Book #28

Columbine by Dave Cullen

What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

Cullen was one of the reporters at Columbine on April 20 1999. A monumental, unforgettable day for everyone, Cullen continued to follow the case for ten years subsequent to the attack. He managed to access witness accounts, interviews with students, families and staff, and most informatively of all - the killers’ diaries. This book is the result of all of those little bits and pieces, all pasted together to allow us to attempt some semblance of understanding into the horror.

The most important question Cullen attempts to answer here is the first question which comes to us when hearing of such a tragedy - why? His answer isn’t what you’d expect – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson, they didn’t hate jocks, nor did they belong to the Trench Coat Mafia. Eric Harris was a psychopath (psychologists are quoted in the book describing him as a classic case) who hated humankind and was seeking a way to exterminate as many people as possible; Dylan Klebold was suicidal and depressed, desperate for love, affection, approval, but also, ultimately, and end to his own life. They were almost at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet the plan to take Columbine appealed to both of them, albeit for separate reasons.

Cullen does well here to separate facts from media conjecture and witness confusion. It’s widely believed the two boys were bullied; loners in some reports, goths in others, outcasts in the rest – sometimes they were described as all three. Eric and Dylan were fairly popular pupils, who were actually the bullies rather than the bullied. In the wake of Columbine, I imagine the loners, outcasts, and goths all over America experienced sideways looks. Cullen clearly enforces the importance of understanding that there’s no specific social group who are more likely to shoot up a school – if motivation is there, anyone is capable.

Another interesting point is that many media outlets portrayed the boys as snapping. They’d just had enough. Cullen shows us through the killer’s diaries that the attack was planned in advance; the groundwork, logistics, and itinerary were all brainstormed and confirmed. Not only this, but the massacre had been planned as a bombing, with the guns purchased to pick off survivors. No one snapped – April 20 1999 was meticulous.

Finally, to learn the police were already aware of these two, and nothing had been done to stop the attack, was frightening to me. Cullen’s descriptions of their failings before Columbine, and also during and after, are horrible.

The book is morbidly addictive, yet devastating. My heart gained weight each time I picked it up, yet I couldn’t help myself. Cullen sews together his vast collection of information into a blanket of horror that you can’t rip your eyes away from. To understand you are reading non-fiction will make you nauseous; to realise these types of terror still occur in schools, and elsewhere, twenty years later, is completely and utterly baffling.