Ten-Year Effort: Columbine by Dave Cullen

Releasing a book about the massacre on its tenth anniversary might carry the scent of opportunism, but with Dave Cullen’s Columbine there’s no exploitation at work whatsoever. He doesn’t compromise his moral high ground as he indicts the greater media’s treatment of the tragedy, and it’s clear that his book aims to be the definitive account to blast away every last myth engendered by the media.

I welcome such a book. With the tragedy having taken place in my home state, I became ashamed of how far off my understanding was of it.

The commemoration of Hitler’s birthday. The Trenchcoat Mafia getting revenge for bullying.  Cassie Bernall’s fatal utterance of “Yes, I believe in God.” All wrong, and all things I’d passively accepted as true.

To be fair, I suppose, living near the epicenter of the shootings improved the accuracy of the reporting you got, but it also piled on the sheer volume of it. If you’d subscribed to a Denver newspaper, it was months until you’d read a single issue without a Columbine story in it. Cullen says that the problem wasn’t the quality  of the reporting but rather the repetition.

“You Will Know These Killers”

As one would anticipate, the book goes a long way toward profiling and explaining Harris and Klebold. One thing made very clear is that these boys didn’t “snap” — they’d planned the attack more than a year prior. Nor were they outcasts targeting jocks — who they could kill didn’t matter to them so much as how many.

Not that they’re presented very simply, but they’re characterized thus: Dylan, the lovesick depressive, and Eric, the full-blown psychopath, who both fell through the cracks of a duped juvenile counseling system and a negligent sheriff’s department.

What also sets these sections apart from the rest of Columbine is how, when telling the story of the boys, Cullen assumes their voices.

Dylan’s head was bursting with ideas, sounds, impressions — he could never turn the racket off. That asshole in gym class, his family, the girls he liked, the girls he loved but could never get… he was never going to get them. A guy could still dream, right?

It suggests a closeness to his subjects that a standard journalistic tone wouldn’t, and for the most part it makes his inferences about Harris’ and Klebold’s mindsets seem more persuasive. I think it’s mostly effective but could have used a lighter hand: sentences like, “Eric had been working this one chick for months now,” are still jarringly colloquial in a reportage like this.

Truth Seeking

Cullen’s access seems boundless, and Columbine truly covers everything you’d want to know about the tragedy. Also prominent in the book are the stories of school principal Frank DeAngelis, who was much beloved by the student body; Patrick Ireland (“The Boy in the Window”), perhaps the most dramatic success story of the injured victims; Misty Bernall, who’d not only lost her daughter, Cassie, but also her daughter’s legend when authorities later revealed she didn’t die a martyr; and many others who complete a tapestry of suffering and recovery.

Then there’s the emotional punch of the book: I’m sure no one will mistake it for being a light read. Cullen wants you invested in this story but not submerged in its grief. There’s too much else to get to. This is partly why he structures the chapters the way he does. The narrative jumps every chapter to a different figure, a different time, and a different topic. This is stifling when you’re trying to get a feel for the people affected by the shooting in the beginning, but the patchwork approach to the storytelling starts coming together in the latter half of the book.

We’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, which means that Columbine High and the affected families will once again get the “are they still doing okay?” attention they frankly don’t want. How does one pay proper respect and memory to the victims and survivors now without patronization or exploitation?  Dave Cullen has negotiated that balance.

Columbine is a good book that was written to be closed.

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One thought on “Ten-Year Effort: Columbine by Dave Cullen

  1. Pingback: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway « Thwok!

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