From: the public library
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.
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.”