About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

#111 - Columbine

No pat words to describe this one, folks. My 111th book of the year was Dave Cullen's Columbine (Twelve, 2009) -- a Denver-based journalist's account of the Columbine High School shootings of 1999, the repercussions (and more than occasional mistakes) that followed on the part of law enforcement and the media, and the many, unfathomable steps that led Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to commit the deadliest U.S. high school shooting in history.

Simply put, the book is devastating. It's not especially graphic until the last chapter, when Cullen takes the reader through the minute-by-minute unfolding of the nightmarish events of April 20, but nonetheless leaves images that haunt you: the first two victims' bodies lying outside the school uncovered for hours; teacher Dave Sanders bleeding to death in a science lab while waiting in vain for help; the already-depressed mother of an injured survivor committing suicide. Cullen's primary thesis seems twofold: First, much of what's become common knowledge about the Columbine tragedy is patently false. Second, related to the mythologizing of Columbine, there was no trigger. Harris and Klebold weren't goths or members of a Trench Coat Mafia, and weren't targeting jocks or African-Americans or any other identifiable group; rather, their initial intent was to blow up the entire high school, and shoot only those survivors who ran from the blast. As New York reviewer Will Leitch summarizes in this review:
"Ten years later, the Columbine High School massacre is still about nothing. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not go on a killing spree because they were picked on, or because they were pagans, or because Colorado had lax gun laws. Eric was a cunning, calculating psychopath who wanted to kill as many people as possible, and Dylan was a depressive who wanted to kill himself. That is it.

"Such information vacuums are dangerous, which is why the incident, memorialized in Dave Cullen’s new book, Columbine, continues to fascinate, horrify, and confuse. Confronted with the lack of recognizable human logic, we have provided our own, to make us feel better, to profit, to justify the way we see the world. If we are Christian, the shooting showed the imperative of others sharing our faith. If we were unpopular in high school, it cast a light on the dangerous petri dish of public schooling. If we believe in gun control, it reflected the recklessness of the gun lobby and our country’s frightening obsession with firearms.

"But none of these things had anything to do with Columbine. It was just about two boys, stupid and vain, one dangerously charismatic, the other painfully awkward and tragically impressionable. Together, they decided that murdering as many people as possible was the only logical action; the book argues convincingly that the shock of their attack does not come from the fact that they killed thirteen people but that they didn’t kill more"

The book proceeds forwards and backwards in alternating chapters. It begins with the principal addressing the student body a few days before the prom, reminding his students to celebrate safely and come back healthy and alive on Monday morning. (The irony, of course, is that they did, only to have 12 of them and a teacher be killed the next day by 2 of their classmates.) From here, we move forward through the media coverage and legal investigations that followed the massacre, exploring the chaos and confusion of that day and the apparent police maneuvering, jurisdictional wrangling, and covering-up that unfolded in subsequent years in often-excruciating detail. Cullen devotes extensive time and space to debunking some of the more persistent Columbine-related myths, particularly those concerning the killers' motives and Harris' supposed conversation with Cassie Bernall (who, according to an eyewitness, didn't have time to speak to Harris in the library before he shot her). Simultaneously, there are chapters addressing Harris's and Klebold's histories up until the shooting: Harris's likely psychopathy, Klebold's suicidal depression, and the long trail of plans and clues that went overlooked in the year or more before the attack.

New York Times reviewer Jennifer Senior alleges that "Cullen’s storytelling doesn’t approach the novelistic beauty of In Cold Blood," but as she herself admits, that may not be a fair standard of comparison. I can't speak to Truman Capote's motives, but Cullen is first and foremost a journalist, and it's in this capacity that he offers this book. Notes Senior:
"It’s to his credit that Cullen, a Denver journalist who covered the story for Salon and Slate, makes the reader care about getting it right. Columbine is an excellent work of media criticism, showing how legends become truths through continual citation; a sensitive guide to the patterns of public grief, foreshadowing many of the same reactions to Sept. 11 (lawsuits, arguments about the memorial, voyeuristic bus tours); and, at the end of the day, a fine example of old-fashioned journalism. While Cullen’s storytelling doesn’t approach the novelistic beauty of In Cold Blood (an unfair standard, perhaps, but an unavoidable comparison for a murder story this detailed), he writes well enough, moving things along with agility and grace. He leaves us with some unforgettable images — like the pizza slices floating aimlessly about the school commons, which was flooded with three inches of water because the sprinkler system had gone off — and he has a knack for the thumbnail sketch."

If you're at all interested in this grim chapter of contemporary U.S. history, I highly recommend this book. Be prepared, though, for it to stay with you in somewhat unexpected ways. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking I can't look at adolescent rage or arrogance quite the same way again.


  1. About what Mr. Leitch says in his review of "Columbine", that Eric and Dylan "didn't go on a killing spree because they were picked on": that's still a matter that's up for debate. I know from having read "Columbine" that that's the view that Dave Cullen is going with, of the shooting having been primarily caused by Eric and Dylan's mental illnesses. You should know that there are people very close to the whole thing who disagree heartily with Mr. Cullen.

    One of those people is Brooks Brown's father Randy Brown. He and his wife Judy still firmly believe that what happened at Columbine was a result of the terrible treatment that Eric and Dylan received there. You can see some of Randy Brown's comments regarding this in the customer review section for "Columbine" at Amazon.com. It's pretty interesting stuff.

    My own personal opinion is that it was probably a combination of both the bullying and of the boy's mental illnesses. I don't see why it has to be one or the other.

  2. Much of Cullen's book is up for debate: He claims Eric was one of the most popular students in school (especially with the ladies) but presents no evidence for it. The one female who claims to have had a relationship with Eric was thoroughly debunked by investigators as someone who just wanted to be a part of a big story. Cullen also claims Eric was never rejected by the Marines, but multiple accounts indicate otherwise - both Brooks Brown and Jeff Kass' book Columbine: A True Crime Story.

  3. Interesting feedback -- thanks.

    I freely admit that I'm *not* an expert on the Columbine shootings. They were ten years ago, and I haven't followed a lot of the news coverage since the first few months. As such, picking one book to start with is always a dicey proposition. You know the author's going to get some facts right, and be mistaken about or just plain overlook others, and will undoubtedly put his or her own spin on the subject. However, until and unless you've consulted a number of sources, you don't always know what's fairly well-accepted and what's been subject to different interpretations. I appreciate the references to Brooks Brown's and Jeff Kass' accounts, and have added them to my ever-growing want-to-read list.

    Thanks again for the comments.