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Cannonball Read 2 #32: Columbine by Dave Cullen

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I am fascinated by disasters. I know more about shipwrecks, fires, and molasses floods than anyone I know. I love the historical context, the idea that disaster brings out both the best and worst in people. However, I like my disasters in the past--a past where men wear watch fobs and women wear corsets and people travel by buggy--basically, a past so distant to me it might as well be another planet. I am not quite as comfortable when the disaster occurred during my lifetime--for example my review of 1 Dead in Attic, a series of essays written about the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. However, that still seemed pretty foreign--I've never been to Louisiana, and have no real reference as to how that whole thing might feel. Columbine was different.

I was a junior in high school on April 20, 1999. I remember when the news reports of the massacre in Colorado started trickling in--this was in the days before cell phones were everywhere, before texting, Twitter, and Facebook allowed information to pass almost instantaneously across the country. Columbine was not the first school shooting, but up until that time it was the biggest. We heard rumors--there were two shooters! Three! Five! They were a gang of goth misfits striking back at the jocks! There were guns! Bombs! Fires!--and we wondered. Some kids' parents came and took them out of school for the afternoon. The following year, they ran a "disaster drill" to determine police reaction times and school policies (as a member of the drama club, I was there to play "terrified student"--most of us who participated thought that any gunman with half a brain could easily kill significantly more of us than we suspected). One of my friends got hassled by the administration because he looked like a goth and had an attitude problem, a kid in my math class got arrested for having bomb-making materials in his car. This particular disaster actually EFFECTED me, which is why reading about it was so disconcerting and uncomfortable.

Dave Cullen has used his incredible research and interview skills to put together a portrait of the killers based on their own writings, videos, and history. He's interspersed the tale of their plan to kill with the lead-up and aftermath of their deadly spree, interviewing witnesses, police officers, FBI agents, religious leaders, scientists, and psychologists. He tries to lay out all the available facts (so much of what came out as "fact" at the time was merely distortions of distortions passed from one news outlet to the next until the story was universally accepted) and create a timeline of what happened and when. He talks about the reactions of survivors, the struggle the kids of Columbine HS made to return to normal and cope with everything they'd seen. Cullen tracks the police cover-up, trying to document what they knew and when, analyzing whether they might have been able to prevent the tragedy if they'd acted on the information they had. With the help of a friend--a psychologist who worked for the FBI and who happened to be one of the first on-scene because his son was a freshman at Columbine High--the author examines the two boys' history to try and figure out if anyone could have averted this deadly spree.

At the heart of his book, Dave Cullen tries to pin down the most elusive piece of the tragedy: why? What had driven two teenagers from relatively average backgrounds to attempt to kill every one of their peers? Who were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold really? Were they misunderstood loners? Monsters? Pliable teens driven to a horrific act by Marilyn Manson or video games or violent movies or bullies? Cullen sifts through their journals, their videos, their interactions with friends to try and give us a complete picture of who these two were before they pulled on their trench coats, strapped on their guns, and set out to create havoc and destruction. The author tries to be totally objective, though it's hard not to react to the two boys. Harris was a textbook psychopath: charming, manipulative, deceptive, sadistic, and with a totally out of control sense of superiority. He is clearly the driving force, the villain of the piece, if it must have one. Klebold, on the other hand, seems like more typical teenager--mired in suicidal depression and uncontrollable mood swings, he seems to have been swept into Harris's fantasy world and grasped on to it as a way out. He's still a loathed figure of anger and destruction, but by his own words he's also shown to be confused and pathetic. Sometimes as I read I found myself feeling sorry for him, having to remind myself that he helped kill 13 people and injure more than a dozen more.

The style of the book is as objective as possible, and the author does everything he can to avoid injecting himself or his opinions into the narrative. Judging by the extensive notes and bibliography section, the nine years he spent writing the book were spent researching in great depth. The writing is clear and simple--it does not try to shock, but instead to convey as much information as possible. I was pleased to discover the book has no photos -- that would have been exploitative, in my opinion. On the whole, though I can't say I exactly enjoyed the book, I thought it was worth reading. Dave Cullen did his best to explain what happened and give the possible reasons why. Columbine takes a dark and confusing monster from my generation's past and shines a light on it, exposing it as nothing more than humanity gone awry.


starviego said…
Despite what Cullen claims, there were definitely more involved than just Harris and Klebold. Don’t believe me? Just ask the eyewitnesses:
Lisa said…
So much of what Cullen has written about Columbine isn't really "fact" either. His questionable research has led too many people to think of his book as the "definitive" work on Columbine, which is most unfortunate in my opinion. I urge anyone who's read Cullen's book to not stop there. There are three other books on the same subject that I would consider to be better/more factual than Cullen's book. They are No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine by Brooks Brown, Columbine: A True Crime Story by Jeff Kass and Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin.

Also worth checking out (if you haven't already) are several negative reviews of Cullen's book at Amazon, both written by people who are very well informed on the subject of the Columbine massacre:

Even though it's now been 11 years since the Columbine massacre occurred I'm glad that people haven't forgotten, that there are still people asking questions and seeking the truth. I'm just sorry that there are so many who think they're getting the truth from Dave Cullen's book. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
gm said…
Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal
Dave Cullen said…
Thanks for the really thoughtful review of my book, Caustic. It was really well done.

(And sorry about the entourage who follow me around with google alerts.)

An expanded paperback edition of Columbine is just out. I spent a lot of time on the new material, so I hope it's OK to mention what we added:

— A 12-page afterword: “Forgiveness.” It includes startling new revelations on the killers' parents. The purpose, though, was to look at three victims in very different places 11 years later, and how forgiving played a pivotal role in their grief. I discovered the secret meetings with the killers' parents in the process.

— Actual journal pages from Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold.

— Book Club Discussion Questions (also available at

— Diagram of Columbine High School and environs.

— A large-print edition is also now available.

Thanks again.
Josie said…
I'm reading Columbine right now (the expanded edition the author mentioned above) and I can't put it down. Really gripping and well researched, and it definitely reminded me of how terrifying it was back when it happened. Well done, Mr. Cullen.
Dave Cullen said…
Thanks, Josie. I appreciate hearing that.

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