Matt's Reviews > Columbine

Columbine by Dave Cullen
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's review
Apr 26, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, journalism, true-crime
Read in April, 2009

I was a senior in high school on April 20, 1999. I thought the same thoughts as every other student in the country: could it happen here? who among my classmates are potential threats? what would I do?

The Columbine Massacre remains the most famous school shooting in history. It goes beyond body counts. It wasn't the first shooting, it wasn't the last, and after Virginia Tech, it isn't the worst. Something about it, though, stands out. It marked an evolution in youth violence - a horrible melding of mass murder and 24-hour cable news.

Dave Cullen, who has written extensively for Salon (one of my favorite procrastination tools) has been following the Columbine massacre from the beginning to the present-day. While other journalists were chasing Trench Coat Mafia rabbits down Goth/Marilyn Manson rabbit holes, Cullen was actually seeking, you know, the truth. While every talking-head jabbered about bullies, jocks-as-targets, Cassie the Martyr, and violent video games, Cullen was steadily debunking each of these myths with a time honored journalistic tool called "actually discovering the facts."

The result of Cullen's 10 years of research and writing is Columbine, an insightful, clear-eyed, at times graphic, at times infuriating book.

Columbine has clear aspirations to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, complete with needless geographic descriptions and a halfhearted attempt to evoke the community of Littleton (and the surrounding area, since Columbine High wasn't technically located in Littleton).

The book's structure is odd. It certainly shies away from a linear narrative, opting instead to jump forwards and backwards through times. Events are mentioned, then left unexplained, to be picked up later in the story. Clearly, Cullen was attempting to glean some power from fracturing the story line, reserving the telling of certain events for a time when they would have the most impact within the story. Sometimes it works, as in this portentous passage early in the book:

School plays were big for Dylan. He would never want to face an audience, but backstage at the soundboard, that was great. Earlier in the year, he'd rescued Rachel Scott, the senior class sweetheart, when her tape jammed during the talent show. In a few days, Eric would kill her.

Aspirations aside, Cullen is no Capote. What he lacks in novelistic flair and literary ability, however, he makes up for in journalistic integrity (which Capote sneered at). Cullen tracks down inaccuracies and myths like a bloodhound. If you thought you knew Columbine, you probably didn't; the story you've known for the last 10 years is wrong. Erick and Dylan weren't bullied - they were bullies. They were both extremely smart, were popular, had friends, dated girls, enjoyed sports, and had good parents. They weren't part of the Trench Coat Mafia. They weren't Goths. They didn't have lists. The genius of this book is it's reconsideration of Dylan and Eric. Cullen's voluminous research leads him to the conclusion that Dylan was depressive and suicidal, a tortured mind who filled journals with hearts and the word "love"; Eric was a clinical psychopath: a cold-blooded mastermind, with Mohammad Atta's single-mindedness and Ramzi Yousef's inability to make a bomb. Eric wanted to kill everyone - the whole world - but his high school would do. Dylan wanted to kill himself. Eric provided Dylan the means to an end; Dylan provided Eric with the spark to keep planning.

We learn of the magnitude of the plot. Eric didn't want to kill a discrete number of people. He wanted to kill them all. His bombs were meant to slaughter 500 in the cafeteria; then, he and Dylan would wait outside, picking off the survivors as they came out. When the bomb fizzled, Eric the psychopath improvised, dragging a possibly bipolar Dylan Klebold along for the bloody ride.

We learn of the failures and duplicity of the Jefferson County Sheriff's department. If you still believe in electing sheriffs after this book, you will be dissuaded.

If the book serves an overarching purpose, it should be one of journalistic integrity. The media response to this story was, to paraphrase a famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to print the legend. For instance, Cullen writes about witness unreliability: how, in a stressful situation, a person isn't able to see an entire picture; later, after the situation, the person will fill in the cognitive gaps with other memories, creating an entirely new memory that didn't happen. This is normal. Reporters, however, have to be aware of this. Failing to do so led to the myth of the jocks-as-targets. Cullen highlights this in the testimony of Bree Pasquale.

Bree described the library horror in convincing detail. Radio and television stations replayed her testimony relentlessly: 'They were shooting anyone of color, wearing a white hat, or playing a sport,' she said. 'And they didn't care who it was and it was all at close range. Everyone around me got shot...'

The point, of course, is that the first clause directly contradicts the second clause (that is, she first says they were shooting specific targets, then says they were shooting "everyone"). A good journalist - indeed, anyone with a grasp of English - should know this. The media, however, decided that the "target list" was a better story.

Cullen also - and controversially - debunks the Cassie "She Said Yes" Bernall myth. The Cassie of legend was asked whether she believed in God; she said yes and died. The Cassie of reality was, according to two eyewitnesses, shot in the side of the head by Eric's shotgun. She was never asked a question; likely never saw her doom. If God was in the details, it's that she probably felt nothing. Some might ask: what's the point? isn't it comforting to have our fake story? I say no, vigorously. The story is insidious in the way it takes one student - out of 12 killed - and makes her a martyr, while the rest remain helpless victims. It lifts one, and pities the others. Such victim/hero stratification has, in the wake of 9/11, become a national pastime. There is no need for us - the royal, viewing us - to dilute a tragedy by attempting to construct a hierarchy among the dead.

Cullen utterly fails at other points. He gives a blow by blow account of certain portions of the shooting. The death of Danny Rohrbrough; the suffering and death of Dave Sanders; the final moments of the killers ("Eric fired [his shotgun:] through the roof of his mouth, causing 'evacuation of the brain.' He collapsed against the books...with his arms curled forward, as if hugging an invisible pillow"). However, by jumping around in the retelling, I never got an idea, after nearly 400 pages, of what actually happened at Columbine on April 20. Then, to top it off, Cullen decides not to describe the massacre at the library at all. In the entire book, there isn't even a mention of Kyle Velasquez, the first student killed in the library. I can't figure out the reason for this elision. It's the central event of the Columbine tale, and it's excised from the telling.

Then there is my issue with the citations and notes, or lack thereof. They are horrible. Imprecise and vague. I couldn't find the "expanded notes" on line, either. Come on, Dave, you did a lot of research: show me! I spent hours looking stuff up myself on the Columbine Police Report. I had to do dozens of Google searches to find the right pages. I paid you $26.99, the least you could do is give pinpoint cites to the exact materials you used.

And would it have inconvenienced you to give some pictures, some maps? A simple diagram or two of the school would have greatly enhanced my understanding of the movements of the two shooters. And a picture or two of the people being described would have, if nothing else, aided the readers attempts towards empathy.

These are serious problems, in my opinion. But the book, in the end, is worthwhile and memorable, and filled with images that linger: the slices of pizza floating in the flooded cafeteria; Dylan's journal, filled with his ruminations on love; the two lonely killers, wandering a mostly-empty school, hoping for "suicide by cop"; Dylan's casket filled with Beanie Babies; Patrick Ireland - the boy who climbed out the window - dancing at his wedding; Linda Sanders telling about her loss: "'It's like, top Dave Sanders,' she said. 'It's not fair to another man to be compared to the man I've built. He's so high on a pedestal he's in heaven.'"

The summer before I went to college, I went to a pre-term summer session meant to familiarize freshmen with the campus. This was in July 1999. In my small group, there was a girl who mentioned she had graduated from Columbine. When she said this, we looked at her with a hush, as Dante might have looked upon Virgil. We asked no questions aloud, yet wondered, as one, what she had seen. We attributed to her a certain sacred, dark knowledge as to what lay at the edge of it all.

Dave Cullen makes a great attempt to answer the questions we never asked.

[UPDATE: On December 14, 2012, they finally came for our children.

Since Columbine, the symblolic beginning of a bloody era, gunmen have killed college students on their campuses, Christmas shoppers in their stores, worshippers in their temples, movie-goers in their theaters, and constituents at a congressional meet-and-greet.

But today, ten days before Christmas, the last line was finally crossed. This time it was the little ones they shot to death.

There are 300 million guns in America. 100,000 Americans get shot every year. 30,000 die. 32 people are murdered by guns every day. That's seven Virginia Techs in a week. We argue and debate everything in this country, but not gun control.

It's the third rail of American politics. We aren't allowed to politicize a tragedy. The NRA, typically classless following Columbine, has effectively squelched any discourse. It's been thirteen years since Colubmine, and three years since I've read Dave Cullen's book. I have a kid of my own now. And if anything gets my attention these days, it's a room full of dead kindergarteners. I think today might be the day when the 1st Amendment puts its foot down on the 2nd Amendment. And puts its foot down hard.]
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Reading Progress

03/01 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5)

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Jason I found myself wanting a map, too! And I also agree that the jumping forward and backward in time left me confused as to what exactly happened in the school that day.

Matt I know! It seems almost prurient, but Columbine is now a historical event, and a map would've helped the narrative. I stopped reading several times to look at maps online, because I felt myself getting lost.

Mari I'm about 60% through the ebook edition. And I agree. Maps would have been very handy!

Linds Great review. I agree the structure is strange. There's a lot I didn't know about Columbine.

Jennifer Your comment about "them" coming for our children brought me to tears. But lets not forget those Amish babies. They died too. And somehow the Amish found the grace to forgive the shooter and comfort his family at the funeral. I only wish I had that kind of grace and compassion.

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