Columbine by Dave Cullen

[16 April 2009]

By Kirby Fields

If the 10-year anniversary of the school shooting that came to define all school shootings isn’t enough to argue for the relevance of Dave Cullen’s excellent new book, Columbine, then consider the following timeline: On 26 April of this year, an expelled student in Germany returned to his school where he shot and killed 16 people; on 8 March, a shooting at a church in Indiana left one dead and two injured; two days later, an Alabama man killed 11 more people, all of whom he believed had “done him wrong”. After a three-week break from such sensational violence, 29 March saw eight people gunned down in a nursing home in North Carolina. The oldest resident who was killed was 98; the youngest, 78.

And, lest we forget, 16 April marks only the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, which left 32 dead, more than double Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s total. The Virginia Tech murderer was a man named Seung-Hui Cho. He admired Harris and Klebold.

Sadly, Cullen’s book has as much currency today as it would have had it been published in the late ‘90s, when towns like Bethel, Alaska, West Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, were making the headlines for reasons that no community would ever want.

Cullen is a Denver-based journalist who covered Columbine for Slate from the beginning. He has published more than 25 articles on the subject, including four in the first seven days after the shooting. As he mentions in his “Author’s Note on Sources”, the book is the result of “hundreds of interviews with most of the principals, examination of more than 25,000 pages of police evidence, countless hours of video and audiotape, and the extensive work of other journalists I consider reliable”. The research took nearly a decade.

In addition, Cullen meticulously includes a key in his “Note” that differentiates his use of quotation marks from his use of italics (the former is more exact than the latter). Lines that suggest speculation—for example, “It’s a safe bet that Eric and Dylan watched the carnage of Waco and Oklahoma City on television”—are noteworthy only because they are so infrequent. The book exudes such confidence that it wouldn’t so much as break a sweat under questioning. The author’s expertise, coupled with his transparency, creates a voice that is more than just credible. It is authoritative.

In the hours after the boys stormed the school, the heat of myth cooled into fact, and one of the most important uses that Cullen finds for his voice is the exposure of inaccuracies that have been accepted as gospel since day one. Remember Harris and Klebold’s membership in the so-called “Trench Coat Mafia”, that marauding group of outcasts who were dead set on avenging the merciless taunting they had endured at the hands of the school jocks? Not true. Remember Cassie Bernall, the angelic blonde who chose on that fateful day to profess her faith in the face of death and who ended up paying the ultimate price for this choice? Also, not true. Remember Hitler’s birthday, the boys’ dubious sexuality, their desire to hunt down minorities? Also, all not true. Hell, according to Cullen, Columbine High School isn’t even in Littleton.

In a chapter called “Media Crime”, Cullen pins these and other misconceptions on the media, which he believes is responsible, at least in part, for creating rather than reporting the story. During that chaotic afternoon, no one was more mindful of the media’s claims than the students themselves, and their interviews with reporters would often parrot what they had seen on TV, which meant that the media was essentially its own source. But why restrict this wag-the-dog indictment to a single chapter? In a way, the whole book functions as a kind of mea culpa, personally on behalf of Cullen himself and, by extension, collectively on behalf of the media as a whole. “To avoid injecting myself into the story, I generally refer to the press in the third person”, he writes. “But in the great media blunders during the initial coverage of this story, where nearly everyone got the central factors wrong, I was among the guilty parties. I hope this book contributes to setting the story right”.

Structurally, Columbine begins on the Friday before Homecoming (and the massacre) as the popular principal Mr. DeAngelis, known as Mr. D, urges his students to enjoy themselves on Saturday night but also to be responsible. “I want to see each and every one of your bright, smiling faces again Monday morning,” Mr. D says, before leading the assembly in a rallying cry of “We are…COL-um-BINE!” The book then alternates between chapters that provide the immediate context for Eric and Dylan and those that do the same for Eric and Dylan’s eventual victims, people like Coach Dave Sanders, Patrick Ireland, and the aforementioned Cassie Bernall. 

We learn that Eric and Dylan worked at Blackjack Pizza, that Eric read Nietzsche and Shakespeare, and that Dylan had gone on a campus visit to the University of Arizona with his dad. We learn that Coach Sanders enjoyed Diet Coke and rum, that Patrick’s date to the prom was his second choice, that Cassie wasn’t going to the prom at all. We learn that Mr. D held slovenliness in such contempt that he had cameras installed in the cafeteria to monitor which students picked up after themselves and which did not.

Then, on page 40, the massacre begins.

Cullen’s portrayal of the shooting feels less like a description cobbled together after-the-fact and more like a real-time tour. Even if you remember the broad strokes from the original reports, you will be riveted by this account that both confirms and expands upon what you already know. This is miss-your-subway-stop reading, at once a page turner and unfathomably horrible. Cullen relates the action in brief sections that are themselves embedded in short chapters. The effect is that the day unfolds as you are reading in the same frenetic way that it did 10 years ago. During the description of Patrick Ireland’s ordeal—Ireland would go on to become known as “The Boy in the Window” on account of throwing himself out of the second-story window on national TV—I almost had to put the book down. The experience was that uncomfortable. Then I thought, “My, god. If I can’t even read about it, what must they have felt?”

Consider the scene when the investigators finally find their way to the library: “The tabletops were oddly undisturbed: books open, calculus problems under way, a college application half-completed. A lifeless boy still held a pencil. Another had collapsed beside a PC, which was still running, undisturbed”. These kinds of kick-in-the-gut details dot every page of this section.

The problem is that the description of the shooting concludes on page 98, which is the end of Part I of V. The rest of the book can fairly—if simplistically—be referred to as “the aftermath”, and as an examination of the degree to which a traumatic experience can either rally or destroy both individuals and communities, the other two-thirds of Columbine is fascinating in its own right; however, the book never again feels as compulsory as it does in its first 100 pages. Once it lets you exhale, it doesn’t again take your breath away. And, really, why should it? The “Columbine” of the title takes its meaning from the shooting. Nothing is bigger than that. Nothing should be. Which is not to belittle the other parts of the story that earn Cullen’s attention—the appropriation of Cassie’s story, the struggles of Patrick Ireland, or the failures of Jeffco (a shorthand that refers to the area’s mostly incompetent law enforcement); rather, it is to acknowledge that the climax of the story occurred on 20 April. Everything thereafter is dénouement.

Cullen himself seems aware of this problem. His solution for maintaining the tension is part ingeniousness and part cheat: He relates Eric and Dylan’s suicide in the first third, but he withholds the play-by-play until the book’s end. In this way, he (1) provides an incentive for the reader to reach the end and (2) gets the emotional impact of the shooting twice.

Since much of the actual aftermath focused on piecing together whatever in the world could have driven these two boys to do such a thing, Cullen devotes significant portions of Parts II–V to this question. Look elsewhere, however, if you are interested in rehashing tired arguments about the influence of Doom, Marilyn Manson, or the NRA (these three alleged perps appear on a total of 11 pages). And don’t bother sniffing here if you’re looking for confirmation that the parents were at fault (the Klebolds are ultimately sympathetic figures; the Harrises, maddeningly inscrutable to the end). Instead, Cullen goes right to the source, drawing extensively from the boys’ own writing to weave a narrative that charts their development from run-of-the-mill, angst-ridden, socially awkward, hormonally confused teenagers to killers of the most monstrous kind.

Eric’s transformation is the most horrifying. Cullen demonstrates how far Eric descends by first citing an essay that Eric wrote called “Just a Day”. In the essay, Eric described the fishing trips that he would take with his dad and his brother. “The mountains were always peaceful, a certain halcyon hibernating within the tall peaks & the armies of pine trees,” he wrote. “It seemed back then that when the world changed, these mountains would never move.” Granted, even a meditative moment such as this is disrupted by the resentment he feels toward “a few repulsive suburbanite a$$holes” who “seemed to ruin the serenity of the lake”, but it’s hard to believe that this is the same kid who would later write in his journal, “I want to tear a throat out with my own teeth like a pop can ... I want to grab some weak little freshman and just tear them apart like a fucking wolf. strangle [sic] them, squish their head, rip off their jaw, break their arms in half, show them who is god”.

Cullen faces a daunting task in connecting the dots between the halcyon Eric and the bloodthirsty one. To his credit, he makes the steps along the way seem almost logical: graduating from fireworks to bombs, posting hitlists on his Web site, using his school assignments as a way to investigate gun laws. Yet, despite fitting all of the pieces of the puzzle just so, Cullen still can’t resist a diagnosis: Eric is a psychopath. Not a psychopath in a casual “boy, he’s crazy” kind of way, but, rather, a psychopath in an official, clinical sense. He has a doctor to back him, an FBI agent named Dr. Fuselier who is a leading expert in domestic terrorism and hostage negotiations and whose son, remarkably, was trapped in the school that day. And, if you need more, Cullen includes a whole chapter on the subject, “Chapter 40: Psychopath”, which, kindly, could be considered a short dissertation on the subject and, unkindly, could be subtitled “Psychopathology for Dummies”.

By all accounts, the diagnosis is accurate. Eric is a psychopath. His “fundamental nature ... is a failure to feel”. But slapping a label on him doesn’t exactly clear things up. It isn’t as satisfying as you might think. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. The belief is that once we name it, we are able to understand it, to make sense of it, which is simply not true. Eric remains just as inaccessible as he was before we christened his disorder. What’s even more frustrating is that offering a textbook definition of what ails him only further confirms the futility of any kind of preventive action. The question of how psychopathy can be treated is answered in two discouraging words: “nothing works”.

I realize that my resistance to this conclusion could be construed as me resisting the implications of the diagnosis rather than the diagnosis itself. Perhaps I don’t want to believe in a world in which “nothing works”. And, frankly, maybe there’s a little of that in there. But, more to the point at hand, my resistance is also to Cullen definitively concluding anything at all. It’s a bold gesture, to be sure, one that must be tempting for a man who knows more about Columbine than perhaps anyone else in the world. But so much of the book fleshes out the complexity of the issue that it feels overly tidy when we learn that everything can be accounted for in a mere seven pages. 

And, no, I am not suggesting that psychopathology is simple or something to be taken lightly. But could any explanation really provide clarity or, even more ambitiously, closure? After reading Cullen’s book and wrestling with the issue myself, I actually understand the impulse to blame Manson. Doing so makes about as much sense as anything else.

Ultimately, though, Columbine isn’t nearly as unsatisfying as its conclusions about Eric Harris. It’s not In Cold Blood, as its promoters would like you to believe, but it is an exquisitely researched, deeply considered treatment of an event that has heretofore fought a losing battle with sensationalism.

In fact, in the week since I’ve started writing this review, three more shootings have received national recognition, the most prominent among them in Binghamton, New York, where a man first barricaded the back exit with his car and then went on a shooting rampage in an immigration-services center. When it was all over, 14 people were dead, including the shooter.

They all deserve someone like Dave Cullen to take an interest.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/72797-columbine-by-dave-cullen/