Columbine by Dave Cullen

2009. Twelve. Hardcover. 417 pages.

From: the public library

Review:

Dave Cullen was a journalist who reported on Columbine at the time of the school shooting tragedy. In this book, published ten years after the event, he describes what happened before, during and after that day. Many things reported as true in 1999 have been proven to be myths or have had important omissions.

Cullen draws on evidence and documentation that has since been released, as well as interviews with people involved. (He includes an extensive notes section at the end which describes his sources in more detail.)

The book starts off with a straightforward description of what happened at Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999, from the perspective of students, teachers, police and parents. The rest of the book is composed of chapters that alternate between a picture of the community in the aftermath and an analysis of the lives and motivations of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

Review:

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. I was in high school in 1999 and so school shootings, in particular Columbine, naturally struck home emotionally. Added to that, I’d been in Littleton, Colorado two summers before, because my aunt and cousin lived there. (My cousin went to a different high school than Columbine, our family discovered after calling them that day.)

But for all that I was glued to the Columbine news at the time, reading this book made me realize how little I knew about it, how little the news reporters knew, in fact, when they reported on it at the time.

I think that it was a good structural decision for Cullen to tell the story of that day right away. It would seem pointless, even slightly wrong, if he were to construct the book in straight chronological order. It shouldn’t seem like it’s trying to be a suspense story. This is a book about trying to make sense out of the senseless acts, and about setting facts straight.

I was more interested in the aftermath sections than in the sections discussing Klebold and Harris. The story of the aftermath is a sad story, of course, not only for the hurt inflicted upon all the kids, and the parents and the community, but also for the way that differing responses to the tragedy clashed against each other and created new wounds. The story of the minister who reached out to the Klebold family stands out in my mind from this section.

I liked that Cullen explained how and even why the news media messed up, causing certain myths to take a permanent hold in national memory. I find it somewhat disturbing that some still hold onto the myth of high school student Cassie Bernall’s last moments even when confronted with the truth.

The sections that analyzed Harris and Klebold were good, even if I wasn’t interested in all the details that are included in the book. One of the strongest parts was when Cullen explained exactly what a psychopath is, and how that makes dealing with one especially difficult. Also, I had not even heard about how the mother of one of Harris’ former friends had called the cops regarding Harris starting in 1997.

A huge source of information for the psychological analysis included in Columbine, was from the work of (now retired) FBI agent Dwayne Fuselier. Fuselier’s son was a student at Columbine, and Fuselier had experience as a hostage negotiator and psychologist working for the FBI. With his automatic closeness to and expertise for the case, Fuselier ended up researching and completing an assessment on the two students who killed their classmates. But as Cullen reminds the reader, there are some things that are still not known. Testimony from Harris and Klebold’s parents has been sealed until a date far in the future. Still, what is provided in Columbine is a clearer picture than what I had before.

Columbine is definitely a book I felt compelled to discuss with others. I said to my roommate that it makes me want to read other books like this one – books written years after a major news event, thus (hopefully) having the extra clarity and coherence that only the passage of time can provide.

Not that long ago, there was a fatal shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio. I saw speculation as to motive and means play out and change in successive news stories. In time, maybe the fuller story will be known. Unlike what happened at Columbine, the shooter in this recent tragedy did not die. But I definitely thought of Cullen’s book when I read about the shooting at Chardon and I did feel like I had a more grounded perspective towards it because of this book.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Home Girl’s Book Blog – “. . . Cullen handles a terrifying topic with a sensitive alchemy of abstraction and vernacular detail that kept me reading.”

Reading Rants – “Far from being a titillating tabloid text, this meticulously researched and sensitive tome works to further our understanding of a terrible event and underlines the fact that we are all responsible for each other and for monitoring the warning signs that can lead to such a fatal tragedy as Columbine.”

start narrative here – “Dave Cullen so effectively erases his own authorial voice that it is very easy to accept everything he writes as the definitive version of the massacre, and yet so much remains unanswered and contradictory. I still feel like it is important to note that despite his indepth research, conjecture and consultation with experts on the case, it is still only one journalists interpretation of events.”

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Columbine by Dave Cullen

  1. Thanks for that nice review, Christy. I appreciate all the thought you put into it.

  2. gm davis

    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

  3. Great review, Christy. I was also in high school when Columbine happened, and I remember just how glued to the TV everyone was to learn about it. I also remember a lot of bomb threats at my high school. It’s so sad because I feel like, since Columbine, we have become somewhat inured to these high school shootings and seem to take them as normal occurrences now, when they should not be anything of the sort.

  4. I was in middle school when Columbine happened, but I do very clearly remember being glued to my television that day and wanting to know more about it in the aftermath. I have this book on my shelf right now, and I’m hoping to read it soon.

  5. I’ve picked up this book many times at the library, but it sounds like one I would rather own and read at a steady but slow pace, so that I could take it all in. The aspect which considers the media portrayals (and the amount of truth contained therein) particularly intrigues me. I’m glad to hear that you found it so rewarding, Christy.

  6. Great review. I’ve had my eye on this, but it keeps slipping through the cracks; will have to request from the library for my next trip.

  7. Dave Cullen – Thanks for stopping by!

    Aarti – Yeah, I think we have become somewhat used to these school and workplace shootings.

    Kim – I hope you find it a good read. I know it changed how I thought about Columbine.

    BuriedInPrint – As far as being a book to own, on a more superficial note, I think the cover is striking.

    Kerry M. – I hope you do get a chance to read it soon!

  8. as an educator in a high school, stories like these are a constant reminder of how important it is to try to connect to each student. i didn’t read this one but have contemplated it. your review makes a strong case for it. thanks for reminding me about this one.

  9. Dave Cullen, author of ColumbineN

    Thanks, Natalie. I hope it helps, if you do read it. I am grateful for teachers out there helping high school kids. I’m always energized when I do skypes with them.

    • Steven Gibson

      The main difficulty I have with your book is that although you acknowledge that psychopathy is a poorly understood thing, and is thought to be a combination of innate and environmental factors there is no attempt to bridge the two. Instead you focus on the idea that Eric was simply born a sadistic psychopath? You do not consider the possibility that his environment played a significant part in his development. Even serial killers are affected by their life experiences no one is born a finished product. Why not explore the possibility that Eric was at least partly a product of his life experiences? I believe he was bullied and I believe it affected him profoundly. That he failed to recognise that aged eighteen might hardly be surprising! Also ‘pure’ psychopaths are not interested in being famous etc, eric was primarily a narcissist and this disorder has considerable overlaps with psychopathy. Again though was he born like that? Of course not. He developed into that. The question is why and how.

      • Steven Gibson

        I also believe you have things the wrong way Round if I may be so bold. Eric’s hatred of his school was not secondary to and as a result of his hatred of humanity. It’s the reverse, his hatred for his school and what it represented to him was externalised onto humanity in general. Eric came to believe that his experiences reflected a ‘truth’ that morality was false and that it was everyone for themselves. This is very common on damaged and individualistic people. But that is the effect not the cause. Eric’s view of others as inferior was a mechanism whereby people no longer meant anything and could consequently no longer hurt him. The evidence of depression is in my view clear. Wants to kill everyone, dreams of a people free void. That is depression. That was because people were a source of pain for him. Again how and why did this happen? No one is born with such a view of things.

    • Steven Gibson

      “Every gene depends on other genes and on contributions from the environment. By Ignoring these other factors we exaggerate the role of nature and we underestimate the role of nurture.” That is your book David.

      • Hi, Steven. I recommend that if you want to have a conversation with Dave Cullen, you’d be better served by contacting him directly. This isn’t his blog, and I doubt he is coming back to read comments on my review of his book two years after I posted it.

    • Steven Gibson

      The probability that eric and Dylan were bullied is high even in the absence of dates, records or photographs! Bullying is notoriously under reported by teenagers. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t bully people themselves. It does mean that their Brains were affected by their experiences leading to anxiety/depression/anger/ hatred. Thy also show clear evidence of compensatory narcissism.

  10. Steven Gibson

    Sorry but David’s view in my view is in implement at best. Essentially it’s this, eric harris came from a loving home, was well liked and popular (with girls as well) at school but just so happened to be a sadistic psychopath, born not bred. So he felt superior by nature and wanted to get rid of all those inferior people around him, he wanted to burn the world but had to settle for a high school. Sorry but no.

    • Steven Gibson

      Sorry but David’s view in my view is in incomplete at best. Essentially it’s this, eric harris came from a loving home, was well liked and popular (with girls as well) at school but just so happened to be a sadistic psychopath, born not bred. So he felt superior by nature and wanted to get rid of all those inferior people around him, he wanted to burn the world but had to settle for a high school. Sorry but no.