Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Although 9/11 and Virginia Tech might ring a little louder in our ears in 2010, I will always remember coming home from school on April 20, 1999, turning on CNN, and trying to make sense of the footage at Columbine High School, both horrified and unable to take my eyes of the screen. Dave Cullen, a journalist for Salon and The New York Times, was one of the first people to report on the shootings, and nine years later, his book, Columbine, recounts the entire story of the murders.

Though this book is not nearly as well-written as In Cold Blood or as compelling as Helter Skelter, Columbine is a thorough account of the events leading up to the shooting, the murders themselves, and their awful aftermath. Cullen describes how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold initially planned on blowing up the school entirely; they had set nearly 100 bombs throughout the Cafeteria , in the common areas, and in their cars, which, if they had been successful, would have killed practically every person on campus. When the bombs didn't go off, Harris simply took to the top of the hill and started shooting at random. Though the spree would only last forty-five minutes, (until Harris and Klebold returned to the Library where the bodies of the ten people they murdered lay to commit suicide) that day, 15 people would die.

I, for one, didn't know about the bombs until I read this book. Cullen also recounts the myths of Christian martyrdom that flowed through Littleton, Colorado, after the murders, Cassie Bernall's being the most famous. Yes, myths. Apparently, according to eyewitness accounts and testimony from most of the kids in the Library, it was Val Schnurr, not Cassie, who answered "yes" when Harris asked her if she believed in God. Though she had been injured, she survived. Cassie, on the other hand, had no chance to say anything to Eric before he shot her in the head as she hid under the table, her hand also wounded as she tried to shield her face from the blast.

Most moving in Cullen's account is the struggle of the parents of the children murdered and injured that day. Some blame the parents of the killers, only the killers themselves, or blame no one at all. One, who had struggled with mental illness, walked into a pawn shop, asked to see a gun, and when the attendant stepped away, loaded it and shot herself in the head while her daughter was still recovering from her wounds at the hospital. Cullen also describes the Klebold's confusion and pain over Dylan's actions, and how difficult it was to bury him without an uprising from the community.

Eric Harris was a textbook psychopath. His journals indicate as such. Both he and Klebold had been arrested for theft. Harris' parents, in particular, his father, Wayne (a Marine) recognized how sick he was and tried to get him help, first through therapy, and then through a more strict, rehab-like program. He passed the program with flying colors, just a few weeks before he would go on a murderous rampage. Cullen suggests that Dylan, a depressive love-sick loner, was drawn to Eric because he offered a release from his pain.

Columbine is an engaging, impressive book of investigative journalism. Cullen does very little speculating: all the quotations in quotes in the book are actual, cited quotations, and they make up most of the dialogue. If you are looking for a compelling summer true-crime read, this is your book. But don't expect to be uplifted by it. Aside from classifying Eric as a psychopath (using the DSM IV), Cullen doesn't try to explain why he thinks Eric and Dylan did it, or attempt to "make sense" of the tragedy. Even in this thorough accounting of the events, there is no answer to the question "Why?"


Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, Jessica. I appreciate you spreading the word.

There's much more about the book and the tragedy on my Columbine site. I recently added videos for book clubs or classing, covering topics like the structure of the book, and characters. For schools and book clubs, I will skype in for 20-30 minutes this fall.

Snobber said...


Thanks so much for stopping by. I really did enjoy the book.

Dave Cullen said...

You're welcome. Word of mouth is key with books, so it's nice to see you reaching people.

gm said...

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Snobber said...


Thanks for your comment, and thank you for bringing another Columbine title to light.

I imagine Mr. Cullen asserts that Dylan and Eric may have not been the social rejects that they've been characterized as in the media because they did have friends, and perhaps, dates. Who knows about their virginity, really. All in all it must be difficult for a journalist to lock down their popularity before the shooting. Anything their peers would have to say about them would be influenced by the events of 4/20.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, snobber. I have to say I've been surprised and puzzled by the fascination a few people have taken with Eric's virginity--particularly gm, who published the book he's promoting there, and the op-ed columnist who wrote both pieces he cites (a former colleague of Jeff's at the Rocky). It didn't seem particularly relevant to me.

What is important, and clearly evident, is what you said: that the two boys had quite a healthy social life and circle of friends--nothing like the outcasts they were portrayed.

Anonymous said...

wow! i am shocked i just heard about this today i have sympathy fro the familes who lost loved ones.i know how you would feel .this was a real dissapointmnt and i hope never occurs again :( may God help you :) ~little kurdistan~