins, Klebold paces around the room amid the camera equipment and microphones. She has luminous white hair and a thin face with expressive dark eyes. I imagine what might be going through Klebold’s mind, and what she may be feeling. She is caught in a futile web, it seems; regardless of what she says, there will always be people who condemn her for her very existence. Every word she utters might be construed as an excuse, a demand for unearned sympathy. No matter how humble she makes herself, she cannot escape that she is alive, and someone else’s child is not.


I was a young graduate teaching assistant at Colorado State University in April 1999, when the calamity at Columbine unfolded an hour or so south of us. I remember coming home on the bus that day knowing only scraps of the story, watching the news, the teenagers streaming out of the building with their hands on their heads. Only a year removed from my own freshmen students.


I think of the language that some people use to describe mass shooters: monster, it, the same words that Frankenstein uses to describe his creation. “Monster” comes from a Latin root, monere, to warn. There’s a naïve bravado in that definition, implying that in every peril, there is an unambiguous CAUTION sign telling us to slow down and pay attention. In her book, Klebold writes, “Like all mythologies, this belief that Dylan was a monster served a deeper purpose: people needed to believe they would recognize evil in their midst. Monsters are unmistakable; you would know one if you saw one, wouldn’t you?”

Instead, Klebold turns the tables on everyone who read about Columbine and thought What kind of mother are you, or I would know if my kid were that fucked up. Consider the approbation to which Klebold opens herself. She recounts all the missed opportunities to ask the right questions, all the warning lights that flickered in the dark. She forces readers to acknowledge that shooters also have families; they are someone’s children, and their births were welcomed with the same joy and hope of any innocent victim. She admits to loving a mass murderer. In a sentence from Solomon’s book that cracks my heart open, Klebold reflects, “It would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born, but I believe it would not have been better for me.”


Upon the false accusation and execution of their servant Justine Moritz, Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, laments, “I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me. Before, I looked upon the accounts of vice and injustice, that I read in books or heard from others, as tales of ancient days, or imaginary evils; at least they were remote, and more familiar to reason than to the imagination; but now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood.”


What hubris it is to believe that we can all see the monster coming, and get out of its way in time.


On April 12, 2013, I survived a shooting at the college where I teach. One of our students walked in that warm and bright Friday afternoon and opened fire with a shotgun. A student and a staff member were gravely wounded. My students and I fled through an emergency exit, hiding behind cars in the parking lot. I found out more than a year later, upon his sentencing, that surveillance video showed him entering our classroom just moments after we had run.

Two months after my shooting, I went to the county courthouse for the shooter’s pre-trial hearing. After passing through the metal detector, I found my way upstairs to the hearing chamber. Both the wounded victims were there, as were other members of the campus community and media. Once inside, the shooter waived his right to the hearing, so it ended as quickly as it began. This meant that a grand jury would convene later in the fall. The judge left the room, the shooter exited, and those of us from the college entered a smaller antechamber where a court-appointed advocate explained how the next phases would proceed.

As I was walking back toward the elevator, I saw a small cluster of people coming out of the courtroom. A colleague nudged me. “Those are his parents,” she whispered. They clutched each other’s arms and trudged toward the elevator. I will never forget how ordinary they looked, his blond mother, his father’s frame too small for his sport coat. There was nothing about their appearance that would reveal their son had committed a school shooting. They looked haggard, drawn, hopeless.

During the initial phase of the shooter’s case, it emerged that he had struggled with mental illness for years and had been, until shortly before the shooting, under the care of a psychiatrist. He had attempted suicide. His parents knew he was disturbed and had gotten him help. They just never dreamed he would hurt others; they thought he was only a danger to himself. Like Klebold, they are burdened with the whole knowledge of their failure.


“Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery.”[2]


When we label someone a monster, our label filters back generations; it doesn’t stick merely to the target of our condemnation. The rescindment of humanity becomes retroactive. Only monsters can create other monsters. By indicting shooters as subhuman, or inhuman, we are also indicting their families for creating them out of the same innocence and hope that every victim and perpetrator is created, denying them the grief that we can scarcely imagine. My shooter’s parents, and Sue Klebold, were just parents. Like any parents, they made mistakes. In the end, it was their sons, not them, who picked up the guns.

In her book, Sue Klebold recounts the tiny funeral they held for her son, and reflects that it was the last moment they would all be together as a family. Other shooters’ families have secret ceremonies; in the New Yorker interview, Andrew Solomon asks Peter Lanza about his son’s funeral, and Lanza replies, “No one knows that, [a]nd no one ever will.” The other Columbine killer’s gravesite is unknown, as is the Virginia Tech shooter’s. It makes sense for their graves or interment sites to be concealed, to prevent them from becoming sites of perverted pilgrimage. But the phrase “secret funeral” sticks with me. What is a funeral, really, but proof that someone’s life was more than the sum of all their days? I think back to my friend Scott’s funeral, which demonstrated to his family that he was dearly loved. It assured them that they had been good parents; the turnout of mourners was proof that they had raised a solid kid. They had a final public affirmation that his life, though dreadfully short, had pulsed with meaning and connection.

The parents of killers bear grief that’s amplified by the knowledge that their child will forever be known by only one act. As Peter Lanza says, “there could be no remembering who he was outside of who he became.” They are denied the lines of friends who tell funny stories of their children, the teachers who remember them with fondness or exasperation. My high school English teacher read a poem at Scott’s funeral: “I’ll lend you for a time a little child of mine, He said/For you to love the while he lives and mourn for when he’s dead.” There are no poems to comfort the parents of a murderer. I know that there are some who think that that’s how it should be, that shooters forfeited any right to be remembered with affection. But watching Sue Klebold wrestle with the truth of who her son was—and the endless suffering that I sense my shooter’s parents also carry—prevents me from expelling them all from the greater human family.

I want to extend my hand to these forgotten parents. I give them permission, if I can, to remember their sons as the babies they once were and to assure them that they have the right to mourn.


“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.” And Frankenstein fled from the room when his Creation awoke.

It was on a dreary night of November, when a fifteen-year-old boy murdered four classmates. And his parents, too, fled, hiding in a studio loft with money and gift cards.


I am achingly aware of the dislocation of PTSD, the exhaustion that results from sleep haunted by nightmares, the omnipresent fear of going back into the classroom. But I come back over and over again to what it means to bear witness, to muster my own flagging strength and look at what cries to be seen. Surviving a school shooting didn’t give me dispensation to dismiss others’ grief as inferior to my own. In her memoir The Still Point of the Turning World, about her son’s diagnosis with Tay-Sachs disease, Emily Rapp Black writes, “This idea that there existed a hierarchy, a ‘my grief is more grievous than yours’ method of ranking, with those at the top having a more gut-wrenching, authentically earth-shaking experience while those on the lower rungs were—what? Just super, super sad?—was obviously ludicrous…if there did exist a competition for grief, who would want to win it?” Instead, she continues, “…it is a writer’s even more specific job to give voice to loss in whatever ways she can, to give shape to this unspeakable, impermeable reality beneath all other realities.”


If Frankenstein is a horror story, as some argue, the horror comes from realizing that intent can be so violently disconnected from outcome, that your dream can change to nightmare in a second. The crucible into which we pour all our hopes and aspirations can very easily spill over with woe.


Sue Klebold has found a way to live with the agony, shame, and alienation of that otherness, and still retain the full measure of her son. She will not reject him, and though she writes that her love for Dylan did not save him, I suspect that it might have saved her.

Victor Frankenstein succeeded in defeating death. He created a new human being, as though he were God. He could not, though, love his Creation.


The three members of the Crumbley family are incarcerated in the same jail. awaiting their respective trials.

They have not seen one another since the shooting.


A family.


[2] Frankenstein


Postscript: In December 2023, Ethan Crumbley was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In February 2024, his mother Jennifer Crumbley was convicted of four counts of involuntary manslaughter, and is awaiting sentencing.

The trial for his father, James Crumbley, began jury selection in early March 2024.

Megan Doney teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at New River Community College in Virginia. Her book Unarmed: an American Educator’s Memoir is forthcoming from Washington Writers Publishing House. Her work has been published in New Limestone ReviewRappahannock ReviewCreative NonfictionEarth &Altar, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as in the anthologies Allegheny and If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings. Megan earned an MFA from Lesley University.


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