On Dave Cullen’s “Columbine”
(Originally posted at my personal blog, The Kids Got Moxie, on 7/21/2010.)
“What’s amazing is how much of Cullen’s book still comes as a surprise.”
– The New York Times.
I read Dave Cullen’s masterwork, Columbine, in much the same way that I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the first time. Though I was fully aware that what I was reading was a true story, it was almost easier to believe it as a genuinely well-crafted piece of fiction. Stories like the Columbine murders and the Clutter family murders, though very much real, seem the creation of some writer’s imagination and pen.
However, these things happened.
Columbine happened in my lifetime. Heck, I was in high school when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates in April of 1999, in what was then largely reported to be a case of outcasts getting revenge on the jocks that tortured them. I’m familiar with the term “Trench Coat Mafia,” and familiar with the story of Cassie the martyr (the girl who reportedly got shot after confessing her belief in God.)
Having seen Cullen on Book TV talking about the book, it peaked my interest. Though, I admit, I approached it with serious dread and a lump in my throat, scared of what I might learn.
Yeah, this book astonished me.
I cried twice while reading it.
Cullen’s writing reminded me not only of Capote, but also of another of my non-fiction favorites: Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Both books are written by gifted journalists who are armed with unbelievable true stories about remarkable and troubled young men. (When I say ‘remarkable,’ please understand that it’s not in praise of the killers. Reading Cullen’s book offers a ton of insight into the evolution of two seemingly normal young men into two mass murderers. Though Eric Harris was a textbook psychopath, the development of Dylan Klebold from suicidal and troubled teen boy into someone who joined forces with Harris is unsettling, while being riveting.)
The media, teachers, students, parents, SWAT team, local churches, sheriffs department, and the killers themselves all get dissected. Was there a police cover-up of potential errors in the investigation? Probably. Did the media take nuggets and half-truths and run with them? Definitely. Did the parents know their boys were on the road they were on? Probably not. Did the killers – particularly Harris – show warning signs along the way? Absolutely.
You feel for the students (and teacher) who were wounded or killed in the attack. Through Cullen’s writing, it feels like you get to meet them and put names to faces. For example, you may recall the images of the young man bloodied and falling from the window at Columbine. His name is Patrick, and his story (from the day of the attack through his recovery) is told here.
It’s a horrifying book.
It’s a fascinating book.
I recommend it, highly, but not for everyone. I like non-fiction. I like trying to understand why terrible things happen. I appreciate journalists who dedicate their lives to a story or event. (Cullen has spent the years since the attack covering Columbine for both Salon and Slate, and is considered the foremost authority on Columbine.) I mean, it’s not like anyone really wants to revisit Columbine. However, this book will challenge your presumptions, shatter your illusions, and make you look at this terrible tragedy from the point of view of a sociologist, psychiatrist, and journalist.