Storyville: Raising a School Shooter review – a powerful depiction of nightmarish pain

What happens when your child is not the victim of a shooting like Columbine – but the perpetrator? From denial to loss, this documentary tells the stories of three such families

To call Raising a School Shooter (BBC Four) a study of grief is to understate the case by some distance. It is more a study of how much pain can be compressed into one person without fully breaking them.

The Storyville documentary tells the story, largely in its subjects’ own words, of the parents of three students responsible for taking weapons into their schools and killing classmates and staff. In 1988, Clarence Elliot’s 16-year-old son Nicholas took three firebombs, a semi-automatic pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition into Atlantic Shores Christian School in Virginia and killed one teacher and injured another. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and is still in jail.

In 2001, Jeff Williams drove to his son Andy’s school after being alerted about an armed incident there. He came across two of his son’s classmates in the chaotic car park and they told him Andy was responsible. “I went to the nearest police officer and said, ‘I think I’m the shooter’s father,’” he says, the flat disbelief and despair in his voice still audible after 20 years.

Finally, there was Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the two students responsible for the worst and most infamous high-school shooting of them all. Dylan and Eric Harris killed 13 people and wounded 24 others at Columbine, in Colorado, in 1999, before killing themselves. His mother says she was largely in denial about everything, including the diaries and writings that showed how premeditated the massacre had been, until the police gave the family a presentation of everything they had found six months later. “I had been grieving so much for this lost, precious child and who he was. And that was the point I realised who he was to everyone else in the world. Everything died in my world. God died, my belief in truth, my belief in what our family was, my belief in who Dylan was. Everything was torn apart.”

Klebold cuts an astonishing figure in every way, a woman rebuilt from the ground up. She sits absolutely still and talks absolutely calmly, delineating and anatomising the full catastrophe without self-pity, without any plea for mitigation or exoneration and with the bone-deep knowledge of the worst that humanity is capable of.

In the inevitably twisted way of these things, she was undoubtedly the star of the show. But the documentary was careful to give countervailing time and space to Elliot’s and Williams’s stories, too. All underwent ostracisation and were the targets of abuse within their neighbourhoods and communities, the flames of misunderstanding and vitriol fuelled by media reporting (especially of rumours and inaccuracies). Nicholas Elliot’s father says Nicholas had undergone bullying which was never fully addressed. His sentence was maximal and he has been denied parole six times. It’s noticeable that he is black, which is not to claim these were the wrong decisions – only to acknowledge the possibility that they weren’t born out of wholly unprejudiced judgments and that this, too, has an impact on the family.

Raising a School Shooter is a sure-footed documentary, as is to be expected from the Storyville stable. You could think of it as the other side of the pageantry this strange little island of ours is known for. We can dress up meaningless things beautifully and provide a stately spectacle with the best of them – but we can also strip meaningful things down and let them stand unadorned, unsentimentalised, and let their power speak for itself. That is what the best of our documentary strands do, and it is a skill and talent shown to some of its best advantage here. Three stories with so many aspects and layers of loss to each are examined with intelligence, nuance and compassion. The question of why, of how such things could happen, is asked but a single answer never demanded. In a world filled with the roar of idiot-cannon and escalating culture wars, it feels like an increasingly rare moment of grace.

Klebold concluded that her son’s ability to dehumanise people was a huge factor in enabling his actions. “And I hear it all the time [now] – in politics, on the news, when people blame and reduce people to an element of themselves, forgetting the 99.9% of that human being we have in common … The greatest protection we have is connection.”


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I Just Killed My Dad review – this true-crime story will sweep away your faith in humanity
Was Anthony Templet, who shot his father, Burt, a cold-blooded killer? This documentary about the truth behind the case is every bit as hooky and twisty as you’d expect from Netflix

Lucy Mangan

09, Aug, 2022 @5:26 PM

Article image
Sex on Trial review – a story of nightmarish twists and turns
This dizzying documentary showed the Nikki Yovino sexual assault case as Kafkaesque, revealing the horrifying shortcomings of the legal system

Lucy Mangan

06, May, 2019 @10:05 PM

Article image
Surviving R Kelly Part III: The Final Chapter review – this glorious series has helped to make history
Repulsion and righteous fury at the activity of the R&B megastar give way to immense pride in every activist, survivor, journalist and film-maker who took on and defeated this wolf in wolf’s clothing

Leila Latif

03, Apr, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Girl in the Picture review – the scale of the true-crime monstrosity will leave you reeling
The awful revelations in Skye Borgman’s documentary about a seeming hit-and-run are utterly staggering – yet it still treats the victims with a rare sensitivity

Lucy Mangan

06, Jul, 2022 @9:31 AM

Article image
Worn Stories review – a well spun yarn about the clothes that define us
This Netflix doc, based on Emily Spivak’s bestseller, weaves insightful narratives around different items of clothing

Lucy Mangan

01, Apr, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Mothers on the Edge review – Louis Theroux, more perturbed than ever before
This fascinating documentary explores a rare and woefully little known phenomenon of new motherhood – and leads Theroux to interrogate himself

Lucy Mangan

12, May, 2019 @9:01 PM

Article image
A House Made of Splinters review – this extraordinary film about Ukrainian kids is almost too hard to bear
This documentary follows four vulnerable children in a care home in Ukraine, doing their best to get by as the bleak spectre of a state orphanage – and war – looms

Jack Seale

08, Nov, 2022 @10:55 PM

Article image
The Job Interview review: we all need a bit of Lorraine in our lives
Amid the stress, horror and humiliation of the job-search nightmare, Lorraine Kitchen, head of HR at Low Cost Vans, was a ray of light. Meanwhile, the new series of Child Genius wasn’t nearly as clever as it thought it was

Lucy Mangan

13, Jul, 2016 @5:59 AM

Article image
Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America review – David Harewood’s interviews are puzzlingly shallow
This look at the icons of Black creativity in the US sees the actor on infectious form. But he fails to offer any insight on complex issues – leaving this documentary feeling jolly, but bland

Leila Latif

30, Mar, 2023 @9:00 PM

Article image
Nelly and Nadine: Ravensbrück, 1944 Storyville review – a radical tale of lesbian love in a concentration camp
Through startlingly poetic memoirs and intimate footage of a woman discovering her grandmother’s incredible life, this documentary delivers a gut punch of a story

Rachel Aroesti

25, Apr, 2023 @10:30 PM