K's Reviews > Columbine

Columbine by Dave Cullen
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's review
Apr 25, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: audiobooks, readablenonfiction, intense-sad-dark-or-bleak, thought-provoking, we-re-all-going-to-hell
Recommended to K by: goodreads
Recommended for: People with strong stomachs - if you can handle the subject matter, it's a worthwhile read

The classmate you think you know may be a killer.

The lunatic ranting on the internet may actually be serious.

You can raise a child thinking you're giving him a normal home, even believing your relationship with him to be "close," and not know who your child is or what evil he is capable of.

A psychologist can give a teenage patient a clean bill of health only to have him turn around and shoot up a school.

You can read newspapers and feel like you understand what went on, only to discover that vital facts were misreported and/or misinterpreted.

The police force who is ostensibly there to protect you may get caught up in bureaucracy, minimize actual threats, and worse, engage in a major cover-up after the fact.

And if that's not enough uncertainty for you -- you (or your child) can go to school one day suspecting nothing and, a few short hours later, be dead, seriously wounded, or at best, traumatized and forever changed.

This book was a powerful and harrowing read. Not for the weak of stomach; I took off one star because the intensity was a bit much for me at times. If you can handle the subject matter, though, I think it's an example of great journalism, informative and provocative.
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Reading Progress

April 25, 2010 – Started Reading
April 25, 2010 – Shelved
April 25, 2010 – Shelved as: audiobooks
April 25, 2010 – Shelved as: readablenonfiction
Finished Reading
April 26, 2010 – Shelved as: intense-sad-dark-or-bleak
April 29, 2010 – Shelved as: thought-provoking
December 23, 2010 – Shelved as: we-re-all-going-to-hell

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Rachayl (new)

Rachayl I just saw this article today also which made me similarly overwhelmed by the volatile state of adolescence: http://www.slate.com/id/2252543/

message 2: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K Thanks for passing on that interesting article! Were we this bad?

message 3: by Rachayl (new)

Rachayl I think by the time we met we were already mature and impervious to peer pressure, with a healthy sense of self-worth. Speaking for myself, hahaha! But never this bad. Still, I wonder sometimes how facebook etc. would have enhanced or exacerbated our social lives at that age.

message 4: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K Fascinating. I remember elementary school as being truly awful, but high school was okay for me; pretty much everyone had their group of friends, and if bullying was a problem, I was unaware of it. It's true that having internet and facebook and all that might have made things a little more complicated. It's interesting to think about.

message 5: by Ariella (new)

Ariella What is the message of this book? From your review, it seems pretty dismal. That despite what we as parents think we know, we actually don't know anything and therefore major tragedy can occur. So, what is the point? Of the book, of parenting, of school, of life?

By the way, I liked elementary school much better than highschool. Most of what I remember today (be in Jewish or secular topics) I learned in elementary school.

message 6: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K I'm not sure whether I would say that there was a particular message to the book. I view the book as a work of journalism, meant ultimately to describe and inform rather than to suggest. The book basically described the events of the Columbine school shooting, what came before, and what came after, in copious detail -- the lives of Eric and Dylan pre-Columbine, the effects of the tragedy on the community, some of the dramatic surivival and death stories, the involvement of the police force, the media, etc.

A lot of what I personally got out of the book, which is really ironic because my feelings about postmodernism are so ambivalent, is the idea that what we assume to be truth can in fact be a construction that evolves in people's minds and then takes a life of its own as a collective consciousness, obscuring the reality. There was a whole lot in the book about how the media and various citizens ended up distorting the facts of Columbine, sometimes understandably, and how in people's minds, that became the reality. The idea that Eric and Dylan were bullied (actually, they were the bullies), the story of Cassie Bernall's affirming her faith in Jesus to the killer before being shot (never happened, but somehow the story went around and didn't die, even in the face of convincing counter-evidence), etc. We also tend to assume that people like Eric and Dylan grew up in dysfunctional homes, but the evidence in their case is very much to the contrary. So that was something that struck me a lot -- how you can really not know what the truth is, including the truth about the child you raised for 18 years.

There was also a really excellent section on psychopathy, which was especially fascinating to me because I worked in a psychiatric hospital where the "sick vs. evil" distinction was often very murky. I was left with some questions, though. The book seems to assume that Eric was a psychopath and that Dylan was suicidally depressed, and offers much evidence for that. In their last video, when Eric expresses remorse about how his parents will suffer for his deeds, that's presumed to be further evidence of Eric's psychopathy and pathological lying (if he was truly regretful, he wouldn't have done it; he still could have backed out at that point). I thought it was odd, though, that Dylan expressed absolutely no remorse despite being frequently described as "conflicted" about whether or not to go through with the shooting and just offered his parents a quick "good-bye" the morning that he knew he would never see them again. To me, Dylan comes across as the one truly lacking in conscience from that perspective. Oh, well -- sorry to go off on that tangent; it's just that that's really been bothering me since I finished the book.

So anyway, while the events of the book were certainly dismal, I felt that the book explored them in an interesting and provocative way and tried to get to the bottom of all the myths surrounding this dramatic event, opening up a lot of questions about what we assume to be truth.

Re. elementary school vs. high school, my misery in elementary school was more social than educational. My elementary education, at least the secular studies, was far superior to my high school education (although my religious studies were much better in high school).

message 7: by Ariella (new)

Ariella The elementary school I learned alot in by the way (just to relate two separate conversations) was not the one I went to in Edison. It was ASHAR in Monsey. That is where I spent most of my elementary school life and where I learned a great deal. The elementary school in Edison, was not quite as good. (let's just leave it at that).

So- this book gets down the facts, eliminates some myths and opens up a lot of questions- all about a very tough issue. OK. I got it.

message 8: by Rachayl (new)

Rachayl I think reading this review, just after having read the article about the bullying law, made me realize that sometimes kids are just too hard to figure out. The parents, peers, teachers, and psychologists who knew Eric and Dylan before the incident were reasonably responsible people, most likely; to predict the danger would have required them to be unusually paranoid. The very specific bullying law tries to spell out an appropriate threshold of bad interpersonal behavior at which teachers should involve themselves. It's a good effort and maybe it'll help someone, but a teen who was driven to suicide might have gotten to that point even without a red-light level of bullying.
It's always good to look back, try to learn, try to increase general mental health among kids, if only because the effort shows them that someone cares about them. But when, after a tragedy, people try to talk about how it could have been prevented- you tend to come to the conclusion that it probably couldn't have been. Since I prefer to live without paranoia, or guilt, that conclusion actually makes me feel better.

message 9: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K Well put. I agree.

message 10: by Skylar (last edited May 07, 2010 06:05AM) (new)

Skylar Burris "So that was something that struck me a lot -- how you can really not know what the truth is, including the truth about the child you raised for 18 years."

Probably they didn't expect their kids to shoot up a school, but do you think the parents really didn't know they were serious trouble makers? I mean, they were juvenile delinquents, arrested and convicted of felony theft. Numerous complaints were filed with the sherriff's office for violent threats made by Harris. They had a blog with violent threats against students and teachers and instructions on how to make explosives. Having read this book, you can tell me if these are myths or not, but I believe these kids were delinquents and bullies, and surely their parents were aware of that fact at least. Yet people do act as though their violence was an utter surprise with no precursors that came from absolutely nowhere. Am I wrong about this? I know there have been a lot of myths circulating. When someone keeps a website on how to blow things up, steals tools, and makes violent threats against people, I don't know that you have to be particularly "paranoid" to predict impending violence.

I got bullied in elementary school but never in high school. High school was much more academically focused and academically competitive than elementary school, however, and it was bigger and easier to find a niche.

message 11: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K Very good points, Skylar. It's true -- the boys were in some trouble and had been arrested. Many of their delinquent activities were successfully concealed (which might be partially a function of supervision failures by the parents but not entirely, I think), but they were in fact felons and this should have been a red flag to their parents. Their parents enrolled the boys in a counseling program, where the boys (Eric more so than Dylan) easily convinced their counselors that they were completely reformed and all set to be model citizens. The counselors, who were trained professionals, bought into this act; I can't blame the boys' parents for buying into it as well. I'm sure that in that position (God forbid), I'd be desperate to believe any evidence that my child was really not a delinquent and had a future.

There were signs of trouble that people noticed, for example, English class essays by Eric (or maybe Dylan? Or both?) with heavily graphic violent content that disturbed teachers. It's true that their violence was not completely out of the blue. At the same time, I think that nobody anticipates something like this. A lot of the signs that we notice are with the benefits of 20-20 hindsight; at the time, you can see things like this and not necessarily assume that these kids will then go and shoot up their school.

I had very similar experiences to yours in elementary school and high school. I see my kids now having less-than-happy experiences socially in elementary school, and of course I do what I can for them but I also tell them (and myself) that things will improve in a few years.

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