Everyone has his or her own Columbine story – similar to the “Where were you when you heard JFK was shot?” question, people my age have the “Where were you when you heard about Columbine?” question – which was later replaced with the “Where were you on 9/11?” The question brings up false connections to the story – often people recall their moments of learning about the tragic school massacre, trying to one up their peers – people want a connection to these tragic stories, even if they’re far-removed from them. Columbine is no different – ask someone where he or she was on April 20th, 1999, and often that person will try to make their mundane story seem all the more gripping. There seems to be some kind of cache is having a connection to these events, no matter how indirect. Journalist Dave Cullen’s Columbine covers the events and gives voice to those who actually lived through the tragic morning when two high school students murdered 12 of their peers, one teacher, before turning their guns on themselves. In an effort to understand, the media, pundits, politicians, civic leaders and religious figures all tried to assign blame – it was violent video games! Violence on television! Marilyn Manson! The absence of school prayer in public schools! Because the murderers were two kids, people sought easy, pat answers to the why? Easy, facile hypotheses came out – they were Goths, they were closeted gays, they were bullied. Cullen’s excellent Columbine dispels all of these myths, and brings to light details that weren’t necessarily widely known.
Some favorably compared Columbine to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote’s work is considered the seminal true crime tome, before the genre was dominated by lurid, cheapo, gory rush-jobs that capitalized on sensational headlines. Like Capote, Cullen takes a novelist’s approach to recounting the story; he doesn’t fantasize, nor does he editorialize much. Instead, he takes facts, gathered from a prodigious amount of research, and pieces them together in a compelling and highly readable account. Even though readers will know how the story ends, it doesn’t make the story any less suspenseful, or tragic.
But Cullen isn’t merely interested in telling a good story – he’s also interested in telling the truth about Columbine, something that has been covered and blunted through years of media manipulation from various sources, each with its own agenda. In his quest to tell the truth, Cullen isn’t looking to assign blame or point fingers – there’s been enough of that. Instead he wants to ask questions. Namely why did the shooters – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carry on one of the most tragic and destructive acts in recent memory? And according to Cullen’s research, the answer doesn’t lie neatly in one slot.
Firstly, Cullen dispels the popular myth that Klebold and Harris were victims of abuse and bullying. This theory was warmly embraced. This led to looking at outcasts and misfits of public schools, and fearing that kids who don’t necessarily fit will end up snapping and shooting up their classmates. And that’s another myth the author takes on: that the shooting was a result of pent up anger that caused the two kids to “snap.” Cullen looks to volumes of journals from Klebold and particularly Harris, and presents a crime that was plotted and meticulously planned. This crime wasn’t an impulsive act, but an act of calculation.
Unlike Capote, Cullen didn’t have the advantage of interviewing the murderers; instead Cullen combs through an exhaustive amount of material, along with interviews with the survivors. He presents a wide range of responses from that awful day – many of the survivors were able to move on and forge successful lives and careers; other survivors weren’t as lucky – one mother of an injured student killed herself in a gun shop. Surprisingly, the victims and their survivors are a lot more forgiving towards Klebold’s and Harris’ parents than the general public – Cullen points to polls that have 80% of the participants blame the teens’ parents for the murder – the survivors and their loved ones take a more nuanced look at the situation; in fact some only found peace after forgiving the Klebolds and the Harrises.
And even though Cullen doesn’t offer any pat answers, there are some definite warning signs that were ignored by authorities and school administrators. Harris in particular had a troubled adolescence, marked by run-ins with his school and the law. His writing exhibited a fascination with violence. Cullen with the support of experts (including an FBI domestic terrorism expert) believes Harris was a psychopath, while his partner, Klebold was suicidal and miserable. These aren’t excuses for their terrible act, but possibly some answers as to why this tragedy happened.
Columbine is an engrossing read – besides being a journalist, Cullen’s a top-rate writer as well. And despite the depressing subject matter, there are singular moments of hope – mainly when he’s writing about the survivors. It’s not an easy, happy ending – and Cullen is sure to make readers understand that all doesn’t necessarily end well. He also brings up difficult questions and controversies of what was assumed about the Columbine tragedy – questions that are important to ask when looking at events like these.