American Culture

Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

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ColumbineIt’s one of those days of American history that lives in infamy: April 20, 1999, the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, killing twelve students and a teacher, and inuring twenty-four others, before turning their guns on themselves.

Say “Columbine” today, and nearly anyone can tell you what it means. But as journalist Dave Cullen says in his new book on the tragedy, the real story of Columbine is only now starting to become clear. Media sensationalism, police cover-ups, scapegoating, and mythmaking have all distorted the story. Cullen’s Columbine, then, represents an important historical and journalistic effort to shed light on what really happened.

Cullen starts the book by recounting the massacre from the perspective of those who lived through it. He writes a gripping narrative, showing the confusion of events without falling prey to it. He finishes the book in a similar vein, but this time he recounts events from the perspective of the shooters. The result is a retelling of a story—twice—that many readers might think they already remember from the headlines and news clips.

But the real meat of the book comes in between in all the myth-busting Cullen does. For instance, media reports painted the shooters as two misunderstood high schoolers who’d been bullied to the point that they finally snapped. Cullen demonstrates that the two hadn’t been bullied at all, and that the shooters weren’t, for instance, targeting jocks or popular kids.

Nor did the shooters “snap.” Cullen lays out evidence suggesting that Klebold and Harris had been planning the attack for nearly a year. They’d already engaged in an escalating series of vandalism missions and acts of criminal mischief. Friends heard rumors that the pair had been shooting guns and making pipe bombs. The pair leaked other clues, including an explicit short story, which no one pieced together until everyone had the lens of hindsight to look through.

Cullen delves into the personal journals the two shooters kept as well as a series of “basement tapes” they recorded. Harris, in his journal—which he called “The Book of God”—expressed festering contempt for other people and frequently spoke about extinction fantasies. Cullen provides chilling details about the true extent of the duo’s plans, which would’ve made the actual outcome of their massacre seem merciful.

Harris and Klebold, says Cullen, wanted to perform an act of “performance violence” that would be seen as “mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater,” so stunning that it would top Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. Harris and Klebold “didn’t have political agenda of terrorists but adopted their methods,” Cullen says.

While this all may seem straightforward, Cullen employs masterful storytelling techniques in his book that add powerful impact. For instance, he refers to the shooters throughout by their first names in order to personify them more vividly. He structures the book so that the story of their preparations leading to the attack is told in parallel with the stories of the community as it tries to recover and rebuild after the attack.

Cullen tells the story of Patrick Ireland, a student who crawled to safety from a second-story library window and overcame incredible odds to not only walk and talk again but to achieve his goal of being class valedictorian. He also tells the story of Cassie Bernall, who reportedly professed her faith in God to her killers just before they pulled the trigger—a story later proved false even after Cassie achieved international fame as a Christian martyr.

And there’s the story of Brooks Brown, a former friend of Harris’s. In the year prior to the shootings, Harris engaged in a campaign of harassment against Brown’s family because he thought Brown had turned on him. Despite numerous complaints against Harris, police did nothing until after the shooting—when they tried to implicate Brooks as part of the crime.

In fact, the Jefferson County Police Department comes off looking like a confederacy of fools and villains. Cullen details a decade-long cover-up by the department as it tried to hide the ways it mishandled the case.

Cullen at once captures the uplifting spirit of a community that pulls itself together after tragedy while also showing the sad, shattered pieces still left behind. The toll of the attacks aren’t just measured in lives lost but in marriages destroyed, in families broken, in public confidence broken and public anxiety heightened.

While some portions of the book are necessarily graphic, Cullen never gets gratuitous. He avoids sensationalism in an effort to show humanity. His book strives for insight and understanding—and that’s no small feat for a tragedy so hard to understand.

12 replies »

  1. On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. “Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance,” it said. “In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one.” The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

    “Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen.” –Janet Maslin, New York Times

    “A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad.” —–Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

  2. Chris, Thanks so much for that really generous review.

    I’m so glad you highlighted some of the stories of the victims and survivors, especially Patrick Ireland. I really want to give the reader several different windows into this event, because people in the center of it experienced it in completely different ways.

    I appreciate the time you put into this review, and your help in spreading the word.

  3. Dr. Slammy, thanks very much. Hearing that makes me very happy.

    The book is doing quite well (8 weeks on the NY Times list), but I’m eager to get the word out further.

    (FYI, GM is publisher of the local press that put out Kass’ book. He (GM) posts that on every blog that mentions my book, presumably after he gets his google alert. Interesting approach. There is also a conspiracy theorist who may stop by, though he seems to have gotten tired of doing it every day.)

  4. Dave, thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I’m glad you enjoyed the review–but honestly, it’s easy to write good things about a book that’s so well-researched and well-written. Thank YOU for the conscientious job you did writing what will certainly become a definitive historical document.

    If you’d like more “ink,” I’d be happy to write an additional feature if you have time to do a phone interview next week. If you want to set something up, drop me a line at cmackows@sbu.edu.

  5. Publisher trolls…what will the internet think of next? I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for the book. The event didn’t really register for me at the time. Of course, i’ve read the blah, blah, blah (and a few poignant pieces here) but this is the first time i’ve wanted to sit down and read through the event.

  6. cwmackowski, I’d love to. I’ll email. Early next week could work–I’m going back on the road. If anyone is in LA, I’ll be at Book Soup Thursday night. Longmont (near Denver) Tuesday morning. Portland is a private conference, unfortunately. I’ll be in Austin, Nashville, Chicago and Helsinki this fall. I’d love to see some of you, if you get the chance. I know it’s sporadic.

    Lex, I have to admit I tuned out most of the school shootings early on, too. They just seemed like nothing I could do about them . . . I don’t know. But as soon as I met the individuals–the survivors–the day this happened, and all that week, it turned my head around.

    I know the media tries to humanize victims by doing little 30-second TV vignettes on them, and 800-word profiles, and I appreciate the intent, but that never worked for me as a viewer/reader. I found out that the kid liked peperoni pizza, but didn’t feel I knew him. I didn’t really connect to those things, as a rule.

    That experience as a news consumer helped me figure out what I wanted to do with this book. I wanted you to get to know a smallish group of people pretty well, instead of a vast multitude of people just momentarily. I hated leaving most people out, but I hope it worked that way.

    (Shit, did I just answer a question nobody asked? hahaha. You just got me thinking. I was in the same boat ten years ago, and that guided a lot of my thinking. You can decide whether it worked, but that’s why I made those choices.)

  7. Looking forward to that interview. Columbine sounds like the first book on the subject worthy of standing with Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion by Mark Ames. (I reviewed it for S&R.)

  8. Dave, you didn’t answer a question nobody asked. You answered the one that was in my head but never asked explicitly. A book that’s just an expansion of the standard media treatment looks like a fine doorstop to me.

    This looks much different, like Going Postal. Without depth, flesh and deeper questions/conclusions, treatment of these events seems like little more than gawking at an accident scene.

  9. Dave Cullen’s book is well-written and contains interesting information not found elsewhere, but it is not the definitive, myth-busting account of the Columbine massacre it purports to be.

    Cullen claims that Eric Harris was a swaggering ladies’ man and confident social king. This assertion is ludicrous.

    Cullen writes that Eric “got lots of girls” and had sex with a 24-year-old woman named Brenda Parker. He even quotes Parker in his book. The truth is that Parker had no connection to Harris or the tragedy; she was a “fangirl” who sought attention by making up stories. She has *zero* credibility.

    Eric tried to get a date to the prom; he failed. He asked several girls, all of whom turned him down. He finally convinced a girl he met at the pizza place where he worked to spend a couple of hours at his house on the night of the prom; they watched a movie. She declined to attend the after-prom party with him, so he went alone.

    Harris was fairly short (5’8″) and very skinny, with a deformed chest due to his pelvus excavatum. As his body language in the following video (recorded in a hallway at Columbine and shown in a documentary about the massacre) demonstrates, he was no match for the larger boys he encountered on a daily basis:

    In his final journal entry, Eric wrote:

    “I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no don’t — say, “well thats your fault” because it isnt, you people had my phone #, and I asked and all, but no. no no no dont let the weird looking Eric KID come along, ohh — nooo.”

    Does that sound like someone who was confident and socially successful?

    Cullen perpetuates the long-standing myth that Dylan was a sad little emo follower who was totally led by Harris.

    The truth is that Dylan wrote about going on a killing spree before Eric.

    On Monday, November 3, 1997, Dylan wrote in his journal:

    “[edited] will get me a gun, ill go on my killing spree against anyone I want. more crazy…deeper in the spiral, lost highway repeating, dwelling on the beautiful past, ([edited] & [edited] gettin drunk) w. me, everyone moves up i always stayed. Abandonment. this room sux. wanna die.”

    He wrote “*my* killing spree”, not “*our* killing spree”.

    Those who have seen the basement tapes have said that, on them, Dylan appears far more eager and enthusiastic than Eric.

    On the tapes, Eric apologizes to his family; Dylan does not.

    On one tape, Eric is seen alone, tearing up when he thinks about his friends back in Michigan. He even turns the tape off so he will not be captured crying on camera.

    If he truly was a pure psychopath, as Cullen claims, is it likely that he would have cried while thinking about old friends?

    Cullen writes that Dylan had doubts about “going NBK” – NBK was the killers’ code word for the massacre – *during* the attack. One wonders how he came to this conclusion.

    At the school on 4/20, Dylan was the one who seemed to be enjoying himself. Eric was subdued in comparison.

    At one point, Dylan saw one of his victims writhing in pain.

    “Here, let me help you,” he said – and shot the boy in the face.

    Was that the action of someone who had doubts about what he was doing?

    This is not the forum for a thorough debunking of Cullen’s claims. The bottom line is that the book, while useful in some respects, is *not* the definitive, myth-busting account it purports to be.

    Read Mr. Cullen’s book, but also read Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass; “No Easy Answers” by Brooks Brown; “Comprehending Columbine” by Ralph Larkin; and as many other books as you can find. Read the killers’ journals and other writings (www.acolumbinesite.com is a good starting point). Read the documents (*very* begrudgingly) released by law enforcement over the years.

    Keep an open mind and remember that the “truth” is always very elusive.

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