It’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.